15th Anniversary of La Bendición

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the founding of one of our keystone communities, La Bendición, in southeastern Guatemala. This community served as a gateway for us when we sought to deepen our presence in Guatemala through our local partner, The Association for Community Forestry, Utz Ché (translates as “Good Tree” in the Kaqchiquel language). Utz Ché introduced Trees, Water & People (TWP) to La Bendición with hopes that we could develop a long-term relationship to address some of the long-term challenges the community faces, such as agrarian debt, isolation and lack of livelihood opportunities.

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Women of the La Bendición community cooking.

La Bendición was founded on June 7th, 2000 by two indigenous communities that were displaced by the armed conflict in the 1990s in western Guatemala. They were relocated to an abandoned and defunct coffee plantation in the southeastern part of the country and were passed a bill for the value of the land, as assessed by the government. The discrepancy between the valuation of the land and what they received would characterize the next 14 years of their community’s existence. They have fought for dismissal of this over-inflated debt so they could get on with learning how to live separated from their ancestral land and people.

Last year, which marked my first year with TWP, I was fortunate enough to visit the community on three different occasions. My first week with TWP, March 2015, I joined our International Director, Sebastian Africano on a work trip with 16 other participants from all over the U.S. It was a huge success and served as a great introduction to the critical partnership building and community development that are a hallmark of TWP´s development model. Then, in October, I made an individual visit to work with Oswaldo Mauricio Orozco, who is both one of the community´s main youth group leaders and the Coordinator for Campesino Exchanges at Utz Ché. During that visit, we analyzed lessons learned from the March work trip in preparation for the then-upcoming December-January work trip with the Geller Center and Unity of Fort Collins. These groups also had a tremendous experience during their time in the community.

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The work group from the Geller Center and Unity of Fort Collins learning about coffee farming.

Our efforts at La Bendición are ongoing, with continued support in many strategic areas, including:

Agroforestry and apiculture – helping to strengthen and deepen the community´s commitment to strengthening the full life cycle of the forest and diversifying livelihoods with value-added products.

Sustainable agriculture – while coffee remains the principal cash crop, pineapple plots have increased exponentially and they are now focused on commercialization and marketing of these high-quality fruits.

Capacity building and leadership – supporting the youth group in its efforts to lead on agriculture, livelihoods and forestry through important trainings and opportunities for education and professional growth.

Community forestry and ecotourism – from its founding, La Bendición´s leaders realized how important the surrounding forest is and they have worked tirelessly to manage the buffer zone with an eye toward conserving forest health. Ecotourism proposals and concepts are currently underway and the renovation of the main community center was a focus of the last work trip´s efforts.

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Harvesting pineapple in La Bendición.

Help us celebrate the anniversary of this special community by donating to our efforts to install 500 stoves in three Utz Ché communities over the next two months. We are currently raising funds to complete the installation of these stoves with an eye toward expanding the project to Utz Ché’s network of 40+ indigenous partner communities across Guatemala. La Bendición is one of these communities, and we are excited to continue to support them as they continue on a path of sustainable development, autonomy, and prosperity.

Feliz Aniversario!

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Spring has Sprung with 15,000 Trees!

by Molly Geppert, Marketing Manager

After a long winter, we at Trees, Water & People (TWP) are excited to begin the planting season on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This morning, we happily bid farewell to 15,000 Ponderosa Pine seedlings provided by the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery. These trees will help reforest areas burned by wildfires on Pine Ridge.

Planting the Ponderosas will sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases, improve air and water quality, reduce soil erosion, reestablish wildlife habitat, and enhance ecosystem resiliency, while engaging Native Americans in the protection of their lands. One thousand of the seedlings were sent with special well wishes written on gardening stakes by the Earth Day patrons from TWP’s recent Earth Day event in Colorado with New Belgium Brewery and Topo Designs. The collaboration was a huge success and a whole lot of fun!

 

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Earth Day patrons wrote well wishes on garden stakes to be planted with their donated trees at New Belgium Brewery.

In addition to the trees, 1,000 veggie starters are also making the trip to South Dakota. The plants are destined for Solar Warrior Farm, an educational demonstration garden located at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Solar Warrior Farm produces native and traditional foods such as, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, corn, melons, peppers, carrots, and a variety of berries, all of which are harvested and distributed to local Lakota families.

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15,000 Ponderosa Pines and 1,000 veggie starters safely stowed for the trip to Pine Ridge.

Helping us plant all these trees and veggies is long-time supporter, Rob Beheady of BeHeady.com. Rob has been raising funds to plant trees with TWP for many years through the sale of his beautiful steel drums. We are so grateful to have his help and support!

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Sending off the trees with the well wishes from the Colorado Earth Day event. (Pictured from left to right: Richard Fox, Amanda Haggerty, Molly Geppert, and Rob Beheady)

If you would like to help us plant trees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, please make a donation to our Tribal Reforestation program.

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Volunteer Voices: A Bittersweet Trip to Pine Ridge

by Gemara Gifford, TWP Intern and CSU Alum

Those of us who work in sustainable development and conservation know all too well the roller coaster of “inspiration highs” and “heartbreak lows” that go along with this line of work. Working from an office is one thing, but working directly with the communities we are supporting is another. I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of my internship with Trees, Water & People. As hard as it was to see the striking overlap between rural farmers in Guatemala, and Lakota families in South Dakota, it is incredibly important to recognize how these stories weave together.

“For me, it was difficult to see and hear about the state of people’s living conditions on the reservation, and their own personal struggles. Though, I also saw hope in the people we met who take pride in their culture and are excited to share it with others.” – Julia Matteucci, CSU Freshman

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Building a house for a Lakota family using sustainable Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) from local materials on Pine Ridge. Photo by Vanesa Blanco Lopez

I wasn’t alone on this roller coaster ride, however – nine enthusiastic Colorado State University (CSU) students participated in a week-long service learning trip as a part of their Alternative Spring Break. In fact, the TWP-Pine Ridge-CSU partnership has been in existence for over 10 years! During our week, we worked alongside Henry and Gloria Red Cloud and Lakota community members on a variety of service projects. On our first day, we prepared the Solar Warrior Farm for planting, an initiative that feeds hundreds of people each season who usually only have access to over-priced-and-processed foods found at the only grocery store in town. When I learned that over 60% of people in Pine Ridge suffer from diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, I realized first-hand how important food sovereignty initiatives are and have been within the Lakota Nation.

“By working on the farm, we were setting a foundation for Henry to feed people on the reservation and help educate people on how to grow healthy food and find a sustainable way to feed themselves.” – Amy Borngrebe, CSU Junior

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CSU Alternative Break students and TWP intern, Gem (far left) at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC). Photo by Gemara Gifford

Among the cross-cultural experiences we had, such as meeting a storyteller, visiting Wounded Knee Massacre, and participating in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, we engaged in meaningful reflections each night at the Sacred Earth Lodge, and embraced the ups and downs of visiting Pine Ridge. After a week of bonding with new friends, and experiencing a forgotten culture so close to home, we promised to return one day.

If you would like to donate your time and volunteer with Trees, Water & People, please email Molly Geppert at molly@treeswaterpeople.org to see what opportunities we have available. If you’re short on time and can’t make a trip to Pine Ridge, please consider making a donation.

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Heather and Heidi: TWP’s MVPs

by Molly Geppert, Marketing Manager and Volunteer Coordinator 

In many ways, volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofits and Trees, Water & People is no exception. It’s hard to imagine where we would be without our wonderful volunteers. As the Volunteer Coordinator at our home base in Fort Collins, I am lucky enough to work with many of the dedicated volunteers who are willing to donate their time and energy to making our organization great.

In particular, Heather and Heidi have been a huge help. They assist with some of the most time consuming tasks, such as mailing out Thank You letters, helping manage junk mail, data entry, and sending out our newsletters. They have been coming into the office every Thursday (and sometimes Mondays or Wednesday depending on the project) since August 2015 and so far have contributed 60 volunteer hours each!

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Heather (left) and sister Heidi (right) working diligently at our Fort Collins office.

Their hard work has made a huge difference in what we can get accomplished in a week. Not only that, but having them around makes the office that much more fun and lively. TWP’s office dog, Kiva, loves to welcome the ladies by running in circles around them. Heidi cracks us all up with her funny stories and sarcastic sense of humor. For Christmas, Heather made a homemade, hand drawn Holiday card featuring a happy Christmas tree, a mound of presents, and a Santa Claus peaking out of the fireplace.  Valentine’s Day was a big surprise when Heather and Heidi made us all “Love Bugs” and went around the office personally delivering them to each staff member.

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Valentine’s Day Love Bugs

In their free time, Heather and Heidi are avid knitters and crocheters; they even have their own company called Touchy Feelies.  We are all so thankful to have both of these wonderful ladies in the office every week.

If you would like to donate your time and volunteer with Trees, Water & People, please email Molly Geppert at molly@treeswaterpeople.org to see what opportunities we have available. If you’re short on time or do not live in the Northern Colorado area, please consider making a donation.

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Volunteer Voices: Cherishing a Blessing

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by Peggy Christiansen, Guatemala Work Tour Participant

I came back from our Work Tour with Trees, Water & People humbled, amazed, inspired, joy-filled, and moved to the depths of my soul.

La Bendición, which means The Blessing, is the right name for the little village we visited in southern Guatemala. Two groups of Mayans from very different geographical settings and cultural traditions – even different languages – share this land.  It’s an abandoned, overworked coffee plantation on a hillside that sits next to a virgin forest.  The area, which the Guatemalan government promised would be fertile and full of rivers, has one river and hurricane-strength winds six months out of the year.

And yet the people have named and claimed it as The Blessing.  They have coaxed a living out of that land for 15 years – all the while with a huge debt to the government hanging over their heads.  Why?

Why would they stay in such challenging circumstances?  Apparently, some haven’t.  Some of the younger folks have found the lack of electricity, the inconsistent attendance on the part of schoolteachers, the difficult access to the remote village, the continual struggle with the wind, and the on-going failure on the part of the government to keep its promises to be too much.  Some have sacrificed their strong connection with the earth and have headed for the city. Others have found their way to the States, where they work ungodly long hours to send money home to their families.

But many have stayed.

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The Mayan people I have known in my life are strong. Patient. Resourceful. Playful. And very, very wise. After all, the Mayans have persevered for hundreds of years. They survived colonization by the Spaniards. They endured the fruit companies and plantations and foreign land “owners” of the last two centuries.  And now somehow they have survived the brutal years of oppression and massacres by their own government, a government that was financed and trained in “anti-communism” techniques by the United States.

Weakened in numbers, traumatized by torture…  they are STILL HERE!

Strong. Patient. Resourceful. Playful. And very, very wise.

When the death squads “disappeared” people, and Central American refugees had to seek asylum, especially in the 1980’s when the situation was at its worst, a Sanctuary movement in the U.S. and Canada created an underground railroad to help people escape. Many gatherings were held during those years – both here and in Central America – and families and friends and strangers would call out the names of the disappeared and the assassinated, and the whole crowd would shout back, “¡Presénte!”

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HERE!”  “Present!”  It was a declaration that those who were gone lived on, and a promise that their work would be carried on.  People stood together in solidarity against the vicious military campaign that targeted human rights workers, teachers, doctors, priest, and thousands and thousands of campesinos.

In 1996, when peace was finally declared in Guatemala, the indigenous Mayan peoples were promised a voice and basic human rights. The process since then has been long and difficult.  And there is far to go.

But the campesinos in La Bendición are an awe-inspiring example of the courage and the perseverance required on this journey.  Together they are creating a place where the values and the strengths of the Mayan people can shine forth and illuminate for the rest of us what it means to heal our earth.  They call it “la lucha,” the struggle to overcome obstacles and difficulties, the work for peace and healing and regeneration for all.

P1040628I learned many lessons in the short days that felt like a lifetime.  Those lessons will continue as our group and TWP develop the relationship and the friendship between Fort Collins and La Bendición.

In the future, I want to share some stories about the people who are teaching me those lessons.  For now, I simply want to say thanks.

Thank you, TWP, for introducing us to La Bendición and for sharing the amazing partnership you have created there.

Thank you, fellow travelers, for the wonderful ways you were present on this journey.

Thank you, Lucas, for your huge heart, your constant smile, and your constant care.

And, a huge thank you to all of the special people of La Bendición, who opened your hearts and your homes and your lives and your wisdom to a group of strangers. You worked so hard to care for us and still, after all that, you urged us to come back.

We will.

In solidarity, we will partner with you in “la lucha” – both here and there.  And “si Dios quiere,” we will be back.  As you said to us over and over, “we are one human family.”  And I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for The Blessing in that.

Work Tour Creates Community Across Borders

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Cynthia Sargent and a child from La Bendición work on the community house together.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

For my third visit of the year to the rural community of La Bendición, Guatemala, I traveled with a group from Unity and The Geller Center of Fort Collins, Colorado. On Sunday, the 27th of December, I scurried from Antigua to the Guatemala City airport twice to meet our work tour participants. They arrived tired, but in good spirits after some extensive layovers in the Miami airport. Despite the exhaustion of travel, it was apparent that by choosing to spend the days after the Christmas holiday and the dawn of the New Year in a rural, off-grid community, this group showed immense dedication and compassion.

The Antigua departure on Monday morning was slightly delayed due to logistical errands. Before too much time went by, we were on the road, driving our rented van towards the main highway. Following 30 minutes of volcano and countryside views, with Volcano Agua and Volcano Fuego imposing their silhouettes on the route, we soon spotted the turnoff for El Rodeo and Oswaldo, our main local point of contact and esteemed ambassador for La Bendición and Utz’ Che (he serves as their Coordinator of Campesino Exchanges). Oswaldo jumped in the van and we were off to visit the community of La Trinidad, also known as 15 de Octubre, but commonly referred to by their cooperative name among the Utz’ Che family, Union Huiste.

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The visit to the cooperative’s beneficio, or coffee processing area, was quite informative for our group. The cooperative leaders also led us on a tour of the main community and key sites in addition to the coffee production areas. This visit included a visual history, courtesy of a community mural, that depicted the group´s departure from western Guatemala, exile in Mexico, and eventual settling in the Escuintla area.

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A visual history of La Trinidad, Guatemala.

As the afternoon wore on, we made haste for La Bendición before nightfall. With the sun just going down, we arrived at the community house bathed in the soft light of dusk with the shadows of the forest and the mountains welcoming us from all sides. A stunning sight to witness and an embracing welcome for the group. The next several days involved significant improvements to the community house, including a fresh coat of paint for the first time in over 20 years, as well as repairs to the walls and the cement floors. All of this  was planned with the intention of creating a better community space, but also moving towards the community’s vision: creating a destination for possible ecotourism efforts in the future.

Beyond the repair efforts at the community house, our group was also able to see some of the clean cookstoves TWP has helped install throughout the village, the weaving and textile crafts, the beekeeping operations (including the all important honeycomb sampling), and hikes through the virgin forest that sustains the life and livelihoods of the community.

Often, we found ourselves stooped or squatting around a patch of ground while one of the local youth leaders drew diagrams on the ground depicting the importance of natural resource management and how to create livelihoods through the cycle of coffee, pineapple, and beekeeping production. They are wise beyond their years and fully aware of how important community forest management and conservation is for their future and the future of other generations, particularly as powerful hydroelectric and agribusiness interests continue to eye their land. These organic and impromptu sessions were a particular highlight for our group as we were able to facilitate casual question and answer sessions and expand the learning process.

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Osvin (The Bee Whisperer) and Oswaldo prepare to handle their beehives.

Another important theme of the visit to La Bendición concerned la lucha, or “the struggle,” that these particular types of indigenous communities face. We learned of their fight to gain proper valuation of their lands, the struggle to conserve and manage the forest, and the difficulties of creating employment for the residents.

Through it all, the push and pull factors of migration are apparent. We met community members with family in the US or Guate (short for Guatemala City) or folks who had recently been deported back to Guatemala on the infamous deportation flights. While there is a strong pull to leave and look for a better life, the residents of La Bendición know that a long, dangerous path is involved, and many of the youth are focused on channeling assistance from Trees, Water & People, Utz’ Che, and work groups like Unity and Geller into hope and opportunity for a better future on their own land. You can hear this optimism in the voices of the women´s committee and the youth group, as they search for ways to improve the conditions of their community.

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Lucas Wolf with community members from La Bendición, Guatemala.

It was truly humbling and inspiring to lead this group. In the process I learned so much from Oswaldo and the other youth group members as well as the community as a whole. Of course, I learned so much from the trip participants as well. They were truly a special group, making their mark on the community with stories, laughter, compassion, and wisdom.

“What made our activities such a success at La Bendición was the participation and enthusiasm of its residents,” said Cynthia Sargent, a Work Tour participant. “Oswaldo is an amazing ambassador for his community. He is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his own culture. He is very curious and open about learning.”

When we left La Bendición, on Sunday, January 3rd, the air was full of emotion and the energy of new friendships and relationships facing a tough goodbye. Most of the community showed up to bid our group goodbye and it was a powerful moment to behold, full of hugs, high-fives, smiles, and tears.

From La Bendición, we drove across the sugarcane fields surrounding Escuintla and after one wrong turn we were on our way to the turnoff for the lake, in the town of Cocales, when we ran into some of the worst traffic I have seen in my life. A fairly straightforward minor accident caused about 8-10 kilometers of traffic to become backed up in a hilly section of pineapple and rubber plantations. Before we knew it, four hours of the day had gone by, battling buses and semi-trucks for position and I began to worry about getting out of the traffic before nightfall. Luckily, calm and patience prevailed and we were soon rising out of the lowlands and up into the Ruta del Café coffee highlands that line the areas surrounding Lake Atitlan.

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Before dark we arrived at the beautiful permaculture center on the edges of the lake that is the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute, where the group would stay on for another four days of work and learning. Unfortunately, I had to leave and move on to the next adventure, but it was good to know that the time we had together was profound and enlightening. At our goodbye breakfast, the group was kind enough to express their words of thanks and each person said something kind and inspiring about Trees, Water & People and their experiences on the trip. I look forward to more trips in the future and more events with the Unity and Geller folks.

If you have a group interested in joining Trees, Water & People for a Work Tour to Central America please contact Sebastian Africano at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.

Join us! Volunteer Trip to Pine Ridge – Sept. 24-27

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Volunteers work with Henry Red Cloud to build solar panels at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.

Come join us for a weekend of volunteering at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), headquarters of TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program. On this trip, we will be getting RCREC ready for Winter, including putting on limestone coatings on our three straw bale and compressed earth block (CEB) buildings, and helping to close up the Solar Warrior Farm. We will also visit and help with construction of the CEB house we are building for Paul Shields and his family (Paul is the son of Leonard Peltier). This will be a great opportunity for learning and making new friends. We hope you can join us!

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Stay with us at the Sacred Earth Lodge!

Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (Five hours from Fort Collins)
When: Thursday, September 24th – Sunday, September 27th
Who: Flexible volunteers who like adventure, hard work, and lots of fun. Volunteers 14-18 are welcome with adult supervision.
Why: To continue our efforts to develop a unique regional renewable energy and alternative building training and demonstration Center for Native Americans.

Volunteers are invited to arrive any time on Thursday, September 24th. We will host full work days on Friday and Saturday and a half day on Sunday. Projects will end by 1:00 pm on Sunday, and volunteers are welcome to head home any time on Sunday, September 27th.

Food:

  • TWP will provide volunteers with meals and snacks during the trip.
  • Food purchased by TWP will be simple and tasty, but feel free to bring any other food/snacks you desire. TWP’s kitchen, cooking equipment and utensils will be available for use.
  • Volunteers will help in preparing all meals and with clean up.

Transportation:

  • All volunteers are responsible for their own transportation and related costs getting to Pine Ridge.
  • We will be happy to coordinate carpools where possible.
  • Our facility is located down a short dirt road. Many sedans have traveled it without any problems.

Lodging: We have 23 beds available in the Sacred Earth Lodge in three dormitory rooms.  More beds are available in the loft of the Shop and Manufacturing facility.  You should bring your own sleeping gear if at all possible, though some of ours will also be available.

Camping:

  • While it could be getting chilly by then, volunteers who would like to camp on the RCREC property can do so, but they must bring their own camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag and pad, etc.).

To volunteer, please email the following information ASAP to John Motley at john@treeswaterpeople.org:

  1. Name of all people in your volunteer party
  2. Email addresses for all people in your volunteer party
  3. Your cell phone number
  4. Which days you have available to travel to and work in Pine Ridge
  5. Where you will be coming from and returning to (e.g. many people will be coming from Fort Collins, CO)
  6. Whether you will be camping or require a bunk in the Lodge or Loft (first come, first served!)
  7. Do you need a ride?
  8. Can you offer a ride – if so, to how many people?
  9. Any other questions you may have.

Once we have confirmed your spot, we will email you directions to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and provide you with additional details. We look forward to having you join us!