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Abatable spotlight: Empowering women through climate finance on the Guatemalan Caribbean Coast


Published: 08 Mar 2024

Last Updated: 17 May 2024

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Violence against women is the most commonly reported crime in Guatemala.

This reality is one of the many manifestations of gender inequality in a country where discrimination against women is unfortunately all too common. In Guatemala, women face limited access to education, healthcare and job opportunities, are politically underrepresented and experience high rates of maternal mortality and femicide. In fact, Guatemala claims the world’s third highest rate of femicide, the homicide of women based on gender.

These outcomes are in part perpetuated by a strong culture of underage marriage where, despite being outlawed in 2017, almost 30% of Guatemalan girls are married by their 18th birthday. Poverty, cultural norms and lack of access to education drive many girls into marriage, locking them away from contributing to meaningful economic and social progress.

These inequalities are often felt exponentially by the country’s almost four million indigenous women who are marginalised from Guatemala’s economy and political process. Indigenous communities in Guatemala, who are predominantly Mayan, represent only 10% of the government despite making up 44% of the population. For indigenous women, there’s little hope of change.

Inequalities and environmental degradation

Addressing Guatemala’s systemic inequalities is of vital importance. Strong and empowered communities, with the full participation of women in processes and decision-making, are essential to the conservation of Guatemala’s natural ecosystems, which have been systematically degraded since the turn of the century.

Guatemala is an incredibly biodiverse country. Boasting at least 22 microclimates and an extraordinary array of species, Guatemala comprises volcanoes, mountains, and beaches from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. The country is Central America’s largest economy, primarily due to a booming agricultural sector, with coffee, sugar, palm oil and bananas dominating exports.

The agricultural sector’s economic benefits are a double edged sword, however. Agribusinesses provide important job opportunities for Guatemalan communities, but large-scale cash crop farms monopolise production and cover over 80% of arable land. This pushes smallholder farmers deeper into forested areas and has played a fundamental role in Guatemala’s high levels of deforestation. To make matters worse, it’s estimated that three out of four smallholders in Guatemala now live below the poverty line, leading the average farmer to supplement around 40% of their income with activities off the farm.

Ripe for solutions

Developing solutions that empower women and uplift indigenous and smallholder farming communities has become essential to turning the tide in Guatemala.

It’s within this context that nature-based solutions, financed through the carbon market, have taken root to drive momentum behind community-led conservation efforts focused on activities that promote equality, safeguard traditional customs and build thriving local economies in harmony with nature.

The Conservation Coast REDD+ project is one such initiative, developed and implemented by Guatemalan NGO FUNDAECO. The organisation was founded in 1990, not long after Guatemala became a democracy, to protect forests on Guatemala’s Caribbean coastline that were a critical avian migratory corridor and habitat to jaguars, howler monkeys and over 500 species of birds. FUNDAECO was founded with a single mission: to build a model that simultaneously tackled the challenge of conservation and the challenge of rural poverty.

Today, Conservation Coast is the largest grouped, forest-based carbon project in the world. The project uses finance from the sale of carbon credits to bring together more than 1,000 different landowners in order to protect almost 60,000 hectares of critically threatened forest spanning Guatemala’s entire “Conservation Coast” from Belize in the north to Honduras in the south. The project is multi-faceted, with operations addressing land ownership, biodiversity monitoring, agroforestry and community development.

Fundamental to FUNDAECO’s conservation model is women’s empowerment.

A women’s programme financed through the carbon market

FUNDAECO’s ‘Healthy and empowered women and girls’ programme focuses on education, healthcare, economic opportunities and legal empowerment.

Education for women and girls has been noted to be one of the most powerful solutions to addressing climate change. However, the Caribbean Coast region represents one of Guatemala’s highest non-attendance rates for elementary and high schools and one of the lowest rates of university enrollment – 87% of the population between the ages of 19 and 24 are not enrolled.

Supporting young women to finish their elementary education, continue to high school and go on to earn a degree is a critical outcome set by the project. FUNDAECO supports young women with higher learning scholarships and promotes capacity building around the importance of education for women. Women who are educated realise higher wages, are more empowered to protect their sexual and reproductive health and experience greater upward mobility. Educated communities of women are also powerful stewards of the environment and thus have a greater capacity to adapt to shocks of natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Due to the rural nature of Guatemala’s Caribbean coastline, women here have historically needed to walk long distances to the nearest public health services. For indigenous women, healthcare has been almost entirely inaccessible.

FUNDAECO is working to shift local dynamics to empower local women with health services, particularly reproductive healthcare and family planning, distributed across a network of 24 community-run clinics which cater to both indigenous and non-indigenous women. These services promote the long-term health and life expectancy of both mothers and infants and enable women to choose how and where they spend their time and resources. To date, more than 64,000 people have been supported through the FUNDAECO clinic network.

The project promotes equal livelihood opportunities, providing training and support for agroforestry crops, handicrafts businesses, and ecotourism services. To date, the project has transformed the lives of 3,250 families through job creation, agricultural training and increased access to financial services, including creating and supporting more than 1,000 local jobs – 41% of which are held by women. A total of 23 women’s groups have been created within the project area and today they are supporting women and girls to lead healthy and empowered lives.

Legal empowerment: Mayra’s story

Mayra was one of the 1,500 girls who marry each day in Guatemala before they reach the age of 18. She is from the village of China Cadenas on the Caribbean coast. In her community, as in many rural, indigenous communities in the country, underage marriage is customary.

Mayra was married at the age of 14. Despite wanting to be the first woman in her community to graduate, her marriage took her out of school and was set to resign her to a life she didn’t choose.

But in 2017, Mayra sought the help of FUNDAECO, which was increasingly working within her community and others in the area to empower women through capacity building and health and education initiatives. FUNDAECO, through its legal empowerment programme, took Mayra’s case to court, claiming that forcing her to marry violated her rights. FUNDAECO’s efforts freed Mayra to continue with her studies and she was eventually provided with a scholarship from the project to study forestry engineering at a private university in Petén, in the north.

Today, Mayra has returned to her community to encourage other girls to pursue an education as she did. For Mayra, conserving her community land is sacred. Now, with a degree in forestry engineering, she hopes to be a positive force for the environment and for the forests her community call home. “Women need to be empowered to safeguard mother nature. It’s up to us women to care for it. If we don’t do it, it will all be gone,” she says.

The role of climate finance

The Guatemalan Conservation Coast project, led by FUNDAECO, is an important example of the complexities at play when shaping and implementing effective REDD+ projects. In order to be successful, projects must be primarily community-led and developed to address complicated, long-standing cultural and environmental dynamics.

For Conservation Coast, effective programmes are rooted in changing systems of inequality, poverty and environmental degradation that have pervaded life here for decades. It’s through these targeted approaches that we are now seeing women, like Mayra, take control of their futures and inspire their communities to embrace and demand change.

This project spotlight outlines the work of nature-based solutions to address gender inequality in Guatemala, focusing specifically on the Conservation Coast REDD+ project.

Conservation Coast is implemented by the Guatemalan NGO, FUNDAECO, and is represented in the carbon market by Abatable. The project works to deliver impact for climate, nature and people within a complex social and environmental context and relies on the carbon market as its leading financing mechanism.

Abatable’s exclusive project portfolio covers both nature-based and engineered avoidance and removals projects representing more than 50 million tonnes of carbon credits over the next 10 years.