Sunday, February 6, 2011

Time to say goodbye

The study tour 2011 is over. It’s time to say good bye to and thank everybody who participated in many ways in the study tour. It has been wonderful to share this experience with all of you.

Study tour souvenirs

In these 7 days I have learned much not only about our project partners, but also about Oikocredit members and investors and my colleagues in the region, especially Guatemala. I go back home with many thoughts in my mind: there is no perfect project but there is Oikocredit as long term partner for development. Being a social investor means creating real partnerships that go beyond financing especially in challenging times.

Study tour 2011 participants (Photo: A. Vargas)

Guatemala is a country of challenges and hard working women and men aiming for a better future for them, their families, their communities, and their beautiful environment.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

One last effort

We arrived very early in Guatemala City. As hotel rooms were not ready, the conference room became the place to leave our luggage and finalize presentations.

In spite of all, all groups managed to finish on time and delivered very good quality materials. Presentations gave a good overview of the project partners visited as well as raised interesting points for further discussion.

After the closing session, a group of participants went to Antigua for the last dinner together. Once again we had a good time and enjoyed Guatemalan food and marimba music.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Culture and nature in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Today I spent the day enjoying culture and nature in the Maya Biosphere: I will visit the ancient Maya ruins of Tikal. Tikal is located in a core zone of the reserve; where no sustainable forestry is allowed to preserve the primary forest. Because of its economic and touristic importance, the area where Tikal is located can be exploited for tourism under strict conditions.

Study tour participants on top of highest temple in Tikal

There is a clear difference when a forest is well preserved. While driving to the entrance of the archaeological area one could see some wild animals alongside the road. I saw a dead very dangerous and poisonous native snake and many colourful turkeys and other birds and animals. In the park, we spotted a female grown up monkey feeding and carrying her baby. In Tikal Park animals are not afraid of humans because nobody will harm them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A beautiful forest

It takes almost an hour to get to plot 3 in Carmelita’s forest concession. The road becomes even narrower due to the dense vegetation and everywhere there are deep holes that make it very difficult for the pickups to get through. I hope we would not get stuck somewhere and would have to push the car.

We stopped by a Chico Zapote tree where Don Luis made a demonstration how resin is collected. The tree is not cut completely, so it can produce more resin. It was also explained the exploitation of the Chico Zapote tree follows the same harvesting scheme as the whole concession: after the plot has been harvested, it will not be harvested again until 40 years later.

1 km further we went into the forest to see mahogany “father trees”, which are mahogany trees of specific characteristics that were left in the harvested plot to provide seeds for future mahogany trees. Along the small roads, the community plants mahogany, cedar, and other secondary trees, so the ecosystem keeps its balance.

It was nice walking in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. I am glad these communities are preserving the forest while also making a living. Thanks to sustainable forestry practices future generations would also get the chance to enjoy this beautiful environment.

Would you like some gum?

The day started very early with a three hour drive to Carmelita, another FORESCOM member. Carmelita is a resident community located in the forest concession. The road is unpaved and pretty damaged, so sleeping was not an option.

Selecting xate for the US market (Photo: A. Vargas)

Upon arrival there was a presentation and a visit to Carmelita forestry facilities. I saw how Xate leaves are classified and packed to be exported to the US (the largest leaves) and The Netherlands (smaller leaves). Women are employed by Carmelita to do this job. Because the collection of Xate is not seasonal, these women have a steady income throughout the year.

Then I walked in this big room filled with squared blocks. They were made of resin collected in the forest concession from the Chico Zapote tree. The resin is boiled for some hours before it becomes gum.

When the group was invited to try the gum, I was a bit reluctant at first. But as more and more people dared, I decided to give it a try and it was worth doing it. The flavour is not something you can easily recognize. It was a smoky-woody flavour, but I could chew it as the gum I am used to. From now on, anytime I will chew gum I will remember the blocks piled waiting to start their long trip before arriving to me packaged as mint chewing gum.

Weighing gum block (Photo: A. Vargas)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sustainable forestry in practice

Can you protect the forest if you are living far away from it? Yes, if you are FORESCOM member called AFISAP. AFISAP is located only 25 minutes away from Flores (Petén) in San Andrés Municipality and manages a forestry concession 90 km away as non-resident community. How can they do it? They organizing themselves and involve the community to manage the forest in a sustainable way.
Nubia, general manager of AFISAP

The whole concession is divided in 8 plots, with a rotation cycle of 5 years. This means that if a plot has been harvested this year, it will need to pass 40 years before the same plot is harvested again, so the forest can regenerate in a natural way.
Afterwards I visited AFISAP’s organic agro-forestry farm and eco-tourism project. They have many species like mahogany, cedar, cacao, orange trees, xate, and Chico Zapote trees. The organic farm also produces organic honing. And in the middle there is a small plantation of medicinal plants town managed by AFISAP’s women’s group.

Serving communities in the biosphere

FORESCOM is a community-based organization that provides services to its 11 members managing forestry concessions in the Maya National Biosphere. Forest concessions are licensed to communities for 25 years. According to Guatemalan law, all these concessions must be certified. Because of this communities acquire rights and obligations to manage the forest in a sustainable way.

Felisa, president of AFICC, chats with me (left) at FORESCOM facilities

After FORESCOM presentation, I visited the drying facilities and sawmill. It was the first time I saw how these look like. I learned communities can trace their timber thanks to a system of colours. To dry wood, FORESCOM uses timber rests as fuel for the ovens.

Associated communities use FORESCOM forestry and commercialization services to access international and local market opportunities. One of these communities is AFISAP, which I will visit after lunch.

Can you see any forest?

I was lucky to sit at the window. As the plane was getting closer to Petén it was possible to see several little towns and... leftovers of the forest. In between there were many spots that have been cleared for livestock and agriculture. This is why sustainable forestry management is necessary to conserve the forest and to provide sources of income to the people depending on it.

This made me even more eager to meet our project partner FORESCOM.

Local time

Why would you arrive at the airport 2.5 hours before your internal flight departs? Simple answer: Because you were advised to do so. Well, that happens to us. Our flight to Petén was scheduled to depart at 6:30, but an airline employee advising to be at the airport at 4:00 am to be sure to have a place.

Looking back I realized this person did not have real time in mind, but a local interpretation of time – half an hour to an hour later. We arrived at 4:00 am to La Aurora airport in Guatemala City and stood as first ones by the counter long before it opens. We were told later employees only start working after 4:30am.

Could anybody tell me what time it is?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Before the sunset

The time came when we had to say goodbye to the people of CADECH. They prepared a farewell lunch in a typical restaurant. A local group was playing marimba and we could visit the traditional sugar cane mill.

Souvenirs I received from CADECH

To remember the visit, they gave us a lovely souvenir: a small version of the typical hat coffee farmers wear with our names engraved in it. We exchanged best wishes and hit the road again to Palo Amontonado, 3 hours driving from Chanmagua.

Around 5pm we arrived to Alimentos Campestres. It was good to arrive before the sunset as it gets very dark and the road leading to the factory is narrow and a bit dangerous.

This was the first time I saw first-hand how solar panels work to capture clean energy. Besides, I saw how bananas are being dried.

Bananas dried with solar energy at Alimentos Campestres (Photo A. Vargas)

Unfortunately there were no samples anywhere to take home. Wish me luck trying to find Alimentos Campestres snacks in the local supermarket.

Empowered women

The day started with a visit to CADECH’s wet and dry processing plants. In terms of environmental good practices, CADECH’s first priority was to address water management. A lot of water is necessary in the wet processing plant. Now they are recycling water for processing the coffee beans. I saw the machinery for washing the coffee and recycling water bought with Oikocredit’s financing.

At CADECH wet plant (Photo: A. Vargas)

CADECH next step will be an optimal use of waste after processing coffee. At the moment, they give it –for free – to its members to be used as fertilizers.
Before leaving Chanmagua I met two women members of the coop. Not only are Mrs Zoila and her daughter Marlene CADECH members, but also have been involved as members of the administrative board. Zoila was a member years ago and Marlene has just been elected.

Marlene and Ms Zoila (Photo: A. Vargas)

“It is because most decisions are taken at that level”, Marlene told me, “And women have another approach or point of view than men. I am very much aware of any opportunities for women and make sure that women also get the chance to profit from them”. It is not an easy task because agricultural coops are usually male-dominated. Mrs Zoila and Marlene are genuinely empowered women that pave the way for other women to dare to become actively involved in an important decision-making body of CADECH.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Yellow or red coffee beans: Which one should I pick?

We arrived at CADECH – Cooperativa Adelante Chanmagua - offices in Chanmagua town, some kms away from Esquipulas (southeast of Guatemala) and close to El Salvador and Honduras borders. After a delicious lunch – I like Guatemalan food – CADECH reps gave us a presentation on the coop operations and challenges. CADECH members combine coffee growing with reforestation efforts. Then it was time for field visits.

It was busy in Freddy’s 1.75 ha coffee plantation. It is harvest period and there are about 10 seasonal workers. I wanted to try picking coffee. But there are green, red, and yellow coffee beans... and now?

Freddy, his sons, workers and CADECH reps in the coffee plantation

Today I learned Freddy and coffee farmers mixed both sorts of coffee in one plantation. Colour does not affect either the quality or flavour. Every sort has its strengths and weaknesses just as it happens with many things in life: it is not only the outside, but the inside what counts.

In another coffee plantation I was welcomed by a nice perfume coming from white flowers of orange trees that are planted to give shadow to the coffee plants. Some meters further there were pines planted also for shadow and reforestation purposes. This is quite of unique in the Central American region.

Oranges tasted good.

Sunny snacks

It was a long trip. Not because the distance, but because of the road. Let’s be fair: the road is in good condition, but it is steep and has many curves. Deep in my heart I did not mind it much because I enjoyed watching the landscape: from the Altiplano to the dry area – where we will visit a project partner tomorrow – and again up to the tropical forest.

Guess what? During a stop, Carlos, the country manager, opened a box of fruits and local nuts snacks: Maya Mix by Alimentos Campestres - our project partner!

The snacks tasted better because they’re produced using solar energy. Everybody in the group loved them. It’s a shame we cannot buy them in Europe, the US or Canada because they would become very popular in not time. Is anybody looking for business idea?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Getting started

At noon the last participants arrived from Antigua. As early birds, they spent some days in this city and around Atitlan Lake.

First lunch together in Guatemala city

The introductory meeting took longer than expected. After going over the agenda and practical and logistic matters, Oikocredit’s regional and country offices reps gave presentations on the operations with a focus on environmental matters. Andreas, an Oikocredit member from Germany living in Guatemala as journalist, gave some insights into the country from tips for intercultural relations to the concept and identity as indigenous.

The day closed with a dinner at a restaurant close to the hotel. It was nice Guatemalan food, which I have started to appreciate very much.

I look much forward to hit the road tomorrow. Can I have another tamal, please?

Oikocredit Guatemala and regional staff (Photo A. Vargas)

Friday, January 28, 2011

The office in Zona 10

My day started pretty early. I could not sleep any longer because of the jetlag, so I decided to find out if the adapter I brought works (which was happily the case) and check my emails.

At lunch time, I met with Carlos and Augusto of the Guatemala office, and Eduard from Costa Rica. As we drive to the Oikocredit office I started discovering the less sparkling Guatemala City. This city hosts a significant part of the 56.2% of the population living below the national poverty line. 36 years of civil war and a highly unequal income distribution - the richest decile comprises over 42% of Guatemala's overall household income or consumption - makes Guatemala the 10th poorest countries in Latin America.

The office is located at the very end of the Zona 10 – between a wealthier and an emerging area - seems symbolic to Oikocredit’s role to promote global justice by challenging people, churches and others to share their resources through socially responsible investments and by empowering disadvantaged people with credit.

This was the last preparation meeting before the Study Tour 2011 Guatemala officially starts on Sunday, but the first time we meet altogether in person.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Climate change

It was almost 4:00am (Dutch time) when I was ready to go to sleep. I woke up very early because of the rain. First thing I thought was: "Oh, my…! It is the dry season, but it is raining a lot". And then I found out a study tour participant did not arrive yesterday as planned. Her flight was cancelled because of the snow storm in New York, which I’ve learned has been the worst in years.

Lately there have been natural disasters and weather irregularities affecting people, communities and even whole nations in Central America and worldwide. More tropical storms and hurricanes, extreme cold temperatures, sever droughts, and heavy rains are continuously reported in the media. We continuously hear this wake up call, but… are we taking it seriously? Not only individuals, but also sectors and institutions are accountable for climate protection, fostering environmental-friendly and sustainable practices. Truth is that everybody can put its two cents before there’s a point of no return. How many of us are doing it actually?

A windy Guatemala city (from the hotel)

As I think of the project partners to be visited in the coming days - fair trade, organic coops, sustainable timber company, MFIs working in rural areas, and agri-processing companies using clean energy, - and many others that could have qualified for the study tour, it is clear Oikocredit has taken its role and responsibility as social investor seriously and long before "green", 'environmental-friendly", and "sustainable" was a household name in the among financiers in the microfinance sector. One example is the Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean region, which is one of the leading Oikocredit regions in financing project partners with practices aiming to reducing or lowering their impact on the environmental criteria.

Rain has not stopped yet. Where did I put my umbrella?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A study tour to the Maya world

After closing my suitcase, I realized it has only been 9 months since I went to Uganda for the Study Tour 2010. Because of the positive feedback, a new study tour was planned in 2011 with a focus on Oikocredit’s financing to project partners actively working on environmental issues and supporting vulnerable groups in rural areas.

Selecting Guatemala was not difficult. The country's portfolio includes project partners working in rural areas supporting indigenous groups and women and other partners involved in sustainable natural resources management, use of clean energy, and fair trade.

Guatemala is a well-known touristic destination because of its rich nature and Maya culture. At the same time, this beautiful country has a highly unequal income distribution, a tragic past of a civil war, and yet the percentage population living under the poverty level is striking, especially in rural areas.

Next Sunday Along with 15 investors and members of Oikocredit, the Guatemala team and staff from the regional office in Costa Rica, I will start a new journey to the hidden - for the regular tourist – Maya world, the real Guatemala. It is in these impoverish areas where in spite of the many challenges, Oikocredit continues financing grassroots MFIs, fair trade coops and environmental-friendly companies, which bring hope and opportunities through credit to the people and the environment.

It is time to witness again how the funds from our members and investors contribute to improve the lives of many Guatemalans in rural areas.