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Indigenous communities in Central America use traditions to protect biodiversity

Not long ago, José López Hernández, a member of the Oxlajuj No'j tribe, would readily take his axe to chop down trees in the town of Santa María de Jesús in the heart of Guatemala.


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However, that changed after the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), embarked on a project to revive local Indian traditions and culture.

“Before this project I did not understand the importance of Mother Nature and the environment,” said Hernández, 30. “I would look at a tree and I would cut it down without thinking.”

Today Hernández is a leader of his indigenous community and he is working with other 600 families on weekends and after work to plant as many as 60,000 new trees by the end of the year. All the trees are grown using traditional organic methods that have been revived by the project.

The IDB-GEF project, which has been conducted in coordination with the World Bank, is strengthening the capacity of indigenous communities in Central America to protect and manage their natural and cultural resources as well as recuperate and promote positive cultural values and traditional land use.

“I will work on this until God allows me,” Hernández said. “The idea is to leave something for our children and grandchildren.”.

The project is part of ongoing efforts by seven Central American governments to help reduce poverty in rural communities while protecting and promoting the sustainable development of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Indigenous people populate about one-third of the area of the seven Central American countries, or roughly the size of Uruguay. Eighty percent of this area is covered by forest and 23 percent overlaps with established protected areas.

The project is groundbreaking because it is supporting the cultural and traditional use of land by indigenous communities as a way to prevent further land degradation and conserve the region’s high, though increasingly endangered, biodiversity resources. The program is using a special methodology developed by the IDB and the Lausanne Technical School of Switzerland on cultural land use analysis.

“This is completely different from what used to be done,” said Carlos Perafán, the IDB project team leader. “In the past, technical people would tell communities what they had to do. In this project, we are learning from them.”


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The actions to be taken are based on extensive consultations with indigenous communities, which help decide when and how their traditions could be appropriate to work the land. Once that decision is made, the project works with them to restore their culture and traditions in land use.

“This project has allowed indigenous communities to organize themselves, make their own work proposals based on their own experiences,’’ said Carlos Batzin, a member of the K’iche tribe in the department of Totonicapán in Guatemala. “It has allowed them to decide for themselves what to do with their territory.’’

Once these communities decide what is important, specially tailored training programs help revive traditions and relearn old customs like growing trees and maize. In addition, the project is supporting the creation of a network of indigenous communities in the Corridor engaged in biodiversity conservation and sustainable and culturally appropriate land uses.

The project is also promoting exchanges between indigenous communities on traditional knowledge, experiences, and lessons learned. The IDG-GEF project is also fostering participatory land use planning in indigenous lands and regions.

For the K’iche community, this means a plan for a better future. After working closely with the IDB and the executing agency to demark their land, learn about the natural resources and the social and economic needs of the population, they are now planning to promote sustainable tourism activities in its territory.

“The plan brought our community together,” said Batzin, who is getting his community prepared to start the training program in areas such as replanting indigenous trees and producing different types of maize seeds, much like the tribe’s ancestors used to do. “We want to promote cultural tourism in our community. Guatemala is well known for its nature but there is little attention paid for those who help conserve it.”

The promotion of cultural and traditional land use in Central America is one of the components of the project “Integrated Ecosystem Management in Indigenous Communities,” that has been financed by a $9 million grant from the Global Environment Facility and $2 million in counterpart funds. Both the IDB and the World Bank are implementing different components of the project.


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The IDB, with financing from a $5 million GEF grant, is heading the cultural and institutional strengthening of indigenous communities as well as the promotion of cultural land use and traditional ecosystem management. The World Bank, with a $4 million GEF grant, is helping these communities consolidate and market a regional supply of products and environmental services derived from traditional land use practices and evaluate the monitor the results of the project.

The Central American Indigenous and Pesant Association for Community Agroforestry is executing the project in agreement with the Central American Indigenous Council (CICA).

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