Guided initially only by knowledge inherited from their ancestors, the people of Concepción Chiquirichapa in southwestern Guatemala began conserving their forest four decades ago.The participation of local people has been key to converting pastureland on the Siete Orejas mountain into a green and leafy forest that sustains the area’s economy and water supply.The sustainable use of forest resources is central to the town’s approach. People can gather food, natural medicine, and leaf litter for use as fertilizer, so long as they do not harm the forest.This is the first part of Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Concepción community’s effort to restore the forest of Siete Orejas. Links to other stories in this three-part profile of the Concepción Chiquirichapa community’s stewardship of its sacred cloud forest will appear here once they are published: Ancient spirituality guides a Maya town’s conservation efforts The secret to a town’s perfect potatoes? Its well-preserved forest. CONCEPCIÓN CHIQUIRICHAPA, Guatemala — Marcelino Aguilar walks down a mountain path bordered by yellow wildflowers with a calm step. He stops at a group of two dozen pinabete (Abies guatemalensis) and Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) trees, off to his left. Three stories overhead, their green treetops dance in the cold wind. It gently blows a white mist that, for a little while, covers everything in front of him. “These trees are the result of the work we have been doing since the ’70s,” he says, a proud look on his face. Forty years ago, this volcanic mountain, Siete Orejas, which sprawls across four municipalities in southwestern Guatemala’s Quetzaltenango Department, was dominated by large grasslands kept short by herds of grazing sheep. In Concepción Chiquirichapa, a town of roughly 18,000 people, mostly of indigenous Maya Mam origin, the mountain is considered sacred. It is the guardian of some 22 ceremonial altars, where the town’s spiritual guides come to ask Ajaw, the Creator, for favorable weather, a good harvest, protection and wisdom. During his walk, Aguilar, the head of Concepción’s municipal Department of Protected Areas (DAP by its Spanish initials), stops to speak in Mam with two park rangers in their 70s, Oscar López and Francisco Escalante. The pair have been taking care of the mountain since the mid-1970s. They are now part of an eight-person DAP team in charge of making rounds, planting new trees, cleaning trails and taking care that no one destroys the forest or harms the wildlife. All of this began back when López and Escalante were still young and the rest of the original 16 community park rangers were still alive. The people of Concepción, concerned about safeguarding their water supply and potato farms, made the decision to kick the sheep off their part of Siete Orejas and revive some of their traditional forestry practices. The results of their work are there for all to see in the form of Siete Orejas’sforested slopes, clean and more abundant water, and thriving potato fields. The flourishing forest is a small, green flicker of hope in Guatemala’s western highlands, a region beset by poverty and sky-high rates of malnutrition among children.