The creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala’s northernmost department of Petén in 1990 brought an end to large-scale, uncontrolled timber harvesting in the area, but left the local people without jobs and income. Growing numbers of people in municipalities such as San Andrés, which is located on the main north-south road through the reserve, resorted to engaging in unsustainable practices in an effort to earn a living, and they harbored negative feelings toward the newly designated reserve.
In response to the situation, CI worked with the local communities to address their concerns, to build trust, and to create opportunities for cooperation. From those discussions came the idea of building a Spanish-language school that would be for student tourists and would focus on learning about the ecology of the area. With the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal only an hour away, a tourist market already existed that could be tapped into. The rural location of San Andrés meant that students of this program would be immersed in the Spanish language and culture without being surrounded by the mainstream tourist market, yet they would still be close enough to tourist attractions that they could visit and return to the town afterward.
Construction and Operations
Through the combined efforts and dedication of community members, USAID, and CI, the Eco-Escuela Spanish Language School of San Andrés opened its doors in April 1993. In its first full year of operation, the school sold a total of 255 student-weeks. By the year 2000, the figure rose to more than 1,100. As well as providing direct employment for a significant number of people in the community, the Eco-Escuela has created an economic development stimulus for discussing, developing, and implementing broader conservation strategies in the reserve.
The school’s curriculum is unique in that – in addition to learning Spanish – students learn about the community, the management and conservation methods of the reserve, the traditional uses of medicinal plants, and the cultural traditions and customs of the Maya Itzá people. Instruction takes place in the classroom, as well as through excursions to the reserve, which – at 24-million acres – is the largest protected tropical forest reserve in Central America and is home to several endangered species, including tapirs, macaws, and monkeys.
Transformation of a Community
In 1996, the community assumed full ownership of the Eco-Escuela as an independent business and has since maintained profitable operations. The school is owned by 50 families, including 12 trained teachers who provide one-on-one language instruction and 35 local host families who supply housing and meals for students, as well as the opportunity to practice Spanish and share in cultural exchanges. Indirectly, approximately 95 families (about 10 percent of the town’s families) benefit from the added revenues that the school brings, including tourist expenditures on crafts, cooking classes, food and beverages at stores and restaurants, laundry services, excursions, and other miscellaneous services.
CI undertook an evaluation of the Eco-Escuela in 1998 to determine the school’s effects on conservation. The results showed that, in addition to providing added revenues, local residents have reduced their reliance on agriculture and logging and have ventured into more service-based job markets, including teaching, guiding of tours, and transportation. Furthermore, residents have begun using gas stoves for cooking, presumably purchased with the extra income the school has provided. Overall, the project demonstrated that it is possible to transfer a conservation enterprise to a community and to sustain profitability. The project has been replicated in other areas – three additional Spanish-language schools with a “green” emphasis have opened in Petén.
IN DEPTH: Explore more ecotourism destinations.
Facilities & Information
The Eco-Escuela is situated in the community of San Andrés along the shores of beautiful Lake Petén Itzá. Students can arrive by public water-taxi from Flores or on a mini-bus from nearby Santa Elena.
For more information, please contact:
Eco-escuela de Español
Spanish Language School
San Andrés de Petén
Guatemala, Central America
Or please visit: www.ecoescuelaespanol.org