Elmer Urizar Reyes is one of our field technicians with our Indigenous Peoples for Thriving Ecosystems in Northern Guatemala project site, where we implement community-powered conservation work with our local partner, the Northern Border Municipalities Alliance (MFN is their Spanish acronym). The project site is our largest, spanning more than 200,000 acres of land in the departments of Huehuetenango and Quiché, in northern Guatemala. Elmer lives in the community of Santa María Tzejá, part of the municipality of Ixcán, in Quiché, and works in that area of the project site. In between planting trees and harvesting fair-trade honey, he was able to take a moment to tell us more about his life as an EcoLogic field technician in northern Guatemala.
What is your role with EcoLogic?
I work as a field technician with EcoLogic and our local partner, the Northern Border Municipalities Alliance. I am based in the area around Ixcán, a town in the department of Quiché, Guatemala. I currently work with seven communities, and am overseeing a lot of different projects, including training farmers to practice agroforestry with inga edulis, protecting micro-watersheds, building fuel-efficient stoves, and supporting our new pilot initiative in fair trade honey production.
What’s a surprising fact about you that people might not know?
I was actually born in Mexico. In 1982, my parents fled to Mexico because of the violence of the civil war in Guatemala. Our indigenous Maya communities were targeted, and the area around Ixcán was facing an extraordinary amount of violence. I lived in Mexico for the first five years of my life and started primary school there. When I was five and in my first year of school, my family was able to return to Guatemala. We settled back in the community of Santa María Tzejá, where my family is from and still lives today, and I enrolled in school there. I remember how hard it was for me to adapt to the move when I was so young, but I can only imagine that it was nothing compared to what my family went through when they left for Mexico years before. I’m grateful that we were able to return home.
How did you become involved with EcoLogic?
I went to college for a certificate in agricultural business management after my parents told me that they wanted me to continue my education so that I could “become a leader in the community.”
After I graduated, I got a job working with the Ak’Tenamit School in Livingston, Guatemala, where EcoLogic’s Youth Restoring the Nature of Sarstún project is located. (EcoLogic’s local partner in the Sarstún region is APROSARSTUN, an organization founded by Ak’Tenamit graduates.) I worked as the manager of agriculture and livestock on the campus, and served as a mentor and tutor to Maya K’ekchi’ youth, training them for careers in sustainable tourism and agriculture. Working at Ak’Tenamit had a profound effect on me—I was doing what felt like very important work helping these young people become agents of change in their communities.
When my project ended after four years, EcoLogic invited me for a job interview. I started working as an EcoLogic field technician on my birthday—January 7, 2013. It was the best birthday gift I have ever received!
What is an average day of work like for a field technician in northern Guatemala?
Well, an average day begins very early. I usually wake up at around five o’ clock in the morning. There’s always a lot to do, and I sometimes have to travel long distances to the communities we work with – often on foot. My day in the field is spent helping and training people in the communities as well as collecting data about our progress. What I do and which communities I visit depends on the day. Right now, it is honey harvesting season for the beekeepers, so I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting the different hives, checking on their progress, and recording data—for example, how many hives we have, how much honey we are producing. For our other projects, I check on how many stoves we’ve built, how many parcels of agroforestry are operational, how many trees we’re planting.
In the late afternoon, I return to the office to set up the logistics for the next day—making phone calls, coordinating with local groups and community leaders, planning the next day’s activities. I have to make sure everything is in place if there’s going to be community meeting or a group training.
I spend hours every day walking around in very rural, spread-out areas, hours making phone calls, hours planning, hours in meetings and trainings. But helping these communities is my passion, and I can hardly imagine doing anything else!
Do you think environmental conservation and improving people’s livelihoods are connected?
Yes, absolutely! I think our agroforestry program is an excellent example of that connection. Agroforestry both supports protection of the forest, but also helps farmers bring in additional income. We work with subsistence farmers, and growing food is their livelihood. Planting inga trees alongside their crops improves the quality of the soil, and some farmers have seen increases in their crop yields because of that. These rapidly-growing trees are also a good source of firewood, which saves people time going out into the forest to harvest wood for fuel. They can also be sold for additional income. Additionally, because farmers are growing their own fuel wood, they don’t have to cut down trees, so the ecosystem is healthier. I think the program perfectly illustrates how EcoLogic’s conservation solutions are able to boost both human well-being and the health of the natural environment.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
This part of Guatemala is very rural, and there is a lot of poverty here. People don’t have access to more income opportunities, to new technologies, or to other new options or alternatives to improve their lives. I love being able to share knowledge with people and to bring them options that they didn’t have before. I’m motivated by knowing that what I do has a real impact on the lives of members of my community. I am able to show them that there are solutions to the problems they face, and that’s the most inspiring feeling in the world.
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