August 1, 2012, Totonicapan, Guatemala – Santos Gutierrez (right), a board member of the Indigenous Community of Chuamazan association, speaks with visiting Counterpart International staff in the 48-acre protected area the association will soon open in the village of Chuamazan in southwest Guatemala. The group has set aside the protected area to draw ecotourist dollars to their community. © David Snyder/Counterpart International.

By David Snyder

Santos Gutierrez casts his eyes into the treetops and sends a series of long, slow whistles into the branches overhead. A small, gray-headed bird appears. For Gutierrez, it is a chance to connect with nature – and a sign of how far the people of Chuamazan have come in their use of this forest.

“Before we had this idea, we used to sell wood from the forest,” Gutierrez said. “But then we decided to protect the forest, and ecotourism is one way we can bring people to appreciate the flora and fauna.”

In 2011, Counterpart International began supporting that effort as part of the Community Tourism Alliance project, which aims to connect rural communities like Chuamazan to Guatemala’s lucrative tourism industry. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the project seeks to develop the professional capacity of small-scale organizations, and educate locals on using eco-friendly tourism to promote conservation.

Residents of Chuamazan keenly understood the importance of safeguarding their environment.

“One of the main reasons to preserve the forest is the water supply,” Gutierrez said. “We realized if we kept cutting trees we would run out of water because the trees help preserve that.”

The 270 residents first elected representatives, who set aside 48 acres for conservation out of 256 acres of communal forest. The preserve, the Chajil Siwan Protected Area, has a 1.25-mile trail and hosts two species of endangered birds and two of endangered pine trees – attractions the community hopes will draw tourists. The group convinced a variety of nongovernmental organizations to lend the necessary funds to build a restaurant on the site, due to open in late 2012.

“Counterpart has helped us to implement workshops, especially for the management of the restaurant,” Gutierrez said. “We’re learning how to set tables, how to cook properly and how to provide good service. They are also helping us to develop an interpretive trail.”

With Gutierrez and seven other community members trained as guides by a nationally certified tourist service, the community hopes to earn money from the use of the preserve and sales from the restaurant, which will be staffed by community members. For the people of Chuamazan, the Chajil Siwan Protected Area will provide the opportunity to preserve their land and generate income.

“This is an area where people can come and be in contact with a healthy environment,” Gutierrez says. “We think people will want to come and be in contact with a green space.”