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.

Rainwater tank
The result¬†of two days¬ī 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.

Future Birders
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 Do√Īa 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‚Äôs trees were the biggest and healthiest and she‚Äôs 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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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 Bendici√≥n 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¬īs 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 Bendici√≥n 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 Bendici√≥n 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 Bendici√≥n 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¬īs 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 Bendici√≥n 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.

Notes from the Field: Quixay√° and the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute

Quixay√° is a true paradise in the heart of Guatemala.
Quixay√° is a true paradise in the heart of Guatemala.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

After a couple of hours of driving, the lowland cane fields gave way to rolling hills of more extensive monoculture in the form of rubber plantations that envelope the highway on all sides. After a few slight detours through bustling towns, we began a slow ascent back into the extraordinary coffee country that begins near the foot of Volcano Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range. With the change in topography and scenery came a surprise pit stop for lunch in the indigenous community of Quixayá, just south of San Lucas Tolimán.

As our group of 15 Work Tour guests exited the vans to stretch and take stock of the new surroundings we followed our guide, Ramiro Tzunun, towards the edge of the small town. From a strategic perch we took stock of our bearings Рwe now stood on the precipice of a cliff overlooking a lush river valley. Ramiro informed us that this was, in fact, a unique and special place Рa collective and familial agriculture and aquaculture system divided into three unique zones: a valley floor and riverbank sector devoted primarily to watercress, tilapia and shellfish; a mid-level sector with flatter plots used primarily for impressive companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas; and, finally the higher reaches of the valley that marks the transition zone to the mountainous forest, primarily devoted to agroforestry and woodfuel.

Companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas in Quixay√°.
Companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas in Quixay√°.

In 2010, Hurricane Agatha swept through the river valley and caused widespread destruction to the community¬īs main economic lifeline, but since then there have been impressive rebuilding and development of terraced ponds designed for tilapia and watercress production. The community is mostly self-sufficient and autonomous, content to carve out a living from their special place on the earth. In fact, the community has received very little foreign NGO or state assistance, but guidance from the¬†Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture¬†(IMAP) has been particularly important and Ramiro is one of their co-founders. He bases his approach to development on the farmer-to-farmer methodology as well as ancestral knowledge and the overall Mayan cosmovision.

Following our hike down the ridge and through the river valley, we stopped at a bucolic dining spot that also functions as a gathering place for workshops and educational events for the few groups that are fortunate enough to visit. Lunch consisted of the local tilapia and watercress, accompanied by broccoli, carrots, peppers, and potatoes Рall harvested directly from the fertile valley. Many of our Work Tour guests were positively impacted and moved by the beauty and the special energy of this valley, a strong testament to the power of human potential when combined with solid permaculture design and Mayan cultural philosophy.

Sharing and learning about new cultures was an important experience for everyone involved.
Sharing and learning about new cultures was a life-changing experience for everyone on the Guatemala Work Tour.

The permaculture and Mayan elements are a powerful part of IMAP¬īs mission, which is “to empower communities towards self-sustainability through permaculture education, Mayan ancestral knowledge and conservation of native seeds.” Upon the completion of our Quixay√° visit we ventured up through more mountains heavily dotted with coffee production before arriving at the idyllic lakeside location of IMAP¬īs main center just outside of San Lucas Tolim√°n. Once settled in, our group received an informative introduction into the history and mission of the center and its work in surrounding communities along with a more holistic discussion on the Mayan cosmovision on agriculture, water, and ecosystems.

This single day was short compared to the more extensive time in our focus community, but the overall impact was deep and helped our group to understand alternate approaches to development and environmental management. Additionally, it provided crucial perspective on the indigenous approaches to agriculture and permaculture and their relationship to overall community development. The Mesoamerican Institute is conducting profoundly important work in Guatemala and our relationship with them is only in the preliminary stages, but we certainly look forward to continuing our collaboration in the future to continue the process of positive community development in Guatemala and Central America as a whole.

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!