How can marine conservation benefit poverty stricken fishermen to create a thriving environment? Bethan John visits Rio Sarstún to find out.
Our small boat skims across the waters between Guatemala and Belize in Central America. The tropical forests that coat the nearby shore flash past in a green haze. A flock of flamingos wade in the shallows of this coral fringed coast, sunlight sparkling in their pink reflection.
I’m here with a team from FUNDAECO, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works in partnership with World Land Trust (WLT). We’re travelling through the Rio Sarstún Multiple Use Area, 4,447 acres (1,800 hectares) of Caribbean Guatemala, surrounded by a network of lagoons – home to manatees, dolphins and neotropical otters – with mangroves lining the waterways and creeks.
Over a three year period from 2009 to 2012, WLT helped create the Laguna Grande-Sarstún Reserve: 1,668 acres (675 hectares) of protected forest within the larger Rio Sarstún Multiple Use Area. The WLT funded reserve provides a safe haven for Howler Monkeys, tapirs and five cat species – including top predator the jaguar.
Conservation empowers indigenous communities
Not only does the Rio Sarstún Multiple Use Area protect a wealth of biodiversity, but the reserve is also a pioneering project within the country. It is the first time in Guatemala that an indigenous group and a conservation NGO have formed a consortium to manage a protected area for wildlife.
Part of FUNDAECO’s mission is to help indigenous communities reclaim ownership of their traditional lands and to make sure that these rights are recognised within Guatemalan law, while at the same time creating conditions and resources to protect the environment.
This reserve is co-run by the Sarstún Temash Institute for Indigenous Management. The two organisations work together to organise environmental and social projects with local people, improving the conservation of the area and the communities’ standard of living.
Sustainable livelihoods for fishermen
To find out more about projects to support local people, our first stop is to meet Alfredo Banses, secretary of the Barra Sarstún Fishing Association.
The association is a group of 32 fishermen that run an aquaculture project; they have built large cages within the Sarstún River for the captive breeding and feeding of fish. This ensures that the fishermen can sustain their livelihoods, as it produces a higher stock of fish that are larger from being well fed, while at the same time encouraging fishermen to move away from harvesting wild species and depleting populations.
Our boat pulls-up to Alfredo’s office, a wooden lodge siting on the edge of the Sarstún River, with solar panels on the palm-leafed roof. While proudly showing us his catch of the day, Alfredo said: “The support from FUNDAECO has given us the capability to grow and develop, while creating more alternatives for protecting the environment at the same time. Through this joint work we have also been able to implement our first project to educate our community."
Together they are raising awareness within the fishing community about the benefits of marine protected areas in order to gain further support and endorsement, with the long-term plan of creating a fishery restoration zone in the region.
A healthier marine environment
FUNDAECO and the Barra Sarstún Fishing Association also carry out biodiversity studies, having launched the first 'research ship' in Guatemala with the aim of monitoring and conserving the country’s reefs, sea grasses, wetlands and mangroves.
Mangrove forests are among the most important ecosystems in the world but they are vanishing at astonishing rates.
Experts say that around 35 per cent of the planet's mangroves were lost in just 20 years between 1990 and 2010. This could have a serious global impact as mangrove forests protect coastlines against dangerous tropical storms, they mitigate marine erosion and store massive amounts of carbon. They are also essential for marine life and provide nurseries for fish – with three quarters of all tropic fish being born among mangroves.
The health of our marine environment and the devastating impact of over-fishing is a global conservation concern, yet this is an example of how a WLT partner is initiating projects to help tackle the problem locally.
Working hand-in-hand with local communities, FUNDAECO is creating sustainable rural communities for the future of Guatemala’s nature world and the country’s poorest people.
- Find out more about conservation challenges and successes in Guatemala on our news pages
- Find out more about the Mexican Black Howler monkey, by watching our video on Wildlife Focus
- You can support conservation work in Guatemala by donating to WLT's Action Fund and specifying Guatemala in the comments box