At Raising Spirits 2012, ArtCorps board member and former UNICEF Guatemala director, Liz Gibbons, spoke about why ArtCorps is important to the youth of Guatemala and to the preservation of Guatemala’s natural resources and ancient Mayan culture.
I was very fortunate to live in Guatemala for over three years—it is a beautiful country strung with volcanoes and blessed with 14 eco-regions of mangrove forests, wetlands, lakes, lagoons, rivers and swamps, with 1,200 animal species and 8,000 plant species, many endemic. More than a quarter of Guatemala’s land area is part of a national conservation system—yet these many natural resources are under threat today. With every hurricane or tropical storm, we learn of tragic mudslides and flooding, typically in poor indigenous highland areas—this is due to accelerated deforestation for fuel-wood, for logging, for agricultural expansion, and to forest fires and lax enforcement in the protected areas.
Within Guatemala’s conservation system, sits the San Miguel Forest in Totonicapán, which houses the world’s largest remaining stand of endangered fir trees; it is also a sacred site of the Mayan people. The forest is shrinking for many of the same reasons I just described, but also due to illegal logging and the lack of personnel and capacity to conserve the forest. Personnel is scarce, in part, because the indigenous youth are leaving the rural areas in search of employment in the cities. At the same time, these communities risk losing their culture and collective memory, as the elders fade away without passing on their traditional conservation practices. One Mayan leader, interviewed in 2011, rued “[Guatemalan indigenous] young people are being assimilated very fast—the girls are leaving their traditional dress behind and fewer and fewer want to speak their language….” Obviously, social change is straining communication between the generations.
The situation of youth in Guatemala is dire, with nearly a million excluded from Guatemala’s school system, (by reason of language or poverty) and more than one in four failing to find work of any kind. Youth are also horribly affected by structural violence, which continues to pervade society even 16 years after the Peace Accords that ended the country’s 36 year civil war. In the absence of employment options, several thousand Guatemalan youth are enrolled in gangs, and tens of thousands more are victimized by gang violence. The reckless violence among youth is an indication of hopelessness and despair, but also of cultural disintegration. Meanwhile, with the violence and lack of employment opportunities, Guatemalan youth see emigration as one of their only hopes for a decent life. Of the 1.6 million Guatemalans who immigrate to the USA, 44% are under 24 years old.
So Guatemala is experiencing threats to its environment and unique natural resources, to its Mayan cultural traditions and to its very future, as youth fail to find purpose and productive work. The same can be said for other countries in Central America.
In partnership with EcoLogic, ArtCorps’ innovative Youth Leaders in Conservation Program has been addressing all three of these trends in Guatemala and Honduras: for example in the San Miguel Forest in Guatemala, ArtCorps Artist Isabel Carrió is leading local youth through a multi-year program that links leadership and conservation. From public art displays, to murals, hip-hop, theater and festivals, the creative workshops provide opportunities for the youth to develop their creative capacity as leaders, to understand today’s environmental challenges, connect with their ancestral knowledge and start movements that inspire change in others. ArtCorps is working with the Mayan elders, through storytelling with indigenous youth, to share the wisdom of their traditional practices for protecting the sacred forests; with this knowledge, the youth leaders educate communities about natural resource management. ArtCorps is also training teachers to carry this work on through ongoing creative leadership workshops.
The results of this Youth Leaders in Conservation program will be sustained into the next generation as the young people pass on their knowledge to their own children, but the program is only reaching a few hundred communities. I hope you agree that it should reach many hundreds more, and this is why we are holding this special fundraising campaign. By making a donation, YOU have an opportunity to make a significant contribution to conserving Central America’s unique natural resources, to preserving the ancient Mayan culture, and to giving hope and purpose to the young people of the region, cultivating the next generation of environmental stewards.
Visit www.artcorp.org/donate to make more programs like Youth Leaders in Conservation available to communities in need.