Posts Tagged With: Alta Verapaz

Short Stories from Guatemala.

Okay, I’m in Haiti now with Heifer International, on Month #2 of my 12-countries-in-12-months journey, and I know I have to let go and stop writing about Guatemala, my Month #1 country. (I’m pretty sure I’m going to have this same separation anxiety as I stop writing about each one of these countries, so I’m apologizing in advance for the emotional foot-dragging.)

To make this a proper goodbye, here are some of my favorite images of Guatemala– and the story behind each one of them.  This cool gent was walking down the road in Cunen, a small farming town outside Coban, Guatemala. His shirt was immaculately white, his hat was worn at a rakish angle, his bag was jaunty, and he wore his pants so elegantly, I think he’d give Andre 3000 a run for his money, sartorially speaking. (But he was missing his two front teeth.)

We were in the high mountain village of Quilinco and turned the corner to see Escolastica Lache up to her elbows in a washbasin, scrubbing away — while directly in front of her were two gigantic cable TV dishes. She had a beautiful smile that knew nothing of irony – and of course, who can resist somebody who dresses up this fancy to do the laundry?Tortillas, tortillas everywhere … at every meal. In every basket. Guatemalans eat them morning, noon and night. They’re brought in to the table, warm and fragrant, in gigantic stacks that go so far beyond carb loading, it’s ridiculous.

Toyota really needs to make a commercial featuring Heifer’s use of their trucks. We drove up the steepest hill you can imagine with 20 people (and a sheep) in the vehicle. Now that’s a payload.

The ceiba is the tree of Guatemala, and it is grand. We saw it growing in Ixcan amidst an empty corn field and you can see it for miles, its trunk stitched straight as a seam against the sky.In Quilinco, Heifer beneficiaries Juan & Anastasia grow 2000 cauliflower plants on their land. They make about $800 on the whole crop, because they sell it before it’s planted to a Canadian distributor who gives them the seed and fertilizer and guarantees their price. In the field, Juan unwrapped the green tendrils around the almost-ripe cauliflower to show it to me, then carefully wrapped the leaves back up in a big protective bow.

Sometimes you are standing in a place you’ve never been, and your eye falls on something that just delights you beyond expression…. like this bed, bath & beyond in the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz. And of course, in every nook and cranny of the world, ninos siempre ninos.

Hasta luego, Guatemala!

Categories: Agriculture, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Head in the clouds.

My first day visiting Heifer projects in Guatemala, we got high. Specifically, we drove up, up and up to the highlands of Alta Verapaz and into the cloud forest– which is the last refuge of Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, as well as hundreds of other bird species that are quickly disappearing from the earth.

Quetzal photo by Knut Eisermann.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get high enough to go to the 50+ villages past the end of the road that are served by Proeval Raxmu, Heifer’s partner project in Alta Verapaz, because, before I came, the folks were told, “A woman is coming from the North and she can’t walk.”

Hmmm – for the record, I can walk and love to – but I suspect the Heifer folks weren’t sure I was up for a 5-hour jaunt into the cloud forest. (I totally was.) But what I saw in Chicoj Village was more than enough to make me wish I could have spent days there.

Once it's gone, it's gone.

Despite the breathtaking beauty of the area, Alta Verapaz has a poverty rate of about 79%, and chronic malnutrition that affects about 52% of the poor farmers who live here. Deforestation of the cloud forest is happening at one of the highest rates in Latin America and is directly related to poverty. Trying to eke out a living on incredibly steep slopes at high altitude, farmers desperate for rich forest soil and firewood cut down the trees, burn off the rich forest mulch, and plant corn which further depletes the soil. What’s at risk is not just bird populations (Guatemala is home to about 700 bird species and millions of migratory birds from North America), but also life-giving water, since cutting down the trees also reduces rainfall. And that leads to fewer crops and less food.In response, this Heifer-supported program works to educate and motivate local farmers to farm more productively, grow more nutritious food, and protect their own forest. It’s a big, daunting job, but Proeval is totally up for it. Six years ago, they began working with 3 families in 1 village– and today they have passed along to more than 450 families the gift of turkeys, rabbits and sheep; red worms (for composting); fruit trees; forage crops (to feed the animals) and most importantly – campesino to campesino trainings in how to farm abundantly without damaging the cloud forest.

Going to a Proeval community meeting in Chicoj Village to see the project first-hand was like attending a big, wordy love-in. We met in Pedro’s simple, beautiful home where everybody–and I mean everybody–  had the chance to talk about what the project means to him or her.

Pedro's home, site of our community meeting.

Rudy, the veritable Johnny Appleseed of Raxmu, has been helping local farmers to plant some 800 plum, nectarine, peach and apple orchards for a dozen years and is a tireless promoter of the nutritional and income-producing capacity of fruit trees. He’s carried the stakes of trees on his back for 5 hours to give to farmers in the remote villages, taught them how to graft, compost and use bees to pollinate the trees, and never stopped singing the praises of fruit.

Efraim, a biological monitor whose job entails getting up at 4:30 a.m. to hear, see and count birds in the cloud forest, lives a two-hour walk high up in the mountains with his beautiful wife Rosaria and 3 little girls. He  told us how happy he was to be chosen as one of 3 trained monitors out of 30 applicants — while his wife explained he was gifted because he gave his heart to the forest. Efraim has trained intensively, can identify over 250 birds by sight, and has worked with some of the world’s foremost ornithologists who come to Guatemala and rely on his research. Because I come from a family of birdwatchers (and am singularly oblivious when it comes to finding a single bird in a tree) I was in awe of his cool, calm demeanor and obvious talent for the work.

Robert & Tara, tireless principals of Proeval (she is from Holland and he is American), spoke in Q’eqchi’, Spanish and English of the methods they’re passing on: using living and dead barriers to prevent erosion on the steep hillsides; combining animal manure & red worms to build a beautiful compost instead of using expensive, damaging chemicals; conserving water and soil; keeping animals healthy, hygienic and fertile; and growing a nutritious blend of crops that will better feed both the children and animals of Chicoj Village.

Flowers grown in living barriers to erosion can also be sold for income.

Together with Heifer International and the project participants, Proeval Raxmu’s mission is to use a double passing-on-of-gifts (each beneficiary family gives at least twice what they have received in animals, forage crops, and trainings to 2 other families) to restore ecological, environmental and human harmony to the people of this region. In fact, the Q’eqchi’ word “Raxmu” means fresh and cloudy weather, indicating a change to come. I felt the distinct winds of change in that room, in the palpable community solidarity and dignity of the families that surrounded me — and I felt their hope for the future. It was nothing short of intoxicating.

In the next two years, Heifer will give 800 Atla Verapaz families 6,700 rabbits, 4,364 turkeys and 360 super-cute sheep.

(And next post, I’ll get to the amazing Alta Verapaz WOMEN involved!)

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 178 Comments

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