Saving Guatemala's biodiversity through the power of traditional art

The common calabash tree (Crescentia alata and Crescentia cujete) has a slender trunk and long branches replete with small green leaves and cannonball-like fruit. The “niij” (Llaveia axin) is a peanut-sized insect that looks like a cotton ball – round and covered in a white powdery substance.

The indigenous inhabitants of Rabinal municipality in the Guatemalan department of Baja Verapaz use the unlikely combination of the two to create handicrafts of rare beauty.

The artisans produce their handicrafts by carving traditional symbols and depictions of local animals and plants on the dried, gourd-shaped fruit of the calabash tree. The fruit is then treated with wax made from the niij insect, which gives the artifact a unique shine.

The region of Latin America and the Caribbean contains some 60 per cent of life on Earth and a wide variety of marine and fresh water flora and fauna, which have been sustainably used by local communities for centuries.

Today, this rich biodiversity— a unique, global asset— is at risk from mounting pressures, including land degradation, climate change, nutrient pollution, unsustainable use of biodiversity and invasive exotic species.

UN Environment has been working for more than two and a half years with the Guatemalan National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) on the Project ABS Guatemala -Access To and Benefit Sharing and Protection of Traditional Knowledge to Promote Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use.

Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the project aims to preserve the distinctive traditional knowledge in the municipality of Rabinal, improve the livelihoods of the area’s inhabitants and protect biodiversity. The project has introduced innovations — new products such as lamps, jewellery boxes and Christmas decorations — that will help the artisanal workers diversify their products and reach out to different markets and increase the communities’ earnings.

The uniqueness of Rabinal products caught the attention of Novica, a Central American company that sells handicrafts online and can further boost the popularity of calabash carvings.

The project is a successful example of how protecting the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples can bring multiple benefits both for improving their livelihoods and for preserving biodiversity and genetic resources of a country.

The project also seeks to create local organizations to manage biological diversity and traditional knowledge and help the artisanal sector develop business plans to ensure artisans have a good understanding of their craft and the value of their products.

Working together with Guatemala’s Ministry of Education, local organizations and representatives of the indigenous peoples, UN Environment is also developing a plan to train teachers and officials in the project territories to promote a better appreciation and understanding of the value of their natural resources and the importance of safeguarding and sharing traditional knowledge.

A snapshot of progress at the UN conference on Biodiversity in Cancun
This project is one of many actions designed to safeguard the world’s biodiversity hotspots. In the first two weeks of December 2016, representatives from more than 190 countries are meeting at the UN conference on Biodiversity in Cancun, Mexico, to boost action on protecting biodiversity and examine the progress made towards the global Aichi targets.

The twenty Aichi targets do not only encompass biodiversity protection but also sustainable development, covering a wide range of topics from the reduction of direct pressures on biodiversity to the mainstreaming of biodiversity across various sectors, promotion of its sustainable use, and equal access to the benefits derived from its use.

As we speak, Latin American and Caribbean countries have made progress on 13 of the 20 targets.

However, there has been no progress on six targets:

  • Integration of biodiversity values in decision making (target 2);
  • Sustainable management of invertebrates stocks, fish and aquatic plants (target 6);
  • Reduction in pollution, including from excessive nutrients (target 8);
  • Reduction of anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs (target 10);
  • Prevention of endangered species’ extinction (target 12); and
  • Restoration of ecosystems that provide essential services (target 14).

There is insufficient data to measure headway or setbacks on target 15, “Increase in ecosystem resilience and the contribution of biodiversity to carbon stocks”.

Improving people’s livelihoods and protecting biodiversity are not contradictory. This false contradiction is increasingly being disproved by efforts like Project ABS Guatemala and many others already being undertaken in the region and the world to combine economic progress with environmental sustainability.