Student Resource Page: Certified Products from Guatemala

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The village of Uaxactún (Wash-ahk-TUN) lies in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Guatemalan rainforest. Thick with trees and plants, this area is home to jaguars, pumas, monkeys, hundreds of species of birds, and people. Though only a century old, Uaxactún is situated between two great ancient Maya cities, Tikal and Calakmul -- evidence that people have been living in this area for thousands of years.

Tropical rainforests, like the forests surrounding Uaxactún, are important to humans and to the environment for many reasons. They cover only 5 percent of the land in the world, but contain at least half of the world's plant and animal species. They help stabilize the world's climate and protect against flood and drought. They give us products we use every day -- like bananas, cocoa, lumber, and coffee -- and they bring income to the people who harvest and sell these products.

Even though they are important, people are impacting rainforests around the world by clearing them for farms and houses, and by harvesting wood and other products at a rate faster than the forest can recover. Many of these people do not mean to hurt the rainforest, but are struggling to earn a living. Meanwhile, some businesses and individuals try to increase their profits by making their workers work long hours with little pay and under dangerous conditions. All of these practices harm the rainforests and the communities that rely on these forests to support their families.

To help preserve rainforests and rainforest communities, the Rainforest Alliance and other organizations have developed certification programs. Certification is a process for finding businesses and farmers who harvest their products in ways that protect the rainforest, support the local community, and treat workers fairly. A business that meets specific requirements can put a special seal on its products, letting consumers know that the product was produced in a way that did not damage the rainforest or local communities.

In Uaxactún, certification has helped both the local people and the environment. The community exports a number of different forest products, including xate (SHA-teh), allspice, chicle, and mahogany. Because the entire community depends on the rainforest for its livelihood, everyone is committed to protecting it. That has meant better water quality, fewer fires, and a healthier rainforest. Also, since certifying their products, the villagers' living situations have improved with insurance and higher wages. In addition, the community has been able to sell better products that earn better profits.

One example of a successful certification program is xate collection. Xate are the decorative leaves of palm plants that grow in the rainforest around Uaxactún and in other parts of Central America. Because they can last up to 45 days after being cut, these leaves are popular with florists in the United States who use them in floral arrangements and for Palm Sunday church services.
If the xatero (shah-TEH-ro), or xate collector, removes only a few leaves from a xate plant, the plant can regenerate new fronds. But, as xate became more popular in the 1990s, the xateros in Uaxactún were taking more and more leaves from each plant. Since more of the leaves had defects, many of them were being thrown away before they even reached the florist. Not only were the plants being overharvested, but the xateros were also going further into the forest to collect leaves, taking other leaves and seeds along the way.

The Rainforest Alliance worked with the people of Uaxactún and other communities to develop a xate certification program that encourages a more sustainable harvest. In Uaxactún, xate collectors now cut only the best quality fronds, leaving more fronds on the palm and allowing the plant to grow new fronds more quickly. With more sustainable practices such as this and by selling their fronds directly to a distributer in the United States, xateros sell their leaves for twice as much as they did previously. This has meant better living standards for local families and better protection of the forest.

By choosing certified products like xate and others, consumers have the opportunity to "vote with their dollars," encouraging other producers to also become certified. And, as we see in Uaxactún, certification helps to protect the rainforest and rainforest communities.

The Rainforest Alliance Frog Seal

The Rainforest Alliance Certification frog seal ensures that the product was produced in a sustainable manner—that its impacts on the environment and local communities were minimized, and that the workers involved were paid good wages and provided with safe working and living conditions. Look for the frog seal on coffee, chocolate, macadamia nuts, and other products.

Q: What's the connection between a rock concert and a Guatemalan rainforest?

A:  The guitar.

Listen to your favorite band and see if you can make out the guitar line. Part of what gives a guitar its distinctive sound is the wood body that picks up the vibrations of the strings. Guitar makers use special woods -- called tonewoods -- that resonate well and respond to the player's touch. Many of the best tonewoods come from rainforests around the world.

One of the leading makers of electric guitars -- Gibson -- uses only certified wood in its SmartWood guitars. The backs of many of these guitars are made of mahogany from Guatemala.

The villagers of Uaxactún carefully select the trees to be used in the Gibson SmartWood guitars, cutting and sawing the trunk and branches, but leaving the twigs and leaves to fertilize the forest floor. They want to make sure that the forest will always have mahogany trees in the future.


Since the first SmartWood guitars came out in 1996, Gibson has worked toward making its entire electric guitar division completely certified. As CEO Henry Juszkiewicz explains, "Our goal is not just to promote certified wood guitars as something special, but to bring the industry to a point where the use of certified wood is standard procedure."

Sources: Call, Wendy. "Seeing the Forest, Not Just the Trees: A Guatemalan Village and Conservation." Terrain.org: No. 14. (accessed September 8, 2008).

Something to Chew On

Have you ever wondered where your chewing gum comes from? Most gums today are made from synthetic vinyl resins. But, chewing gums all used to be made from chicle (CHEE-cleh), the sap of a tree grown in the Central American rainforest.

The villagers of Uaxactún used to make their living selling only chicle. In fact, what is now the town square was once an airstrip built a century ago by the Wrigley Company for exporting chicle.

To get chicle the harvesters carefully make zigzag cuts in the trunk of the sapodilla (sap-oh-DEE-yah) tree. They must take care to cut only deep enough to allow the white sap to seep out, but not so deep to expose the tree to insects or infection. The sap follows the network of cuts down to the base of the tree, where it is collected in containers, and then boiled and molded into blocks. Trees must heal from this process, so harvesters must allow several years between harvests from a single tree.

Due to past overuse all over Central America, sapodilla trees are now pretty rare. But, chicle is still harvested on a small scale in places like Uaxactún, and continues to be used in some old-fashioned chewing gums like Glee Gum.

Look for some chicle-based gum in your local store and get a taste of the Guatemalan.

Source: "The Maya Biosphere Reserve." Global Perspectives: A Remote Sensing and World Issues Web Site. (accessed September 8, 2008).

Sources: "SmartWood's Smart Song: Gibson Partners with Rainforest Alliance to Sustainably Harvest Wood for Guitars," Terrain.org. No. 19: Fall/Winter 2006. (accessed September 15, 2008).

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