Entrepreneurs from forest communities in Belize are embarking on new businesses ventures, where the products and services come from the forest itself. As well as supporting livelihoods, driving these businesses forward doubles up as an incentive to protect the forests from fire.
People protect what they depend on. The Toledo district in the southernmost district of Belize is no exception. Five communities – Bella Vista, Bladen, Medina Bank, San Isidro and Trio – live around the Payne's Creek Protected Area and its adjacent forest reserves. They farm and collect from the forest areas.
The crucial link
Their proximity creates an incentive to manage dry season fires that destroy forests and livelihoods. The TIDE Darwin Fire Management project has been training local people from these communities to do just that. But the incentive to manage fire rests on how much they benefit from the forest.
Here's the thing – most people appreciate the beauty and diversity of Belize's forests. But putting money, time and effort into the dangerous business of organised fire management involves sacrifice. And that sacrifice makes much more sense where local people are making good money from sustainable use of those resources – protecting what they depend on.
Training forest communities for business
To strengthen this link, the TIDE Darwin Fire Management project works not only to manage fire, but to improve local livelihoods. It has been supporting the five communities to develop forest-linked businesses.
It's a process that cannot be rushed. The groups formed following a series of community meetings in early 2016 – with preliminary ideas of what they might sustainably sell. An exchange visit to some well-established community business groups in the FEDECOVERA umbrella cooperative in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala helped shape their ideas.
In September 2016, a three-day 'Belize business training’ workshop introduced the groups to business fundamentals – organisation, marketing and record keeping.
During the workshop it became clear the groups needed more information on market demand for their product, capacity required to meet that demand, expected costs, legal procedures to formalise the business and how to secure approval of the business by community leaders.
An iterative self-driven process of business incubation
Six months of follow-up work covered trainings in bookkeeping, access to internet information and community exchanges to see other businesses in action and make new contacts. By January 2017 the groups had knocked their initial ideas into preliminary business plans.
A second training included mentoring sessions with each of the groups – now four – helping them refine their business plans and identify next steps. By now, the big ideas had become more realistic, costed, start-up plans.
The groups now need to register and market their business ideas; consolidate their management structure and its bye-laws; find the start-up money to get going; obtain the permits and qualifications to run it; and agree how profits or losses will be shared across the community.
Still a lot to be done then. But there is a strong drive to move forward and build something that is worth protecting from fire.
So what ideas did the community business groups come up with?
Adventures in the Last Corridor (ALC) – an ecotourism business in Medina Bank
The Ketchi Mayan community of Medina Bank was established in 1990 in an area of outstanding nature beauty, fissured with deep caves, pure springs and crystal rivers.
Adventures in the Last Corridor aims to: "Support future generations of the Medina Bank Mayan community by conserving its natural resources and environment through eco tours".
The start-up plan is to begin two tour packages. Immediate next steps are to obtain permits to operate, test the tours with TIDE interns and set up a fund and write proposals to secure construction work.
Xibe – a Mayan food and craft business in San Isidro
The mixed Mayan and Hispanic community of San Isidro is expanding rapidly by the main Southern Highway next to Bella Vista. Hemmed in by banana and citrus farms, there are few opportunities for women – but growing demand for good quality local food. A women's group plan to develop a business called 'Xibe'.
Xibe aims to provide quality Mayan dining experiences and craft to customers at reasonable prices.
Immediate next steps include getting food handling certificates, registering the business, achieving pilot orders for both food and craft and writing a proposal for the restaurant construction.
San Isidro Farmers Agroforestry Association (SIFAA)
As the mixed Mayan and Hispanic community of San Isidro expands, residents have had to farm within the Swasey Bladen Forest Reserve. Traditionally, local farmers have produced a range of crops: corn beans, rice, plantain, pineapples, cassava, yams, cacao, lime, orange, avocado, mangos, and even mahogany.
The aim is to be a fully functional community-owned business that generates stable employment from growing organic local produce. It will create a more powerful voice to negotiate access to resources and better prices for its members. Members initially plan to farm chicken, then tilapia and finally cattle and develop timber production systems.
The start-up plans currently rely on the formal permission from the Belize Forest Department for the use of almost 300 acres in Swasey Bladen Forest Reserve.
Next steps are to develop pilot projects in chicken and tilapia to ensure that group members have the required capacity to run larger investments.
Trio Mountain Tilapia Growers Ltd – a mixed agroforestry business
Trio community was founded in 1994 following a temporary closure of the adjacent banana plantation. There is a strong culture of local family farming in the area (producing corn, pineapples and citrus) to meet local employment needs and reduce dependence on the banana plantation.
Trio Mountain Tilapia Growers Ltd aims to be a unique community-owned business (with benefits going to the Trio Community) and the best local provider of quality tilapia and other agroforestry produce at a very reasonable price for our customers with excellent customer service.
The start-up plans include investment in a small tilapia pond (for 1,500 fingerlings), testing pumping, feeding and fish handling capacity.
Next steps involve costing immediate investment needs, developing a proposal for fundraising, registering the business, setting up a proper accounting unit and embarking on the first test production cycle. The group also want to explore longer term crops such as timber trees to diversify future income streams.