Deep Dive: Green Balam Forests in Guatemala

In Guatemala, deep in the heart of the Mayan jungle, lies ancient ruins thronged by sub-tropical rainforest. Surrounded by communities and a plethora of wildlife bathed in green, the air around the idyllic scene is heavied by an ominous sense of destruction. These historic trees, mainly the Ramon (Yayox in Mayan), older than the Mayan pyramids themselves, are plowed and destroyed to make way for cattle farms and mostly illegal timber logging, as 21st century industrialism overtakes the old world bounty. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Sebastian de la Hoz is the project manager of a locally run initiative to protect the forest and revive the scores of hectares that have been deforested. Discover how a climate visionary, and long-time forest lover relies on satellite remote sensing and easy-to-access decentralized data for forest verification. Through a new generation, transparent, and un-breachable blockchain protocol, he aims to save and renew these treasured trees, bringing his community into a worldwide value chain.

Petén, now the northern part of modern-day Guatemala, was the birthplace of the Mayan culture over 2000 years ago. The Mayan civilization flourished as the precursor to what we know today, owing a large part of their survival and prosperity to an intricate symbiosis with nature. As the largest Mesoamerican civilization of its time, the Mayans survived brutal climate changes by inventing ingenious methods to conserve the environment, manage forests and sustain their ecosystem. Over 20 centuries later, Petén is now home to Green Balam Forests, tackling a different iteration of climate change that is primarily human-induced. The challenge now lies not just in developing new technologies and scalable methods to mitigate the rapid change, but in choosing to use them.

Ruins near Sebastian’s family home

The landscape of Petén is dotted with ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization, including what was once the largest city of the Mayans, Tikal, in the heart of the district capital, Flores. Before 1970, the district was largely uninhabited and overrun by flora and fauna. After the Guatemalan government established a colonization polity in the region in the 70s, it quickly developed. As agriculture flourished, cattle farming and tourism emerged as the principal economic activities. The district houses the Mayan Jungle, the biggest jungle in Mesoamerica and the second largest in Central America after the Darien. The Mayan Jungle is a biodiversity hotspot, teeming with life, sheltering about 20 different ecosystems.

Predominantly a lowland area, Petén consists of over four million hectares of protected forest land, including the Maya Biosphere Reserve established in 1990. Agriculture is the country’s second-largest source of income behind income remittances from Guatemalans abroad. Cattle ranching, which falls under agriculture, is second, and tourism third. Cattle is the fifth-largest export of Guatemala to the US (USDA) and a multi-million dollar industry with next-door neighbor Mexico (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food).

For such a big and profitable industry that employs almost the whole district, cattle ranching has one major planet-killing drawback (among many): it is one of the primary causes of deforestation in Guatemala. The country lost over 1.5 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2021, resulting in loss of the country’s total tree cover and over 750 megatonnes of carbon emissions (Global Forest Watch). Agriculture was the main cause of deforestation, with Petén leading the tree cover loss by region, with over 900,000 hectares lost. Another large cause of deforestation is the legal (and illegal) timber logging trade. These exploits of nature have become blights to Petén’s natural ecosystem and biodiversity, threatening the protected zones of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and the Mayan Jungle.

According to Sebastian De La Hoz, co-founder of Green Balam Forests and native of Petén, the tree canopies that live vividly in his childhood memories have been long lost to uncontrolled and unsustainable felling and burning of trees to make way for cattle farming and timber extraction. Despite the best efforts of the government to tighten regulations around these activities, deeply-rooted socioeconomic drivers such as poverty and unemployment in rural areas dictate the choices of the inhabitants, creating a vicious cycle. As described by Sebastian, cattle ranching and timber are economic models that work. The challenge is to show them a better model that is just as profitable as it is protective of the forests and sustainable.

After a day of initial data upload to OFPs on-chain MRV platform, Sebastian and OFP Business Development Manager for Central America, Nigel Barford, sit down to talk about Sebastian’s vision and Green Balam Forests.

Green Balam Forests

Green Balam Forests is a reforestation and biodiversity conservation organization driven to regenerate and preserve the jungles of Guatemala while improving the livelihood of the local people.

Sebastian De La Hoz has degrees in forestry and economics but also grew up in one of the rainforest communities settled around the jungle. In his younger years, he was a guide to hikers, archaeologists, and tourists seeking to explore the jungle and Maya Biosphere Reserve before becoming active in the timber industry. Sebastian says it is within the timber industry that he gathered first-hand experience and knowledge about forest management. And he is committed to applying all he learned to make sustainable conservation and regeneration profitable and attractive to small landowners and the inhabitants of Petén and influence the next wave of Guatemalan farmers.

Speaking to OFP on the ground in Xibalba, located south of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where Green Balam Forests owns 55 hectares of forest land to be restored (56% restoration, 44% conservation), Sebastian tells us the overarching vision of Green Balam Forests; creating a sustainable and replicable business model on the chassis of conservation, reforestation and sustainable exploitation of the forests, that creates jobs and ultimately replaces the current models of logging and ranching. Sebastian believes that achieving this vision starts with regaining land back from cattle herders, restoring the forests, regenerating biodiversity, and ensuring they are all connected through a corridor. This vision and goals inspired the founding of Green Balam Forests alongside Scott Forsythe.

The organization has steadily ramped up its activities over the years, starting with Xibalba as a pilot project, and has now added to a 430-hectare project, the Tulan Private Nature Reserve, north of the buffer zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Tulan is the first cog in a larger plan to manually establish a 15,000-hectare biological corridor that will connect the Tikal National Park, San Miguel La Palotada/ El Zotz, Cerro Cahui Biotope, and Lake Petén Itza. This corridor will be made up of 75% reforested land.

In addition to conservation and reforestation, Green Balam Forests produces sustainably-sourced products to generate income and create jobs. One of their main products, the ramón nut, comes from the Brosimum alicastrum trees that proliferate the Maya Biosphere Reserve and have been a staple for humans and animals, dating back to the Mayans. The nut continues to be one of the mainstays of Guatemalan diet and cuisine. It can be transformed into the highly in-demand Ramón nut flour, which forms the base for a variety of food and beverage products. Other Green Balam products include xate, allspice, copal incense, wildflower honey, organic chewing gum, and FSC-certified wood.

Green Balam Forests also inclusively partners with local and small landowners, showing them how to sustainably generate income from their land, thus discouraging them from turning to land-degrading practices, such as ranching or logging.

What works is profitable but not sustainable

For Sebastian, the main challenge of Green Balam Forests is convincing the landowners and communities that forest conservation and restoration is a better model than logging and ranching. The common consensus among families and landowners is that profit comes first, especially when there are mouths to feed and children to send to school. As much as there is a desire to maintain and protect their heritage and forests, the instinct to survive and escape, poverty is much stronger.

A trident of sociopolitical, financial, and technical reasons also play a big role in stifling the acceptance and shift to forest protection. Logging and agriculture form a large part of the economy’s backbone. The Guatemalan government has shown support to forest conservation through the institution of machineries such as the National Forestry Institute, INAB (1996), whose mission is to execute and facilitate the implementation of national forestry policies and access to the sector’s services. And PROBOSQUE (2020), an initiative mandated to promote forestry development through sustainable management and the reduction of deforestation. While these are encouraging signs, the lack of more tangible support, such as financing of forest conservation initiatives, coupled with the pushback from existing industries (cattle herding, logging), making it difficult and almost impossible for projects and initiatives like Green Balam Forests to thrive.

Deforestation for cattle farms in Guatemala. (Mongabay)

A lack of financial and technical assistance stemming from the inability to correctly gauge the multi-level (social, economic, environmental, human) value of forests, contribute to the difficulties faced by forest initiatives. There is little interest from investors and the government to financially fast-track a model and sector that is less economically viable than the current ones. Technically, established forest management platforms are not only expensive but generally more tailored for large-scale and traditional projects such as plantations instead of reforestation, making their utility approximative and ineffective.

Turning the tide with OFP

The underlying context here is how conservation and reforestation ultimately benefit the planet by sequestering carbon and fostering sustainability. In Sebastian’s experience, technology makes it much easier to implement forest projects, given the amount of data collection and tracking involved. As a forest project, Green Balam Forests can take advantage of the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) to source financial support to sustain its activities.

Established Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) standards have high barriers to entry with bottlenecking procedures and requirements, such as complex documentation, high costs, and insisting on a particular minimum size. Sebastian’s search for a comprehensive platform led him to OFP, and so far, the experience has been great, particularly the user-friendliness of the open MRV platform. OFP’s open and decentralized MRV presents a two-fold solution to Green Balam Forests as an efficient forest management tool to monitor their forests and a ramp to financial support if they successfully verify their forests. Green Balam Forests currently has 33 hectares of forest committed to OFP’s open MRV.

As we wind down in Xibalba, Sebastian notes that there is growing interest in forest projects — governmental support through bodies such as INAB and the PROBOSQUE initiative contributes to turning the energy towards forest projects. A big dream and goal for Sebastian will be to once again walk underneath the dense tree canopies of the land he calls home.

Fun fact: Balam is translated from Mayan as Jaguar. The Jaguar is the third largest cat in the world after tigers and lions and is the apex predator in Central America. According to history, the Jaguar holds a revered spiritual place in Mayan culture as a protector of the fields and villages.

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Open Forest Protocol

Blockchain platform for next generation forest projects. Transparently measure, report, and verify the entire life cycle of trees.