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In Rural Guatemala, Samuel Coc Yat is Rewriting the Future

Meet Samuel. He’s a K’ekchi’ Maya from rural eastern Guatemala, cares deeply about solving climate change, and just turned 29 years old. He’s also an EcoLogic field technician with our Youth Restoring the Nature of Sarstún project in the department of Izabal, which shares a border with Belize on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast.

Samuel Coc Yat in Livingston

Samuel Coc Yat in Livingston (Photo: Lee Shane)

Samuel lives and works in the town of Livingston, a small, sleepy fishing village situated on the shores of the Sarstún River and the Amatique Bay. Working to protect natural resources and improve local people’s livelihoods in such a remote place comes with a unique set of obstacles. But as someone born and raised in the area, Samuel explains how he works to address the mismatch that exists between short-term survival needs and long-term sustainability—and why he’s optimistic about the Sarstún region’s future.

Hi, Samuel. Can you introduce yourself and where you’re from?

My name is Samuel Coc Yat, and I am from the rural community of Rosario, which is part of the town of Livingston, Izabal. Livingston is small and isolated, and it is located within the Sarstún River Multiple Use Zone, which is a protected area—although the government doesn’t often do much to enforce its protected status.

What is your favorite part of working as an EcoLogic field technician?

I was born in the Sarstún region and have lived here my whole life. So more than anything, I feel proud that I am working with and for my people and for my community. This region is mostly Maya K’ekchi’, and I am also Maya K’ekchi’. In such a small place, there’s a strong sense of community, and the people I work with every day are people I know well and care deeply about. I know how we live. How we depend on the fish and the forests. I know that people don’t want to degrade the environment, but act because they feel they have no choice. I know how people need more opportunities to be able to thrive. Because I love this community and am from here, I am better able to inform what kinds of programs EcoLogic can implement here that will succeed.

Thatched roof home on the Sarstún River, Guatemala

Late afternoon at home on the Sarstún River (Photo: Lee Shane)

Tell me more about your background.

I studied at Ak’Tenamit, a Maya vocational high school in Livingston. Ak’Tenamit has an important presence in Livingston, since it’s the best opportunity for young people here to receive a good education. There, I learned more about planning community development and natural resource programs, and started thinking about ways we could implement projects here that could help people in Livingston create more opportunities for themselves, and help them protect the fish and the mangrove trees and the other natural resources that all our lives here depend on. I was part of a group of students who became interested in organizing to help improve conditions in the area, and together we founded the Mayan Association for Well-being in the Sarstún Region (APROSARSTUN)—thanks to support from EcoLogic. From our time at Ak’Tenamit, we gained skills in, for example, community development, agriculture, and sustainable tourism. We wanted to put those skills to use right here in our communities, to improve our families’ and our neighbors’ livelihoods while protecting the rich ecology of this place. APROSARSTUN is now EcoLogic’s local partner in the Sarstún region for the Youth Restoring the Nature of Sarstún project. I began working with EcoLogic and APROSARSTUN as a junior field technician after I graduated from Ak’Tenamit in 2010.

What kinds of projects do you work on as a field technician?

All the activities I work on share the goal of conserving the Sarstún area’s natural resources and helping to create sustainable livelihood opportunities for local people. The key to our approach is finding and training people who are already leaders in their communities so that they can train, inspire, and organize others. They plant ideas in their own communities, and that’s how our work spreads. We also keep a special focus on involving women. When there is more equity in who is involved in the project, we have seen how that makes a project more likely to succeed. Developing leadership opportunities for women—going out of our way to encourage women to join trainings and workshops, teaching them to build stoves, making sure women are involved in all the work we do—is so important.

A fisherman in Livingston shows off his catch

A fisherman in Livingston shows off his catch (Photo: Lee Shane)

Right now we are helping small farmers adopt agroforestry for growing their crops, which is where you plant trees alongside your crops. We use a quick-growing fruit tree called inga that is a native species in the area. The majority of farmers here grow crops for subsistence, and they use slash-and-burn agriculture, which drives deforestation and also degrades the soil. By training people in agroforestry, we’re helping restore the forests and also improve crop yields.

In addition, we are reforesting degraded areas with native species and training communities to sustainably manage local microwatersheds. Earlier this month, I was working with three communities to develop a comprehensive management plan for their microwatershed. Deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, and pollution are threats to local watersheds, and we are teaching people to think about natural systems here as a whole, about how all those things are connected. We had a lot of good conversations about how they can more sustainably manage their water supply, and all their natural resources.

A mother and daughter paddle home along the Sarstún River

A mother and daughter paddle home along the Sarstún River

What are the most successful projects that you have worked on with EcoLogic and APROSARSTUN?

I have been involved in a lot of projects that I think have been very successful—helping families build fuel-efficient stoves, which emit less smoke and use less wood, establishing agroforestry, and reforesting key areas of local watersheds. The key to success in any kind of activity we do is that community members can see how it will benefit them and want to make it happen. For example, people are interested in agroforestry because they’ve seen how it can improve yields, and they don’t want to have to keep clearing forest the way you do with slash-and-burn agriculture, so people are excited to have an alternative. The fuel-efficient stoves are successful because women who cook over open fires don’t like breathing in smoke, and they know it makes them and their families sick. If an organization were to come in and tell people to do something without making it clear how it will make their lives better, that project won’t be successful. But that’s not what we do.

What do you think are some of the greatest challenges faced by people and the environment in your community?

I think there are two major challenges: first, that there is very limited support from the government here at any level. We are in an isolated part of Guatemala, and there is so little opportunity for people’s livelihoods to improve. People feel like a lot of that comes from the fact that the government of our country isn’t here for us.

Samuel Coc Yat in Guatemala

Samuel shows off the biodiversity of the Sarstún region (Photo: Lee Shane)

Second, we already are seeing climate change having an effect here. In a place where so many people’s lives depend on the crops they grow, this is a huge threat. The seasons used to be dependable here, year after year. We knew what to expect: There was the rainy season, and then there was the dry season. But for the last several years, the climate has been less consistent, and more extreme. When it rains, there are more heavy rainstorms that wash crops away. When it’s dry, there are more heat waves—it’s hotter and drier for longer causing the soil to dry out and crops die. We need to start planning seriously for adapting to climate change.

What inspires you to do the work you do?

I am proud to be helping my community, my fellow Maya K’ekchi’ people, to build a better future for all of us. I want our future to be one where future generations have forests and clean water, and where people live well. I’ve heard too many people say, “Natural resources are limited, and one day we will just run out of them all.” What a fatalistic approach! I don’t believe for a minute that that has to be true. I’m helping people I care about change the way they think about the future. For myself, I want to grow as a leader in my community, so I can do whatever I can to make that better future possible.

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