Royal Resorts has joined forces with Amigos de Sian Ka’an and Kuxtal Sian Ka’an, to support sustainable development and conservation in the Zona Maya, an area of rural communities clustered around the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in central Quintana Roo. The Children and Nature campaign will help artisans to improve the quality of life for their families, forge a better future for their children and conserve their ancestral jungle home. Guests at the six resorts in Cancún and the Riviera Maya can contribute to this worthy cause by purchasing a beautiful wood and seed bracelet on sale at the resort stores, gift shops and front desk.

The Zona Maya is the heartland of Mayan culture and its inhabitants are proud guardians of the language, beliefs and customs of their ancestors. Bordered by the wetlands of the immense Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the east and the district of José María Morelos to the west, it is an area of dense jungle and savannas teeming with wildlife and peppered with cenotes, caves and crystal-clear lagoons. And it is also rich in history. Archaeological sites await exploration and a chain of villages along the frontier with the state of Yucatan, and the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto itself, bear witness to the Caste War, an uprising that began in 1847 when the Maya rebelled against centuries of exploitation and social injustice.

Sustainable Development
Throughout the area, communities have traditionally earned their living from subsistence farming – the cultivation of corn, beans, squash and chilies –, hunting, fishing, forestry, and bee keeping. With agricultural development limited by poor soils and a timber trade that is focusing increasingly on responsible forest management and conservation, villagers seek better opportunities elsewhere. All too frequently, the men and young people are forced to leave their homes in search of jobs in Cancún and the Riviera Maya and families are divided.

Furthermore, communities have been hit hard in recent years by storms that devastated crops and by dwindling employment prospects in the Mexican Caribbean, as the area suffered the consequences of the global recession and the 2009 flu scare which kept visitors away.

Amigos de Sian Ka’an has been working with villages in the area for 25 years to create sustainable development projects that will provide them with economic alternatives while also tapping into the tradition of good stewardship and veneration of nature that is imbued in Mayan culture. They include the manufacture of fair trade products and ecotourism.

Seeking a Livelihood from Nature
Since time immemorial, the jungle has provided the Maya with sustenance (fruit, nuts, seeds and game), the raw materials for household utensils, clothing and construction, and even medicinal plants. Through community projects, they are now turning to the forest once more for their livelihood, harvesting fallen wood, seeds, gourds and vines to produce a variety of beautiful crafts.

To date, 12 groups formed by 107 families and more than 100 co-workers, in Felipe Carrillo Puerto and 11 villages in the surrounding area including Chunhuhub, Noh Bec, Santa Rosa, Buena Vista, Dzulá, Xpichil, Tihosuco, Chumpon, Chumon and Señor are creating jewelry, baskets, hammocks, woodcarvings, mobiles, engraved gourds, embroidered cotton clothing and table linens. Others are producing honey, herbal creams, soaps and medicinal lotions, and even tropical fruit preserves. They are all marketed as part of a collective brand called Ak Kuxtal Sian Ka’an, which means “Our life, Sian Ka’an” and is an eloquent reminder of the importance of the reserve in the lives of the Maya.

Basilio Velázquez Chi, Amigos de Sian Ka’an Community Project Coordinator in the Zona Maya explains, “ There is great potential for sustainable development here. In every garden and field there are trees that bear seeds or fruit and the jungle gives us a wealth of raw materials to use, as long as we do it with respect.”

Armando, an artisan from Tihosuco adds, “We can make lamps out of wood and vines and candles from honey and beeswax, so why use plastic?  And why use polystyrene cups when gourds keep water and other drinks cooler? By using what we have around us we can prevent more pollution and protect our environment. “

The Origin of Ak Kuxtal
In 2007, the United Nations Foundation conducted a survey of sustainable development projects in World Heritage Areas throughout the world and discovered that many of them were unsuccessful due to a lack of marketing support. A Guatemalan community worker called María Pacheco was hired as a consultant and after studying projects in Belize, Brazil and Sian Ka’an, she concluded that community products needed to be marketed under a collective brand in order to prosper in the marketplace. Due to its proximity to two of the world’s leading travel destinations and potential markets for community products, Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Sian Ka’an was chosen for a pilot study.

Amigos de Sian Ka’an joined forces with another NGO based in Felipe Carrillo Puerto called U’yo’olche and a group of artisans from the area in 2008 to form Ak Kuxtal.

Villages in the area with a vibrant craft tradition were identified and studied. It soon became evident that techniques, designs and the knowledge of wood and other raw materials were passed down through the generations. The first community groups were formed and Elsa Torres Zapata from U’yo’olche describes the work done to strengthen ties within the group and boost the self-esteem of its members, “We talk to the different groups and through a dreams workshop we focus on their lives and aspirations, the human aspect of this development project. We hear so many sad stories of their struggles to build a better life for their family, tales of broken promises and disillusionment. We have to build up their confidence and their pride in their heritage. We ask why do people want to work in this project, where do they want to go, what do they want out of life, what do they want for their children and what are their dreams? We need them to open up and tell us as we develop the strategy so that we can support them and help them reach their goals. “

This stage is followed with training; groups are given an introduction to the concept of quality control, environmental education, social responsibility and small business management.

Elsa points out that this has been a learning process for her and for Basilio Velázquez Chi, “We were the first ones who had to change our ideas and perceptions, and then we had to share the experience. It takes time but I believe we are on the right track, word is spreading and new community groups interested in participating are approaching us. This is not just about selling community products, it is a comprehensive development concept, tied to village life and based on a profound respect for the Mayan culture.”

Elsa explains, “We involve our artisans in every step of the process, they see the accounts and sales reports, visit the hotels and at the end of the year, they also have to reinvest some of their earnings in the community, for example purchasing books for the village school. Mexico really suffered in 2009 and it was terrible for the Mexican Caribbean and for our communities, as they saw their incomes seriously affected by the decline in the number of visitors. Things began to pick up in 2010 and the project is moving forward, in fact 11 more groups are being formed.”

Think Organic, Fair Trade Products

Ak Kuxtal craftsmen use only natural raw materials harvested from the jungle and steer clear of chemical polishes, varnishes and dyes that harm the environment. They have the opportunity to study with consultant textile designers and artists who show them different techniques but do not introduce “alien” designs. They ask the craftsmen what inspires them, always encouraging them to develop their own style. They act as guides – all the designs are the product of the imagination of the artisans and feature the animals, birds and plants they see around them.

Visiting the Zona Maya
A group of us from Royal Resorts were lucky to meet members of several Ak Kuxtal community groups in Noh Bec, Tihosuco and Chunhuhub during a recent trip to the Zona Maya. We learned about their lives and their art; the techniques they use to carve the wood, their agricultural calendar, medicinal plants and a wealth of traditions. We met old people who shared anecdotes about the old days, children who showed us around Tihosuco and told us about the theater, history and conservation workshops they take in the Caste War Museum. Our final call was the village of Chunhuhub where we spent time with a local anthropologist who is working with a group of teenage boys to manufacture the wooden bracelets and other fair trade products, educate them and change their outlook on life. Together they are helping their village by collecting garbage and recycling, planting trees and also tending the community nature reserve.

We will be telling you more about them and the hopes and dreams of the other families we talked to in the months to come. This is the first of our communities, Noh Bec.

Noh Bec, One Community Looking for Alternatives
Located to the south of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the community of Noh Bec (“Big Oak” in Maya) was once an important logging center surrounded by forests rich in mahogany, cedar, ciricote, zapote, caracolillo and other precious hardwood species. For decades, the trees were cut down without much thought for the future until recent years when the concept of responsible forest management was adopted. The community was certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) for good practices and had just completed its management plan when Hurricane Dean roared through southern Quintana Roo in 2007 devastating swathes of jungle. As Elsa explains, “Everything fell through and the community suffered considerable hardship. We had to find an alternative, and the amount of timber debris on the forest floor was something that could be exploited by local inhabitants to manufacture fair trade products.”

Noh Bec artisan Concepción Chable points to a fragment of a huge mahogany tree trunk that he keeps in his workshop as a reminder of the past and the wealth that forestry once brought the community. He is a fervent believer in the need to preserve the jungle, saying, “It gives us our livelihood but we must learn to care for it once more. “

Originally from Tabasco, Concepción has been making crafts for 30 years in Noh Bec and other parts of Mexico. He produces wooden figures, delicate carved jicaras or gourds, jewelry, lamps and mobiles made from gourds, shells, seeds and the thorns of the jabin tree.

Bracelets are made from zapote wood chips and algodoncillo and cedar seeds. Trees shed their seeds during the dry season and Concepción ventures into the forest to gather them or will also purchase them from neighboring communities. Back in his palapa workshop, he cuts and shapes the wood and seeds before polishing them, drilling holes for the thread and making the bracelet. Natural varnishes made from plants – pasta roja for the wood and pasta blanca for the seeds – are applied during the production process. Working eight to 10 hours a day, Concepción can make up to 60 bracelets in one session.

Concepción says, “I’m always restless, always searching for new ideas and ways to use the raw materials Mother Nature gives us. I guess I have always been this way. Hurricane Dean hit us hard, we lost our customers and it really affected our income. Elsa invited us to participate in Ak Kuxtal and we are happy that we decided to join. It’s going well. In the past we would spend a lot of time visiting clients who would not give us a fair price for our wares and then took ages to pay us. Now we have more time for production. Things come in cycles, good times and bad; you can’t give in to defeat. I believe that you have to look for solutions and always move forward. We are going to be here for many more years.”

Concepción’s wife Raquel helps in the workshop when she is not busy with household chores and their teenage son Yahir joins them in the evenings. Their eldest daughter Maritza is attending college in Chetumal and Yahir wants to study agronomy and soil science in Mexico City and dreams of returning to help his community by setting up a greenhouse project to raise crops such as cucumbers, peppers and chilies for tourism and overseas markets. Concepción tells us about one of his other helpers, “We also employ a lad who had a leg amputated after an accident. He found it very hard to adjust and suffered from depression, he even harbored thoughts of taking his own life. Working with us has been therapeutic for him, he has learned a lot and he sees it as a way for him to earn a living. He is much more positive and is now getting around by bike.”

Only eight years old Concepción’s youngest son Jair overcomes his initial shyness to proudly show us his puppies and when we asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he smiled and answered, “a doctor.”

Join our Circle of Love
On your next visit join Royal Resorts in supporting Children & Nature, a worthy community cause. Wood and seed bracelets painstakingly made by Mayan craftsmen are on sale at the Front Desk, The Royal Market and La Paloma Gift Shop. By purchasing one of these sustainable forest products you will be helping artisans forge a better future for their children and helping them conserve their jungle home.

Bracelets on sale at La Paloma Gift Shop, The Royal Sands

Basilio Velazquez says, “Behind this bracelet, there’s a whole concept of life, it isn’t just about giving people resources so that they can live, it’s all about education, about returning to a way of life where nature is respected and revered.

A portion of the proceeds raised from this campaign will also be used to rebuild an environmental education center for children at the Amigos de Sian Ka’an offices in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. This will provide them with a fun space where they can learn about the importance of recycling, nature and conservation, study English and enjoy crafts, music and puppet shows.

Help forge a better future for Mayan children.