Gregory Ch’oc: Founder and executive director of the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management in Southern Belize. Friend of EcoLogic since 1997. Board member since 2010.
Tell us about your background.
I’m K’ekchi’ Maya and was born on the Rio Grande Maya Reservation, but lived most of my life here in Punta Gorda. After high school, I spent two years in the US at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico studying computer science. I came back to Belize and taught at the local high school for a couple of years, and then, in 1994, I won a scholarship to study for a year abroad and went to the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College at the University of Regina in Canada. It was there I was exposed to the international indigenous movement.
The curriculum included classes that dealt with indigenous peoples’ struggles at the global level. I had heard of an international movement while in Punta Gorda, but I wasn’t aware of the intensity at the global level. It was amazing to see there was a unified position, and it gave me a framework for looking at what was happening in Belize at the time. Land was being expropriated, oil companies and mining companies were granted concessions on the land of indigenous people. These companies weren’t being policed, and they destroyed our land. I recognized then that what we experience in Belize is not an isolated occurrence.
That understanding really motivated me when I came back to Belize, and I joined the K’ekchi’ council. I was elected president of the council in 1998.
How did you find out about EcoLogic?
I first heard of EcoLogic when I met Shaun Paul, the founding director, in 1996 at a meeting of various groups working to protect the Colombia management reserve from a Malaysian logging company that was trying to clear-cut the jungle. Shaun took an interest in the Sarstoon Temash National Park Steering Committee (STNPSC)—what later became the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, or SATIIM—and EcoLogic began helping us in very valuable and concrete ways that no other group was doing at the time.
How was your experience with EcoLogic different than with other organizations?
EcoLogic provides hands-on support. In my experience, I have seen other organizations come in and ask, “How is the project going? What are the challenges? How can we help?” But they won’t help us do things. We were a new organization and didn’t know a lot of the nitty-gritty aspects of development work, and EcoLogic helped us figure out how to do many different things. For example, I didn’t know how to contract with consultants—how to determine costs or how you reflect them in budgets for a funder. I didn’t know what information was needed. We had to conduct assessments of soil, geology, and hydrology. We needed to do a socio-economic assessment and to look at traditional knowledge and document it. EcoLogic helped us figure out what we needed to do and showed us how to do it.
Why did you decide to join the EcoLogic board of directors?
Shaun Paul, EcoLogic’s co-founder and former Executive Director, asked me to. He felt that I would contribute a valuable perspective, having 15 years of experience as an indigenous leader and working very directly on the problems that EcoLogic works to solve. North American organizations often make assumptions without realizing it. For example, a “protected area” is something largely incomprehensible to indigenous people. Our culture doesn’t have the concept of conservation the way western societies do. We have what we call “sacred sites.” We are part and parcel of the ecosystem where we live. We use it sustainably—and we want it to be used sustainably by others. We don’t see ourselves as separate. Both must thrive together.