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Cows and Conservation in Guatemala

Dan_GrossmanDan Grossman is a multimedia science journalist who resides in Watertown, Massachusetts. In May 2013 he and his daughter visited Guatemala at the invitation of EcoLogic, and Dan donated his services to film and document some of what he saw and experienced. What follows is a brief account of his trip.

If you drive on Guatemala’s rutted dirt roads in the northwest region of the country, you’ll see cows. Lots and lots of cows. I saw them from the window of a pickup truck as EcoLogic’s Regional Program Director Gabriela González escorted me on a visit of indigenous communities at project sites where EcoLogic works. González would tell me about different aspects of the scenery we passed, gesturing to remnants of old growth forest, identifying a particular town, or pointing out an unusual mountain ridge or tree, but everywhere there were cows, and they needed no introduction.

Guatemala loses an area of forest larger than Rhode Island every decade, in part due to the cattle ranching I witnessed. I’d read that woodlands are often destroyed to create pastures for cattle grazing, and that many of these cows are raised to feed US consumers. I also knew that cattle ranching is not the only threat, as agricultural companies clear land for large scale production of palm oil and sugar cane. EcoLogic works to slow and halt Guatemala’s precipitous deforestation rate not by reforming industrial-scale farming and animal husbandry but by collaborating with local and indigenous peoples to put in place sustainable practices. González says that new ways of growing and cooking food, among other things, will empower these people to become stewards of their natural resources and thus better able to protect threatened ecosystems from outside pressures.

Slash_and_burnChatting with González, I learned that small-scale indigenous farmers cut forests for many understandable reasons, having to do with acquiring basic necessities. Mostly the farmers clear forest and natural habitat to replace fields that have been exhausted by overuse. Families also cut trees for cooking fuel. And they fell woodlands to make space for new generations of farmers. EcoLogic gives these people practical knowledge, resources and new methods to sustain and improve farmland and use resources more efficiently.

The traditional cooking method, still used in many rural kitchens, is a cooking pit: a crude metal frame or circle of stones holding a pot above a flame. EcoLogic has introduced an engineered metal and masonry wood stove that requires significantly less wood than the traditional pit, and, with a bit of training, the community members can build the stoves for themselves. EcoLogic also trains farmers in alley cropping, a type of agroforestry, which González described as the practice of planting food crops in rows with trees and shrubs. These nitrogen fixing perennials add nitrogen to the soil when they drop leaf litter. Alley-planted plots resist erosion and are productive much longer than fields planted by traditional methods, reducing pressure to clear new land. As yet another example of how EcoLogic helps, they have also established a forest guardian program, that recruits volunteers from the community who receive extensive training that allows them to spread the word of conservation to their neighbors and friends, while also organizing activities like reforestation efforts, and woodland patrols.

Ana and her children with their fuel-efficient stove.

Ana and her children with their fuel-efficient stove.

After nearly a day of bouncing around in the pick up over the rocks and potholes of Guatemala’s back roads, our truck pulled up to a small cluster of wooden huts roofed in sheet metal: the village of Caserio Saclecan. Ana Mateo Francisco, the matron of one such home, welcomed us inside. Three children literally hung from her neck and long dress while she demonstrated the fuel-efficient stove that her family had received. It’s more convenient and easier to use than the old fire pit, she said, with room on top to heat several pots at once. At her side, her husband said that, unlike the old fire pit, this stove doesn’t fill the house up with smoke.

I saw the blackened remains of newly felled old-growth forest many times during several days traveling alongside González. And we saw many more cows. But we also visited other sites where EcoLogic works, and I was buoyed by the sight of so many people taking part in productive and beneficial activities that are making positive change happen in spite of the enormity of the challenge. I am sobered by the urgency of the task and the difficulties inherent in such a complex and important effort, but visiting EcoLogic project sites, I also found the most essential ingredient for positive change: hope.