A dinner fundraiser for the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project in Cantel, Guatemala, at St. Olaf College last Thursday illuminated some of the struggles and triumphs of sustainable development. Stories from Carleton and St. Olaf students who had visited the reforestation project during a study abroad program helped give a human face to these difficult international issues.
The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project was founded in 1999 in response to a dwindling groundwater supply because of decades of deforestation. As a result, Cantel only has access to water for a few hours a day. The project has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, including 65,000 last year alone. Planting trees in Cantel is considered a subversive political act, a defiant stance against the government that allows this deforestation to continue--a sharp contrast, the students noted, to the idea of connecting to the earth and holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Here, planting trees is a necessity to the continuity of community life, and a politically subversive one at that.
Under Guatemalan law, there must be a certain number of trees planted to replace those that are cut down. The loggers usually do a pretty hasty job of replanting and then leave the seedlings alone. This is not an effective solution. As the students learned in Cantel, it takes a lot of love to make just one tree grow. The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project actually devotes the time and care to the trees they need to thrive.
However, the long-term vision necessary for a project like this--the impacts of the tree plantings may not be apparent for years to come--is a luxury that many in this rural Mayan community cannot afford. After Hurricane Stan destroyed much of their work in October 2005, many of the adults lost hope, and only one of the original founders, Armando, remained. His presence and inspiration, however, have enabled the project to continue. A core group of passionate high schoolers taught the study abroad students everything they knew about planting trees, and about the power individuals have to make a difference in their community.
According to the the UN-based Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, remittances sent home from immigrants living and working abroad, primarily in the US, comprised the equivalent of 12% of the Guatemalan GDP in 2006. The St. Olaf and Carleton students report that most people in Cantel have close connections to someone in the US. While a growing number of people in Cantel and elsewhere in Guatemala have decided the best option for their family is to immigrate to the US, Armando and others believe there are actions they can take within their community to improve everyone's lives.
Learning about the people and the communities working on sustainable development makes it easier to see how issues we often talk about abstractly play out in real life. We can look to the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project as an example of making sustainable development work, but we must remember that limited resources make this project precarious. The greenhouse remains damaged from the hurricane two years ago. Most of the funding for this project comes from outside international sources, including fundraisers like this one. Those wishing to donate to the project can contact novak <at> stolaf.edu.
Photo taken by Nicole Novak, class of '08 at Saint Olaf