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Chico Mendes Reforestation Project: Planting for Future Generations

Written by Ben Sampson, Guatemala trip leader.

What happens in one part of the world can affect us all. Some issues can only be tackled
by acting together. Countries have resources, expertise or technology that, if shared, can result in mutual benefit. Working together is not just a moral obligation to help those less fortunate but is an investment in the long-term prosperity of all”.

This sentiment describes to some extent why I do what I do; not to mention the fact that I get to work out of a backpack and share this incredible and, for most, unfamiliar country with passionate young movers and shakers capable of doing just what the UN advocated in its recent Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Over the next five days, 7 such movers and shakers will journey by foot from Xela to the shores of Lago Atitlán, site of OG’s permanent-place based operations and what Aldous Huxley once called “the most beautiful lake in the world”. Unfortunately, some scientists now call Lago Atitlán one of the world’s most endangered.

Everyday human waste, garbage, phosphates, and farm chemicals descend Lago Atitlán’s slopes to collect on its shores and in its shallows. But two days in 2005 were particularly bad. On October 4 2005, after a week of rain, the treeless slopes and steep farm fields became saturated and slid off the mountainsides. Boulders tumbled, logs rolled and an enormous load of debris swilled into Lago Atitlán. Near Panajachel, a swelling San Francisco River swept houses, vehicles, a warehouse full of paint and toxic chemicals, and even the city’s sewage treatment plant into the lake. Panajachel remains without an effective replacement, so millions of tons of raw sewage continue to drain into Lago Atitlán every year.

Hurricane Stan took a human toll as well. In the early hours of October 5, an ancient river long lost to time suddenly reappeared above Cantón Panabáj (Santiago Atitlán) burying some 800 of its sleeping residents in mud.

Deforestation and the extension of agriculture up volcán Atitlán can largely be blamed for the tragedy at Panabáj. Over the last thirty years “some 65 percent of Guatemala’s original forests have been destroyed”. But Maya culture was once deeply connected to its trees. Guatemala itself means “place of many trees”. In traditional Mayan society, a town’s trees like its people’s traje (native dress) distinguished it from others. For example, Panajachel means “place of the matasano tree”; Patulul, “place of the zapote tree”; and Chutulul, “near the zapote tree”. Palopó means “amate tree”. Las Canoas, San Andrés, takes its Spanish name from its historic industry of carving dug-out canoes. Today, las Canoas is mostly corn-fields and the place names celebrate trees in places conspicuously absent any.

Enter Chico Mendes and OG’s new hub – two projects that exemplify the collaborative spirit espoused by the UN.

On Day 1 of their 55 km trek across the highlands, Operation Groundswell made a pit-stop at the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project. Founded by Armando Lopez in 1998 and named after the Brazilian environmentalist and social justice advocate who was assassinated on Christmas Eve, 1988, the project dedicates itself to what else? Planting trees.

Chico Mendes Reforestation Project

Chico Mendes Reforestation Project

OG’s arrival in Pachaj was met with the open arms of Armando Lopez, founder of Chico Mendes and the story of an Avocado tree.

A man in the countryside is working his fields. While taking a break from his labour, he sits to eat an avocado and begins to clean the pit.

Two farmers observe this from afar with puzzled looks.

They ask the man, “Why do you clean the avocado pit?”

“So as to plant the seed, of course”, the man replies.

“But how long before your tree bears fruit? “, the men ask.

“About forty-five years” replies the man.

“…and how old are you?”, they persist.

“I am eighty five.” the man says.

The farmers laugh.  “You are a crazy old man, you will never eat the fruit of your labor.”

The old man looks at them plainly, “this avocado I am eating was born by a tree planted by my ancestors who had no hopes of enjoying its fruit.  I now do the same so that future generations enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

The true belief in the power of nature, human cooperation and ecological methodologies is clearly embedded in the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project. They have not always benefited from the support of volunteers, and often lacked resources or financial assistance, but still they continue to plant the seeds for future generations with “conscience and heart”. The government has offered some help but only on condition Chico Mendes cease their opposition to mineral exploitation and water privatization, an unconscionable prospect for Armando.

Armando and his family

Armando and his family

Despite all obstacles, Chico Mendes continues to exercise its voice, and continues the fight, not with arms, but with positive and progressive action.

OG participant Lexi Cory tells the story of our visit:

“Hauling 310 baby pine trees 45 minutes up the side of a mountain is how OG Guatemala Extreme started our morning yesterday. The Chico Mendes Reforestation Project has taken on a noble cause: the reforestation of trees that are quickly disappearing due to mining activity. However noble the project is, standing on the side of that mountain looking out over the expansive space, it seems an almost impossible undertaking.

With our 9-man OG team, 4 other volunteers, Armando and his helpers, we managed to plant all 310 trees in a three-hour span. However, these 13 volunteers that came to help plant are not the norm; these 310 trees that were planted are far and beyond what the Chico Mendes project is able to do with their small outfit. As Armando explained, not many volunteers come by, and even less make the trek up the mountain to plant. Having these volunteers is a benefit unexplainable by words.

The Chico Mendes Project is 100% supported by locals and volunteers. Our OGG team spent our Saturday afternoon weeding out the tiny pines that were still situated on site in black bags. On Sunday morning, we hauled up the mountain pines in more advanced stages of growth, and spent early afternoon slipping, sliding, and falling down the side of the mountain as we transplanted the trees to cool mountain earth. Because climbing up the mountain to obtain more trees to plant was a bit of a hassle and expended valuable energy, we soon worked out an assembly line system of tossing the trees down the mountain for planting. With a bit of a spiral toss and skilled catching, the method worked excellently.

Pounding and stamping the dirt into the ground to support the tiny pines, we soon finished our planting of the 310 trees and, with a snack of mango bread transported from Xela, sat back to survey our work. Over the mountainside and looking down into the small pueblos below, you could see small green pines dotting the hillside. With our hands, arms, and knees black with rich soil and faces streaked with dirt and sweat, we had the satisfaction of knowing that were planting a gift for our following generation. Not many seem to, but dedicating time to a project you will not see to fruition is a very selfless thing indeed.

This is the mission of Armando, his team, and the Chico Mendes Project. Seeing the altruism of Armando and his team, and the dedication and passion that they give each and every day, leaves no doubt that the Chico Mendes Project really is changing the course of the environment. OGG Extreme is just happy learn from Armando, give what time we can, and be along for the ride.”

what are you waiting for?