IKI talks to Rebeca Escobar Méndez

Rebeca Escobar Méndez

Rebeca Escobar Méndez is responsible for research and monitoring with 'Defensores de la Naturaleza' (FDN) in Guatemala

Since 2011, the International Climate Initiative has been promoting tropical forest conservation and sustainable community development in the Sierra del Lacandón National Park in Guatemala. Rebeca Escobar Méndez is responsible for research and monitoring with 'Defensores de la Naturaleza' (FDN) in Guatemala. On the way back from her recent trip to Warsaw, where she attended the climate negotiations, she paid a visit to IKI in Berlin.

Interview with Rebeca Escobar Méndez

IKI: What exactly does your work in the national park involve, Ms Escobar Méndez?

Rebeca Escobar Méndez: I work in the park itself, where I am responsible for research and monitoring. My work involves both biological research and the monitoring of our nature conservation activities. It is very important for us to document the progress of our work in order to determine which additional measures need to be developed in order to achieve our objectives. One of my main tasks is to coordinate the various different work processes.

It is said that the tropical rainforest in northern Guatemala is one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, but that its ecosystems are also among the most threatened. Is this true?

Rebeca Escobar Méndez: Yes, it is one of the most important and largest tropical rainforests in the world. It spreads well beyond the ‘Sierra del Lacandón’ National Park, covering the entire northern part of Guatemala, and this enormous contiguous forest area is home to a tremendously diverse range of plant and animal species. This diversity includes timber and medicinal and other useful plants like the breadnut tree, which has fruit that can be processed into a variety of foodstuffs such as bread, cookies and soft drinks.

Were these plant species threatened?

Some of them, but the main issue was that they were hardly being used anymore because knowledge about their importance had been almost entirely lost. Our project has revived this knowledge base, and a considerable number of women are now processing breadnuts into flour and even exporting their product to other countries. Our problem in Guatemala is that the overall population is rapidly growing and needs more and more living space. Large parts of the countryside are privately owned and there is not enough agricultural land available for everyone. The forest ecosystem is under threat due to people settling in the protected areas.

How do you and your colleagues deal with these challenges?

We are trying to convince the communities living in the various zones within the protected area that they are an important part of the forest. We also help them to understand what a privilege it is to live in these areas and how vital it is for everyone that the land be used in an appropriate and sustainable manner. The people here have access to water, wood and very clean air. That is why our project is named 'Lacandón – Forests for Life', because by protecting the environment, we are also protecting the people. At the moment, our highest priority is convincing the people in the protected zones that the forest is of fundamental importance for their future.

In concrete terms, how do you go about that?

We are committed to helping the people stay in the protected zones and enabling them to pursue sustainable cultivation activities. Most of the families are very poor and have a large number of children that need to be fed. We explain to the small-scale farmers, for example, that it is better to avoid using slash-and-burn techniques, since fire can often spread to parts of the forests where people are living. Also, if the forests disappear, they will no longer have firewood for cooking, and so forth. We try to inform people about the disadvantages of monocultures, and encourage them to plant trees rather than corn. The breadnut tree or the pepper plant, other fruit trees, or even cedars and mahogany for use in constructing houses. The aim is to help people recognise the benefits of shifting to cultivation of other plants.

Since 2011, the IKI project has been carrying out activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). How likely do you think it is that deforestation around the park can be reduced through this mechanism?

Actually, we have only just got started with this project. One of the biggest challenges is the consultation process with the communities, as I described before. It is vital that they are well informed about REDD. In order to be able to significantly reduce the amount of deforestation in the park and its surrounding areas, we have to carry out activities that are sustainable for them, so that they are not directly dependent on the forest. We have learned about projects in other regions where this has already been achieved, for example, through ecotourism or the production and distribution of pepper. This can be more advantageous than just planting corn or raising cattle. Cattle breeding is another problem facing the national park, because it is pursued so extensively that carbon dioxide emissions are in fact rising. So if we want to reduce deforestation rates, we need to implement sustainable projects to ensure the residents are no longer totally reliant on the forest.

Were you driven by personal motivations to work in this field?

For me, this is more than a job. I am thrilled to be working on this project. It is a way of life for me, and I am always aware that I am not just doing this for myself, but also for others. I always saw biology as a subject that should help people. Apart from that, I am also a great animal lover! We generally don’t treat animals well. We are constantly putting pressure on them, killing them and reducing their habitats. This is one of the reasons that I decided to work in the environmental field. It is important to me to work on projects which aim, first and foremost, to help the community, our land and nature.

Thank you for joining us for this discussion, Ms Escobar Mendéz.