This is a continuation of last weeks focus on eco tourism of the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

CDRO – Totonicapan

CDRO (cooperacion para el desarollo rural de occidente) was set up to support Indigenous projects in the Totonicapan area of Guatemala in the early 1980s. At the time, Guatemala’s civil war was having a major effect on commerce of all types across the country.

This was especially true in the Indigenous sector.

At that time, most peasants were accused of being communists, thus starting up any type of business in the highlands proved impossible.

A lot has changed since the civil war and the McCarthy era. The peace agreement signed in 1996 has enabled the country to move forward in all aspects of life.

CDRO traces its roots back to 1984 when an organization called “US Aid” was looking to fund an Indigenous entity for a pilot project to help the native peoples develop their own businesses and improve their quality of life. Based on the results of US Aid’s evaluation of the project, they decided to increase the activity and help to promote in other areas. Through this expansion, CDRO was able to get involved in the corporate, health, and women’s sectors.

In 1987, they were integrated as a national association. They were now entitled to receive monies donated from abroad and be legally protected at the same time. This was an important step towards gaining nationwide respect and recognition.

At the end of the 80s, and early 90s, they started to promote economically productive projects in order to increase the income of the communities. These projects included agricultural aspects, carpentry, and medicinal plant research. CDRO wanted to be free of any link with donors and become independently viable. They got involved with micro credit and communal bank projects. At the same time they were facing the problem that due to the overall poverty of the community, it wasn’t possible to charge enough interest on the loans in order to sustain and develop.

At the beginning, they offered loans for less than the national interest rate. Every year, the people involved in the micro credit project increased. They didn’t base the development in the amount of money made, but the quantity of people involved.

The solution for that problem was to have links with other institutions, not only locally but internationally. Donations gave way to loans and CDRO was well on its way to becoming a self-sustaining entity.

Today CDRO has been transformed into more of a technical advisor for Totonicapan’s native communities. They are there to guide the communities, to orient them, to train them and to find economic support. It’s important because it makes the communities more comfortable and more confident in developing by themselves.

There are 23 communities involved in this project under CDRO, with each community represented by a council. Their enterprises range from agriculture, to traditional medicinal plants, to handicrafts. CDRO doesn’t suggest which projects to develop; they merely oversee the operation until the people of the community are ready to take the reins.

CDRO also supports little tiendas (stores) to promote income. They lend money to start the business at a low interest rate.

As successful as CDRO has been on the local level, the projects they sponsor are still struggling for recognition on the international level.

For instance, medicinal plants are currently only sold locally, because they have to complete certain requirements for exportation. They are in the midst of investing in a specific laboratory for quality control in order to export to other countries. The quality and the purity of the plants is a lingering question mark on the international market.

As far as the textiles are concerned, they are having problems with the colours. They were using chemical colours and the market wanted them to change to natural dyes. They are in the process of making the switch.

These are just some of the problems that they’ve had to deal with in order to compete in today’s fiercely competitive market.

CDRO is there to support projects and get them off the ground, but they also want to make sure that they promote cultural aspects, and integrate them into the projects.

Recycling plant in San Juan La Laguna

There is a very interesting project happening in San Juan la Laguna. A group of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are working to develop the community, as well as municipal officials, and local groups have gotten together to clean up the town.

The idea is to get a recycling operation going in order to develop tourism, and at the same time help the coffee producers. In order for the coffee plantations to be more successful on the international market, they must rid their fields of garbage to avoid contamination.

This is easier said then done. San Juan is a very dirty place by North American standards. Garbage is literally strewn about all over the place. People have no place to put their garbage, and there is no waste collection, or recycling depot. In order for tourism to strive, the town needs a better, cleaner image.

The solution was to get the aforementioned groups together and form a committee which works towards ridding the town of waste, and helps to develop eco tourism in San Juan.

This project is still in the very early stages. A representative from the committee, known as Solar, went to the Japanese and Canadian embassies to secure funding for the project.

The Japanese embassy was willing to donate $40,000 US dollars towards the building of the plant. The Canadian embassy was more interested in the education factor, so they decided to focus on making sure the children receive the proper education in dealing with the clean up, while making the younger population conscious of the need to properly deal with waste.

The youth has to take charge and steer in the right direction. The cleanliness of the town and their future depends on it.

The municipality has title to the land where the plant is to be built, but construction has been rather slow. This is partly due to the effect that the rain has had on the access road, turning it to mud.

The committee is made up of seven members, including the mayor himself. Once the project gets under way, there will be one representative from Japan and one from the local sector who will oversee it.

Before the recycling plant is up and running, there are workshops planned to educate the town in separating the plastic, glass, metal and paper. Some of this garbage can also be sold as fertilizer to the local coffee plantations.

During the first six months the plant is open, the expenses will far outweigh the profit, and the plant will have to rely heavily on donations. After that, Solar is confident it can become self-sustaining and they already have a market for most of the recyclable material.

The coffee plantations, run by a cooperative group who call themselves “the boys who call from the desert,1′ exports to Elan coffee, a company in California. They are working very hard to try to get certified as a producer of natural coffee. Right now, they are producing natural coffee without chemical fertilizer, but the garbage is what scares off potential clients.

In order to be more recognized and respected on the international level, getting rid of the garbage around the plantations is an absolute must.

The plant itself is designed to operate in the simplest way, so there won’t be confusion if one of the highly trained technicians decide to leave. Essentially, there won’t be a need for highly skilled workers, thus opening up the plant to a large part of the town’s population. In all, they expect 10-15 people from the community to work in this plant.

There are a few other projects in San Juan that go hand in hand with the recycling effort. Pedro Sumoza, the president of the local eco tourism initiative, is trying to get a few of those projects off the ground in order to attract more tourists.

One of the projects currently in operation is a tree nursery. They are hoping to grow native species of trees to be planted in the coffee plantations. European and North American importers fully support reforestation of native species in the coffee plantations because their clients prefer shade grown coffee. This type of coffee sells for more money on the international market. Once they get enough native species in the plantations and the garbage is cleaned up, the coffee plants will be fully certified by the Smithsonian Institute.

Right now there is a team that’s being put together, consisting of people from the ministry of environment, protected areas council, ministry of agriculture, several local NGOs with specialties in education, health, and environment, as well as local groups of midwives and painters. Solar helped this group establish small enterprises that are tourism based. Once the town is clean, this group will share in the benefits that eco tourism will most surely bring to this village of 2000 inhabitants.

Fog Water Collectors -San Lucas Tolimán

In San Lucas, we visited an organization that is trying to effectively deal with the poor quality of water in the highlands of Guatemala. The reason for the poor quality of water is because over the years, there was no proper sewage system available to the people. The end result during the rainy season was that everything would get washed into the lake.

That is the main reason why the ad hoc Fog Water Group began studying ways of collecting the fog in the mountains and transferring it to liquid form into a filtering tank. They then plan on using that water for mainly agriculture purposes.

The group got the idea from a couple of NGOs in France and Canada (Fog Quest) who had successfully tested this in genius method. Closer to home, there is a successful initiative running in Peru and they are studying it to see how it can work for them.

In November 2003, the NGO from Canada has offered to send an envoy of people to teach the organization in Guatemala how to capture the fog and process it.

This initiative came about to serve the communities close to the volcanoes high in the mountains. These communities don’t have water at this point. The villagers used to be able to get water from the lake, but the government now forbids that.

The government restricts the water to locals because they see this natural resource as a means to attract tourists. So they cut off the people’s supply in order to boost tourism in the region.

The uncontaminated fog water can be used for many different purposes. The water collected will be used for agriculture, to wash dishes and to bathe.

This endeavor will go a long way towards combating the negative effects contaminated water from the lake has had on the local Indigenous populations.

All in all, the Guatemalan people proved to be quite friendly and helpful in my quest to learn more about them and their country. Indigenous eco tourism is not just a catchphrase in this country. Developing eco tourism ventures is a reality and is a great example to other native peoples around the world in how to sustain and develop successfully.

The social problems here aren’t half as bad as they were during the civil war. The people understand that in order to build Guatemala for the future, they must work hand in hand, nation to nation.

Beesum communications and The Nation magazine would like to thank the Canadian International Development Agency (ClDA) for their support in making this project a reality. Without them, this story would not have been possible.

Steve bonspiel recently traveled to Guatemala to study indigenous economic initiatives, eco-tourism projects in particular.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)