Around the world, forests are being cleared to make room for farmland. But in Central America you can find encouraging examples of agriculture that supports human life and is also forest-friendly.
Whoever flies over Guatemala's northernmost province, El Peten, will see large pastures cutting into the rainforest. They are different from those in Europe, which tend to be smaller, resemble a chessboard pattern, and are maintained using sophisticated machinery.
Around 100 kilometers north of the provincial capital Flores the forest spreads out again in its full glory, dotted with a few Mayan temples and isolated villages. The communities and cooperatives based here practice a special farming method that allows them to live in harmony with their natural environment.
Although they do not practice industrialized agriculture, the people of El Peten's rainforest regions are able to live off the land. Corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes and all sorts of vegetables are cultivated on small patches in the forest and used in the households. The locals also make an income by exporting some wood extracted from the forest, and spices such as cardamom. What is remarkable is that they interact with their environment in a sustainable way - after all, they don't want to destroy the habitat that supports their existence.
Complexity is key
Their way of life is highly unusual by global standards. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 13 million hectares of forest are cleared each year - mostly to make room for huge fields with monocultures or pastures.
"The large-scale industrial model of agriculture is one of the primary causes of deforestation," commented Jeff Campbell, director of the Forest & Farm Facility division of the FAO.
"There is an assumption that to increase food productivity we have to move to simplified systems," he added. "But what we learned from communities who live in and around forested landscapes is that the best strategy is complexity."
Trust in local populations
This is why the FAO, together with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), launched the Forest & Farm Facility initiative. Its goal is to support indigenous populations, small farm owners and women in traditional agricultural practices, and to advocate their rights.
"The growing trend over the last 30 years has been to appreciate the central role of indigenous people, local communities and smallholders - both in managing and looking after the forest, and in their role as custodians of the land," said Campbell, adding that the communities and cooperatives of Central America are a good example of these practices.
Some communities in the region have managed to obtain a permanent right of use for a specific piece of land. There are also cases of such rights being granted for a 25-year period or longer. The latter is the situation in El Peten, where the local cooperatives have received land rights for a limited time.
Effective measures to combat climate change
David Kaimowitz, Director of Sustainable Development at the US-based Ford Foundation, whose mission is to advance human welfare, is impressed with the way the Central American cooperatives function.
"The reality of the communities in Mexico and Central America is that they live off their resources - they live off the ecosystem in which they find themselves," said Kaimowitz.
He emphasized that such examples are good models for the future of agriculture. But he also pointed out that what is always needed is a right to use the land, which allows the communities to make long-term plans.
"We don't need to protect the planet for two, three or five years - we need to protect the planet for however long humanity is planning to be around on this planet," said Kaimowitz, adding that the Ford Foundation supports local initiatives in Central America.
"Community forestry can actually be one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of addressing climate change and global warming," he added.
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