Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships

Project Profiles - Guatemala

No Trees, No Tourists
by Linda Russell, Nebraska Wesleyan University

Something was very different on Sierra Caquipec in March of 1998. As usual, resident male quetzals were swooping across the sky in awe-inspiring mating displays. Neotropical migratory birds were visible along the forest borderland in that stark demarcation zone between primary forest and the steep hillsides that had been cleared a little each year for the planting of corn. This March, the sun was visible. For the first time in many years, the sky over the Maya Q'eqchi village of Chicacnab in central Guatemala was clear of smoke. The 16 families that inhabited this particular peak and valley had not cut any trees. And, no trees were burning.

Instead, the families were hosting tourists as part of the new Community-Based Tourism Program designed and implemented by the small, Guatemalan environmental nonprofit organization Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal (PEQ) and two U.S. Peace Corps volunteers assigned to the project. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation made it possible. The program is one of PEQ's strategies for conserving high-risk primary forest habitat on lands owned by indigenous people.

The program is designed to preserve forest habitat, increase family income, and provide training and environmental education for the heads of household who serve as tourist guides. The founding principle was simple: If villagers could earn an adequate income to support their families, and if they could increase the productivity on lands already cleared, they would not need to cut more forest.

The program is community based. Host families provide all food, lodging in their homes, and personal guide services, and they earn all of the tourist income. A tourism committee, comprised of all the participating host families, establishes the cost for services. The project is responsible for promoting the program, orienting tourists, maintaining radio contact with the village, and providing villagers with educational programs on hygiene, food handling, cooking, and planting family gardens.

The Peace Corps volunteers wrote the program's promotional literature and traveled Guatemala's "Gringo Trail" distributing information in low-cost rooming houses, Spanish language schools, restaurants, and laundromats. Nearly 200 tourists from 15 countries traveled to Chicacnab in the program's first year. Each of the host families earned approximately US$160 in tourist income, which is equivalent to 52 days of work on one of the area's commercial farms—and no trees were cut.

The program's success attracted the interest and support of a number of regional organizations. The model has since been implemented in three additional indigenous communities with funding from the Guatemalan Regional Urban and Rural Development Council for the Alta and Baja Verapaz.

Protecting the cloud forest means survival for all its inhabitants—people, quetzals, 38 species of neotropical birds, howler monkeys, tepezquintles, jaguars, wild boar, to name a few. It is life in its most basic terms.

For more information, contact David Unger, Executive Director and Founder, Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal, Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, bidaspeq@guate.net, or Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Russell, Senior Assistant to the President, Nebraska Wesleyan University, (402) 465-2101, lcr@nebrwesleyan.edu.