On March 16, Walter Méndez Barrios, a fearless defender of community land rights and champion of forest conservation, was gunned down near his home in the Petén region of Guatemala. The hard-won successes of communities like Walter’s in the Maya Biosphere Reserve represent a global model for how locally controlled natural resource management can benefit people and forests. The terrible news of Walter’s murder reminds us that even where substantial gains have been made, such successes come at great personal risk. At the same time, Walter’s untimely death makes us redouble our commitment to strengthening community land rights and local, equitable, sustainable forest enterprise. In solidarity with Walter’s family, friends, community and ACOFOP, we offer this tribute, penned by Walter’s friend and colleague, José Román Carrera of the Rainforest Alliance.
–Nigel Sizer, Rainforest Alliance president
Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios, the son of farmers, was born on January 5, 1980, in the rural, eastern area of Guatemala, where he lived until he was ten years old, before immigrating with his parents to the western Petén region.
As a child, Walter faced limited opportunities for formal schooling; his abilities were instead developed working in the forest and the fields with his father and brothers. From early on, he exhibited an active, intelligent mind.
During his adolescence he became active in his community, subsequently joining La Lucha Cooperative. He was later elected Assistant Mayor of the community, a position he used to promote local socioeconomic development.
In 2013 he was elected president of La Lucha Cooperative for a period of two years; his achievements led to his re-election for another two-year term. Walter always worked for the collective good, promoting equality, justice and development. He was utterly convinced that sustainable management of the forest generated great benefits and opportunities for all, which is why he maintained a strong relationship with the Rainforest Alliance. His interest in best forest management practices took hold when he was very young, most likely owing to exposure to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification by the Rainforest Alliance.
Walter was an important leader among the cooperatives of the Usumacinta river region in Sierra Lacandón National Park. He initiated and presented the first integrated forest management plan in collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance to the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), whose goal was to generate employment and investments through the commercialization of products like the ramón nut, xate, and other non-timber products.
He was a visionary with big dreams who was completely convinced that sustainable, community-based forest enterprise had the potential to transform his community. This belief led him to join the Rainforest Alliance on a field visit more than 800km from his home, looking for ways to dry and process the ramón nut. Afterward, he offered to help test the processing machinery that would later bring great benefits to his community.
Walter’s family and home were always the starting and finishing point for any visit from the Rainforest Alliance team. He always opened his home to us, whether it was to rest, spend the night, or share a meal.
He fought tirelessly to achieve land rights for his cooperative–a dangerous job in a place where the sale and purchase of lands for the purpose of illicit activities is gaining more and more traction.
Promoting sustainable forest management is a job that is increasingly difficult and dangerous in this region, as it represents an obstacle to organized crime and other powerful groups that want to control territories. Their way of operating is to silence and instill fear by eliminating leaders like Walter, whose murder not only left six children without a father and a wife without a husband, but also left a community without its visionary leader. For the Rainforest Alliance team in Petén, Walter will live on in our memory. His absence will leave a great void, but the best way to pay tribute to the memory of Walter is to continue to do our work, implementing our mission, and helping achieve Walter’s vision—come what may.
Our planet needs more leaders like Walter; we will continue to help cultivate and support leaders like him until community-based natural resource management has been firmly established.