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Bridging Cultures: An Internship Experience with EcoLogic in Guatemala

Introduction to Hugo's Journey

At the start of this year, 2024, EcoLogic’s team in Totonicapán, Guatemala was proud to host Hugo Hanse, all the way from Belgium, for a semester-long internship. Hugo is a student of International Development and Economics at the Haute École de la Province de Namur in Belgium. As a part of his senior capstone project, Hugo hoped to serve as an intern for a site in Guatemala, while simultaneously conducting research for his final thesis. 

I interviewed Hugo in mid-April, while he was nearing the end of his journey as an intern. Communicating over the phone with faulty connection and in Spanish (the best language we had in common), I was able to capture the essence of Hugo’s experience abroad, which, in a brief summary, was undoubtedly filled with wholesome, fulfilling interactions, and (wonderfully) unexpected outcomes. 

Initial Contact

Knowing that he was interested in exploring community-level development with a focus in environmental policy and affairs, Hugo conducted a wide search for organizations that could host him — a search that eventually led him to EcoLogic. Drawn to the organization’s emphasis on empowering local solutions to addressing climate change that would bring him to rural and Indigenous communities, Hugo solidified the match with our Executive Director Barbara Vallarino and Program Officer Mario Ardany de Leon in October 2023. He would travel in January 2024 and stay with a host community family.

On-Site Experience

Hugo was placed in Totonicapán, a key site for EcoLogic’s work in Community-Led Forest Restoration with its key partner, the 48 Cantones, a centuries-old Indigenous governance organization that weaves forest management and conservation into the core values and duties of its citizens and representatives. As a result, Hugo based his research on both analyzing the partnership and work conducted jointly by the 48 Cantones and EcoLogic, and took the opportunity to better understand the internal structure and organization of the 48 Cantones, specifically the Junta Directiva de Recursos Naturales (Council of Natural Resources).

Specifically, Hugo had entered with an interest in education development, thus hoping to work on one of EcoLogic’s initiatives towards Environmental Education. With a set of expectations, goals, and plans, Hugo was quickly immersed in the dynamic environment of his project site.  

On a daily basis, Hugo worked with representatives of the 48 Cantones and Fernando Recanoj, EcoLogic’s field technician local to Totonicapán. Hugo explained that he wore "many hats" as an intern, with his experience fluctuating weekly based on needs. Sometimes, he spent extensive time in the main office helping with administrative work, while other weeks were entirely spent in the field. He described the work as having "seasons" and, though he initially felt bewildered and out of place, he quickly adapted, learning the intricacies of the various programs at work in Totonicapán and ending the program with a vast new set of skills and stories.

A key activity Hugo was involved in was the installation of fuel-efficient stoves in Totonicapán. This core initiative seeks to provide safer and more efficient alternatives to wood-burning stoves or open-fire cooking, reducing pressure on the 48 Cantones’ sacred communal forest. Hugo shadowed home visits, where field technicians assessed a home’s eligibility for stove installation and surveyed community members' potential interests. He also conducted follow-up assessments, checking the status of installed stoves, providing maintenance information, and ensuring proper use and condition.

In addition, Hugo had the opportunity to travel to another EcoLogic project site in Guatemala – the more tropical, less mountainous, richly biodiverse Sarstun Multiple Uses Region in Northeastern Guatemala. There he helped develop forest inventories.

K'ax'kol: The Key to Success in Totonicapán's Governance and Community

The 48 Cantones of Totonicapán are the Indigenous governing body of Totonicápn, a department in Guatemala’s Western highlands with over 90% of the population identifying as K’iche Mayan.  A sense of obligation and duty to the community within leadership positions – or a role within the community – is a crucial aspect to Mayan identity and the pinnacle to the structure of Totonicapán’s governance. 

As he progressed through his internship, Hugo was increasingly struck by the core values of the governing body—values and systems he noted as the "key to their overwhelming success" in natural resource management, environmental awareness, and collaborative work. In particular, the k’ax'kol, meaning "hard service" or "sacrifice" in K’iche, which references the required community service that all married men or couples must fulfill at least three times during their lifetime in the community. The representatives Hugo worked with alongside Fernando in the communities were community members completing their k’ax'kol.

Beyond academic pursuits, Hugo's internship was marked by meaningful interactions and unexpected discoveries, shaping his future pursuits in international development and environmental policy.

His internship program required extensive analysis regarding the efficacy and functionality of the organization he was working with, alongside a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses he noticed in EcoLogic’s strategy. At the core of the strength he observed in Totonicapán’s success was the collaborative spirit and the value towards community service, the cosmovision and cultural systems the 48 Cantones embedded in their structure and contributions. He also noted how supported he felt by EcoLogic’s technical team on the ground.

Seeing the power of trust and reliability embedded in the fabric of the communities he visited and worked in for himself altered his perception of change-making. While he was more interested in development from a higher policy perspective, he has now taken up a greater interest in environmental affairs on the local, community level. He wrote his thesis and did extensive research, including hosting several interviews throughout the communities in the municipality, to better understand the structure of the 48 Cantones and the role that they play in the hearts, minds, and actions of the community members. 

The Transformative Power of Internships at EcoLogic

Throughout his time in Totonicapán, Hugo navigated diverse roles from administrative tasks to fieldwork, witnessing the practical implementation of initiatives like fuel-efficient stove installations that alleviate pressure on sacred forests, and most importantly, observing the nature of the collaboration between community members, partners, and EcoLogic staff. His research and thesis highlighted the integral role of k’ax’kol and community service in fostering resilience and environmental awareness.

Beyond academic pursuits, Hugo's internship was marked by meaningful interactions and unexpected discoveries, shaping his future pursuits in international development and environmental policy. As he prepares to return to Belgium, Hugo carries with him not only new skills and academic insights but also a profound appreciation for community-driven approaches to sustainability.

Hugo’s experience underscores the vital role interns play at EcoLogic. This mutual exchange of knowledge and cultural understanding is at the heart of EcoLogic’s mission to empower local solutions for addressing global challenges. Hugo’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of internships, leaving a lasting impact on both our organization and his future career path. As he aptly put it, “This experience changed my worldview and my perspective on international cooperation work. It provided me with tools to better approach my future profession.”

We are immensely proud of all the interns who have joined EcoLogic over the years. Their contributions, fresh perspectives, and dedication have significantly enriched our projects and furthered our mission. We invite others who are passionate about community development and environmental sustainability to consider joining our team. If you are interested in making a tangible impact while gaining invaluable experience, we encourage you to reach out and become a part of our journey toward empowering local solutions to global challenges.


Stener Ekern, "La fuerza moral de los 48 cantones," Prensa Comunitaria, October 25, 2023,


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