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Jen Boynton headshot

The Patron Saint of Petén

By Jen Boynton

José Román Carrera stands about 5 feet 6 inches tall and speaks matter-of-factly, even casually, about the 82 death threats he has received over his 23-year career trying to protect his country’s greatest natural asset. It’s the same tone I might use when ordering a sandwich in a deli. When I asked him if he was scared, he quickly exclaimed with a smile, “No, my life is a gift!”

Indeed, conservation may be one of the most dangerous jobs in Latin America. Workers and community members are subjected to threats of violence for speaking out in favor of conservation. In Guatemala, "there is always a fight between the people and corruption," one member of the media told me. Threats might come from lackeys of government officials, business interests or drug traffickers -- anyone who thinks they could benefit financially from the land and natural resources.

On Friday April 17, a joint task force arrested 21 high-ranking members of the Guatemalan government for involvement in a multimillion-dollar tax fraud scheme that captured 60 percent of customs taxes that should have been collected between 2014 and 2015.

With this background of corruption, it is no surprise that the Maya Biosphere reserve, the largest rainforest in Central America and a global treasure of natural resources, is at extremely high risk of being chopped up and sold to the highest bidder.

The Maya Biosphere reserve, 6 million acres and over 10 percent of the land mass of Guatemala, sits in the northern state of Petén. The reserve was established in 1990 by the Guatemalan government and UNESCO to safeguard the region’s biodiversity and cultural significance. In addition to millions of acres of rainforest, the region also includes Tikal National Park – a site of Mayan ruins which was hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years and was declared a Natural and Cultural World Heritage site in 1997.

This area is also home to oil reserves and other natural resources that are ripe for corporate exploitation. The reserve abuts Mexico’s southern border, which means the region is also a popular stomping ground for drug cartels who slash and burn illegally to clear land for secret trails and to make space for their plentiful cattle herds – a money laundering scheme that they use to hide their illegal drug profits by funneling them through illegal-but-tolerated slash-and-burn grazing.

Despite the odds, one man and his colleagues at the Rainforest Alliance are working to keep the Maya Biosphere reserve protected over the long term. Their plan involves turning the impoverished families and small communities who have lived deep in the jungle for hundreds of years into a network of producers of sustainable forestry products. It’s an audacious plan for sure. Can it withstand political corruption corporate interests and drug traffickers?

Román Carrera spends his time traveling between the 182 collectives he supports for the Rainforest Alliance all over Latin America. He tries to visit each collective three times per year. But his heart, and a concentration of 102 collectives, lie in the Petén alongside the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Román Carrera was born and raised as one of 10 children, the son of a subsistence farmer in the Petén. He was the first child in his family to attend school, a considerable undertaking given that the closest elementary school was a 6-kilometer walk through the jungle. “I knew I wanted to attend school because I wanted to be a professional and help my community. My father was a farmer, and the economic situation was difficult.” His daily walks under the forest canopy solidified his love of the forest and desire to protect it.

Román Carrera’s knowledge runs deep. Stand in place with him in the jungle, hundreds of miles from the nearest convenience store, and he will point out its many resources, all within arms’ reach. “This is the all-spice plant; this tree is mahogany; here are the xate [an ornamental plant very popular in Western flower arrangements]; here is the ramon nut [a nutritious Mayan nut with an edible skin beloved by the howler monkeys who live nearby].” It is these resources that Román Carrera seeks to develop with the assistance of a network of sustainable forestry collectives.

This plan is complex.

Guatemala's poverty rate is high -- 54 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the country suffered a 36-year civil war which ended in 1996. Many citizens have family members and friends who were killed during the war. The Gross National Income per capita is only $3,340. For those citizens living deep in the jungle, income opportunities are few and far between and largely consist of either slash-and-burn for farming or selling timber. Providing people with sustainable alternatives serves twin goals of economic and environmental protection.

Román Carrera’s plan to save the rainforest includes the many rural residents who call the Petén home. One by one, he has engaged with these communities, driving hundreds of kilometers over dirt roads, some of which are only accessible in the two-month dry season. He meets these groups and hears their stories. He describes for them how they can earn money through Rainforest Alliance certification collecting timber and non-timber products from their local woods. The rest is a continual work-in-progress to improve the members’ leadership and organization skills, help them add value to their products, reduce waste in the value chain and maximize profit while tending to the rainforest.

For example, the Carmelita collective was founded in 1997 and is currently home to 380 people, many of whom are direct decedents of chicle collectors who used to collect the sap-like product by hand when it was a common ingredient in gum. Fifty years ago, it was only possible to reach Carmelita by plane – there were no roads. Today it takes a plane ride from Guatemala city and a three-hour drive in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the community. The collective supports itself by collecting timber, carefully selecting which trees to fell based on purchase orders.

Their certification mandates that they can cut only two trees per hectare in the sections of their land that are under active management. Each tree is carefully mapped and matched to ensure chain of custody control that commands a higher price. “Around the world this is a warrantee that the wood is protected,” Román Carrera explains. Each of these sustainably harvested trees can earn the community as much as $3,300. The 356 trees the community cut last year provided 70 percent of the community’s income; the rest comes from non-timber products, tourism and value adds, like drying and treating lumber to command a higher price. The community is self-organized and uses profits from these activities to fund schools, offer scholarships, provide health clinics and anything else the community needs.

Carmelita is a success story but Román Carrera has been able to replicate it throughout the region with a careful combination of listening and marketing skills. When I ask him how he gets a new community off the ground in a country where he has no contacts, he chuckles and says “ It’s easy! I go in and say do you want to make more money? I bring them buyers who are interested in certified products. It’s marketing.” When new collectives are in development, Rainforest Alliance pays for leaders to travel to Carmelita or another successful collective to learn how to self-organize.

Román Carrera’s passion only begins with biodiversity. Out and about in the community, everyone we encounter is thrilled to see him and offers an update on how their families are doing. He and his wife, Anita, provide scholarships each year to bright and motivated children from the Petén region to receive advanced training and education. The couple looks for students who are poor, at the top of their class, and always choose a boy and a girl to make sure that women can become future leaders in their communities. Students study forestry, biodiversity or get other training like nursing and carpentry which can benefit the community. “Ultimately we want to provide at least 20 scholarships per year. Education is the way out. Education is the way to make big changes,” he explains.

When we visited an elementary school in the region, many children recognized Román Carrera and ran over for hugs. As he rustled the hair of a two boys, he noticed their heads had small bald patches and the scalp was inflamed. “This does not look good,” he whispered to me. “I’m going to make sure they get to the doctor.” And he walked off to arrange for the boys to get medical attention.

For right now, Carrera is happy with his job, especially all the chances it offers to get out into the rainforest. “When I visit, I love to spend a night or two and even sleep outside.” But he recognizes that Guatemala’s unstable government could easily chip away at all he’s built if the wrong leader gets into power.

Each political cycle, “I get invited to participate in politics. Every time this opportunity comes around, I have this conversation with my wife [about whether I should run or not]. If I could eliminate corruption, I would give up this life I love. I love to work here, but if you can do it to another scale, it is better.”

Román Carrera concedes that becoming a more public figure would be dangerous. In this political climate, public statements in support of rainforest protection could easily get him killed. But he thinks his work and the work of the Rainforest Alliance and other activists is worth more than his life. “They can kill one, but they can’t kill us all.”

Image credits: Jennifer Boynton

Travel and accommodations in Guatemala were provided by Rainforest Alliance; this story is editorially independent and opinions are my own.

Jen Boynton headshot

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.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton