By Anna-Claire Bevan
GUATEMALA — In the small pueblo of Chimaltenango, just 45 minutes outside of Guatemala City, a group of young people from across Guatemala and neighbouring El Salvador gather for a 4-day youth leadership congress, organised by the Guatemalan NGO Seres.
In a scene that could be mistaken for an acrobatics class, they discuss how in teams of six they can hold a group pose with only eight hands and three feet touching the ground. There is laughter and high spirits as one by one each human pyramid comes crashing down. But, despite the jovial atmosphere, there is a reason why these young people are here today: each one of them is concerned about environmental issues that are devastating their communities and they want to help put a stop to them.
Aged between 15 and 25 these young adults have come together to discuss the problems that their hometowns face, create ideas to tackle them and draw up detailed action plans, which will then be presented to their communities with the hope of generating enough support to bring their proposals to fruition.
Daniella Grijalua is 16-years-old and comes from Escuintla, an industrial city that is characterized by extreme poverty. Daniela says that rubbish used to be so bad in her community that they could smell it from her classroom. But since becoming involved with Seres she has made her neighbourhood more environmentally aware and there are now fines for people who litter.
“I’m so satisfied that I’m helping my community, and each time I come here I get new experiences to take back to my family. I don’t use tins or plastic bags anymore, and since the school in my community doesn’t have a kitchen we are collecting bottles and filling them with inorganic waste so that we can build one.”
Seres’ focus on inspiring and empowering Guatemala’s youths stems from its belief that young people need to be taught the necessary skills to drive their own communities forward, rather than sit back and wait for someone else to do it.
“In Guatemala almost 50% of the population is 18 or under,” says Seres founder Corrina Grace. “But because of the country’s 25-year history of aid and charities that have formed a gift economy, there is this generation rising up that aren’t empowered to do anything with their life.”
Guatemala hosts more foreign NGOs than any other country in Central America. These organisations have been particularly important in providing support for human rights works and fighting rural poverty; however, they often take on tasks that should be carried out by non-governmental and civil society organisations.
“As [foreign] NGOs what we really should be doing is writing ourselves out of existence and training up Guatemalans to lead their own communities. But at the moment we’re not in this mentality. What Seres is really about is recreating the development paradigm and putting power back into the hands of the people – because this is the only way we can achieve sustainable development.”
Through word of mouth, Seres is creating an organic youth movement: training young Guatemalans who can then go back into their communities and share their skills with others.
Julio Vasquez comes from Uspantán, an indigenous area in the mountains that recently found itself at the mercy of oil drillers, miners and hydroelectric dams.
“My community has a lot of problems with la minería. The mayor gave permission for the mining companies to go ahead two years ago, but they cut down all the trees in the mountains and the birds died. You used to be able to see and hear nature all around you, but now there’s nothing.”
Since starting with Seres, Julio has learnt the importance of caring for the environment – something that is rarely taught in Guatemala’s public school system – and is currently involved in a project to encourage Uspantán’s youths to engage with local issues and help create change.
Through receiving talks from their elders about how life in their community has changed over the past 60 years, taking part in nutritional workshops and watching documentaries about successful youth-run projects, these young Guatemalans are learning how to tackle their community’s problems and are being given the confidence to create their own future.
Seres has worked with over 300 youths and helped to facilitate projects such as tree planting, building eco-schools and starting medicinal plant gardens in areas where pharmaceutical products are too expensive.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could train a whole generation of Guatemalans that could grow up to be leaders, look at problems, know how to deal with them and drive their own communities? Then we wouldn’t need to be here trying to fix malnutrition, poverty or building houses – we would have created a whole generation of leaders that could do that,” says Corrina Grace.
Anna-Claire Bevan is a British journalist based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines, newspapers and websites in the US, the UK, Guatemala and Spain. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of media coverage that this area of the world receives.