While IWC was founded in late 2019, its founders’ roots in Guatemala go back decades. Juan Bronson, the son of a Guatemalan mother and American father, spent much of his childhood playing with his brother along the bank of Rio Dulce and its tributaries. As a boy, he accompanied his father, Richard, a Cambridge-educated archaeologist, on countless excavations of Mayan sites in the region’s lowland forests. When his parents’ purchased Juan’s grandfather farm, Hacienda Rio Dulce, Juan learned farming and forestry, particularly his father’s deep affection for the precious and long-lasting timbers that the Mayans had used in their formidable construction. After relocating to the United States where he completed his university studies, Juan yearned to return to the land of his boyhood and play a part in reversing the mass deforestation was decimating the forests of Izabal.
Andrew Miller was assigned to Guatemala as a US Peace Corps volunteer, arriving in 1999 shortly after the nation had signed peace accords putting an end to an internal conflict that had spanned for decades while marking the start of new era characterized by a struggle for greater social equity, environmental protections and the building of more robust, transparent state institutions. Posted in a small town in the western highlands, he cut his teeth working with various Maya Kaqchikel communities. With direction from farmer groups, he obtained a small grant to finance a fruit tree nursery in hopes of improving rural livelihoods and household nutrition. He found himself awed and indebted to the communities for their generosity and warmth. His service complete, Andrew continued to be drawn back to Guatemala over the ensuing years in various capacities.
Resident of the SF Bay Area, Juan, Andrew and Richard became connected serendipitously and began to discuss collaboration in 1999. They were inspired by a shared vision of using sustainable landscape restoration techniques to help catalyze the protection and regeneration of forests as well as fostering new models of sustainable farming around intercropping, soil preservation and the use of native species. Despite a strong vision, it became clear that Juan and Andrew would need to hone their craft and establish track record before launching a venture in earnest. Accordingly, the two set off for Central America in 2010 where they worked on multiple projects across the region on behalf of institutional and private investors. The projects ranged from Nicaragua’s largest commercial teak plantations to native species plantings on an island off the coast of Panama to forestland occupied by guerrilla forces in the Colombian highlands.
In 2014, Juan and his family packed their bags and moved to Juan’s native Guatemala. That year, Izabal Agro-Forest was founded as a specialized provider of advisory and operational services geared around landscape restoration and agroforestry. The company began to identify, develop and pitch projects. In 2015, Izabal Agro-Forest partnered with LUSH Cosmetics on one of the largest cacao projects in Guatemala. Completely organic from inception, the project converted a tract of degraded pasture adjacent to the Sierra Santa Cruz protected area into a thriving working agroforest. Several varieties of local fine-flavor cacao were inter-planted with native timbers. Vanilla was planted in the understory of the farm’s remnant forests. Coconut, avocado, plantain, pineapple and turmeric were established as complements. European and US private investors were brought on to capitalize additional farmland. Mangosteen and soursop were added to the portfolio of crops. Water buffalo and Brahman cattle were incorporated as a silvopastoral strategy to suppress the exotic grasses while lots were established with agroforestry systems. In addition to its anchor farms, the company has facilitated a partnership with over 500 rural families in the region to help establish small agroforestry plots. Farmers are offered technical assistance and a guaranteed fair price floor. Inputs are provided through an innovative biological loan in which farmers repay genetics with a portion of their produce.
While addressing an important restoration piece, its founders recognized that the most effective way to ensure net increase of forest cover (from an environmental and economic standpoint) was by protecting existing forests from degradation and conversion. So when the company was approached by the Forest and Climate Change Fund (FCCF) whose approach was the mitigation of climate change through the conservation of tropical forests in Central America, a collaboration eventually began to gel. In late 2019, in a partnership between FCCF and the Izabal Group, Izabal Wood Company was founded as a blended-capital response to pervasive deforestation in the region. Alongside Izabal Agro-Forest, the companies offer a comprehensive, geographically-targeted response, the first through climate-smart farming and plantation silviculture.