Posts Tagged With: Proeval Raxmu

Vamos, chicas!!

In my first trips for Heifer International to Uganda and Guatemala, I’ve learned two important things.  The first is how to say, gratefully and gracefully, “Thanks so much but I don’t eat goat/sheep/bunny…” realizing that your hosts have sacrificed to serve you their very best food and you’re probably a jerk for not eating it.

Sheep soup (I ate everything but the sheep)!

The second thing I’ve come to realize is that, as a global community, we really need to keep girls in school.

In the typical indigenous villages we visited in the Western Highlands of Guatemala served by Heifer International and its partner Community Cloud Forest Conservation, the average age when girls marry is about 16. When girls get married so young, they stop going to school. They have more children and are less likely and able to send those kids to school. And their chances of lifting themselves and their families out of poverty sharply diminish.

Clearly, keeping girls in school is one of the first steps to ending poverty. But how do you change a system that’s culturally entrenched and socially unchallenged? Well, you can start by following the example of Heifer & its partner CCFC and develop a system that virtually pays girls to stay in school. By identifying and supporting girl leaders who show a passion for learning and a willingness to challenge the status quo (and bringing their parents into the room, so they can witness the benefits of educating girls and become community advocates), you can really start to shake things up.Elvira and Patricia are two shining examples of what can happen when you empower girls –even in a tiny Guatemalan village off the grid. Twelve young women made up the original Community Cloud Forest Conservation group (there are now 75 girls in the group.. and boys, too!) They spend 5 weeks after the school year ends, learning about environmental protection, life skills, fruit tree grafting, bird watching, and deforestation. In return, they are given a scholarship that helps them pay for their next year of school – with the understanding that they will teach others what they have learned and do community service projects.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of two girls more worthy of investment. Elvira worked for seven years raising chickens to earn money to pay her own school fees, then went back to the 7th grade at the age of 19. Now 24,  she wants to become a teacher to lead other girls.  “As young women here, we need to learn what our parents didn’t know,” she says. “So our whole community can come back to life and our lives will be better tomorrow and the next day.”

Patricia, who is 17, has become an outspoken advocate for preserving the cloud forest. “When you are aware that our water comes from the forest—that the trees grab the clouds and give us rain – you know that we have to work together now to save it before it’s gone.”

As Elvira was talking, I was watching her father in the group – the man who had forced her to drop out of school. I was half-thinking that maybe there would be some bitterness between Elvira and her dad, but I was wrong. When Elvira stopped talking, he slowly got to his feet and said, “It’s a great blessing from God that you helped my daughter to study, and I thank Heifer for that. But we have to stand up as a community and help all the girls. Young men can go and leave the village, but the girls have to stay here. They’re our future.”

A few hours later, I was driving back from the village with Heifer’s Byron and Vivian (in Spanish it’s pronounced “Bibian” – and how adorable is that??)  when we saw four girls practicing their soccer kicks in a park in Sacapula in the late afternoon. They were seriously whaling that ball, cheering each other on, and were tremendously excited to be photographed doing it.I loved seeing that. I loved cheering with Bibian as she taught me to holler, “Vamos, chicas!” I loved everything I saw that day at Alta Verapaz.

Categories: Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 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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