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K’iche’ as K’ax K’ol: The Honor of Serving One’s Community for a Year

by Abigail Southwell, Brian Lowry, Evgeny Lobanchenko, Tomislav Marcinko Narvaez, and the Boston University Venture Consulting Club

In March 2015, a group of five MBA graduate students at Boston University traveled to Guatemala as part of a joint project between EcoLogic and BU’s Global Venture Consulting Club. The collaboration was born out of BU Link Day, a program that connects MBA students with small nonprofits. Read the students’ reflections on their trip below!

BU students in Totonicapán group shot

The Boston University MBA students, including Tomislav Marcinko, Abigail Southwell, and Evgeny Lobanchenko, take a break from building a stove in Totonicapán, along with EcoLogic field technician Fernando Recancoj (far right) and members of the community

When starting our MBA at Boston University in September of 2014, most of our incoming class was expecting a year filled with numbers, graphs, charts, and case analyses. Exploring the forests of Totonicapán in Guatemala this past spring break was not only an unexpected experience, but one of the highlights of this year. Through BU’s Global Venture Consulting Club, five students from our first year MBA class were able to travel to Guatemala and work with EcoLogic to better understand the importance of its mission as part of a project we were working on with them about data collection and information flow.

On our first day in Guatemala, we took a trip to Totonicapán, home of EcoLogic’s Forest of the Water Spirit project site. There, we experienced the first key component of EcoLogic’s framework: community partnering. The 48 Cantons of Totonicapán are a traditional Maya K’iche’ indigenous governing body, and their governance is still followed and respected by community members. Through a long-established partnership with the 48 Cantons, EcoLogic has helped bring fuel-efficient wood stoves to the region. Guided by Mario Ardany de León, EcoLogic’s Program Officer for Guatemala, we met with two 48 Cantons community leaders. They were in the middle of an honorary year of community service, called K’ax K’ol in K’iche’. In Totonicapán, all adults are required to take a year off from working in order to serve their community and care for the communal forest.

Together with these local leaders and EcoLogic’s staff and field technicians, we helped build a fuel-efficient stove for a single mother of two small children. Her story was an incredible testament to the community spirit of the Maya K’iche’ of Totonicapán. Although stoves need an indoor space in which to be built, she hadn’t had enough space available when she was originally nominated as a candidate for receiving a new stove. But the community pitched in and contributed the resources necessary to build her a small enclosure in which to house the stove. It was immediately apparent how the new stove would not only consume less wood, but would also retain and provide heat to help the family stay warm during chilly evenings, and would reduce air pollution exponentially! An entire family’s life was significantly improved for less than the amount each one of us spent on books for the semester. Seeing the joy on the face of this young mother and her small son and daughter was inspiring. Another key component of EcoLogic’s mission became clear: preservation of tropical ecosystems goes hand-in-hand with improving the lives of people who depend on those ecosystems for fuel and food.

EcoLogic field technician Fernando Recancoj shows visiting students how to carefully plant seeds in a seed tray, where they will grow into saplings in the greenhouse

EcoLogic field technician Fernando Recancoj shows the visiting students how to carefully plant seeds in a seed tray, where they will grow into saplings in the greenhouse

We then traveled to see another core component of the partnership between Ecologic and the 48 Cantons: reforestation. We met Don Agustín, who runs the nurseries in Totonicapán. He was exceptionally passionate about his work preserving the region’s freshwater springs and cultivating native tree species, which are later planted to reforest degraded areas of the woods of Totonicapán. He had us try our hand at planting seeds before heading into the surrounding forest, where we planted a few of the thousands of saplings being nurtured in eight greenhouses in the area. Don Agustín pointed out various success stories—for example, a seven-year-old tree shooting its way up to the canopy—as we hiked deeper into the forest. He also seemed to have a vivid map in his mind of the more than 1,200 natural spring pipelines feeding water to the surrounding community.

The reason reforestation is necessary in Totonicapán, as Don Agustín explained, is because people illegally cut down trees for fuel. In fact, as we traveled through the forest with our saplings, we stumbled across an entire family poaching wood. The two 48 Cantons community leaders who were with us immediately took their black canes—the symbol of their leadership status—and approached the family. While we pushed ahead, they took down the poachers’ information. Local justice would require the family to do community service in the greenhouses or plant trees in the surrounding forest to make amends for their actions. As they explained to us, the 48 Cantons are less concerned about providing punishment, and more about making sure that the family was educated on why they were being asked to leave the trees in the forest. And indeed, the leaders seemed to have a cordial, courteous conversation with the family that focused on the reasons for the rules, rather than on punishment and recrimination.

Planting sapling pine trees in the forest

Planting sapling pine trees in the forest of Totonicapán

Parting from the scene of the felled tree, we ventured further into the forest. When we approached what Don Agustín deemed a good spot, we began to clear a line of brush in order to plant the saplings we had brought. We took the sapling pine trees, hardly larger than the smallest weed we had cleared to make way for them, and planted them in the forest. EcoLogic field technicians and community volunteers will continue to steward the saplings as they grow to help ensure they make it to adulthood as healthy trees. With that continued care, our saplings will hopefully grow to be strong, full-grown pines which will help protect and preserve their forest ecosystem.

Participating in a small part of EcoLogic’s efforts to preserve the forest ecosystem gave the huge global problem of deforestation a personal face for us, and demonstrated the complexity of the issues facing EcoLogic. On the ground in Totonicapán, the biggest impact is made by individuals empowered to preserve their own culture and environment. No one knows the forest of Totonicapán like Don Agustín and his colleagues, so who better than them to lead the efforts to save it? One small tree—or even twenty—doesn’t have a huge impact on its own. But with the combined daily efforts of many people working together, that one tree can become thousands. Leaving Guatemala, we hoped that our saplings would be a small part of the great effort of EcoLogic and their partners to keep the beautiful, vital forests of Guatemala alive and thriving.

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