Growing Guatemala’s future – on contour! 

Apr 2024

Guatemala is a country of rich geographic, climatic, cultural and biological diversity. The landscape is characterized by mountains, forests, and ancient Mayan sites, and its position between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean adds to the country’s natural beauty. But its geological location also makes it highly susceptible to natural phenomena such as hurricanes, other tropical storms and drought, which have intensified along with the changing climate. This, combined with overexploitation of natural resources, deforestation, and poor agricultural practices continue to place the country’s ecosystems under strain. 

Nature-based solutions to a man-made problem 

Since 2018, Contour Lines Corp, part of the Ecosystem Restoration Communities network, has been working to restore and rehabilitate land that was once tropical rainforest. Originally focusing on Guatemala’s Izabal region, their activity has expanded over the past six years to include Alta Verapaz (also in the east) and Peten in the north. They are now also active throughout the Altiplano region in the west and south of the country. Contour Lines Corp’s approach is to work with the community to plant diverse agroforestry sites on contour, thereby transitioning the land use from chemical, slash-and-burn corn monocultures to organic, perennial food forests. Not only are these food forests providing food security for underserved communities in Guatemala, but they’re also restoring critical ecosystems, protecting biodiversity and sequestering carbon.

What’s a contour line, anyway? 

In short, contour lines are the squiggles that you see on a topographic map, that indicate ground elevation or depression. The practice of contour farming involves working with these contour lines. First, the lines are marked, often by staking them out with a wooden or bamboo A-frame. Then, trees are planted along these lines at right angles to the natural slope of the land. Rows of annual crops are planted in between the tree lines, and mulch is placed on the soil surface around the base of the plants. The result is that water runoff is controlled, and both moisture infiltration and nutrient retention is increased. And as the plants grow, they help stabilise the slope further to reduce soil erosion.

Farming on contour lines – Image by travel-photography on Freepik

Going the distance

Since the initiative began, 2.2 million new fruit, legume, and hardwood trees have been planted, along 1,918km of contour lines. Planting has taken place at over 13,000 sites, effectively transitioning 3848 hectares (9509 acres) of degraded land to regenerative land use. Each site has rows of fruit trees for production, as well as legume support trees offering shade, mulch and natural fertilizer. Between these tree rows they’ve planted banana, cassava, pineapple and other crops for shorter term harvests.   

Powerful before and after shots illustrating the land transformation from slash and burn, to thriving agroforestry

Community ownership = restoration success 

Over the past five years Contour Lines Corp has developed a Community Engagement Model, guided by the 1995 book “Two Ears of Corn” by Roland Bunch and fueled by feedback and local knowledge from their team of field technicians, all of whom are from the same indigenous communities in which they work. The model requires farmers to adopt regenerative farming methods by written agreement, and farmers are given a grant. After starting out small for the first season, the grant increases in size each following season. Each farmer is evaluated based on performance following strict supervision. So far, Contour Lines Corp has trained a growing network of more than 25,000 farmers across 374 communities! 

This model has been the key to their success and has proven effective at empowering communities to plant and maintain 2,237,388 trees to date. And their 90% or higher seedling survival rate provides even more proof that they’re on the right track with this approach. Further contributing to this high survival rate is the community organising efforts, the long-term relation-building and the follow-up visits to each community. During these visits, the Contour Lines Corp field technicians deliver essential tools, training, and seeds as well as assistance with marketing their harvests, all of which keep farmers willing and able to continue maintaining these sites. Afterall, it is these smallholder farmers working hard on their own land for their own benefit which keeps the projects expanding and success rates high. 

A further community venture has seen Contour Lines Corp employing 12 interns from a local school. These indigenous Q’echi have just completed the supervision phase which involved visiting, mapping and training at over 3,500 ecosystem restoration sites. Contour Lines Corp has continued to employ them following their return to their home regions, as local leaders organising and planting more agroforestry projects.  

Some of the Contour Lines Corp field technicians
Local women, too, are being trained on contour farming

A verdant vision to expand food forests in Guatemala 

The scalability, replicability and cost-efficiency of the Community Engagement Model relies on the team of field technicians. There are currently 18 technicians who are all local Guatemalans, and primarily youth from Q’echi communities. Many of them started out as project recipients themselves and, through dedication, have become leaders. Each field technician is responsible for their own sector, organizing communities, designing and planting sites, training participants and now assisting with export of harvests. Each works semi-autonomously, seeking out their own regions and building up their own teams of sub-techs, of which there are now more than 60. Not only have the field technicians become leaders in their communities, but they have also become crucial contributors to the success of Contour Lines Corp in Guatemala, thanks to their value feedback and local knowledge. 

A field technician demonstrates a pruning technique on one of the fruit trees planted

The Contour Lines Corp Community Engagement Model has exponential scalability because the network of communities continues to expand and demand increases, as communities witness more working grants and trees being awarded to farmers each year, and more trees being planted in heavily degraded places, and watching them evolve into abundant, regenerative food forests. 

Contour Lines Corp’s ambition for 2024 is to plant 2.2 million trees on potential agroforestry sites in Guatemala. And, with the right support, they can reach this goal and continue to contribute positively and measurably to sustainable livelihoods of indigenous people, restore critical forest ecosystems and increase community climate change resilience for current and future generations.   

If you’d like to make a lasting impact on our planet and transform lives in Guatemala, donate here and become part of this beautifully ‘contoured’ success story.