Juana María García lives in a small community with her parents in the Tenerías sector of Totonicapán, Guatemala where EcoLogic has been working since 2002. Juana works as a primary school teacher at the Canton Chuicaxtun school in Chiyax having graduated from the University of San Carlos with a degree in education in 2008. Juana first learned about EcoLogic in a community assembly run by the 48 Cantones, EcoLogic’s local partner in Totonicapán, and immediately wanted to volunteer to help protect the forest and support her community. At 25 years old, she is an articulate and impassioned advocate for the ecosystem where she lives.
“I think Totonicapán has the most beautiful forest in the entire country, with many different and unique species, and it is deeply important to protect it for the future,” Juana observed. “Simply put, the forest is the fountain of all life, and we would be lost without it.” In late June, Juana talked via Skype about her experiences as a volunteer and a teacher with EcoLogic Communications Officer Lee Shane and Guatemalan Program Officer Francisco Tzul.
Tell us about your first experience with EcoLogic.
JMG: In May 2011, I went with a group led by Francisco to visit the nursery used to raise trees for reforestation. The manager, Don Augustin, showed us different kinds of tree seeds and seedlings, and demonstrated how to plant seeds in starter trays and care for them. I was very impressed with the greenhouses EcoLogic had helped us build, including the modern irrigation system—I had never seen one before. A few months later I returned as a volunteer with a group of high school students to plant trees in the Totonicapán forest.
What was that like?
JMG: This was a great experience, as the younger generation was learning about the importance of reforestation—they need to lead the way in forest conservation in the future. It happened during the rainy season last summer, when EcoLogic staff organized several tree planting outings. There were more than 500 students aged 13-15 years from three different schools. We planted more than 8,000 trees including white pine, red pine, alder, and Guatemalan fir.
Sounds like a lot—you didn’t do it all in one day, did you?
JMG: Oh, no! I went three different times with different groups of students. On each day the students were first trained on planting techniques. After that they were divided in groups of 50 each, and then paired up. Each pair took a tray of 24 plants and then moved into the areas that needed to be reforested. I was in charge of supervising the distance between trees and the diameter of holes dug in the soil. There was no need to water the seedlings because we were in the rainy season. It only took us about four hours each day that we did it.
I also went once with Fernando (EcoLogic field technician) and the members of the water board of the 48 Cantones (the water committee for the area)—Almost everyone in Toto tries to volunteer to reforest in Toto—that is our tradition that goes back more than 800 years.
You have also helped to build fuel-efficient stoves, right?
JMG: Yes, this last winter I worked with EcoLogic to help build stoves for 75 families. The beneficiaries were in five communities and I primarily worked in Cuchanet. I collaborated with the group—mostly women of the households—to build the stoves. A mason supervised us, but we did everything as a team. We mixed the cement, lay the adobe and the bricks, and built the inner chamber. The chamber is built in a special way which helps the air move and reduces the amount of wood needed to keep it hot. Finally we put on the chimney, and gave the stove a special coating of sand and cement, and then the owner had to wait 30 days for it to dry and “settle” before she could use it.
The owners are taught how to maintain the stoves including what can be burned and what can’t be. For example, most people don’t know that burning plastic is dangerous for your health and for the environment. Fernando, the EcoLogic technician, also teaches how to keep the stoves clean, and why flies are bad for the food, as many people don’t understand this. So there is a lot of health and hygiene information that is talked about, too.
Do you think the people appreciate the stoves and will use them in the right way?
JMG: I do think so, but I think EcoLogic is smart in the way it asks people to make commitments to get a stove. Each family not only has to help the others in the community build stoves, but they also have to agree to plant at least 50 trees nearby, as a way to help the forest for the wood the family is using. And many also help by volunteering in the greenhouses and tree nursery. They ask for two work days from every stove recipient. These are ways people see the value of the stoves immediately, and also see the connections between the stoves and making the forest healthier.
One other topic: you are a teacher and you have been working with Isabel Carrio, the EcoLogic ArtCorps Fellow in Totonicapan. Tell us about what you are doing.
JMG: About once a month, Isabel meets with a group of about 35 primary school teachers. We are jointly developing exercises that incorporate art to use in our classrooms to teach children about the environment and sensitize them to its importance. I apply the ideas and lessons in some of the classes I teach. We go out into the forest to take hikes and we incorporate drawing, dancing, and writing poetry and stories into our classwork.
Someday I hope to incorporate some of these ideas and techniques into working with adults because I think there are opportunities there as well. And I want to work with people to help them learn how to protect the soil when they raise their crops—how to use natural fertilizers and systems and locally found natural pesticides instead of industrial chemicals. This is something I think people do not think enough about here, and we need to do more.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
JMG: I want to thank you all in the United States because you are working to help us from far away, and we are very grateful because we do not have the resources without your help. I hope you will work with us for many years to come.