Guatemala - San Pablo Toacá
Tourism brochures advertise the “dramatic scenery” of the Guatemalan highlands. Indeed that’s what you’ll find most everywhere – albeit not always the kind the tour guides would show you.
Deforestation and erosion have left large swaths covered by rock-strewn grayish moonscapes. In the San Marcos province, nearly three-quarters of the population lives in poverty and one-quarter in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These folks seem to be in constant motion – making their ways to unfathomable destinations on foot, by bicycle or crammed like stacks of tortillas into the beds of pick-up trucks. On market days, they lug skinny cows and scrawny chickens for sale.
Amid all this desperation, the community of San Pablo Toacá stands out as an oasis. Set 2,350 meters above sea level in the municipality of Tacaná in that same poverty-ridden San Marcos province, it sports neatly terraced hillsides with healthy crops nourished by organic fertilizers. A new greenhouse is being completed to ensure year-round harvests. Once deforested areas are covered with second-growth trees. A health center, school, computer laboratory and chapel serve the nearly 1,000 residents who, when they need to go into town, can sit comfortably in a well-maintained van.
“The community is very well organized,” observed Ottoniel Rivera, coordinator of the Tacaná Project of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Guatemala. “Everyone – men, women and youngsters – demonstrates a good understanding of environmental conservation.”
It wasn’t always this way. Four decades ago, San Pablo Toacá was just another outpost of destitution. “People would migrate for six months to the Guatemalan coast or Chiapas, along with their families, to work in the farms,” recalled Feliciano Velásquez, a San Pablo Toacá community leader and president of the Toacá-Tacaná Micro-Watershed Committee. “They’d go there to make money and come back here to spend it.”
Then came a strange coincidence that proves the old adage, “You make your own luck.” Feliciano’s Uncle Santiago fell gravely ill. Fearing death, the devout Catholic asked a priest to give him his last rites. Instead the cleric sent him to a Belgium mission in a nearby town for a check-up. He turned out to have tuberculosis, which was treated fairly easily, but during his two-week convalescence, Santiago Velásquez bided his time by taking the mission’s classes on community development and mutual assistance. “He came back a changed man,” in the words of his nephew.
A changed man who in turn changed San Pablo Toacá. By 1975, he had convinced sundry neighbors to join him in the community’s first cooperative – of buyers to obtain goods and services. Conservation efforts and other development activities ran parallel. Education emerged as a priority: local kids were given scholarships to study in the nearest large city, San Marcos, and encouraged to return to teach in the community school.
There have been setbacks – as in 1982 when agricultural advisers convinced farmers to adopt Green Revolution tactics. They dutifully applied chemical fertilizers and sold their farm animals, but within a few years they were back to organic fertilizer and had reintroduced chickens, sheep and goats – this time using stables to keep the animals from trampling through fields and the regenerating forests. (As a side effect, the stables helped reduce conflict among humans as the sheep and goats no longer wedged their way through fences to destroy a neighbor’s yard.)
The well-oiled community came as a godsend to the Tacaná Project when it began its work in 2003. Since the residents of San Pablo Toacá agreed with the principles of watershed management and were already putting many of them to practice, it could be used as a model and a catalyst for neighboring hamlets. “It is best to teach by example,” said Feliciano Velásquez. “Little by little the other communities are coming around to understand. About 10 communities are moving ahead of the others.”
In San Pablo Toacá, community development never sleeps. Besides finishing the greenhouses, workers are busy erecting a new recycling center. “We are going to diversify here in the community,” said Feliciano. “We aren’t going to break with our traditions.”