Stories of start-up businesses run by twenty-somethings are a dime a dozen in the 21st century. But a group of high school and college students in the Guatemalan highlands have a truly unique tale to tell.

Jóvenes en la Missión (Youth in Mission, JEM) began with 25 members from three communities between the ages of 13-20. It now boasts 2,500 members throughout the northern Guatemalan province of San Marcos. JEM’s motto is “United for Water,” and most of its activities have an environmental component. Its early initiatives were fairly conventional – things like Earth Day celebrations, clean-up campaigns and tree planting. 

Then two years ago officials from The World Conservation Union (IUCN) learned about a call for grant applications from grassroots organizations by the Japan Water Forum Fund. With technical assistance from the IUCN’s Tacaná Project, JEM developed a proposal entitled, “Drop Irrigation in Greenhouse To Produce Flowers with Teenagers.” Of 156 entries from 34 countries, JEM’s was including among the 19 selected – and the only one from Latin America.

The US$1,000 grant was hardly enough to do much more than line up a few sprinklers, but that didn’t seem to bother anybody. “The dollars weren’t many, but the recognition was valuable for the youngsters,” said Feliciano Velásquez, president of the Toacá-Tacaná Micro-Watershed Committee. “The provincial government took notice. Mayors took notice. That was important.”

The grant also encouraged a dozen JEM members with an entrepreneurial bent to think big. Again with assistance from the Tacaná Project, JEM became a registered non-governmental organization in July 2005. About a year later, in a contract cosigned for legal reasons by the cooperative of the San Pablo Toacá community (see accompanying article), JEM received a US$75,000 loan from the Guatemalan branch of Amanco, a leading producer of irrigation tube systems in Latin America, recently purchased by Mexico’s Mexichem Corporation. The loan is helping them build a total of 19 greenhouses with drip irrigation that will produce flowers and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Amanco has worked successfully with social entrepreneurs before, notably with Arturo García and his Red de Agricultores Sustentables y Autogestivos (RASA), a network of farmer-owned and managed cooperatives in the Mexican state of Guerrero. By working with low-income producers, it hopes to “enable those farmers to become good Amanco customers,” according to a paper by Jane Nelson, senior fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Beth Jenkins, senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton.

To market its products, JEM will count on the support of both Amanco and Guatemalan Exporters Association (AGEXPORT). “Amanco said they already have buyers,” said Feliciano Velásquez. AGEXPORT is chipping in with financing for quality control and certification, market studies, the creation of an online presence, and business training.

That training is likely to be key. “They still need to improve their business skills,” said Ottoniel Rivera, coordinator of the Tacaná Project of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Guatemala. “They need to learn about things like how to reinvest.” JEM President Ever Velásquez understands this: “The second stage is will be to train people how to run their own businesses.” The export association plans to include visits to successful farms as part of the learning process.

Community economic development is fundamental to environmental conservation, noted Rivera: “These kids don’t want to migrate to the United States like so many others. They want to remain in their community, but they have to make a living. They want to protect the environment, but then they ask, ‘So now that we’ve saved the forest, how are we going to make a living?’”

If all goes well, the greenhouses will represent an important new option. According to Ever Velásquez, “In August we’ll have our first harvest ready for delivery. We’ll have more income while at the same time preserving the forest and saving water.”
Written by Bill Hinchberger