August 12, 2020

Saving the Cloud Forest One Young Woman at a Time

In January, I traveled to Guatemala to interview young Maya women who had received scholarships to continue their secondary education. An organization, Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC), run by Rob and Tara Cahill and several Guatemalans, began providing small scholarships for young women aged 13-24 about seven years ago. Its goal was to accomplish two things: educate young women, thus producing better educated mothers who would raise healthier, fewer and better-educated children, as well as providing them the opportunity to become teachers or nurses, or any other occupation of their choosing; and train them in agroecological techniques that would help directly improve the nutrition of their own families and help conserve the remaining cloud forest.

I spent a week with many of these young women, talking about what they had learned and what they hoped to achieve.  I also saw the end product of their five-week course, where they had developed a proyecto de vida, or life project, a tangible goal that each and every young woman could achieve with dedication and hard work.  In addition, they shared with everyone (about 65 young women were in the session that I observed) what they had learned about conservation and the need to protect the forest, the source of their drinking water, planting vegetables and fruits, nutrition, etc.  Each small group produced a poster and a representative spoke to everyone about it…talk about a way to build self-confidence and self-esteem!

In theory, education through grade 9 is free in Guatemala.  The reality is that the vast majority of the villages (see attached) where these young women live have only a primary school.  In order for them to complete middle and high school, they must leave their villages, sometimes living as boarding students during the week or in special programs that operate on the weekends.  There are costs associated with continuing their education that typically their fathers are unwilling or unable to pay, including transportation, school supplies and tuition.

CCFC offers $150 scholarships for young women who complete 25 days of work at Chiaxha’, an agroecology center that CCFC is developing in Guatemala’s central highlands.  Here girls undertake practical activities, such as planting fruit trees and vegetables, learning about biodiversity conservation and the range of income generating activities from natural resources and acquiring values such as respect for nature and community resources, as well as human rights and the rights of women.

CCFC’s mission is to conserve what remains of the cloud forest in the Alta Verapaz, but they have learned that it is not possible simply to conserve the forest.  Consequently, their approach has, by necessity, become very diversified.  Part of that strategy is to equip young women with the knowledge and skills that they need to help conserve the cloud forest.  It is a very small NGO that is having small but meaningful impacts.  As I became a little discouraged last month, Rob reminded me that I have to focus on the big picture; they are throwing rocks into a fast flowing river in an attempt to find a way across.  Some of the rocks land precisely where they can enable one to walk across; others fall off target.  Nevertheless, many girls are gaining tremendous knowledge that they can take back to their villages and also have the opportunity to continue their education.

As always, my travels to Guatemala involve highs and lows.  It is a beautiful country, with beautiful people, but it is also a country whose people and environment have been ravaged by war, poverty and a population explosion.  What I learned during my most recent trip is that there is hope, even if it seems small.  These girls hold tremendous promise for their families and their communities.  The world is changed most, I believe, not by mega-projects that cost billions of dollars, nor by those which seek to aid hundreds of thousands of people.  Instead, I understand how one person can be transformed and ultimately impact the lives of both current and future generations through her leadership.

— Dawn Bowen, professor of geography