As many of you know, last week Emma and I did our first official promotion of our new website, The NGO List, which was a great success. It never ceases to amaze me the readiness of people to help us. We can throw whatever crazy new project we scheme—an Amazon wish list material drive, a yarn-bombing program, and now another website—and friends rally to the cause. Thank you.
Appropriately timed, this week’s blog entry is my monthly NGO profile, and oddly enough, not twenty minutes ago, I was introduced to this NGO by my friend Bri. She’d come in to find me, as usual, perched in Bagel Barn, flipping through social media sites as my little workday warm up. She told me she’d checked out the site, loved it (of course), and that I should check out UPAVIM for the Guatemala page. Bri is a smart cookie, so I did as she instructed.
UPAVIM (Unido para viva major/United for a Better Life) is a super cool organization originally founded on a sort of fair trade model. They began by making simple handicrafts to employ women and help to pay for a program for the community. The women in the organization wanted to get out of relying on foreign aid for social improvement. So, they took charge.
The handi-craft project was a major success, so much so that it garnered a national award in 2001 for non-traditional exporting. With the cash flowing in from UPAVIMCrafts.org, the ladies who have taken charge of their own fates have helped to start several other amazing ventures. The business has grown so successful that they’ve had to start building an “Annex”, a second complex to house all the good things happening:
1. First and foremost, UPAVIM Crafts has been the lifeblood of the organization since 1991, providing the funds to run a nursery and school, as well subsidize a clinic. A member of the Fair Trade Federation, UPAVIM not only produces its own crafts but also buys from organizations around Guatemala, ensuring that everyone receives adequate money for their work. UPAVIM has an inventory of products in the United States, and the company has shipped to several other countries throughout the world. It’s truly what all NGOs should be trying to do: Creating a sustainable model not reliant on donations and truly empowering the people involved.
2. The Bakery & Store employs a few people from the community: a baker, an assistant, and shopkeeper. Like UPAVIM Crafts, these folks were given a hand up, and ultimately, they have taken charge of their own thing. The bakery and store support themselves and contribute to a general UPAVIM fund, which helps to pay for more expansion.
3. UPA Soya products are another project finding great success. While dairy milk is really expensive, soya milk can be sold at a much more affordable price throughout the community and provide a much-needed nutritional boost. Milk alone, though, just didn’t do the job, so UPAVIM soya production facility uses the pulp to create protein-rich additions for sauces, the base for veggie burgers, and pancakes. And, there’s ice cream! This branch is currently working on being a milk and cafeteria supplier for local schools. Um, as a raging veggie boy, I’m pretty hip to this.
4. The Annex, aside from housing the awesome aforementioned businesses, is also devoted to being a building for building the future. Tutoring programs, a library, and classrooms are spread throughout the complex. Kids are getting cared for and educated, the community now has access to an awesome library (with hopes to expand it) and computers, and there is a plan to start a senior program where elderly folks could come in a get a little something to eat.
5. I haven’t mentioned a lot yet: the medical programs in place, especially the Growth Monitoring program to insure the children are doing well but also the affordable clinic with $2 consultations, the scholarship program helping kids who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend even public school, the English program, and on it goes—cool stuff centered around people finding a means to better their situation through their own efforts.
Want to take part? There are great volunteering opportunities available through UPAVIM, including tutoring, teaching English, and providing medical care. Or, do it from home: Visit their online, fair trade shop to buy a few of your upcoming Christmas gifts--free shipping in the continental US for purchases over $75.
So, there you have it: Another great NGO for the Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad blog and another great volunteer opportunity added to list on The NGO List. Thanks for the tip, Bri, and if by some off-chance someone has made it to this last line of today’s blog but hasn’t visited The NGO List yet, I cordially invite you to take a look after you’ve checked UPAVIM’s website.
My list of places left to visit in Guatemala is steadily depleting. This past weekend, I went to Monterrico for my first proper visit. It was far beyond what I expected: On the first morning, we spent two hours on eco-tour through miles of mangrove, in the distance, Volcan Fuego spewing smoke as the three other volcanoes—Pacaya, Agua, and Acatenango—also decorated the skyline. I visited an animal sanctuary with prehistoric fish, sea turtles, caiman, and iguanas. I buried rescued turtle eggs and released an olive ridley turtle into the Pacific Ocean. Then, there was also swimming, black sand beaches, cheap beer, and hammocks. By and large, I never heard rave reviews about Monterrico, or much of anything really. I loved it.
On to the next place: One of the remaining Guatemalan destinations for me is a northern city called Quetzaltenango (the land of quetzals), otherwise identified as Xela (pronounced Shay-la). Frankly, I’ve never wanted to go. It’s Guatemala’s second largest city. It gets cold there because of being at a ridiculously high altitude (2330 mts/7600 ft). It’s a place I best know for cheap Spanish classes, and I’ve got Emma, whose Spanish skills have undoubtedly far surpassed mine, for that. The only other thing I know is going on is hiking, and herein lies this month’s NGO and the reason Xela will feature in my future at some point.
Quetzaltrekkers is an idea I’m completely jealous to have not come up with. Essentially, there are kids in need in Xela, kids in danger of living life on the street, malnourished, undereducated, and so on, and there are people who want to help with that situation. These helpers are not necessarily educators, doctors, or multimillionaires, but what they can do is walk…trek, if you will. So, in 1995, Quetzaltrekkers—a non-profit tour company—comes into being to create sustainable funding for a school for these kids, and as many great ideas do, it grows.
These days, Quetzaltrekkers continues to work withAsociación Escuela de La Calle (EDELAC), a school in an impoverished neighborhood that provides education to over 175 kids, either from the street or at high-risk of being so, as well as operates Hogar Abierto, a dormitory/permanent residence for 15 adolescents which includes supplying them with clothes, medical care, and food. Over 80% of the funding required by EDELAC comes from Quetzaltrekkers, from tourists paying to go on their guided hikes and the profits from that going to good.
As Quetzaltrekkers has grown into its own, the NGO has become involved with other local projects. Primeros Pasos is a NGO focused on providing women and children with healthcare and treated over 7,000 patients last year. The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project is planting trees in rural areas outside of Xela, places the Quetzaltrekker crew leads tours, and it is attached to a Spanish school that helps finance its mission. And, now there is also the Quetzaltrekkers’ Scholarship Fund that provides tuition for students who have earned and want tertiary education (usually alumni from EDELAC).
Volunteer opportunities are vast and plentiful when getting involved with this project and its friends. First and foremost, Quetzaltrekkers looks for guides for its walk. EDELAC needs educators and/or helpers for the classroom. Hogar Abierto needs people to help with running the dormitory. These opportunities can all be pursued the Quetzaltrekker group, but there also chances to volunteer and work with Primeros Pasos and the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the fact that a-whole-nother branch exists in Nicaragua.
So, I’ve got to go to Xela, I suppose. I really dig what this place is doing, and I want to be a part of it. I really want to be a trekker.
Hawaii, the city not the state, is located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, a mere stone’s throw from the border of El Salvador. It’s a place famous for sea turtles, particularly the endangered leatherback and the olive ridley, and in the same breath, it is known for being one of the last commercial distributors of sea turtle eggs. Herein lies the inspiration for another great NGO working in Guatemala: ARCAS.
ARCAS, a non-profit formed by concerned Guatemalan citizens in the late-80s, has centers throughout Guatemala: in Peten, where monkeys and jaguars are; in Guatemala City, where environmental education takes precedence; and in Hawaii, home of the ARCAS sea turtle hatchery. However, today, perhaps because I’ll soon be visiting the Pacific coast and the hatchery, I’ve come to talk turtles.
While much of the southwest region’s volcanically fertile land has given way to agriculture, the brackish mangroves along the shoreline have remained a healthy contrast and are still rich with life. ARCAS has been working here since 1993 when, alarmed by the depletion of leatherback turtles in the world, the NGO settled in Hawaii to try to prevent the over-harvesting of turtle eggs by the local communities. (Not to be left unnoticed, adult turtles are often victims of the tuna and swordfish industry.)
As it seems is often the case with over-harvested things, the big draw to turtle eggs was not the makings of a really wicked omelet but the belief that it was an aphrodisiac, a la tiger penis and bear bile. (How the world does fall into the whims of impotent men!) Sadly, there are reportedly only around 2000 leatherbacks—the second largest reptile in the world—left in the Pacific, and eggs are pretty important to repopulation. In its hatcheries in Hawaii and El Rosario, ARCAS manages to collect 50,000-plus eggs a year.
But, ARCAS hasn’t stopped at turtle eggs. The NGO also has programs for community development and conservation in the area, with opportunities to volunteer. They are petitioning the Guatemalan government to create 4000-hectare protected park centered on the important mangroves around Hawaii, and ARCAS has even gone so far as to purchase Finca El Salado to start the project off and buffer the mangroves from the encroaching sugar cane farms, as well as monitor the factories effects on the coast. The Hawaiian ARCAS branch also does a lot of work with local iguanas and caiman, two indigenous species, like turtles, in need of population recovery.
Another of the many great turtle projects in the area is Akazul, a UK-born NGO located in La Barrona, not far from Hawaii. In 2010, Akazul was formed by members of a program, Project Parlama (the local word for the olive ridley), that was begun by ARCAS and another UK-based NGO, Ambios. Akazul, derived from the Mayan word “ak” (great cosmic turtle) and the Spanish “azul” (blue, as in the ocean), is also working hard to make sure these turtle stick around a while longer.
Akazul is trying to connect all the turtle hatcheries along the coast in order to build up and standardize the conservation efforts here in Guatemala. As well, they do a lot to educate local communities, preserve the environment, and monitor how all the various projects are going. Like ARCAS, Akazul offersvolunteer opportunities, or for those interested in helping from afar, the NGO accepts outright donations, membership fees (which includes a subscription to an e-zine about the project), or nest sponsorships.
Both of these organizations are worth exploring online. I can’t wait to check them out in the flesh in a couple of weeks.
Hug It Forward does awesome work, work that is worthy of your attention and the one click remaining (either above or below) to reach this NGO profile. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I've moved it to another website I run, The NGO List, which has info on the great organization and hundreds more. Check it out by clicking either picture in this post.
Last week was an awful one for me.As I’ve written before, my apartment here in Guatemala is not always the height of luxury.Though the setting is beautiful, my shrewd-ish budget and lackadaisical real estate hunting techniques basically led to living in an old hotel room without a hot plate kitchen, mini-fridge, and a bathroom that serves both as a place to shit and a place to wash my dishes. It’s this bathroom that has caused the fits of late.
For some reason, in the whole of Antigua, the running water in my apartment complex basically disappeared. Well, if I turned the hot water spout, a trickle of cold water would come out, but the toilet tank no longer filled (causing me to stand at the sink for about fifteen minutes after each bowel movement and hope this next slow gallon of water would get it down), cleansing showers became a memory, and filling up my ecofiltro water cleaning system turned into a real pain.
As I sat down this morning to write this blog, I knew it was NGO week, and beyond that, I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to present to you. The internet at the café was down, which meant classic Wiki-research methods were out of the question. I sat scratching my unkempt and crusty beard (It’s actually to a point where I may go up to Earth Lodge to take a decent shower.). Then, I got up and grabbed the latest Que Pasa, thinking they’ve always got a nice write-up. First page I opened to, I saw an ad for ecofiltro: Hike for Water.
First of all, let me explain what an ecofiltro is. More or less, it’s a five gallon bucket with an insert that sanitizes this infamously stomach-churning Central American water into something perfectly acceptable to drink. Without further polluting the environment with plastic water bottles and little plastic water bags, folks can acquire a little clean drinking water. Earth Lodge has them, Oxford Language Center has them, I have one, El Guato Tattoo shop—let’s just say anybody who’s anyone in Antigua these days has an ecofiltro.
Recently, the folks at ecofiltro have kicked off a pretty cool campaign. Thinking of the villagers in Guatemala who sometimes have to hike over a mile just get water, a task done multiple times a day, EcoFiltro has started an empathizing (at least symbolically) fundraiser: This year there are five hikes, climbing three volcanoes in Guatemala, and one mountain in Seattle, in which each participant essentially donates one ecofiltro to communities who could probably do with a sip or two of something cool and clean after carrying five gallons of soiled water over a mile.
I actually saw a few pictures of the first hike last week on Facebook. It looked like there was more than just do-gooding happening. People seemed to be having fun as well, and that’s always a combination that feels right to me. So, one hike is down and there a four more to go: 22 June is Volcan Pacaya (actively spewing hot lava), 27 July is Volcan Fuego (also a lava spitter), 7 September is Mt. Si (the Seattle sidestep), and 16 November is Volcan Acatenango (Fuego’s dormant neighbor). I’m hoping to make at least a couple of these. If you’re interested in hiking as well, visit ecofiltro’s Hike for Water page, or if you just want to support the project, that’s possible, too.
Eco-filters have been around since 1981, when first invented by Fernando Mazariegos, scientist at the Central American Research Institute. The following year, the design garnered the AIDIS prize for innovation in Latin America. Unfortunately, the filters didn’t really start making a massive breakthrough until the 2000s, when current CEO Philip Wilson began networking with NGOs and World Vision stepped up to help instigate widespread distribution. These days, with over 50,000 families benefited,ecofiltro is a for-profit operation that supports ecofiltro:one, its charitable partner creating sustainable solutions for communities in need of clean water.
As for me, I guess I’m thankful, if push comes to shove, walking a mile for water is not really in my likely future, and when I finally cave and decide a real shower just must happen, I can do so with relative ease. And, I’m thankful for my ecofiltro. In my first month down in Antigua, unwilling to part with the start up money (like $50) to get a filter system, I was rationing one plastic gallon of water a week, getting a little more dehydrated by the day. Then, after a run one weekend, I discovered my gallon jug empty. I’d had enough. Best $50 spent this year.
This is your lucky day: Want to learn about NGOs, well, so did I, so much so I devoted an entire website to it. I enjoyed profiling Guatemalan NGOs in 2013, I decided to build a website devoted to discovering and promoting grassroots NGOs the world over. This profile has been moved to that site, and you are but a click (on the picture above or below) away. Go! Go now!
Hey, there! Las Manos and I are both thrilled in your interest, but this awesome write-up has been moved to a partner site, The NGO List, which works to connect grassroots NGOs with international volunteers. So, please click one more time, either on the image below or above, because it would be such a shame to miss out on my first-person account of working for Las Manos and how much the organization has meant to the village of El Hato and to me.
It’s a little known fact because few people would care, but Emma and I were highly unsuccessful at procuring at-home internet service when we first moved to Antigua. Consequently, I’ve become a bit of a coffee shop rat, one of those people who buy one drink, usually selectively cheap, and plants their ass in prime real estate for three or four hours of free WiFi. One of my favorite spots to do this is Bagel Barn, on 5th Avenida, just around the corner from Parque Central.
A couple of weeks ago, as I sat typing next to my empty licuado (smoothie) glass, drained about two hours prior, one of the counter ladies delivered a little plate of cookies to me. For a moment, my ego got the better of me: Normally, I feel a bit tolerated at the places in which I loiter, and suddenly, I felt like one of those recognized and valued regulars, worthy of freebies. Then, after a quick grin, she continued making the rounds, dropping off a little plate of cookies at everyone’s table. Anyway, to finish making a short point long, she’d given me Maya nut cookies.
I’d been seeing the signs in the shop for the better part of however long. Unfortunately, I just never squeezed a taste into the budget, not a Maya nut smoothie, slice of Maya nut cake, the cream cheese, or cookies. Honestly, it sounded a bit hokey to me, capitalizing on the location with a trendy name. That said, it wasn’t so hokey as to prevent me—ever the whore for a new article idea--from inquiring for more info. Isabelle, the manager, was all too obliging.
And so, I learned a thing or two: 1. Bagel Barn is actually the only place in Antigua with Maya nut products on offer and 2. the supplier, the Maya Nut Institute, is yet another upcoming NGO here in Guatemala.
Firstly, we should establish that Maya nut is actually more fruit than nut. (You may recall that the peanut, actually a legume, pulled this same misleading name stunt.) Anyway, the Maya nut comes from the fig family. Whatever it is, the Maya Nut Institute is doing some awesome stuff around this little figgy. The NGO has its fingers in a lot of pies, including operations in several Central American countries, reforestation projects, women empowerment programs, and of course the business of feeding people.
I guess we’ll start with the trees. The Maya nut comes from an evergreen tree that grows naturally in Central America. When the Maya Nut Institute first took up this project, they estimated that nearly 70% of the trees range had fallen prey to logging and other deforestation industries. Since 2001, however, the communities the Institute works with have planted over 1.5 million new Maya nut trees. The new forests will serve as renewed habitats for a lot of wild life (such as jaguars, monkeys, and macaws), as well as provide all those nature-y type things: prevent erosion, create oxygen, and make shady hammock stands. Oh, yeah, and each tree will also be a food source for the next 125 years or so.
In come the women. The Maya Nut Institute has focused specifically on women with this project, believing that “they are a critical link between the family and the environment” and providers of family health care. Thus, in a dozen years of work, over 600 indigenous women have banded together to create twenty-five different companies based around the Maya nut. So, not only have the trees provided families with a better balanced, more consistent diet, but the Maya nuts are also creating some viable income, money that comes from the lady of the house.
Beyond the nuts and forests, the trees are also being promoted as animal fodder. One hectare of trees harvested for fodder provides more animal food than twenty hectares of pasture. The trees are also more hardy, so during droughts (dry season lasts from November to May), Maya nut trees still provide nutrient-rich greenery. The leaves are full of protein and easily digestible. Mexico’s Maya nut enthusiasts are the leaders in trees for fodder; however, in Guatemala, over 1000 acres of Maya Nut plots have been created for ranchers to observe Maya Nut plantations as an alternative to pasture. Win-win-win, as I like to say these days.
Of course, I happened upon the little fig seed in cookie form. In addition to me, it’s enhancing the diets of hundreds of rural communities in Central America. Nestling comfortably into the super food market, the nut contains high levels of calcium, fiber, iron, folate, potassium and antioxidants. Like most nutritious stuff, it’s readily available in powder form and is said to last up to five years without losing flavor, aroma, or nutrients. The powder can be added to baking recipes or sprinkled into other dishes for a little bonus bolster. It can funk up a smoothie or make a pretty unique cream cheese if you so desire. The Maya Nut Institute even has a cookbook.
So, having heard what the Maya nut brings to the table (zing!), you are undoubtedly wondering where to get this stuff. Well, unless you live in the mountains of Central America, your options are going to be fairly limited on this one. At the moment, Bagel Barn is the only place in Antigua where you can sample the wares, ready to eat. However, it is possible to order the Maya nut online, either in whole grain form or as a powder. You can even get it medium or dark roasted. And, the Maya Nut Institute ships worldwide.
If you are interested in giving it a whirl, orders can be made through the website (www.MayaNutInstitute.org) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing information. Should you be insanely keen and want over 100 lbs worth (that’s even a bit too much Maya nut for me), it can be purchased from Alimentos Nutri Naturales. Either way, check out these websites and learn a little more about another great project going on here in Guatemala.
Oh, my. This posting has been moved to another site, The NGO List, where it can be a little more useful. As the proud author and a supporter of As Green As It Gets, I encourage you to press on...one more click away, either above or below...and read a lovingly updated and interesting rundown of just what exactly it is the fine folks at As Green are doing to better the world via direct trade and coffee buzzes.
I apologize for the inconvenience, but this blog entry/NGO profile has been updated and moved to my other website, The NGO List. The upside is that it is now but one more click away and nestled amongst a much larger collection of NGO profiles and volunteering opportunities around the world. Just get mouse-y on the image above (or below), and you'll be magically transported to Camino Seguro's new and improved profile.
In 2013, I decided I want at least part of my writing to be devoted to helping people, or the NGOs that help them, whether they wanted it or not. These NGO profiles are the beginning of that venture, which has now expanded into its own website: The NGO List.