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August 9: International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

5:30am, Sarstún, Guatemala: The sun has not quite risen, but you can smell tortillas. Women move in and out of their small houses, starting to cook for the day. Most men left home in the early hours to trek down muddy paths towards the fields. The day starts early here because there is a lot to be done. Here, a young man named Samuel Coc Yat measures old trees and plants new ones, checks in with families who have just started using fuel-efficient stoves, and talks to teenagers about the role they can play in conserving their environment. He is a field technician with EcoLogic, and like almost everyone else in the area, he’s Maya K’ekchi’.

Samuel Coc Yat, indigenous Maya K'ekchi EcoLogic field technician

EcoLogic field technician Samuel Coc Yat is a member of the indigenous Maya K’ekchi’ community in Sarstún, Guatemala (Photo: Lee Shane)

What does it mean to be K’ekchi’? Among other things, it means living in a beautiful, richly biodiverse area, having close relationships with your community, and sharing generations of cultural history and the K’ekchi’ language. But it also means fearing the destruction of your community’s natural resources, a lack of government support, and being among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, given their close dependency on the Earth and a lack of resources to adapt to the changing natural world. K’ekchi’ farmers in Sarstún farm by rotating through different plots of arable land depending on the season—but land tenure is fraught with risk and insecurity. Few farmers in the rural villages have title to their lands, and many are renters or sharecroppers.

At EcoLogic, we want to help families in Sarstún fight back against the odds. August 9 is the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

In celebration, we want to shed some light on the challenges and triumphs of one of the many indigenous communities we work with throughout Central America and Mexico.

Since 2007, we have been working in partnership with a K’ekchi’ organization, APROSARSTUN, to improve the health of both the environment and the people living in it. With APROSARSTUN, we’ve tackled initiatives including reforestation of degraded areas, establishing tree nurseries that now nurture over 62,000 seedlings, and training women to take active roles in conservation and community leadership. EcoLogic and APROSARSTUN also collaborate with communities on the other side of the Sarstún River, in Belize, to prevent overfishing and promote sustainable management of the river basin.

Maya K'ekchi' woman with new fuel-efficient cooking stove

A Maya K’ekchi’ woman in Sarstún with a new fuel-efficient stove (Photo: Lee Shane)

Why support indigenous communities? The loss of indigenous lands has a long, destructive history, but the fight has become ever more urgent. The wealth of biodiversity that areas like Sarstún contain is staggering: a recent World Wildlife study found that 95 percent of top 200 places with the “highest and most fragile levels of biodiversity” are indigenous territories. These areas are the same lands threatened by cash crops like palm oil, as well as by logging and mining. Climate change poses another great danger: according to the UN, indigenous peoples are most likely to be affected by the impacts of climate disruption due to “their dependence upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources.” As weather patterns get more extreme, indigenous communities will be disproportionately devastated. Finally, indigenous languages are being lost at an alarming pace of one to four dozen languages per year. Languages contain rich, unparalleled information about culture, landscapes, and natural resources. The indigenous communities of Central America and Mexico face many challenges, but the traditional knowledge they have about conservation is invaluable.

For Samuel in Sarstún, he sees his K’ekchi heritage as a core part of his identity—and a deep source of pride. “More than anything, I feel proud that I am working with and for my people, my community,” says Samuel. He dreams of a future where his community has triumphed over the steep obstacles that face them today, as well as, simply, “a future with ample resources: wood, water, and animals.” On the Day of Indigenous Peoples, and every other day, we are working to make that future a reality for not only Samuel’s community, but hundreds of others throughout Mesoamerica.

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