Grounding Our Work Across Cultures: Indigenous Perspectives

by Eriq Acosta
Personally, I feel really sensitive and protective of our tribal communities. Although I am not a direct descendant of the Lakota I still feel responsible for keeping our communities safe.
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Solar Training in 2017
One can attempt to understand my hesitancy of bringing strangers to the reservations who want to “come see the native folks and their culture”; the thought of doing this didn’t sit well with me at first. The world, obviously not all, has historically held very skewed perspectives of Indigenous people. On one side of the spectrum, we are described as these glorious people who ate all of the buffalo and roam the plains, moving our teepees from here to there, and living off of the land. On the opposite side of this are descriptors like drunkards, poor, sickly and “without”.
The truth is not all of us live in teepees and eat buffalo. When traveling throughout the United States, one will find many differences and similarities between life on or off the reservation: poverty, disease, or corruption as some examples. These are not exclusive to the reservations, it is everywhere. Being an urban Mexican-Indian myself and having lived with people from urban settings and on reservations, I have seen so much beauty. Beauty in the people, the culture, and the land – it’s all around.
It’s not that I choose to turn my head to the struggles, rather I choose to fuel myself with all of that beauty so that I can continue to do the hard work that needs to be done. In Leonard Peltier’s words, “What you believe and what you do are the same thing. In Indian way, if you see your people suffering, helping them becomes absolutely necessary. It’s not a social act of charity or welfare assistance, it’s a spiritual act, a holy deed.” 
With that said, I was hesitant to host TWP tour groups to Pine Ridge Reservation. However, this is the second year I have hosted the folks from Lansing Michigan Catholic High School and the second year that I have been overly impressed. Volunteers were asked to provide an evaluation of the most recent trip and one person wrote:
“It definitely made a mark on me. Being able to help people who are definitely in need and not only being welcomed like we were but also being able to partake in their amazing culture was an experience of great significance”.
They came to Pine Ridge to learn, to be of service, to enjoy the plains, and most importantly learn the story of Indigenous people from Indigenous people! I am honored to call them friends and family of the human race!
Thank you to all who came and offered their time and energy. Your efforts are much appreciated and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future.
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Setting sun over rolling hills of Pine Ridge

 

Learn more about our U.S. Tribal programs and how you can help here.

Volunteer Voices: An Alternative Break to Pine Ridge

By James Zafarana, CSU Alternative Break Participant

I feel blessed to have gone to the Pine Ridge Reservation with Trees, Water & People and Colorado State University. Over the past few months, our group of eight students have been learning about the reality of life on Pine Ridge. It was honestly scary. The statistics speak for themselves. Indigenous communities in our country face some daunting institutional barriers. It made me wonder where we can target interventions to chip away at these obstacles. Trees, Water & People, along with the community partners we worked with on the reservation, taught me how we can work collaboratively to dissect these issues.

During our trip, we spent a day at the Allen Youth Center, where we saw how the Center is providing a safe space for youth on Pine Ridge. During the day, we played with kids and learned about how the Center is mentoring the kids and helping to preserve Lakota culture. The mentors told us how they are attempting to combat the high dropout rate, mental health, and substance abuse issues through mentoring.

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The CSU Alternative Break students at the Allen Youth Center painting with some of the children there.

We spent two days at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. During this time we helped maintain their sustainable garden and install a new roof on their greenhouse. Henry Red Cloud, the proprietor of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), showed us how his community is using renewable energy to provide power and heat homes on the reservation, reducing the economic burden of energy use. He explained how his partnership with TWP has enabled LSE to scale up their operation and provide a teaching space for sustainable energy and gardening practices.

Our last day was spent at the Pine Ridge Girls’ School. This school is working hard to revive their culture by incorporating traditional knowledge systems with Western education models. While this school acknowledges the value of teaching Western methods of scientific discovery, they also feel strongly that their mission is to foster an appreciation for their students’ traditional Lakota culture.

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The CSU Alternative Break student stopped at Badlands National Park before heading home to Colorado.

Each of these places are tackling these formidable barriers in ways that felt more attainable. This trip was one of those unique experiences that helps refine your values and inspires your future. It demonstrated to me how even some of the most daunting, wicked problems can be tackled when members of the community fight.

For more information about upcoming service trips like this one, please sign up for our email list!
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How Can We Reduce Migration Out of Central America?

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Last week on Colorado Public Radio, I heard about a Pew Research Center study on U.S. immigration from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — an area known as the Northern Triangle. The study shows that while annual immigration to the U.S. from Mexico fell by 5% after the Great Recession, migration from the Northern Triangle rose by almost 30% during that same period.

Most of this migration is attributed to a lack of economic opportunity, political instability, or the threat of violence that chronically affects the region. But peeling the layers back from these conclusions reveals other culprits, with severe implications for the future.

Roughly 60% Central Americans now live in cities, and this number is expected to grow to over 70% during the next few decades. Overcrowded cities force newcomers to live in marginal neighborhoods that lack basic services and business opportunities, and which are all but governed by organized gangs. The inherent challenges encountered in these harsh urban environments lead to the more visible outbound migration — to Mexico, the U.S., or beyond.

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Improving the lives of people living in rural areas of Central America can reduce the pressures caused by migration to cities.

The second concern raised by this trend is that as more people arrive in cities, food-producing regions of the country become depopulated. Traditional agriculture is not supporting rural populations while shifting weather patterns, crop diseases, depleted soils, and poor market access are driving the next generation of farmers to throw in the towel and leave the countryside.

Rural farm communities, most of them indigenous, are the de facto stewards of their watersheds, the producers of food for urban centers, and the last line of defense against industries (mining, timber, hydropower, etc.) that seek access to land and natural resources. Making life in rural areas more livable by diversifying agricultural production, rebuilding soils with agroforestry, and helping create new, sustainable sources of income is a practical and cost-effective way to slow outbound migration. These strategies can breathe life back into ailing Central American rural communities and the ecosystems they depend on.

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International Director, Gemara Gifford (right), works closely with our partners in rural communities in Central America, like local leader Doña Norma (left), to improve life through sustainable alternatives.

While the current debate on immigration here in the U.S. focuses on migrants once they make to our border, there are far too few questions being asked about why people leave in the first place. It may be more difficult to change the political environment or the macro economies of these countries, but keeping rural communities thriving is one way that TWP can contribute to future stability and sustainability in the region and another way that your support can create real and lasting impact.

By donating to Trees, Water & People, you can help rural communities in Central America build more resilient futures. 

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500 More Clean Cookstoves in Guatemala

By Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Since 2006, Utz Che’ has been a tireless advocate for over 40 indigenous Guatemalan communities committed to protecting and sustainably managing their forest resources. Utz Che’ acts as a loudspeaker for indigenous causes and concerns, which are otherwise easily dismissed from the public discourse and policy-making dialogues.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) was introduced to Utz Che’s leadership in 2010 and has worked with them to add fuel-efficient cookstove technology to their services to reduce pressure on the local forests from which fuelwood is harvested, as well as reduce indoor air pollution. After several years of prototyping designs with Utz Che’ communities and Guatemalan manufacturers, last year we embarked on the full-scale implementation of 500 clean cookstoves manufactured by two local enterprises — ECOCOMAL and Estufa Doña Dora. The project was so successful that this year we are raising funds to install 500 more in high-need communities.

Learning about the new Doña Dora stove
In 2016, this community in southern Guatemala received Doña Dora stoves and were all trained by Doña Dora employees on how to install, use, and maintain their new clean cookstoves.

The cookstove models selected for this project are partially pre-manufactured for consistency but are installed in a brick and mortar body constructed by trained community members. In 2016, this included 159 men and 371 women. Hands-on training in installation, use, and maintenance of the stoves increases local investment in the program through sweat equity and allows community members to become more intimate with the technology. Community engagement improves the local support network around the cookstoves.

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This woman in southern Guatemala uses her clean cookstove that was built last year to make tortillas for her family.

Cooking is a very personal tradition in Central America, so new technologies must be able to cook the same foods, with the same fuels, in the same amount of time as the traditional designs if they are to be accepted by all members of society. Trees, Water & People’s years of expertise, coupled with a locally fine-tuned design, and the trust and rapport that Utz Che’ has with its member communities make for an extraordinarily effective, participatory, and meaningful partnership.

If you would like to help us build clean cookstoves in Guatemala, or would like to learn more about the importance of this project, click the button below.

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Opening Eyes and Hearts in the Honduran Highlands: Part 1

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director of TWP

Over the past several years, TWP has organized work trips to Guatemala as the primary destination to feature our community development partners and their impacts. However, our newest partner, CEASO, in El Socorro (Siguatepeque), Honduras, was the focus of our past work trip in early January 2017. On January 5th, three key members of CEASO and I arrived at the San Pedro Sula airport to await the arrival of nine work trip participants, also accompanied by Gemara Gifford, TWP’s Director of Development and Biodiversity. The group of nine consisted of a mix of board members and their families, TWP donors, and some with no previous knowledge of our work.

From the airport we meandered through the hot sugar cane and plantain plains up past Lago Yojoa and eventually into the Highlands of the Montecillos Range where CEASO is based. The first feature of the trip was an introduction to CEASO’s approach to community development and sustainable agriculture. This method is defined by a powerful methodology called Finca Humana (a holistic, integrated approach to the farm, family, and individual) that is inserted into all of their daily activities and their overall development approach. Finca Humana stipulates that one must focus on the individual and the family before focusing on the farm and it preaches diversification and continued knowledge acquisition with a strong emphasis on farmer-to-farmer sharing of information.

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The result of two days´ worth of sweat equity in San Jose de Pane by our Eco-Tour group. A completed rainwater catchment tank!

This profound life and development approach has resonated with the communities of the Montecillos foothills, where we are engaged in a significant development initiative that seeks to bolster and expand on CEASO’s experience and knowledge, as well as enhancing access and trust. Our trip featured hiking through the environs of El Socorro to understand some of the watershed challenges, particularly with regards to the combined effects of continued agricultural expansion, deforestation, and the pine beetle outbreak. Currently, CEASO and the surrounding communities are only receiving water in their taps every 12 or 13 days and water harvesting and storage, a key component of this trip and CEASO’s expanding projects, is proving more and more critical for household survival.

This trip marked our first attempt to combine community development and engagement with the observation and study of bird species and habitat in the Montecillos area. Led by Gemara, who has been instrumental in leveraging her extensive biology and biodiversity experience into our proposals and programming, this tour highlighted the importance of migratory bird habitat and ecosystems and the relationship they share with smallholder farmers and sustainable, diversified agriculture and agroforestry.

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Two campesino youth are showing off their budding bird interests.

 

These Eco-Trips are designed to maximize community engagement in the areas where our local partners are helping to drive significant positive impacts and quality of life improvements. One of the highlights of our engagement stops was a frank living room discussion with Doña Norma and her husband, Don Oscar. Following the successful installation of the first TWP-CEASO clean cookstove in the Montecillos region (with generous support provided by World Centric for what will eventually be over 220 stoves), they shared with us their experience as immigrants living and working in the United States. In total, they spent over seven years working in the Northeastern US, scraping pennies and toiling away for enough money to provide for their children, some of whom were back in Honduras, while also saving for a future home back in their Honduran community. Upon their return, they constructed their dream home with much labor and love, only to see it go up in flames this past July. Despite the devastation and destruction, they labor on with Norma playing an increasingly important role as the community leader for the TWP-CEASO nursery project. Of the 12 nurseries, Gerardo is quick to point out that Norma’s trees were the biggest and healthiest and she’s an effective and skilled leader. We hope to continue to empower her leadership and increase the community development profile with her and Gerardo.

If you are interested in going on a work trip with us, or learning more about what we do and the people we work with, sign up for our monthly newsletter! 

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Volunteer Voices: Standing with Standing Rock

by Sally MacAdams, TWP Volunteer

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It was kind of by chance that I got inspired about the many benefits of renewable energy projects in Native American communities back in mid-2015. I was listening to a podcast about the social, environmental and economic issues associated with oil and mining projects on reservations and the hope offered by green alternatives. From my home in Melbourne, Australia, it might have seemed like something very distant from me – except that I had recently gotten interested in Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE) and coincidentally, my father and his wife had just moved to Colorado, and I was already planning a trip to visit in 2016.

I quickly became a little obsessed with researching CORE projects in North America, particularly in First Nations, and I teamed up with a local Australian organization called Community Power Agency so that I could channel this obsession into something useful. As a community sustainability professional, I was also hoping to be able to contribute to something during my trip to the US, so I started to look around at not-for-profit organizations in Colorado and came across Trees, Water and People (TWP).

I connected with TWP’s Development Director Gemara Gifford, and after a Skype conversation, I was excited at the possibilities of contributing to TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program. And I was especially excited to learn about TWP’s partnership with Henry Red Cloud of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE). I had been moved to tears by a quote from Henry in This Changes Everything about how there are times when incremental change is okay, and then there are times “when you need to run like a buffalo.”

Fast forward to August 2016, and I arrived in Fort Collins and felt immediately welcome at TWP. My work focussed mostly on seeking funding for green building projects, solar furnaces and other sustainable development partnerships between TWP and LSE.
Towards the end of my time in Colorado, I was lucky enough to travel with TWP’s Executive Director Richard Fox up to meet Henry and to visit the epicenter of many of these projects: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center at Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

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The welcome sign at RCREC from my trip with Richard Fox to meet Henry Red Cloud.

Coming full circle to what had first sparked my interest in tribal energy, right at the end of my placement at TWP, a partnership project was forming to support the water protectors at Cannonball, North Dakota. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline had been growing more and more intense during my stay in the US. The historic gathering at Standing Rock of so many tribes from across the Americas, and of allies from around the world, epitomizes the fight of indigenous communities across the globe to have their sovereignty respected and to protect their water, land and sacred sites from companies, institutions and governments who consistently disregard these rights.

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People across the country are showing solidarity with those at Standing Rock, like this event in Denver.

To support not only the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin Camps, but also the permanent community at Standing Rock as they face the coming winter, Lakota Solar Enterprises and TWP have come together with a range of partners, including Honor the Earth, Standing Rock Tribal Council, local (Colorado) organiser-fundraiser Samantha Reynolds and Namaste Solar, to provide solar heaters, straw bale shelters, and solar systems to power local radio. You can contribute to these projects here.

Seeing this come together felt like a very fitting end to my time with TWP and I’m looking forward to continuing to follow TWP’s and LSE’s collaborations across the country.

If you would like to help TWP support those standing up against the Dakota Access Pipeline, please donate today. Thank you for your kindness! 

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Guest Blog: 500 Clean Cookstoves Installed in Guatemala

By Jeff Abbott, Independent Journalist

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. He covers human rights, social movements, and natural resource rights in Central America and Mexico. Recently Jeff visited some of TWP’s projects in Guatemala and spoke with recipients of our clean cookstoves while photographing the delivery and installation process.

During my visit to the communities of Jocote, Jicar, and Barrio Belice, in the municipality of Quesada, Guatemala, I was able to speak to several community leaders, who shared that the origins of Utz Che’ and Trees, Water & People’s clean cookstove project came after seeing similar programs in other places. At its core, the drive for the endeavor comes from a place of deep concern over the deforestation in the mountains above their community.

Besides the health benefits of these stoves, which channel smoke out of the kitchen via a chimney, they also require far less firewood than the traditional open fire. As many beneficiaries of this project live in the peri-urban outskirts of Quesada, where fuel is purchased more than collected, this translates to a considerable reduction in household fuel expenditures.

Vera Alica with her new clean cookstove
Vera Alica’s new clean cookstove will use up to 70% less fuel than the open fire she was using to cook before her stove was installed.

Vera Alicia (pictured above) is one of the recipients of the stove in the Aldea of Jicar. The 47-year-old mother of nine stated that the stove has allowed her to save substantial money on firewood. Another beneficiary, Marina Germeño (pictured below), reported that she was saving $3.33 per week – a significant sum over the life of the stove. Vera Alicia also explained that it has not changed her cooking habits, but that she has seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of smoke in her kitchen.

This clean cookstove project in the communities of Quesada and two other departments in Guatemala’s arid corridor, provide an important opportunity for the residents who have benefitted. Short-term, tangible benefits of the project are the immediate economic savings that families experience via the significant reduction in firewood used for cooking. Most residents quickly acknowledged this benefit, expressing the savings they had noticed.

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Marina Germeño reported that she was saving $3.33 per week – a significant sum over the life of the stove.

Furthermore, residents are conscious of the environmental benefit that the decreased reliance on firewood brings to their communal lands, which TWP has helped to reforest in years past. Apart from protecting local forests, another beneficiary, Marthy Corina Soto, also expressed that a major benefit that she has noticed since receiving the stove is the fact that she does not burn herself as easily, as there is no open flame. “Everything has been magnificent,” echoes her husband, Angel.

Trees, Water & People is happy to report that, with our partner Utz Che’, we were able to build and install all 500 cookstoves in three departments of Guatemala. We truly have the best supporters in the world and are humbled by your contributions!

We are still working to raise funds for this program to follow up with each family to ensure that they have transitioned completely to their new stove and to assess any barriers to full adoption.  We have found that following up with families shortly after their new stoves have been installed is critical to the family using their clean cookstoves consistently and correctly. Monitoring after the installation is an important part of our work and it is only possible with your support! 

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