Notes from the Field: Guatemala’s Forest Guardians

Cultural exchange unites children from Guatemala with TWP supporters from the US.
Cultural exchange united children from Guatemala with Trees, Water & People supporters from the U.S. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Earlier this month, Trees, Water & People (TWP)¬†staff led a Work Tour to several locations in Guatemala, primarily in the southern region of the country. The focal point of this trip was a 4-day working visit to the rural community of La Bendici√≥n, located in the department of Escuintla. A total of 18 participants embarked on the special journey to gain an in-depth view into one of the key areas of TWP¬īs international focus: the agroforestry communities of Guatemala.

The history of La Bendición is as complex and compelling as that of Guatemala as a whole. Currently, the community consists of three distinct ethnic groups from the western side of the country who fled their homes in search of a more stable and hospitable place to settle. They were promised a fertile area with well-equipped infrastructure, but instead found a challenging mountainside with high winds, limited water, and very poor road access.

Rough roads
Rough roads and a harsh climate make La Bendición a tough place to live and work. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

La Bendici√≥n has been a key part of our overall presence in Guatemala since Sebastian Africano, TWP¬īs International Director, first began to cultivate the relationship with local partner Utz Che‚Äô over four years ago. La Bendici√≥n is one of over 40 communities represented by Utz Che¬ī, an umbrella organization that provides legal services and critical advocacy to underserved, mostly indigenous, communities. This was the first Work Tour experience to this community and, by all accounts, a very successful endeavor. In the future, TWP hopes to be able to bring groups here at least once a year.

The flourishing community nursery now has 35,000 plants growing.
The flourishing community nursery now has 35,000 plants growing. Work tour participants had the pleasure of working with local youth to do some weeding. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

It is important to include a note of gratitude here to the participants of the work trip for their exceptional energy, engagement, patience and dedication to learning as much as possible about La Bendici√≥n, TWP¬īs work in the region and the reality of Guatemala.

“Outstanding cultural experience and wonderful people. You should continue to offer it and other similar trips. Nice mix of work and “tourist” activities. Thanks!” – 2015 Work Tour Participant

In terms of learning and engagement, the primary focus of the trip included:

  • Overview of community history and economic development realities and challenges
  • Agroforestry crops and production
  • Apiculture (bee keeping) best practices
  • Cultural and social exchange with community members

Some notable highlights were the tours of the honey production and beekeeping project, which included a visit to the colonies and sampling of the honey straight off the honeycomb. ¬†We also enjoyed visiting the tree nursery and pineapple fields, which have expanded seven-fold in just the last couple of years, from an original total of 5,000 plants to over 35,000 total plants. The expansion of the pineapple project has grown to include the use of more organic methods with help from one of the community¬īs younger members, who studied organic agricultural practices at University before returning to share his expertise with fellow campesinos. This type of engagement from the youth is critical to insure the creation of economic opportunities that allow them to remain part of the community¬īs present and future development plans and resist the urges of immigration.

David (left) and myself on our cloud forest hike.
Community leader, David (left), and myself on our cloud forest hike. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

Perhaps the most striking observations about the history and struggle of La Bendición were broached on a group hike to the community’s water source, the imposing mountain that forms their scenic backdrop. David, one of the youth group leaders and a champion for agricultural and economic empowerment, highlighted the struggles to develop and work their land with less than ideal infrastructure and climate. Another challenge is the external interest groups, especially agribusiness and timber agents, who eye the exceptionally well preserved forest that forms the backbone of their watershed and agroforestry existence. The forest is made up of rare hard and softwoods and old growth trees that are critical to the ecosystem and habitat, but also a prized commodity for selective cutting by the timber industry.

The forest provides resources and bidoversity, such as honey bees, that are critical to survival.
The forest provides resources and bi0diversity, such as honey bee habitat, that are critical to survival. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

Through education and public awareness, David and his fellow community members remain committed and dedicated guardians of the forest. With hard work and perseverance, they have managed to improve their quality of life through the design and implementation of critical projects, like apiculture and pineapple production, as well as the installation of clean cookstoves, solar lighting systems, and improved water infrastructure.

Through these forest conservation and community development efforts, and continued support from TWP and Utz Che’ staff and donors, David and other local¬†leaders hope to continue educating their community on the importance of the land and forest while working to improve livelihoods. Their is much hope and opportunity for a brighter future in La Bendici√≥n, and we hope you will join us in supporting these efforts!

Notes from the Field: Generations of Knowledge and Experience Converge

Guatemala apiculture workshop

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

A lot of my recent “firsts” have been in Guatemala, while working with TWP partner Utz Che’¬†– an umbrella group for 36 campesino organizations throughout this vast country. Through Utz Che’ I met the community of La Bendici√≥n – a displaced population of some 100 families from San Marcos, who were resettled in the south east of the country, in the Department of Escuintla.

P1090040

Since 2011 a group of young men from La Bendición has been approaching me very formally, seeking support for some community projects they were getting off the ground. Their pitch was impressive Рsaying that while they lived in a remote area with no municipal services, they saw an opportunity to make their living from the land and resources around them, avoiding migration to the city or to the United States.

After three years of visits, I have never been let down by these guys – they’ve planted tens of thousands of trees, thousands of pineapples, and have a small enterprise producing honey.¬† So, when they asked me to support them getting additional training in bee keeping to improve their business, I made it a priority to see that it happened.

Guatemalan honey
Guatemalan honey

For two days in November 2014, a group of 16 beekeepers from the Utz Che’ broad network of partners came together at the Meso-American Permaculture Institute (IMAP) on the south shore of Lake Atitl√°n to receive an apiculture workshop from local expert Genaro Simalaj. The participants ranged in age from 16 to 70 years, and were from throughout Guatemala – three generations of knowledge and experience in one powerful convergence.

When participants were asked in an introductory circle what bees meant to each of them, responses included “they are part of my family”, “they are who give life to nature through pollination”, “a healthful economy” and “they are the scientists that do with nature what no one else can”.¬† We then spent two days studying and splitting hives, collecting honey, and learning from each other in the mountains around Lake Atitl√°n.

This workshop was a reminder to me of the importance of my work at TWP – a fulcrum between the aspirations of rural communities and the resources that help them become reality. David Bautista, the unwavering leader of the youth group from La Bendici√≥n said that “when the adults are no longer here, it’s us (the youth) who are going to have to guide this ship”. My role, as I see it, is just to fan the sails.

Guatemalan apiculture

Join TWP on a work tour to the community of La Bendición the week of March 15 Р22 to build clean cookstoves, work in the tree nursery, learn about bee keeping, and help fix a water system. A great way to travel while giving back!  Register by Dec. 31 for a 5% discount: www.treeswaterpeople.org/worktour