No Joke. Román Carrera runs the Training, Extension, Enterprises and Sourcing (TREES program) in Latin America for Rainforest Alliance. His job is to save the rainforest by helping people who live in protected areas to collect, sort and sell timber and non-timber products. This is easier said than done since the people he works with often lack any formal education, and the products are things most Americans have never heard of. Yet, despite the odds, Rainforest Alliance -- together with local partners -- developed 182 collectives, each with their own registered "concession" or product. More than 100 of these collectives are in the Petén region of Guatemala, on the edge of the Maya Biosphere reserve.
"When we started, very few people believed these communities would be able to manage the concessions," Marcedonio Cortave, the founder and director of ACOFOP, explained through a translator. "They thought it was better to give the concessions to companies and let them hire the locals to do the work."
But groups banded together to express their desire for concessions to be awarded at the community level. "We proved that if you give the communities the opportunity to learn, they do learn," Cortave shared with pride.
The Maya Biosphere reserve is divided into three zones, which allow for varying degrees of human interaction. The core zone (which makes up 36 percent of the reserve) is a national park where only scientific research and tourism are allowed. In the multiple-use zone (40 percent of the reserve), low-impact natural resource activities are allowed with approval on a project-by-project basis. Finally, in the buffer zone (24 percent) -- a 15-kilometer band that runs along the south border of the park -- a variety of activities are allowed, including agriculture.
Rainforest Alliance projects exist in the multiple-use zone. Local communities have called this area home for generations, and many lack the global connections to build a market for the products they have at their disposal. That's where the TREES program comes in: TREES helps the communities get set up to harvest and process non-timber rainforest products like xate, chicle and ramon nuts, as well as hardwoods like mahogany. To meet the strict requirements of the multiple-use zone, communities can only cut two trees per hectare every 25 years, and each concession faces similar limits to ensure re-growth. These limitations mean that the groups must get creative and add value wherever they can to maximize revenue.
"Learning by doing"
This has all been a work in progress with a lot of "aprender haciendo," or learning by doing, to find buyers and prepare materials to spec.
In the case of timber, Rainforest Alliance helped to start Forescom, a timber processing facility to add value to the timber in country, so that it could command a higher price. Forescom works with the 12 forestry collectives in the multi-use zone. The value-add can be everything from drying the wood, to cutting a tree into beams or other lumber, to actually building furniture.
In the process of "learning by doing," there have been mistakes. The first iteration of Forestcom was a lumber-buyer or distribution function. But without buyers already selected, the wood went unsold and the company lost money. Now they work on spec, securing purchase orders -- which then go out to the collectives, before any wood is even cut down.
Forescom had to learn which wood species were best for each type of application, from flooring to decking, demonstrate that suitability, and dry wood to the appropriate moisture level for maximum durability. Even drying the wood was a learning process. The organization spent $60,000 on a kiln and used trial-and-error to determine what temperature and for how long to heat each type of wood.
Now, Forescom has 14 buyers all around the world and employs 16 workers during peak season. "They've got more money than Rainforest Alliance," Román Carrera joked.
Ensuring transparency for maximum value
The fact that Forestcom only works with the certified collectives is an important piece of the puzzle. It helps maintain the chain of custody that allows international buyers to feel confident that they are buying responsibly-harvested wood.
The chain of custody begins deep in the rainforest. We traveled three hours on a bumpy dirt road to reach the community of Carmelita, where 380 people reside; it is Rainforest Alliance's largest and most successful collective in Latin America. The collective was formed in 1996 to extract wood, and now the community is also certified for chicle, xate (an ornamental plant) and allspice. The wood Carmelita residents extract is the community's most lucrative product. It is FSC and Rainforest Alliance certified, and each log the community extracts can bring in as much as $3,300. Seventy percent of the community's income came from timber last year, and the community only had to fell 356 trees.
To get a premium like that, each tree is carefully selected for size, age and location, noted on a rainforest map, and felled by three men. The lumberjacks carefully plot how to bring down the tree in order to maximize the amount of high-quality wood they capture. The direction the tree falls is planned to precision to make sure that the tree doesn't take down other valuable trees or community members on its way down. Once cut, the stump and tree are marked with the same number that is noted on the map. This number will stay on the wood as it works its way through the chain of custody. All these careful measures are worth it, as there is a 66 percent premium for the certified wood.
Juan Antonio Perez y Perez, vice president of the collective, told me through a translator that he is very happy to be with the collective. "If I wasn't vice president, I know I can always take a bag and go collect xate." He earns enough money in one month to buy a 100-pound bag of corn -- something it would take three months to grow if he were farming instead.
Residents use the premiums they earn to further the community with projects like expanding health facilities, hiring teachers to educate the children of the community, and even sending some teenagers to Spain to learn carpentry so that the community can continue to add value to its timber resources.
As far as TREES is concerned, it's onward and upward from here. Román Carrera continues to seek communities that could benefit from a concession. If they struggle to get their collective off the ground, he sends them to Carmelita to learn how it's done.
While this program is clearly successful at its dual goals of economic advancement and environmental protection for rainforest communities, its future hangs in the balance. The contracts were assigned for 25 years, and Carmelita is already on year 18. Guatemala's political elite are known for corruption. The only thing that will stop them from selling the Maya Biosphere Reserve off to commercial developers is political pressure, both from inside and outside of Guatemala.
If you want to see this wonder of the world remain protected, reach out to UNESCO (phone and email addresses for the in-country contact in the link) and pledge your support.
Image credit: Jennifer Boynton
Travel and accommodations for this reporting were provided by Rainforest Alliance
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.