Today they have woven forestry into their traditional land use, building their livelihoods and reforesting vast tracts of land.
In this region, these descendants work in smallholder cooperatives, the Chicoj and the Chirepec, both of which achieved FSC chain of custody and forest management certification on a total of 484 hectares in 2009.
The Chicoj and the Chirepec are part of the Federation of Cooperatives of Verapaz (FEDECOVERA), established in 1976 as a second-tier producer, a regional association that provides services to members, such as processing and technical support.
It is made up of 38 cooperatives and 25 associations, representing about 80,000 people. Many are Q’eqchi and Poqomchi people, who come from the ancient Mayans.
Its members agree that there are benefits to being FSC certified, including the good image that comes with it. They also regard it as a tool to ensure sustainability.
As Don Arnoldo Cu Cu, a Chicoj cooperative member, says: “Forest certification is good … we have benefitted from good management practices, and visitors on our coffee tour know that good forest management has been done.”
There are other benefits. “For example, we have learned not to litter in our plantations because that pollutes the soil. And we have learned to use protective equipment during forest management activities, especially thinning, which helps prevent serious accidents.”
Fellow Chicoj member Dona Rosa Maria Col says the standards set out with certification guarantees good management of forest plantations and demands great responsibility.
“We have learned to be organized and to comply with legal requirements and standards needed for proper management of forests. This also gives the cooperative credibility.”
The farmers may be smallholders, but they are carrying out a big task in revitalizing degraded land. Backed by government through the 1997 Forestry Incentives Act, FEDECOVERA works to establish 250 hectares of reforestation per year.
Its members, with some 85,000 hectares, once farmed mainly cash crops, such as coffee, tea and cardamom, as well as subsistence grains.
But when prices of these crops fell and diseases like rust affected volumes, they started plantations, often on land that had been deforested. Since 1995, they have planted about 4,000 hectares of trees, mainly pine.
They also embarked on ecotourism activities, adding to livelihoods by, for example, offering tours of well-managed coffee plantations.
The Chicoj cooperative is made up of Q’eqchi coffee producers who, with technical support and training from the federation, now also grow pine trees.
Smallholders are also worried: even though it costs more to produce certified timber, they are yet to see an increase in the prices they get for their products on the market.
“We must look for that better price in the market to ensure good management to obtain benefits later. Being certified also has a cost,” Don Arnoldo Cu Cu says.
According to a statement by the Chicoj board, FSC certification is a tool for improving its forest management, offering “an opportunity to enhance the corporate image and demonstrate that cooperatives can meet international standards”.
Certification, it says, has allowed smallholders to manage their forests “entrepreneurially” and has meant that institutions that govern forest management see smallholders as allies in responsible forestry.
Further, “we are aware that we have not had a plus in the sale price yet, but the image of the cooperative has improved as we are meeting the requirements of the national forest service more efficiently and they are more confident in us because we are certified”.