Central America’s local people and invaluable natural resources must be included in any sustainable plan for the future of this critical, beautiful region.
By Devyn Powell, EcoLogic’s Communications Officer
We were excited to see the national spotlight turned to Central America with Vice President Joe Biden’s New York Times op-ed on January 29, “A Plan for Central America.” Central America—and Guatemala and Honduras, two countries the Vice President named in his piece, in particular—is a region we at EcoLogic have worked in over the past 21 years, since we launched our first project in Guatemala in 1993. That year, we worked in an area called Punta de Manabique to help the community meet urgent needs for their healthcare and education while promoting natural resource conservation.
In the decades that have passed since we began this work, a lot has changed here at EcoLogic, in the region, and in the world around us. We have learned through trial and error what it takes to work side-by-side with communities throughout Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Belize, and southern Mexico, helping local people both access and develop the tools they need to conserve their local environments, improve the health of their families, and build vibrant local economies.
What has not changed is the seemingly limitless tenacity, imagination, and optimism of the people we have been proud to work with over the past 21 years. We know well that Central America as a region suffers greatly from the problems that Vice President Biden named, for example: “inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime, and a lack of investment.” But we also know that the region is home to lush, beautiful rainforests; breathtaking mountainous landscapes; and millions of brilliant, innovative, and dedicated people who we are proud to work with every day. These are people like Isabela Alonzo Martín, a young indigenous Chuj woman who lives in San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala. At just 21 years old, Isabela is the Coordinator of her town’s Municipal Office for Women, and helps marginalized local women find empowerment as “forest guardians,” where they help organize reforestation and environmental education programs in their communities. When Vice President Biden writes of a “climate of endemic violence and poverty” in Central America, he misses the other side of a complex picture—a region where local people, despite struggling with great challenges, including governance and economic issues, are already working to build brighter futures for themselves—starting from the grassroots.
What has also not changed is the international importance of Central America’s ecosystems and natural resources. We were disappointed to see that Vice President Biden made no mention of the environment in the plan he outlined in his op-ed piece. While this isthmus makes up barely 0.1% of the world’s landmass, it contains 7% of the world’s biological diversity. Central America’s rich natural environment is vital not only because of its beauty, but because human well-being—and national economies—depend on its biodiversity to thrive. A Central America—and a world—that continues to face ever-greater water, food, and resource shortages will inevitably continue to suffer from the “interlocking security, governance, and economic challenges” that Vice President Biden wrote about. We cannot talk about security or the economy—especially not in Central America—without talking about the need to protect and sustainably manage our planet’s precious and finite natural resources.
Vice President Biden wrote, “Confronting [Central America’s] challenges requires nothing less than systemic change, which we in the United States have a direct interest in helping to bring about.” What we’d like to add—and what we know from our history of working in the region–is that for this systemic change to be sustainable, it must include two things. First, local people need to be involved at every step of the way in making decisions about the futures of their families, their communities, and their nations. This is as true in Central America as it is everywhere. Second, lasting, truly systemic change must recognize that all systems are connected. An economic system cannot thrive in the long term if natural ecosystems continue to be unsustainably depleted. Security is tied inextricably to the conservation of natural resources, to the health of children and families, to the empowerment of women, and to indigenous peoples’ rights.
At EcoLogic, our core vision is to be part of that kind of systemic change. We are glad that Vice President Biden also sees that the region can “become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere.” We are doing our part to help shape that story so that it celebrates and centers on local people, and recognizes the critical importance of the natural resources that all of us depend on to thrive. We hope that this is the kind of “success story” that Vice President Biden wants to see in Central America as well.