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Case Study: How Ecotourism is Helping both Guatemala and Conservation

Jan 11, 2018 |

Case Study

| by Christopher Bensley

Article courtesy of National Audubon Society

In developing countries around the world, a lack of economic opportunities often drives local people to engage in activities that degrade natural resources. Unsustainable timber extraction, poaching, and land clearing for agriculture diminish the long-term value of these ecosystems for biodiversity—and for the local people who rely on them for resources and ecosystem services.

Ecotourism is an economic alternative that can raise incomes for people who live close to biodiversity-rich areas, while helping to conserve natural capital. In countries like Guatemala, where agricultural workers make as little as five dollars a day, the $100 per-day fee that a trained birding guide can earn has made a big difference in quality of life for guides and their families.

Ecotourism Case Study: Guatemala Lake Atitlán

“In a few months I went from knowing very little to becoming a specialized birding guide. Now tour companies are calling me, and I’m part of a community that’s helping to save forests and birds.” —Rony Anibal Xep

The bow of our launch cuts through a low layer of fog as we head across Lake Atitlán just before sunrise on a Tuesday morning. Considered by many to be the most beautiful lake on Earth, the 340m-deep lake fills a caldera formed 84,000 years ago when built-up gases blew the top off a massive volcano.

Flanked by three newer volcanoes, the lake is surrounded by steep mountainsides and forests. Four of Guatemala’s seven biomes meet and overlap here, making the Atitlan region a natural “gas station” for birding course. “I was thinking, ‘What business is missing in my village?’” With the support of her family, Puac spent 18 months building a bird-themed restaurant, which opened in April of 2017. “It’s the new hot spot for people who love birds,” says Puac. “And for people who love people who love birds!” birds heading north or south.

Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996, boosting bird tourism in the Atitlán region, where an ambitious birder can catch a glimpse of many of the 450 species that have been spotted here. Though options for tourists have blossomed over the past two decades, the disparities that led to the war persist. In the towns surrounding the lake, which are mostly populated by indigenous Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel people, more than 75 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Birding guide Juan Chocoy, who had until recently been a fisherman, meets us at the wharf in San Juan. With him are guides Juan Soliz and Benjamin Hernandez. Chocoy, who left school after the second grade to help support his family, says he was lucky to make $50 per week fishing. Now, he can make up to $100 for a half-day of bird guiding.

Marlon Calderon of Asociación Vivamos Mejor, Audubon’s local conservation partner, is justifiably proud of his crew of guides. Indeed, their skill and professionalism are impressive: In one mid-morning quest to spot a Resplendent Quetzal—we eventually located a family of four—the guides identified 25 species in a 10-minute period.

Of the 108 graduates of the beginner’s course, 15 went on to successfully complete the advanced course. “What surprised me was that the least educated participants tended to be the highest performers,” says Calderon. “Their eyes and ears and instincts seem to be sharper.”

Every guide interviewed said that the single most important improvement that could be made to the training would be to extend language instruction beyond bird names and rudimentary phrases. But the overwhelming majority of participants say that the overall experience has been transformative; many have decided to invest in guiding as their life’s work.

Among them is Alfredo Tol, who is transitioning to full-time guiding from driving a threewheeled “tuk-tuk” taxi. Pablo Chumil, who had been guiding nature and archaeology tours for several years, is now guiding birders almost exclusively as a tour leader for Rockjumper Birding Tours. German Cholotío was working as a coffee roaster and considering a career in nursing when he heard about the birding course.

“I came mainly out of curiosity,” he says. “But on the second day they gave us binoculars and I focused in on a Blue-gray Tanager. At that moment I fell in love with birds. I wanted to know everything I could about them.”

Maritza Puac, who lives in San Juan, was enrolled in a business education program while she was taking the birding course. “I was thinking, ‘What business is missing in my village?’”

With the support of her family, Puac spent 18 months building a bird-themed restaurant, which opened in April of 2017. “It’s the new hot spot for people who love birds,” says Puac. “And for people who love people who love birds!”

Guide Spotlight: Everilda Ruchan

Everilda Buchan was born near Guatemala’s Pacific Coast and raised on the farm where her parents worked. She was forced to drop out of school after second grade to help support the family. “I was born in nature, and that’s where I want to bring people, especially children,” she says. “Those who know nature are the ones who care about it. Those who don’t know it don’t care.” Buchan, who had the highest score in the advanced bird-guiding course, says the course’s multi-day field trip to different regions of Guatemala was the highlight of her life. “It was like a university for me,” she says. “Discovering the other places in my country—the jungle, the high mountains, the seacoast—how else could a person like me ever hope to experience these things?”

Report courtesy of National Audubon Society. Click the link for the full Audubon report: BIRDS MEAN BUSINESS Creating economic opportunity to support conservation