One Tree Goes a Long Way: A Family Finds an Alternative to Slash-and-Burn Agriculture

Living on the outskirts of Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve in the rural community of El Remate, the Soto family and their neighbors once relied entirely on slash-and-burn agriculture to earn a living. Today, Rolando Soto and his brothers work as skilled carpenters, earning a better income, conserving vital forestland and protecting local biodiversity.

This land in Guatemala was slashed and burned to clear it for agricultural production.

This land in Guatemala was slashed and burned to clear it for agricultural production.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

As subsistence farmers, El Remate community members cut down an average of 12 acres (five hectares) of forestland per year to make way for corn and other crops. Now, in a single year each local carpenter—part of Rolando's "Ecological Handicraft Project"—uses the wood from just one tree to craft pots, miniature models of toucans, jaguars and monkeys, and an assortment of high-quality culinary items.

"Life used to be hard and decent incomes scarce. Now we work to benefit ourselves and the environment—and both are winning."

Artisan Rolando Soto

Thanks to support from the Rainforest Alliance's Training, Extension, Enterprises and Sourcing program and the United States Agency for International Development, the beautiful wooden handicrafts are now sold in Guatemala City Airport. Locals earn the bulk of their income from these airport sales; in addition, they earn supplementary funds from tourists who pass through town on their way to the Maya Biosphere Reserve and Tikal National Park.

Artisan Petrolino Soto at the Soto family's handicraft shop 

Artisan Petrolino Soto at the Soto family's handicraft shop 

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

"By [making and selling my handicrafts], I'm earning roughly US $15 more per day than I did as a subsistence farmer," says Rolando. "Life used to be hard and decent incomes scarce," he points out. "Now we work to benefit ourselves and the environment—and both are winning."

Adjacent to a gorgeous lake, Rolando Soto's shop employs a team of local carpenters. The skilled craftsmen source most of their rosewood, jobillo and hormigo from the Arbol Verde Concession in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which has earned Forest Stewardship Council certification for sustainable management. They are also saving up money so that they can eventually apply for FSC chain-of-custody certification.

"The project is directly improving the lives of over 50 families in El Remate," says Ramon Zetina of the Rainforest Alliance. "Reversing the trend of slash-and-burn agriculture in this region is so essential for the future of our forests," he adds. "This project is a prime example of a successful model for conserving forests and simultaneously fighting poverty."

After he closes up shop for the day, Rolando invites local children to study with him to learn carpentry. By passing down his knowledge, Rolando is working to ensure that these children have better opportunities in the future—and an innate commitment to conservation.

The family's workbench, with a recently-completed piece and a view of Lake Petén Itza in the background.

The family's workbench, with a recently-completed piece and a view of Lake Petén Itza in the background.

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo
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