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.”
Community emphasis with results
Unlike massive private-sector tourism developments, Candelaria Camposanto and other villages in the area use a unique community-based model in which all decisions rest with the residents. Throughout the country, this community-focused tourism initiative has generated $15 million in incremental revenue and more than 4,500 jobs during the past five years, Counterpart reports.
“In the beginning of the process, a management plan for the caves was done in collaboration with the community,” says Mejia. “The community identified those areas that they did not want to use for tourism because they were sacred sites or ceremonial sites. They identified those sites that were okay for tourism. Then experts came to evaluate the fragility of the ecosystem and the cave to see which caves were really safe to use for tourism.”
The residents formed an association and each one has responsibilities to the tourism project. “We are like the caretakers of the land,” says Chub Ical. “We organize things. We distribute the income acquired from the tourists.”
Residents worked to mark trails and organize tours. They received training, were provided with professional marketing materials and connected with tour operators.
They have used the revenue to build a small store along the main road that caters to travelers, an eco-lodge, public restrooms and a community center that is rented for special occasions.
The collected revenues are used to run the daily operations, including paying residents who work with the tourists.
In the nearby village of Sepalau, the president of the Community Tourism Association (AGRETUCHI) says the eco-tourism business employs 55 residents — about a quarter of the village. Others pitch in as volunteers when there is more work to be done.
In addition to generating sustainable jobs, the tourism activities have improved the quality of life for the inhabitants.
“Tourism is a means of income for us,” says Marcos Xe, president of AGRETUCHI. “Here in Sepalau, we are using the income we get from these activities to construct things in the community. We are using it to pay for light, electricity, to buy roofing. We use it to fund the community school,” as well as purchasing wood to build another one.
Candelaria Camposanto and Sepalau are not the only villages that wanted to get involved in eco-tourism. As part of the USAID-funded program, Mejia’s team works with residents in other communities that create opportunities.
“Counterpart was able to provide advice on how to develop tourism products that would not compete amongst themselves but rather complement each other,” says Mejia.
For example, one indigenous community manages a 45-minute inner-tube tour in which visitors float along a river that cuts through a cave. Another group offers hiking tours. One village even offers rappelling adventures. Meanwhile, transportation to and guided tours of an archaeological site are handled by two other communities.
In Sepalau, the community offered boating and swimming on a chain of small lakes that are turquoise colored because of the limestone, but they wanted to offer other attractions that would appeal to a wider eco-tourism audience.
“We started thinking with the community about what would make more tourists visit the community and we realized that activities were pretty limited,” says Mejia. “It was decided that adventure tourism was the big attraction to the region. So we started looking at options for adventure tourism.”
Sepalau’s Xe wanted to add a zip-line canopy tour that would extend over one of the lakes. He obtained a sturdy cable from an oil company working in the region, while Mejia’s organization brought in outside resources to train and promote the new attraction.
The mayor of Chisec, a municipality of some 14,000 people that includes the villages of Sepalau and Candelaria Camposanto, took the first zip-line tour over one of Sepalau’s lakes in April 2011.
The linkage between Guatemala’s national parks and the indigenous communities living nearby has worked to increase opportunities for disadvantaged residents.
The La Maquina village outside the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park had been marginalized for years. There were few jobs for men, and even fewer for women.
Manuela Vargas, a restaurant owner and local leader, says that in the 1990s the government restricted hunting in national parks, so residents needed to find alternate sources of income.
At first, she collaborated with a group that organized women to sell vegetables to passing cars, but it was not sustainable. Instead, she saw tourists visiting the national park’s Mayan ruins, exotic wildlife and jungles as a perfect opportunity to generate much-needed income for families in the village.
“What we are building is an alliance between the park and the community, where the people have a set method for selling their products, or even better, a set location,” she says. “Any visitors who come to the area can get to their products in a central professional space.”
To ensure better service to the tourists, residents receive specialized training. Last year, more than 325 people were trained to be tour guides, waiters, chefs and other professionals.
Lourdes Lopez just completed a seven-month tour guide course and is now working in the park.
“Everything we did in the course helped me, including the foundations of tourism, the techniques of guiding tours,” says Lopez. “There they taught us how to treat the people, how to guide them around and all of the techniques involved in showing them an archaeological site.”
Lopez credits the village leadership, a vocational institute, Counterpart and the park system for the opportunity to learn a trade and earn money. She says a sizable segment of young people in the community have never held a job or studied, but these courses have allowed them to improve themselves and seek employment. Lopez will take the next step and pursue a degree in tourism.
Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park Coordinator Nelson Carrero says relationship with the community is working for everyone.
“The change is incredible,” says Carrero. “Now we have a lot more opportunities and there is a lot more support for the communities, training and so on. There are more services than there were before and we are improving here every year in Yaxha.”
Natural resource conservation
In both Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo and Candelaria National Parks, showcasing natural and man-made attractions to domestic and international tourists are combined with conservation.
Vargas of La Maquina village is working to convince residents that hunting animals in and around the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park — which is home to monkeys, deer and exotic birds — is not in their families’ best interests.
“We show them that they can still continue to use that animal as a source of income,” Vargas says. “We always say that if a woman is selling a certain animal as food, there will be a one-time benefit from that animal. If the woman is supporting the [tour] guides, then that animal benefits the park 40 to 50 times over by attracting people. This is how things are working at the community level. This is how we are trying to reduce the impact on the environment.”
Her message of profiting from natural resources by protecting them is working well with other villages.
Sabastian Tut Caal, who worked with Guatemala’s anti-malaria campaign in the region for three decades, is very familiar with the slow destruction of the land and its adverse effect on the residents. He joined Counterpart’s outreach team seven years ago to assist residents with environmental protection and tourism development.
“When we are talking about defending natural resources, we are saying that everyone has a part to play in that,” says Tut Caal. “Because of community-run tourism, they are not cutting down trees or hunting animals.”
In Sepalau — where the residents rely on the turquoise lakes for both drinking water and tourism — the conservation message is equally important.
“For the past 10 years, we have been working hard to conserve the lake,” says Sepalau’s Xe. “We are controlling what is taken from the lake and we are also conserving the mountains [surround the lakes]. Why are we doing this? It is not only for us old folk. It is for the children that are growing up. They will be here after us. It is a beautiful asset for their future.”