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Communities of the Caribbean of Guatemala Participate in Mangrove Conservation and Restoration

By Lucy Calderón, translated from Spanish originally published in

"The mangroves are important because the snook, shrimp, and crab that we consume grow among their roots. They also give us coolness," says Ada Tróchez, while protecting herself from the intense heat under the branches of a red mangrove that grows in the community of San Juan, in the Municipality of Lívingston, in the Department of Izabal, Guatemala.

"These trees also offer protection against storms and are a refuge for fish and shrimp that we later capture for family consumption or sale," comments Humberto Cino Saquil, president of the Community Development Council (COCODE, by its Spanish acronym) of the village of San Juan. When asked what he liked most about the workshop on the importance of the mangrove forests, he replies smiling: "Knowing the number of mangrove species in the country. Six, to be exact."

Community participation and leadership in strategies for ecosystem conservation and restoration are crucial for success. For this reason, in the Sarstún Multiple Use Area (AUMRS) - a protected area in Guatemala according to Decree 12-2005 and a wetland of global importance in the Guatemalan Caribbean - the communities of San Juan and Barra Sarstún are involved in the protection of the mangroves of this region of the Mesoamerican Reef.

"The work of the inhabitants of these communities in reducing the main threats faced by these coastal forests (slash and burn) will help them continue enjoying the benefits and services they offer and, consequently, improve their living conditions," explains the agronomist Mario Ardany de León, Program Officer of the non-governmental organization EcoLogic Development Fund, which is in charge of the execution of the pilot project Conservation, Restoration and Monitoring of the Mangrove Ecosystem with Community Leadership in the AUMRS.

The project is financed by the Mesoamerican Reef Fund (MAR Fund) and the Integrated Ridge-to-Reef Management of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR2R). MAR2R is executed by the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD), in coordination with the ministries of the environment of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras - the four countries covered by the MAR - with financing coming from the Global Environmental Facility, through the World Wide Fund for Nature as the implementing agency.

To achieve the conservation goal, comments De León, the existing tropical forest area in the upper and middle part of each community will be maintained, and the mangrove swamp in the lower parts will also be cared for. For the restoration of areas that have been cut down or burned, besides mangroves, agroforestry systems will be implemented - that is the combination of basic grain crops with fast-growing trees such those of San Juan (Vochyasia guatemalensis), barillo (Symphonia globulifera), cahue (Pterocarpus officinalis) and fruit trees.

"The goal is to provide people with another source of food. After the quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the storms ETA and IOTA, they realized that they could no longer live only by eating fish and had to complement their daily catches with corn, beans, and fruits", relates de León.

Another part of the project will be to manage the lease of the areas to that will be conserved and restored before the State Reserve Areas Control Office (OCRET) so that these conservation and agroforestry efforts can enroll in the Forest Incentives Program (PROBOSQUE) of the Instituto Nacional de Bosques (INAB). The activities to achieve the above objectives began in September 2020 and are expected to culminate in November 2021, adds de León.

"The voluntary and informed participation of the communities in the conservation of natural resources is imperative because when it comes to forest governance and ecosystem recovery actions, the communities are the first that have to get infused with the subject and convinced. We, as representatives of institutions, can identify areas and work on them. Still, success will not depend on how much money you have to implement the projects but on how much the communities get involved. Because in the end, who cuts the forest? People! When they are aware of the issue and have collaborated to solve it with actions that benefit all, they help ensure there is no logging or overfishing. Hence the importance of taking them into account to carry out the processes," affirms Cesar J. Zacarías-Coxic, in charge of mangroves at the national level for INAB.

"For his experience of more than a decade in conservation and restoration of mangroves, as well as for having promoted the Local Mangrove Boards in Guatemala, who better than Zacarías-Coxic to share with the inhabitants of San Juan and Barra Sarstún information and techniques to the sustainable management of this vital ecosystem," affirms de León.

Zacarías-Coxic comments that, in San Juan, despite the language barrier - because its inhabitants speak Q'eqchí and the help of an interpreter was needed - the interaction achieved with the 22 participants was satisfactory. They even visited the area they hope to enroll in PROBOSQUE. "The people of San Juan had a genuine interest in learning about the mangrove ecosystem of which they didn't know distinctive features because they are not native to the Caribbean, they migrated from the mountainous areas of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, in the central region of Guatemala," Zacarías-Coxic says.

In Barra Sarstún, Cesar taught two workshops. One to 15 fishers and another to 20 students of basic education. With the former, the learning was two-way, guarantees the instructor, because they also shared anecdotes of their experiences at sea and on the coast. And because they had more command of the subject, they even had time to talk about the Regulations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Resources and the Mangrove Ecosystem.

With the latter, perhaps because they were young and shy, they did not talk much, but the students did pay attention to the message, says Zacarías-Coxic.

When you think about working at the watershed level, "there is a lot to discuss," says Zacarías-Coxic. This is due to the various interests and problems that arise when wanting to have different natural resources such as water, soil, or vegetation, to name a few. If these resources are not appropriately managed, the situation will create the loss or degradation of ecosystems. For example, if the vegetation cover is removed from the soil, this is exposed to wind and water erosion processes. And with the rains, these soil particles are dragged downwards from the upper part of the basin by rivers and runoffs, where it causes sedimentation and eutrophication processes, thus modifying some natural systems such as mangroves, coastal lagoons, and seagrasses, assures Zacarías-Coxic.

In this regard, Carlos Rodríguez Olivet, marine-coastal and safeguards specialist of the MAR2R Project, in charge of the interaction of actors in the MAR region for the management of marine-coastal and freshwater resources, comments that one of the tasks that helped organize in 2019 -at the invitation of the MARFund and the Smithsonian Institute, with the support of the German Cooperation - was the workshop in which more than 70 people from the MARregion participated to develop the Regional Conservation Management Strategy, Restoration and Monitoring of Mangroves in the Mesoamerican Reef 2020-2025.

Based on this strategy, the United Nations Environment Program - Cartagena Convention, MAR2R, and MARFund are also collaborating to create a manual describing best practices and techniques for the restoration of mangroves and an ecoregional map that shows the priority sites to look after, adds Rodríguez.

As the official explains, since it's necessary to strengthen local capacities to learn more and better management techniques, as well as good practices in the mangrove ecosystem, another of the actions needed is aimed at opening opportunities for participation to Indigenous peoples and local communities. And one way of involving them is through pilot or demonstrative projects, such as the one that EcoLogic is leading in San Juan and Barra Sarstún, which they are considering replicating in Belize.

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