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.
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.
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.
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 Bendición, 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´s 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.
La Bendición has been a key part of our overall presence in Guatemala since Sebastian Africano, TWP´s International Director, first began to cultivate the relationship with local partner Utz Che’ over four years ago. La Bendición is one of over 40 communities represented by Utz Che´, 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.
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 Bendición, TWP´s 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´s 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´s present and future development plans and resist the urges of immigration.
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.
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 Bendición, and we hope you will join us in supporting these efforts!
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 Bendición – 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.
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 – saying 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.
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 Atitlán 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 Atitlán.
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 Bendición 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.
Join TWP on a work tour to the community of La Bendición the week of March 15 – 22 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
Migration from Central America to the United States has been in the news more than usual these days. It is accelerating due to the difficulties that come with rapid population growth, rising energy demand, massive crop losses from the effects of climate change, and organized crime and violence reaching alarming levels along this tiny string of countries.
Even if migration is just to the nearest city, the actual movement of family members is really a means to an end. These families only seek to provide a better future for their children: keeping them fed, educated, safe, and healthy. At Trees, Water & People (TWP), we have learned that there are many opportunities to create sustainable livelihoods in rural areas, and that often these opportunities can be paired with better natural resource management.
To modify an old adage – this is akin to getting two plants from one seed. Recently, I had this conversation with a group of young men from a rural village near Escuintla, Guatemala. They have formed a youth group in their community that is taking on migration by seeking new, local income generating opportunities. David Bautista, 26 and Osvin Gomez, 25, are the de facto leaders of the group, and together have been pitching their projects to TWP since we first began working in their community, La Bendición, in 2011.
“At first, there were many in the community who didn’t believe in us – they’d say that it was a passing fad,” says David, referring to their plans several years ago of starting an entrepreneurial youth movement in the community.
Today, the ambitious young group has a plantation of 5,000 organic pineapples that produce a continuous, mouth-watering harvest, a few dozen bee hives from which they are bottling and selling honey, and plots of shade-grown coffee. In addition, the group also runs a 15,000 tree nursery, which they use almost exclusively for fruit trees. These high-value crops, including coconuts, cashews, citrus, coffee, and cacao, are providing an important source of income to young farmers while promoting natural resource conservation.
The youth group’s mission, which TWP continues to support, is simple: find approaches that allow them to develop their community from within, so they never have to migrate to the city, or to the U.S., to work for someone else. “An old tree can’t be straightened out,” says the sitting President of the town council Oscar, who still bears the memories of his time laboring in the U.S., “It has to be trained while it’s young.”
Touring the tree nursery
David shows us his plot of land where he has been experimenting with permaculture techniques.
In every country where Trees, Water & People (TWP) builds clean cookstoves, we train local citizens in the design and construction of the stoves. These dedicated individuals work with community members throughout the entire process to create stoves that meet their specific cooking needs. In addition, stoves are built using local materials. Families invest in the stove by providing a portion of the materials needed as well as investing time in helping to construct the stoves.
Imagine: more than 63,000 cookstoves built to date, all designed and constructed by local citizens! This accomplishment gets at the core of TWP’s mission and vision – an emphasis on community-based natural resource management that benefits both people and the planet. Our projects are not successful unless local people are involved each step of the way.
During our most recent visit to Guatemala, we saw this model in action. Juan Francisco “Chico” Velasquez and his wife Florida Vitalia welcomed us into their home to see their new clean cookstove. Chico and his family have benefited from the stove for eight months now, greatly reducing their fuelwood use and indoor air pollution in the home. Our partners at Utz Che’ worked with community members to design this stove to meet their unique cooking preferences.
Chico says, “Before we had the clean cookstove, I never knew food could smell so good! Now that there is no smoke in the kitchen, you can smell dinner cooking from outside the house and all the way down the street.”
To learn more about our Clean Cookstove Programclick here.
“The hardest parts were the hunger…and the sleeplessness.” recounted Don Marcos, a septuagenarian survivor of the brutal civil wars in Guatemala that left over 200,000 (mostly indigenous campesinos) dead. Two spoonfuls of oats and a spoonful of sugar was all the food available for weeks at a time while protecting Mayan heritage and homeland from military persecution. Hundreds of thousands died, but many survived, only to face continued struggle to live a dignified life after “peace” was officially declared in Guatemala in 1996. Don Marcos tells us his story while holding his head in his hands under a photo taken of him in 1982, where he can be seen stoically gripping an automatic rifle with three other indigenous soldiers behind him, tasked with ensuring the survival of an ancient culture.
Today, Don Marcos is a community leader in El Tarral, one of the dozens of highland Mayan communities from Huehuetenango who have been displaced to southern coastal climates. His organization – the San Ildefonson Ixtahuacán Development Association – is one of the 36 indigenous groups under the umbrella of the Asociación de Forestería Comunitaria de Guatemala Ut’z Ché, Trees, Water & People’s partner in the country. We had the unique opportunity to build Don Marcos’ family a new cookstove as a training exercise for some younger members of his community – teaching a proven technology that reduces fuelwood use, improves family health and saves families money through its daily use.
Ut’z Ché provides a voice to indigenous communities who seek to protect land and resource rights where they live – be it on ancestral lands or lands adopted post-displacement. As agro-forestry and forest conservation are two pillars in this process, clean cookstoves and solar lighting are a perfect compliment, improving sustainability, autonomy and health for communities that have been marginalized for centuries. As someone who has spent a decade working in rural Central America, I couldn’t be more inspired and energized to contribute, as the resilience and identity exhibited by Ut’z Che’s partners is extraordinary, and their will to thrive is as salient as their preserved languages, customs and traditions.
Don Marcos’ struggle is now for his children and grandchildren. While it’s miraculous that he’s here at all, he knows that he has little time left to leave a better future for his descendants. He was happy and proud to offer his house as a training ground for the group of young men in his community, who look to him as an elder and a teacher. His is the first of 60 cookstoves we plan to build in the community of El Tarral – projects made possible only by your donations and support. We thank you for helping us make life a little more hospitable for the millions of humble people that only seek the sustainable and dignified future they deserve.
Ut’z Che ‘(good tree in Mayan language K’iche’) is a Guatemalan NGO that represents 36 community organizations dedicated to sustainable management of their forests, forest plantations, water sources, biodiversity and other natural resources.
The Association Ut’z Che’ was formed with the main objective to legitimately represent the demands and interest of their grassroots organizations in different sectors, effect change in public policy areas related to the management of forests, and assist with rural development in general. Another key part is to strengthen the capacities of its member organizations, to achieve conservation and sustainable productive use of natural resources.
In Guatemala – where the state does not respond to the needs and demands for comprehensive development –Utz Che has organized to defend and claim their rights.
“Communities have been protecting natural reserves for centuries but living in poverty. We want people to improve their livelihoods while protecting forests.”
We are honored to work with Ut’Z Che’ and the communities they represent. Together, we build clean cookstoves, plant trees, and distribute solar lighting to their members in Guatemala, all in an effort to empower local people and conserve the natural environment that is so important to their livelihoods.