Phil Moore is currently travelling through the Americas on a Permaculture tour meeting all kinds of people, projects and places that work to restore the natural world and unite people. Here he writes about his experience at the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project in Guatemala.
The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project has been planting trees since 1998. Based in the small village of Pachaj near the city of Xela, a popular destination for tourists seeking a Spanish school, the immediate landscape is one that is familiar throughout Guatemala. Fields of corn (Maize) dominate. A crop both sacred and vital to the Mayan population Maize represents more than just a cereal grain – it defines a culture with roots going back thousands of years. It is amongst the Maize and the slow devastation of the environment that the project works to regenerate the land.
Named after the murdered Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist, who fought for human rights and the preservation of the Amazon Rainforest, the work of the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project connects ecology and education with empowerment. And the vision to plant 100,000 trees in the surrounding hillsides is being realised by a single man, Armando. Welcoming volunteers to his family home those that work on the project share meals and if not too tired from the day’s work play with his alert and energetic children.
A ten minute walk though the corn fields, the seed and tree nursery is located at the foot of one of the many hills surrounding the village. Along the way, locals (Mayan K’iche’) pass by with a friendly greeting, children play football on the dirt road, and the thundering roar – and horn – of converted U.S. school buses (the principal mode of transport in Guatemala and affectionately called Chicken Buses) can be heard in the distance as it does the rounds.
Work at Chico Mendes involved organizing seeds and saplings of local highland trees (cypress, pine and fir), preparing soil and of course planting trees. It was only after having left the project that I realised how humbling the work had been. The project ostensibly works to reforest communal lands in Pachaj but it was on reflection that I realised the conservation of the environment wasn’t the only thing happening. The project also worked to develop the ecology of place through its ties with the community. Armando’s eldest daughter Claudia teaches local women Spanish. A strong culture, despite the brutal repression during Guatemala’s savage 36 year civil war, many indigenous people’s first language is K’iche’ or Mam (local Mayan dialects). The Ixim Ulew Rural Language School (Ixim is the Maya word for Maize) operates from the family home in a large, open social space next to the family courtyard. Claudia’s lessons are usually prefaced with a talk by Armando about the importance of the project and the necessity of looking after the land. Seeing this after a day’s work I was impressed by the force and enthusiasm of Armando’s words despite not being able to grasp their meaning. Empowerment begins with education; with education comes freedom.
It was also the ecology of the home that made an impression on me.
Being invited into another’s household, sharing food and simply talking (albeit in my potted Spanish) offered an insight into the lives of a people I would ordinarily know nothing about. The interest was mutual. It was this exchange over potatoes, beans and tortillas that made me appreciate food isn’t just sustenance, it can also be a medium of cultural transmission. Claudia, also the name of Armando’s wife, told us that her youngest daughter Dulce, six years old, was once very shy. With the passing of many volunteers Dulce’s confidence grew as she became interested in what all these people were doing in her home.
The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project is an example of ecological restoration supporting cultural autonomy and heritage. It shares the ideas of Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement with its emphasis on community development matching community felt needs, the example of India’s Bhausaheb Thorat who turned a desert into a forest and the inspirational Gaviotas ecovillage in Colombia: a living example of how trust in people and cooperation can help us all realise that another world is possible.