EcoBlogic

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Snake Branch

“Good, and how are you?”

Man, it’s hot in Playa Grande Ixcan, ya know? If you know a bit of Spanish, the name “Playa Grande” probably gives you images of thatched huts, hammocks, white sand, and margaritas. Well, I’m in the opposite place. Playa Grande Ixcan is here:

Pretty far from the beach. Pretty far from any paved roads for that matter. This is a low-lying, hot, and humid region, and to get here, it’s about 3 hours drive on an unpaved road. There wasn’t internet in the town for a few days, but it triumphantly returned this morning. So I’ve been able to check my email and catch up a bit. And write this blog post!

In this region, EcoLogic supports a group called “Mancomunidad de la Frontera Norte,” which is an alliance of mayors from neighboring municipalities close to Mexican border who have come together to lead their communities in sustainable development and improve education and healthcare. Ixcan is one of eight municipalities that make up the Mancomunidad de la Froentera Norte, so it’s just one particular area where we’re working within quite a large region. EcoLogic is helping the Mancomunidad within particular communities located close to forests that are in need of protection and sustainable management. This means, installing fuel-efficient woodstoves, introducing agroforestry techniques to farmers, establishing tree nurseries, and giving trainings to volunteer park rangers referred to as guardabosques, or forest guards.

Community_consultation

This week, EcoLogic is in Ixcan to facilitate a total of 8 consultations within communities to the southwest of Playa Grande Ixcan. These communities range in size from 120 to 400 families, one of which is a full two hours out of Playa Grande on even bumpier roads. Though we’ve been working in this area for several years, we’re now able to really ramp up our efforts because of a recently formed partnership we’ve developed with Heifer International.

 
 
Before each EcoLogic project begins, we perform what we call a “Community Consultation” which is sort of a diagnostic to try and identify the top priorities of the community – is it water? schooling? a particular illness? a political concern? This way, we’re able to all get on the same page from the beginning and tailor our work to the needs and concerns of community members.

Participating in these consultations has been such a great experience. Our Guatemala Program Officer, Francisco Tzul, has been the main facilitator with the support of the tecnico in Ixcan, named Antonio Chipel. There are 9 steps to the consultation, which takes about 3 hours and ends with a lunch. In the first two consultations, we had between 50 and 70 participants in each with representation and participation from men, women, and youth. Getting people to show up to any meeting is hard work, especially when there’s tons of work to be done and no such things as vacation or personal time off from work. Just getting people to come together is a testament to the hard work of Antonio Chipel, the Mancomunidad network, and the relationships and reputation we’ve already established in the area. It also reflects the interest and concern that community members have to improve their communities and their lives.

I have 2 community consultations under my belt and 5 more to go! Pretty exciting to see a project at the beginning stages. It’ll be great to follow the project as it develops.

There’s plenty more coming your way soon – more news from Ixcan, and an upcoming trip to our project in the Sarstun region on the border of Belize and Guatemala. Which reminds me that I went to Belize, Tikal, and Semuc Champay during Semana Santa last week and didn’t even blog about all that!!! Geez. I wish I wasn’t so detailed and I could just quickly write about these experiences, but so much happened and there would be so much to report.

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

“The trees are absolutely essential”

 
Inside_greenhouse

This Wednesday, I visited the 5 greenhouses that EcoLogic has built and currently manages in Totonicapan, Guatemala. Within each greenhouse are 16,500 saplings of several varieties of native trees. Community members, led by two local full-time caretakers, do everything: collect the seeds from the forest, plant them, water them with water flowing from the forest above the greenhouses, apply organic compost and fertilizers, and then take them into the forest once they’re big enough (about 10 months old). The greenhouses are managed by Don Augustin. This man LOVES TREES! Three more greenhouses are currently under construction and will be done this year! We have greenhouses in this region because of the altitude – it’s pretty cool and at night it even frosts over. Also, the greenhouses protect the trees from animals and insects and offer the ability to set up irrigation systems.

All the trees will be planted around water sources and in recharge zones (land that absorbs water faster than most) in order to combat erosion and ensure that the water doesn’t dry out. In order to get water in your home, you have to do two things: 1) pay a water user fee to your local village water committee (each village has one of these – totally volunteer run) and 2.) volunteer your time in some capacity. The water user fee covers expenses related to the maintenance of water tanks, pipes, etc. The volunteering can consist of helping out in the greenhouses, reforesting, or providing materials for the greenhouses, like soil or compost. Most people opt to reforest, and during the months of May and June – the beginning of the rainy season – groups of community members enter the forest with all the saplings from the greenhouses and plant the trees in strategic places around their water source.

Don_Augustin's_tree_backpack

Each village water board has an executive committee that manages the money, goes into the forest to check out and perform maintenance on the tanks and pipes, and ensure that each household is volunteering and paying their fee. Or the water gets cut! Village water board leadership are voted into their position and the leadership changes each year.

So what’s a water source? It’s basically the ground. That’s it. Community members have identified spots in the forest where there’s significant water underground, based on the type of plants that are growing and the moisture in the soil. Then, you dig it out, lay some concrete in a way that collects the water, and install a pipe that carries the water to a larger tank. This larger tank collects the water from several of these sources, called “nacimientos” or “births.” From the larger collecting tank, the water travels via pipe all the way to a community distribution tank, which could be 10 or 15 kilometers away. From the distribution tank, the water travels to households.

Ain’t gravity somethin?

So the water essentially comes from the ground, not a stream or river or well. It’s not that deep. The reason you want to capture the water from the ground itself is because it’s pure. If you get it out of the stream or river, it could be contaminated with animal waste, algae, tadpoles, trash, who knows? So you get the water before it’s exposed to the elements. The trees sort of filter and slow down the water after it rains which enables the water to accumulate enough to be captured. The trees are absolutely essential.

I asked Fernando, EcoLogic’s project technician in Totonicapan, how everyone knows that there is a close relationship between the trees and water; if some expert came in and told everyone or if the people have known for generations. I bet you can guess the answer: they knew. They knew based on experiences of villages who cut all the trees in their nearby forests and lost their water. And these stories have been passed down for generations. It was later that the experts came in and essentially confirmed what the locals already understood.

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

We gotta fix them holes!

 
So much has happened this week! I’m back in the office now after a week visiting our project with the 48 Cantones in Totonicapan. Meetings, greenhouses, water sources, stoves, reforestation zones – all this week! Some of this stuff is going to have to wait for some later posts or else you’d be reading a novel. It’s been a really great experience – I’ve been able to learn so much more about the issues facing the Communal Forest of San Miguel and the communities located around it. This is the forest managed by the 48 Cantones which I talked about last week. The forest houses the largest remaining stand of Pinabete (an endangered variety of pine) and is absolutely essential for the delivery of water to over 100 rural communities. The water doesn’t come from a stream, river, or well. It literally comes from the forest ground itself.
 
On Monday, I attended a meeting about logging. This is becoming a major problem in the forest. Gathering wood for household cooking fuel is legal and accepted by everyone in the community including the leadership of the 48 Cantones. And if you ask for permission from the leadership, you can enter the forest to take a few trees to build a house, a pen for your sheep, etc. But over the last 10 to 15 years, high demand for wood and diminishing resources in areas all around the communal forest has created a livelihood opportunity for many people. People enter the forest, cut down trees, sell them to a driver who fills up his pickup truck, takes the wood to nearby towns and cities, like Xela, Huehuetenango, and Solola for profit.
 

In attendance at the meeting were members of the Natural Resources Committee of the 48 Cantones, two past presidents of this committee, village water board leaders, and two members of the national police department assigned to natural resource protection. EcoLogic arranged this meeting to focus specifically on this subject and create an action plan with multiple stakeholders. We have been building greenhouses and growing trees to reforest around water sources in the area for over 10 years. But it doesn’t make sense for us and the community members who support the cause to work so hard to reforest if we’re watching 10 times the amount of trees disappear and doing nothing about it. It’s like trying to fill a bucket with water that has big holes in the bottom. We gotta fix them holes! From one of the four exits of the forest there are an estimated 50 pickups full of wood leaving per day according to the police. Which translates to 50 meters squared a day of forest. And that’s only one exit. This was the first meeting to really talk about the issue in an open and honest way. What’s exciting is knowing that once we do come up with a plan and carry it out, it could serve as a model for so many other regions. This issue is certainly not unique to Totonicipan. It’s a national and international concern.

We’ll keep you posted on what the working group comes up with.  That was Monday.  Then I met with the one and only Don Augustin. This man LOVES TREES!

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

Yes We Can-ton!

I’m prepping and anxiously awaiting a field trip to Totonicapan soon.  I’ll be meeting with members of the 48 Cantones, our regional partner for around 3 years.  I thought I would take this opportunity to ask Francisco, our Guatemalan Program Officer:  “What is a cantón, anyways?”

 
 
617866316_xelapicexport0896
EcoLogic doesn’t translate this word into English in our documentation because it doesn’t really translate.  It’s always been sort of mystifying to me.  So what I discovered is that a cantón is a small, rural community on the outskirts of a more populated town (in this case the town of Totonicapán) that does not have access to the resources of the town, as in the waterline, the waste system, the street maintenance, etc.  A canton is sort of a little village left to its own.  But that’s not to say that they’re totally lost or without leadership.  The 48 Cantones is very structured and very well-organized.  It is an ancestral structure, centuries old, which Maya Quiche elders maintain.  Each canton has its local leadership to solve land disputes, record births and deaths, plan village improvements, etc.  Then those leaders form a general assembly with other canton leaders, forming the Association of the 48 Cantones.  This association has a regional mandate, taking care of the communal forest, protecting water sources, organizing local water committees, handling larger political and social concerns, and advocating for communities with the more “formal,” state government.
 

Water_Pipes

According to Francisco, who was born and raised in Totonicapán and is still a resident, the Association of the 48 Cantones is an extremely well respected and revered authority.  If there was a significant issue that required a community meeting, all he would have to do is call a member of the 48 Cantones Board of Directors and the next day hundreds of people would be there.  Despite the fact that it does not collect taxes or have any kind of legal authority, the Association of the 48 Cantones is essentially the government of these rural villages.  It has a local commitment and focus in small communities that fall outside the reach of the official government.  Few areas in Guatemala have successfully maintained this indigenous, parallel government.  Centuries of oppression against indigenous peoples, including a recent genocide in the 70s and 80s, have rendered most traditional authorities extremely weak if not completely obsolete.  According to Francisco, the Association of the 48 Cantones is the most powerful indigenous quasi-governmental structure left in Guatemala.  It is over 800 years old.  What an accomplishment for them, and what an honor for us to work with them.

 
 
So this is our partner; pretty inspiring.  A group of Maya Quiche elders – just everyday rural people – who are doing everything voluntarily as part of their heritage and commitment to their communities.  EcoLogic is helping them protect their water sources through reforestation and forest protection, the installation of fuel-efficient woodstoves, and the transfer of their traditional knowledge regarding environmental stewardship to younger generations.
 
I’m excited to go check out this project, too.  I’ll have much more to share at that point.  But now you have a decent background on our local partner.  And you can impress all your friends with all your new cantón knowledge

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

March Madness

You gotta love the underdog, right? VCU, Butler, EcoLogic. Yep, we were in our own little competition and came out runner-up!


A water source under a protected structure maintained by AJAASSPIB.

A water source under a protected structure maintained by AJAASSPIB.


EcoLogic was named Runner-Up for the ReSource Award for Sustainable Watershed Management, out of 194 entries. The ReSource Award is an internationally recognized prize acknowledging leadership in sustainable watershed management. What’s a watershed? Think of it like an enormous funnel – it’s an area of land where water flows toward a single point, based on the land’s contour. Rivers and streams are located within watersheds, bringing water to communities. So they’re important, wouldn’t you agree? We were chosen as runner-up for our work with AJAASSPIB in northern Honduras. AJAASSPIB is an association of volunteer-run water committees located in rural villages to the south of Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras. EcoLogic supports this group with the protection and management of the forested watershed that brings water to their villages. It’s not just about have a water tank and pipes; it’s also about having a healthy ecosystem that’s responsible for producing and regulating the flow of water through those pipes and in that tank. Otherwise, rural people have to buy bottled water shipped in from who knows where. And that’s not self-reliant, cost-effective, or sustainable.

 

A meeting of the AJAASSPIB in northern Honduras.

A meeting of the AJAASSPIB in northern Honduras.

 I was fortunate enough visit some of the AJAASSPIB member villages last summer and I met some of the protagonists. It truly was inspiring to know that local people have proactively taken the lead to secure water for their communities – not waiting for the government, a massive water project, or a miracle. What would you do if your water supply cut out tomorrow? If nothing’s wrong with your plumbing, but there’s no water flowing through the pipes. If you’re in the States and not far off in a rural area, you’d probably just sit tight and wait for it to get fixed by someone you’ll never meet. We’re fortunate to know that these things sort of magically happen for us. But in rural Honduras, as in many rural areas on our planet, things don’t fix themselves so easily (not to say that whoever the wonderful person that fixes it for us in the States has it easy. I do appreciate you!). In these more marginalized places, you have to organize your community, take leadership, be creative, take action. The folks of AJAASSPIB with whom we work are creating solutions themselves, and EcoLogic is there to support them. In all honesty, this recognition is awesome. Not only for EcoLogic, but for these community volunteers who lead their communities in protecting their water sources.

 

So this is big news, and EcoLogic is really proud – proud of ourselves, but even more of AJAASSPIB. And we certainly hope that if you’re someone who has supported us in any way, that you too share with us this pride.

Tourist Time!

This past weekend, Sara and I joined an EcoLogic intern, another Sarah, on a trip to Lake Atitlán. This, if you didn’t know, is one of Guatemala’s (and all of Central America’s) most impressive places and a major tourist destination. I’ve always had mixed feelings about major tourist destinations, as you can probably relate to – how unnatural it feels and the sea of all those “obnoxious tourists” (as if I’m not one myself). But as I’ve told many friends over the years, particularly those who swear to omit major tourist destinations in favor of going “off the beaten path” – the path is beaten for a reason. Places like Atitlán are popular and flocked to by people from all over the world because they’re practically universally amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in going off the beaten path. But I’ll deal with a sea of other tourists any day for the opportunity to tour the Alhambra, hike the Grand Canyon, or take in Lake Atitlán. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
 
Xela_Atitlan
Xela_Atitlan_Boats
 
For me, the highlight was actually probably observing a ceremony worshiping (or at least praying to) Gran Abuelo (also called Maximón, but according to the Tz’utujil devotee who told us what house the ceremony was in, only people that don’t understand and respect Gran Abuelo call him Maximón; I started calling him Gran Abuelo at that instant). I have no idea how to sum up the experience, but it was unreal and I encourage you to search for Gran Abuelo next time you find yourself in the town of Santiago Atitlan.
 
The lowlight was probably the mental and moral handcuffs I found myself in when thinking about the surplus of local people, almost all indigenous, trying to make a living off of selling their wares or a boat ride in the lake to us tourists. There was stall after stall of almost the exact same dresses, coin purses, flutes, hats, etc. and not nearly enough tourists to buy them, despite Atitlan’s popularity. This just increases the pressure to make a sale and puts an aura of desperation in the air. We had a man walk with us for about 10 minutes then wait outside our hotel for another 15 just to see if we’d take a boat ride. Later on, Sara and I momentarily pointed at a blanket. Before we knew it, the woman selling it had given us the price, dropped it 50% and as we walked away yelled out lower and lower prices to try and get us to turn around. It makes me realize even more the crucial need for more dignified, non-tourist-dependent livelihoods, where women don’t have to sell the beautiful results of hours of work for the equivalent of a few bucks.

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

St. Patrick’s Day – in Guatemala

So I missed St. Patrick’s Day in Boston! How was it? I did celebrate at work with a quesadilla and some fried plantains for lunch that Sara made. Isn’t that how you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? The day doesn’t appear to be too big of a deal here. If it was, I wasn’t invited to the party. We did see some fireworks going off last night across the city, which had potential to have something to do w/ St. Patrick’s Day. But we’re not sure. Oh well. I hope you had a good one!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Things are pretty tranquilo around the office. Plenty going on around me, but I’ve just been plugging away at editing some proposals that are soon to go out. EcoLogic’s Regional Director, Sebastian Charchalac, just returned to the office after spending a few days with colleagues at Oxfam, learning about their Savings for Change program they are implementing in central Guatemala and sharing some of our experiences regarding institutional capacity building. I’m interested to hear what he learned and what kind of lessons or experiences could be transferred to our work. Understanding some microsavings techniques could prove beneficial for some of our local partners.

This weekend, Sara and I will be heading to Lago Atitlan with another Sarah who is interning with EcoLogic. Expect some pictures of volcanoes and shiny water next week!

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

Home Sweet Home

It’s Tuesday here in Xela (too easy to type to not go with Xela), and I’m sitting outside on the patio of our office. Don’t get all that jealous just yet, with visions of a hammock, palm trees, and tropical birds on my shoulder. It’s more of a utility patio where there’s a sink, trash and recycling cans, and cleaning supplies. I was actually told that there is no way to recycle here in Xela and that the program was eliminated several years ago. But we’ve at least got recycling bins here in our office. You can count on the environmental NGO to know how to pull it off! I just need to figure out how to recycle at my apartment.

La Oficina

La Oficina

I had a great first full weekend in Xela. Gaby, our Regional Director of Programs here at EcoLogic, took us on an afternoon-long tour of the city, which included lots of insider info – she was born and raised here! The parque central is so beautiful and there are a lot of great lookouts over the city because it’s really hilly. One of the things I love the most about traveling/living in Latin America, and Xela is keeping the passion burning, are the local markets. There are several here – full of people, energy, and everything people with energy would want to buy: baskets, fresh produce, clothes, tortas and pupusas, toothpaste, baby supplies, auto parts, soccer balls, off the wall souvenirs, you name it. Gaby also took us to buy cell phones. Rest assured, cell phone madness is not limited to the States.

Flowers for sale in Xela

Flowers for sale in Xela

There are endless plans, phones, features, and deals to navigate through. My Spanish is totally fine if all I needed to do was get a phone and learn how the system works. But when they start trying to sell me all the promotions and deals, I’m lost. Come to think of it, I’m lost when it comes to stuff like that in English.

Besides the tour, we were able to spend a lot of time Skyping and calling people through Google. Which I still hardly understand but you should check it out – I think it’s called Gtalk or Gcall. We’ve talked to all sorts of people in the States and even in Spain and haven’t paid a cent yet. Really quite amazing to think about the ease of communication these days.

This week we’ve got several visitors here in the EcoLogic office from the States. And I’m having fun welcoming them to my country as if I’ve been living here my whole life. We have an intern, Sarah, who is currently in the Municipality of Huehuetenango to the north of Xela with Francisco, our Guatemala Program Officer. She’s doing a study for her graduate work, focusing on our agroforestry work with our partner, the Mancomunidad de la Frontera Norte. And Melissa, our Director of Finance and Administration is in town as well for a series of meetings with our regional staff regarding budgeting and other administrative things that fortunately my job doesn’t require me to know about in any great detail.

Hasta la proxima!

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

Welcome to town!

Photo: Steve Winter National Geographic

Photo: Steve Winter
National Geographic

So I am a few hours away from the end of Week 1 working in our Quetzaltenango, I mean Xela, office. Wait, I mean Quetzaltenango. If you didn’t know, Guatemala’s second largest city has two names – the original Mayan name, Xela (shortened from Xelaju), and the more official name, Quetzaltenango. Don’t worry, this brief history/etymology lesson has all been confirmed by Wikipedia. I haven’t decided which name I’m going to stick with yet; you pretty much hear both of them used equally. Xela is easier, but with the other one you get to say “Quetzal” which makes you think of the majestic bird, and that makes you happy. I’m still looking all over the place for a quetzal. They wouldn’t have named it Quetzaltenango without there being quetzals hanging out in every tree, right? Ooh, be right back, I heard a bird chirping outside! (this is foreshadowing for an inexplicable quetzal-obsessed theme that may or may not run throughout this entire blog)

Anyways, I’m really excited to have started working down here and I’m really appreciative of the opportunity. I’ll be working out of this office for about four months, taking occasional field trips to sites where EcoLogic implements its projects. My main role at EcoLogic is to write about our work – what we do, what we’re planning on doing, and what we’ve done. It’s actually really exciting for me because I like what we do. I like knowing that we’re addressing complex issues; issues that arise when you’re concerned with both protecting unique ecosystems and improving people’s lives. I like knowing we’re tackling them head on. But usually, I’m writing at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even though down here I’m still at a desk, in front of a computer, it feels different. There’s something different about writing about our work from one of the countries where we actually do the work, being surrounded by my colleagues that make it happen on the ground. Being here makes our work come alive even more. More of that to come later, when I visit our project sites…

So overall, settling in here as been quite easy. Sara, my wife, and I have a great apartment, which is in walking distance to her language school and EcoLogic’s office. And Skype and Logmein make working in another country a cinch. And wireless internet abounds. Pretty amazing. I’m really excited for what the next four months hold, and hope you enjoy following me along the journey. Even if the journey for now is me typing at a desk in an office. And occasionally running outside in search of quetzals. I’ll have some photos coming your way soon, too!

Hasta luego!

– Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic

Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic’s regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 
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