How building the business capacity of communities in the Toledo District of Belize looks set to improve fire management and benefit the area's pine woodland.
Within the Toledo district of Southern Belize, the Caribbean Courts of Justice (CCJ) ruled in April 2015 that Mayan traditional land rights constitute property equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law.
The Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) are still negotiating with the Government of Belize what this means in practice. Nevertheless, the greater tenure security afforded by that ruling now creates an opportunity for the development of sustainable forest and farm businesses run by local communities in the Toledo District.
A Darwin Initiative project led by the Toledo Institute for Environment and Development (TIDE), together with the University of Edinburgh and IIED, is doing just that. The idea is that business support will strengthen commercial organisations that are able to improve local livelihoods.
Increasing livelihood benefits from business using the Southern savanah woodlands will incentivise communities to protect those woodlands from dry season fires, which ravage the natural resources upon which those business are based. This will help protect forest biodiversity and help to mitigate climate change.
From 1-3 September 2016 the project on the conservation of pine woodland biodiversity in Belize through community fire management (PDF) hosted a three-day business training course for six emerging business groups from Bellavista, Bladen, Medina Bank, Trio and San Isidro communities.
The training, which I facilitated, was preceded by preparatory community meetings run by TIDE and University of Edinburgh staff to discuss the benefits of group business for community development.
Representatives of each community got the opportunity to travel to Guatemala to see a fully functioning set of community business cooperatives for cocoa, coffee, cardamom, timber and ecotourism under the umbrella cooperative FEDECOVERA in Alta Verapaz. And these activities had been preceded by community livelihood diagnostics prepared by Cathy Smith from the University of Edinburgh.
The results of this preparatory work were seen in six business ideas presented as:
- Bellavista Pure Coconut Business (BPCB – Bellavista)
- Bladen Palmetto Business Enterprise (BPBE – Bladen)
- Protectors of the Last Corridor Adventure Tours (POLCAT – Medina Bank)
- San Isidro Farmers Agro Association (SIFAA – San Isidro)
- San Isidro Ketchi Cuisine and Craft Restaurant (SIKCCR – San Isidro), and
- Trio Maya Mountain Tilapia Growers (TMMTG – Trio).
The business training covered people and information; market research and development, and financial record keeping and planning.
The aim was to create an understanding that businesses require a proactive approach. Community members within business groups have to take the initiative in organising their team to conduct market research as well as financial and business planning.
They also need to develop, through doing it themselves, the know-how to write and update their own business plans, including the procurement of start-up finance. The initial business ideas are represented graphically, right, and in the photo gallery below.
Over the next five months the six business groups have committed to research more about their customers, natural resource inputs, technology requirements, legal registration options and costs and social engagement activities.
Plans have been drawn up for individuals within each business group to search for relevant information to further develop their business plans.
The preparation of financial plans detailing profit or loss and cash flow will form part of those preparations. The Darwin-funded project enabled TIDE to offer the community businesses five different types of support, with each group benefiting from two forms of assistance from the following categories:
- Exchanges to see successful businesses from which to learn (BPCB, SIKCCR, SIFAA, TMMTG)
- Training in design or technology (POLCAT)
- Accounting and book-keeping training (BPCB, POLCAT)
- Business registration in Belmopan (BPBE, TMMTG, SIFAA), and
- Networking with buyers (BPBE, SIKCCR).
Plans for the future
Once the business ideas have been developed, a further one-to-one mentoring exercise and additional group training will be held in January 2017 to take each of the business groups to the next step.
At that stage the identification of sources of investment finance to cover some of the start-up costs associated with each of these businesses will be critically important. All the business groups have small personal savings from members upon which to draw, but there are some larger investment needs.
Ongoing research into the possibilities of linking this to work on the management and protection of key biodiversity areas (KBAs) in Belize, or to the emerging REDD+ programme will be explored.
It may be an early stage for these businesses, but one thing is certain, if Belize wishes to protect its forests while also meeting the development needs of its people, supporting sustainable community forest-farm businesses is the way to go.