Training and Trees for a Deforested Guatemala

Organization teaches families about forestry, farming, and how to grow seedlings

In a country rapidly losing its trees because of expanding farming, Maria Augustina Sute waves a tin watering can over rows of seedlings in a nursery cooperative nearby, covering them with a nourishing shower.

When they are a few inches tall, they will be distributed in little plastic sacks without cost to members of the cooperative, one of the few in Guatemala. The members sell some seedlings for cash and plant others on their tiny farm plots.

"For the future, we plant the trees; we sell [some] for money for our children," says another member of the cooperative, Elauteria Taxiday Tubac. "We are trying to help our husbands. The little our men earn is not enough."

The results of massive tree loss are devastating, as seen by the extensive parched lands in once tree-covered areas of Haiti. "According to our ancestors, where there are trees, there is rain," says Nicolas Tubac, who also volunteers in the nursery cooperative.

Mr. Tubac cites the age-old problem of poor farmers and the need for trees: the needs of today versus the needs of tomorrow. Farmers in many countries, including Guatemala, use a slash-and-burn method, clearing trees from land for new farms as soil wears out on the old farms.

With Guatemala's 11.2 million population expected to double in 23 years, land is becoming more scarce. Yet Tubac's ancestors knew trees were important, and so does he.

"We need to reforest, but we also need trees for firewood and to build houses," he says.

This is the challenge a small, mostly Guatemalan-run private organization, called the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR), is trying to meet. Since 1993, it has provided seedlings and training to some 325 families in 19 communities. Total production from all the nurseries is about 100,000 seedlings a year.

A portion of the seedling sales is retained by the cooperatives AIR sponsors to restock their nurseries and eventually become self-sufficient. Members vote on whether or not to sell some seedlings for their income.

"The philosophy behind AIR is reforestation," says Eladio Iquique Socoy, an employee of the Guatemala Ministry of Agriculture who is on loan to AIR as a tree-planting and education specialist. "People work together. We distribute trees according to how much they worked. This is the rule."

Mr. Iquique is also an expert on fruit trees and is teaching villagers how to plant a variety of them. The tiny parcel of land around his home is a living classroom. He shows his visitors his fruit trees and explains his system of organic tree care. "We're pushing organic because the life of the people here has been very difficult. Chemical fertilizers are very expensive," he says.

For natural fertilizer to help his fruit trees grow, he uses manure from his goats, chickens, pigs, cows, and horses, plus cornstalks and tree leaves.

Tree planting can cut farming costs, says Chris Wunderlich, AIR executive director who is from the United States but lives in nearby San Miguel. Many Guatemala farmers "spend more on chemicals [for crop production] than they make on the harvest," he says. Trees not only provide shade for crops but also add nitrogen to soil, slow erosion, and provide leaves as mulch, says Iquique.

Many commercial nurseries exist in Guatemala, but most farmers cannot afford to buy the seedlings or young trees. So far there are few programs such as AIR that make seedlings available free to volunteer laborers in the nursery cooperatives.

AIR has a number of other related projects, including instructing primary school teachers in Chimaltenango on how to educate children about tree care and planting. AIR operates on a budget of approximately $30,000 a year, raised from donors primarily in the US.

"In working with Mayan indigenous in Guatemala, it's very easy to explain the need for trees because they really already know it," says Anne Hallum, a political-science professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who started the program. "It doesn't take a great deal of education, just assistance that a small organization like AIR can provide."

Guatemala is still losing far more trees each year than are planted. But with a rejuvenated government protection and education program in its tropical forests in the north, and the expanding work of AIR in the south, the Tubacs and a growing number of other Mayan descendants are heeding their ancestors' advice to safeguard the trees.

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