(This post is from my first trip -- of 12 trips to 12 countries in 2012 -- as Global Blogging Ambassador for Heifer International, visiting some of the most poorest and most remote places on the planet. Best non-paying job ever!)
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.
Unfortunately, we didn't quite get high enough to go to the 50-plus 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 five-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.
Despite the breathtaking beauty of the area, Alta Verapaz has a poverty rate of about 79 percent, and chronic malnutrition that affects about 52 percent 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 three families in one 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.
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 five 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 three little girls. He told us how happy he was to be chosen as one of three 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 and 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 and 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.
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 two 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.