Destruction and renewal

In 1902, Santa María, another volcano about 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of Siete Orejas, experienced a major eruption that reportedly killed at least 5,000 people and covered more than 1.2 million square kilometers (463,300 square miles) in ash, reaching as far as San Francisco, California.

In Concepción, the sandy ash prevented the sheep that supported the local economy at the time from finding food, so the herders abandoned the tops of Siete Orejasand other nearby mountains to pursue other livelihoods, particularly potato farming.

“After the white sand fell, everything died. Then some trees started to grow by themselves and people used them for firewood. That was the early life of this forest,” says Aguilar.

With the sheep gone, wildlife started to thrive in the high peaks. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the community, via its municipal council, began to take notice of the forest. Even after seven decades, the trees hadn’t fully recovered from the volcanic blast, and Concepción’s water supply was limited.

Concepción’s highest peak reaches 3,220 meters (10,564 feet) above sea level, although the tip of Siete Orejas is higher still, at 3,370 meters (11,056 feet). The forest on its slopes is classified as cloud forest. Tree leaves collect water from the clouds that drips down into the soil where it is filtered and distributed to downslope water springs. There are about 20 springs scattered all around Concepción, and people rely on them for domestic purposes as well for the irrigation of the potato crops.

A spring in Concepción Chiquirichapa, which residents adorn with flowers as a token of gratitude and respect for the water they provide, direct from Siete Orejas mountain.
A spring in Concepción Chiquirichapa, which residents adorn with flowers as a token of gratitude and respect for the water they provide, direct from Siete Orejas mountain.

“For the Maya Mam, water springs are very important, because they are the source of all life,” says Martha Tax, head of operations in the region for the Swiss NGO Helvetas, which has been conducting forest conservation, drinking water improvement and economic development programs in Concepción and other local towns since 2006. “They consider them as sacred places and pay respect to each one of them,” Tax says.

This reverence is on display in Concepción, where the lids of the springs bear vases of fresh flowers that town residents replenish each day. And it extends up the mountain to the springs’ sources. Rumualdo López, a spiritual guide and member of Concepción’s municipal council, says the 22 altars on the mountain are located at “energetic portals” used by Mother Nature to give birth to the clouds.

“We know that these particular places are the ones where the mountain itself transforms into water,” he tells Mongabay. “That is something our grandparents told us.”

First steps toward conservation

With no technical background or contemporary concept of conservation, Concepción’s people relied on the ancient Maya knowledge of their grandparents to begin restoring Siete Orejas’s forest in the 1970s. Concepción’s municipal government turned to the local Indigenous Council, a group of Mayan leaders appointed by the community, to decide how to proceed. According to López and Aguilar, they decided to limit firewood collection and give several people responsibility for caring for the forest, including guarding against firewood collection, planting new trees and maintaining trails. Initially these community park rangers were appointed annually and worked for no pay.

“We worked for free since the idea of ​​preserving the mountain began,” Escalante says, as he wields a machete to slash firefighting trails on Siete Orejas. “For us it was a great honor to be considered by the people to take care of the forest and it is something that we continue doing with pride.”

Óscar López (left) and Francisco Escalante have guarded and maintained the forest of Concepción Chiquirichapa since the mid 1970’s. For decades they did so without pay, but are now employees of the town’s Department of Protected Areas. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

In the early 1980s, the country entered a series of political crises as the civil war that had begun in 1966 ground on and the government intensified its massacre of the country’s indigenous populations. Although the priorities changed and the intervention of both the municipal and indigenous councils became less evident in the environmental decisions, the community park rangers continued their work on the mountain.

In the 1990s, shortly after the creation of Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP by its Spanish initials), everyone who owned natural forest wanted to be a part of what Samuel Estacuy, CONAP’s regional director, called “protected area fever.” Local governments, private individuals and the Guatemalan government sought the declaration of their forests as protected areas.

From Siete Orejas, farmland can be seen advancing up a nearby hill. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

“I always wanted to be involved in environmental issues, but I didn’t have the proper education to do so,” Aguilar says. His opportunity came in early 2000, when he took office after being elected as a municipal councilor of Concepción. “I immediately chose the Environmental Commission, because I knew that through it, I could make a difference,” he says.

By that point he already had a relationship with Helvetas and some basic environmental education, but he needed the help of those who knew the mountain and its fauna and flora to create the programs to protect it. One of the first actions he took at the helm of the Environmental Commission was to include Escalante and López on the payroll. “The park rangers, who had been working non-stop since the mid-1970s, taught me about a lot of things,” he says.

Between 2004 and 2009, Helvetas worked with Concepción and several other communities, to educate community park rangers and advise municipal staff, like Aguilar, on creating and maintaining protected areas. This was key for the creation of the DAP, as part of the Environmental Commission, in 2004.

In 2008, Concepción Chiquirichapa caught protected area fever itself and designated a 1,200-hectare (4.6-square-mile) park on Siete Orejas named Kum Kum Wutz. Under Guatemala’s Protected Area Law, it is classified as a regional municipal park, which means that people can harvest certain natural resources, including wood, organic matter for fertilizer and medicinal plants, as long as they do not harm the forest.

“The forest provides mushrooms and other kind of food, as well as medicinal plants for the people to use. If there is a tree that fell down of natural causes, we allow the people to get in and chop it to get firewood,” Aguilar says.

An educational sign in Kum Kum Wutz park encourages people to plant trees, especially if they harvest firewood from the forest. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Concepción also designated five other small forests, totaling 25 hectares (62 acres) scattered around town, as protected areas. The DAP got equipment and infrastructure and began organizing programs to sustainably generate income from the forests, such as the sale of leaf litter and a way of tracking the value of local people’s volunteer forest maintenance work.

It also enrolled 190 hectares (470 acres) of Kum Kum Wutz and all five of the small forests in a program through the National Institute of Forests (INAB by its Spanish initials) that pays landowners to commit to preserving forest cover on their land for a period of 10 years. This has generated $22,000 for the DAP’s operations, according to Aguilar, and the office plans to enroll more land in the coming years.

Marcelino Aguilar shows off Concepción Chiquirichapa’s nursery, where the town grows trees for its reforestation program on Siete Orejas mountain. He says the town intends to plant 30,000 trees in 2019 and to provide seeds for other towns’ reforestation projects. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

In 2015 the DAP under Aguilar, with technical assistance from Helvetas and financial aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), set up a nursery to grow trees for the reforestation efforts. In 2018 it planted more than 15,000 new trees; it plans to double that number for 2019. Concepción is now considering joining an INAB incentive program that encourages landowners to supply seeds to other parts of the country for their own reforestation efforts. The town’s pine, oak and cedar trees, as well as others like aguacatillo (Persea caerulea), are now old enough to produce seeds in quantity.

The local restoration of the pinabete, or Guatemalan fir, is one of the Concepción conservation program’s chief successes. The tree is a protected endemic species that the IUCN classifies as endangered due to the illegal traffic of its branches for use as Christmas trees by Guatemalan families. To date Concepción has restored about 7,000 pinabete trees, the equivalent of 7 hectares (17 acres). “Through talks with the villagers, we have managed to eradicate the illegal commercialization of this tree,” Aguilar says.

Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) cones, a source of seeds for Concepción Chiquirichapa’s town nursery. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

“In a way, Concepción Chiquirichapa is a unique example of productive conservation in Guatemala, because they were able to give a sustainable use to their natural resources,” Estacuy says.

Wildlife now thrives in the forest. The DAP does not actively monitor wildlife, but tracks sightings by park rangers, community members and visitors, which have included coyotes, opossums, deer, and a great variety of bird species.

Putting the public in the public forests

Aguilar is keenly aware that the community’s participation over the past four decades has been key to the successful restoration of Concepción’s forests, and he has taken pains to cultivate it.

In 2016 the DAP started the Environmental Services Compensation Program as a way to involve the entire community in caring for the protected areas. With the help of local decision-making bodies called Community Councils on Urban and Rural Development, the DAP invites people to donate a day of work, valued at $7.73, as a sort of payment for what the forest provides them in water, organic matter, natural medicines or other services. During the first year, 60 people carried out tasks such as maintenance, cleaning and reforestation, which translated into a community investment of $463. In 2017 the number grew to 300 people, for an investment of $2,319.

“Through this program, people are realizing how important it is to take care of the forest, because it is thanks to it that we have water and a lot of other benefits,” Aguilar says.

A sign inside Kum Kum Wutz park reads “Without the environment there is no future.” Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

With the help of international donors, the DAP has also created a network of socio-forestry trainers who help educate people about environmental topics. This aid also allowed the DAP to install a meteorological center on top of the mountain, with the objectives of measuring the effects of climate change, creating policies to adapt to it and generally becoming a more resilient town. Other projects have focused on training people in soil conservation techniques and promoting the diversification of crops beyond potatoes.

Helvetas has also been involved in re-teaching people about medicinal plants that grow in the forest to help them reconnect with their cultural roots and save some money on health care.

One nascent DAP effort to bring the public into forestry and benefit the wider ecosystem is the creation of so-called energetic forests. In 2005 it became clear that people were extracting too much leaf litter from the protected areas for use as fertilizer on the potato fields, and it was negatively affecting the forest. So the DAP decided to charge 13 U.S. cents per bag of leaf litter, place a limit of 25 bags per person per week, and maintain a record of who and how many bags people extract. To take further pressure off the protected areas, in 2016 the DAP, with funding from international donors, began encouraging private landowners to set aside forest as a source of leaf litter they could sell. It has the added benefit of offering landowners an incentive to keep their forest standing, although so far only one has signed up.

Pine trees in Kum Kum Wutz park on Siete Orejas volcano. Over the course of four decades, residents of Concepción Chiquirichapa have reforested the area, turning it into a green beacon. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

The cumulative effect of all this outreach and education has been a clear uptick in people’s involvement in conservation activities like planting trees and picking up trash in the forest. A yardstick of this is increased participation by women, even though they tend to have a secondary role in Concepción’s public life.

“Before, they were the first ones who came to complain when there was a shortage of water. But now, through environmental education programs, they learn where water comes from and why it is important to protect our natural resources,” Aguilar says.

The DAP’s programs are having an effect on local attitudes, observers concur. “People are learning and their attitude toward forests and wildlife in general is very different from what it was a few years ago,” Tax says.

Eco and cultural tourism

Looking ahead, Aguilar has identified another way to both fund the DAP’s conservation program and help Concepción benefit from its forests and thus keep them standing: tourism. “We are struggling for the municipal council to realize that tourism can be a great ally for us,” he says. “But they are reluctant, because at present we don’t have many visitors coming our way.”

Even so, the national tourism authorities are working with Aguilar’s office and members of the municipal council to promote tourism in the area. In 2015 the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT, by its Spanish initials) added Kum Kum Wutz to its list of destinations in the region. The park has a 650-meter (2,132–foot) zip line, camping zones and a great view, and its municipal tour guides have been trained in first aid, rescue maneuvers and customer service. The park has also been included on a trekking circuit that takes in natural destinations in the western highlands of Quetzaltenango.

Santos Hernández (left) and Adonias Tomás, Kum Kum Wutz park’s two municipal tour guides, who educate tourists on the spiritual and practical importance of the protected area to the Maya inhabitants of Concepción Chiquirichapa. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Part of the rationale for focusing on tourism is that the field offers an appealing way of life for young people, one that Aguilar and others hope can inspire them to stay rather than migrate to Guatemala City or the United States, as many do to escape the poverty and poor prospects at home. “For the new generations the old spiritual practices are boring and uninteresting. But tourism allows them to meet people from different parts of the world, get involved in exciting activities and it gives them the opportunity to see what nature has to offer,” Tax says.

Officials are also considering how Concepción’s Mayan heritage might attract visitors. “We have made some trips into the mountain with people who are not spiritual guides. They are interested in learning about our spiritual connection with Mother Nature and want to help change the path in which humanity is living right now,” says Rumualdo López, the spiritual leader and municipal council member.

Rumualdo López, a Maya spiritual guide and one of Concepción Chiquirichapa’s elected municipal councilmembers. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Meanwhile, the work to maintain what has been achieved over the course of four decades continues. For Aguilar, López and many Concepción residents, seeing the forest flourish has been well worth the effort.

“We know that our work has given us the opportunity to enjoy everything that nature has for us, like water or leaf litter for planting,” says López, the longtime park ranger. “We can even come here with our families to rest and be grateful for the fresh air we breathe. That is something that money cannot buy.”

Banner image: Francisco Escalante (foreground) and Óscar López have been community park rangers in  Concepción Chiquirichapa since the mid 1970’s. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Jorge Rodríguez is a Guatemalan photographer and journalist, always willing to learn and contribute. Follow him on Twitter @elapachabotones.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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