Like many of his friends, 18-year-old Raúl Méndez of Las Cruces, Guatemala, helps support his family by cultivating corn and beans. It’s grueling, poorly paid, seasonal work, but economic opportunities are scarce here in Las Cruces, a municipality situated in the 2.1 million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve’s Sierra del Lacandón National Park. As a result, young people often move out of the area to seek a better life—leaving their communities without the vital energy and manpower needed to continue safeguarding local forests.
Now, however, Méndez and 25 other members of La Lucha, a sustainable forestry cooperative in Las Cruces, can dream of enjoying a better future right here at home. At the cooperative’s new Center for Training and Furniture Production, young people from Las Cruces and surrounding communities are learning woodworking and furniture-making skills. After just six months in operation, the center closed deals for chairs, tables, shelves, and wardrobes totaling US $15,000. Until now, La Lucha has only sold timber, but with the addition of the furniture-making center, the cooperative has doubled its revenues. Best of all, the center has changed the way these newly minted carpenters see their futures.
"Lots of young people have emigrated. Some have gone to Mexico, Belize, and other places nearby to find opportunities," said 20-year-old Nazario Tiul Choj, a woodworker trainee. "But now we can take advantage of the technical knowledge we are acquiring and become professional carpenters. This will allow us to support our families."
A project of USAID´s Climate, Nature and Communities in Guatemala Program (CNCG), (which is led by the Rainforest Alliance along with other organizations, such as the Association of Forest Communities in the Petén (ACOFOP) and the Defenders of Nature Foundation), the Center for Training and Furniture Production guarantees that its furniture is made with timber that’s been sourced from forests managed according to regulations established by the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). Regulations include low-impact harvesting (one tree per hectare), wildlife protection, and the implementation of fire-control and -prevention plans. “This project creates new opportunities for sustainable businesses in the Sierra del Lacandón National Park region. It also guarantees forest management that places a high value on natural resources and climate change mitigation,” said Jorge Cruz, a Rainforest Alliance and CNCG coordinator for Petén, the department (or state) in which Las Cruces sits.
Creating sustainable livelihoods in the Sierra del Lacandón National Park is part of a larger strategy to conserve this ecologically precious area. With seven ecosystems, Sierra del Lacandón National Park has the highest biodiversity in the Petén region, offering refuge to iconic species like jaguars, pumas, and red macaws, as well as more than 300 bird species, many of them migratory. Partly bordering Mexico, the park serves as a biological corridor between both countries’ protected areas.
For his part, Méndez couldn’t be happier about having brighter prospects in Las Cruces—and he feels more connected to the natural resources around him. "When they proposed the idea of establishing a carpentry shop within our cooperative, we didn’t believe it. Now, it is a reality that helps us work year-round so that we can support our families." Méndez added, "It also helps us to appreciate our forests."