Indigenous community leaders in a remote, poor region of Guatemala’s northern Alta Verapaz province needed to generate sustainable jobs but had few resources and no training that could be used to create an enterprise.
Situated on the edge of the lush Candelaria National Park, the village of Candelaria Camposanto could not set up any agricultural business since it would encroach on the reserve. Hunting in the park was also prohibited.
A Peace Corps volunteer assigned to that region told the leadership that they should look at the national park as a resource instead of an obstacle. A network of spectacular caves in the park would make a great eco-tourist attraction. Plus, the new road built in the park would dramatically reduce the drive time to the area.
The leadership became more perplexed. They had never met a tourist. “We didn’t know what tourists were,” recalls Santiago Chub Ical, a community leader in Candelaria.
However, they knew the Candelaria caves very well — they had been used for everything from Mayan rituals centuries ago to a shelter during the recent 36-year civil war.
The leaders of Candelaria Camposanto took a leap of faith. The U.S. Agency for International Development liked the concept and provided funding.
Today, almost 10 years after the Peace Corps volunteer’s recommendation, the small village of Candelaria Camposanto boasts more than 2,800 tourists annually from Guatemala, the United States, France, Italy, Israel and elsewhere. The cave tours are featured in newspapers, magazines, books and on websites.
“Before, the people who could not earn money here went to [the province of] Peten or other places,” says Chub Ical. “They went to clean the coffee crops, harvest bananas. But now the people don’t leave. They can make a living here.” (See video.)
About seven years ago, USAID asked the U.S. nonprofit Counterpart International to get involved and scale up the eco-tourism work.
“We found out that communities needed to be inserted into the broader value chain,” says Rony Mejia, Counterpart’s Director in Guatemala. “So we started working with private sector, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture to bring a whole array of [actors] who could contribute to community development, and who could take the communities to the next level as important players in the tourism industry.”
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