Birds Change Lives

By Marlon Calderon

Shapes, colors, songs, curious behaviors and ways of flying are avian characteristics that captivate a growing number of people world-wide.  They are the birdwatchers who participate in bird-watching tourism.  This recreational activity is also an opportunity in communities for economic development as well as a way to preserve our natural resources.  

Avian-tourism serves as a driver for protection of the natural areas which are part of the Guatemalan System of Protected Areas.  In the early days of this type of tourism only private enterprise and international guides were available.  In the 1990’s there were very few national guides who were skilled in leading bird-watching tours.

The first formal effort to train guides did not occur until 2015 in the region of Lake Atitlan’s watershed and in the Department of Peten.  Thanks to an initiative by the Association Vivamos Mejor (Let’s Live Better) the collective Birdzone Atitlan was born.   Now joined together, a re-invigorated group of guides, specializing in avian-tourism has courageously taken a purposeful stance.  And at the same time regional-municipal parks, private natural reserves and community reserves in the region have been promoted.

Yet, avian tourism presents dangers:  pollution, deforestation and degradation of ecosystems, not to mention hunting, its economic unreliability, lack of or deterioration of existing infrastructure, and the effects of climate change.  It was determined that in order to face these challenges, a broader vision would be necessary so that activities would be sustainable.  The following were identified as steps to strengthen the approach:  continue to train guides, promote tourism and put together a list of destinations that allow for competitiveness, adapt to the changes in the tourism industry especially post-pandemic.

One of the most important discoveries was that guides can get involved in other areas in order to impact the community and the region.   The Birdzone Atitlan Collective involved itself in environmental education and reforestation using native species and capitalizing on the knowledge of local citizens. The  annual Christmas bird census is one of the most helpful activities.  These annual counts taken by local volunteers yield solid scientific information.  This end-of-the-year census of birds occurs world-wide.  The inititive began in the USA some 123 years ago and is encouraged by the National Audubon Society.  Its objective is to generate information through scientific means about the richness and abundance of bird species.

This year the Association Vivamos Mejor and Birdzone Atitlan organized their fifth Christmas bird count in the Semetabaj-Tecpan sector and the Utatlan-Solola area.  Included in this event was the Second Community Forum on Avian-tourism.  These events brought together more than 50 bird-watching enthusiasts interested in the birds of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  There were national and international presenters who reported on studies about species necessary for our country as well as other initiatives.

The event served as a means to gather together avian aficionados and to seek out their common goals for the promotion of avian-tourism in the region.  A regional project referred to as the Mesoamerican Path for Birds is viewed as valuable.  It is being constructed as a way to create a bond between community associations and principal organizations for conservation purposes rather than leaving that to governmental agencies.

The event’s closure included a platform promoting a ten member collective from Birdzone Atitlan to serve as “avian-tourism educators” and a new group of 52 community guides for basic bird-watching tourism from Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, Quiche, Solola, Chimaltenange, and Sacatepequez.  This process was supported by the Interamerican Foundation, Audubon and INTECAP (The Technical Institute for Training and Productivity).

The beauty of birds inspires a love for environmentalism and protecting ecosystems and it helps us to understand the great effort and work necessary to maintain balance in nature.  Birds also change lives:  they play a major role in our mental health and the development of local communities that welcome tourists from all over the world each year.

What are you waiting for?  Go out and enjoy the birds, get involved in conservation activities in your community and join our bird-watchers community.

Marlon is the director of the avian-tourism at the Vivamos Mejor Association