February 27, 2020
By Ajkej tezulutlan (Melvin Picón)
For awhile now, we here in the mountainous countryside, where on small plots our houses are located, have heard about climate change. Yes, that topic which is difficult to understand and which we barely talked about previously. We only heard about it on the radio or in the press, that from time to time, would arrive in our community. We had informed ourselves some about it. Also, we participated in workshops offered by various institutions, but we thought, "well, this problem doesn't really affect our community."
Nevertheless, though it appears to be a distant and isolated problem, climate change is, already, a reality in Guatemala, and it is present in the Q'eqchi' Mayan territory. Since my infancy until now, I have observed how cycles and distribution of the annual rainfall have altered, resulting in extremely dry periods for up to twenty days at a time. And the rains have also turned into heavy storms, different from previous types of rainfall. I remember that in the past there was a phenomenon called Mus Mus Hab', i.e. "permanent rain, but gentle." Today, change in temperature is evident. Thirty years ago, our climate was mild and, very rarely were there extremely hot days, but now, including during the cold period we experience this change.
One day while listening to the radio, I found out that there are countries where it has not rained for months and others where the rainfall has increased so much that rivers have flooded towns and communities causing loss of crops. That made me remember the conversation with my brother on the way to our land about how difficult the last year had been for the community. Months went by and no rain fell after having planted. Our maize did not grow and some fields where it did succeed in growing, it died. Besides that, the river was dry, and it was difficult to get water for home use. The coffee, cardamon, and cacao plants and orange trees barely blossomed and even most of those fell off which meant there was hardly any fruit. There was no rain and a lot of heat, which was an alarm for us to sit up and take notice that we would not have a harvest. My brother said, "It will hit us hard! There will be no maize harvest and we won't have a crop to sell so we can buy food!"
"What will happen to us and our family?" we asked ourselves.
Those questions seem to have no answer. National policies, by those who prefer to concentrate on investment in mega-projects in our region, are far from mitigating or reducing the effects of climate change in Guatemala. Rain finally arrived after a long wait, but a few days later, it was so heavy that our river which had been dry, changed into a waterway that rose and rose beyond its normal flow and directed itself towards our fields. The ground was inundated, and our planting again was lost. The maize which was barely growing remained under water and died. Natural disasters like such flooding and droughts are not important to the government. They justify wasting millions to implement stop-gap measures against climate change, many of which are maneuvers to hide corruption.
We have cared for and maintained our lands for many years, but climate change is producing serious effects. We are worried about our crops and we try to find the strength to go on. For this reason, like many other families, my brother and I are planting again. And as if that were not enough, climate change is not the only factor that has affected us: Legislation dealing with environmental and conservation topics is discriminatory. In the case of protected areas, Indigenous communities are not recognized as actors in the management of land and biodiversity under protection.
Paradoxically, although the huge areas of Q'eqchi' territory have been declared protected by the government, there are no funds provided for protection nor government assistance for maintaining and caring for them, making them vulnerable to damage by landowners and mining companies, hydroelectrics and the logging industry. We do what we can, but we don't have permission to care for the territory like we once did. Awhile back, there was a community meeting in which one of the elders stated, "Now if a tree falls here in the mountains, we can not even use it for firewood because that is prohibited."
Illnesses have increased in the community due to the extreme changes in the climate. The community public healthcare advocate confirmed during the meeting that, besides the emergence of other illnesses that had not been seen in our community previously, there were more people during this last year who got sick from dengue and malaria and that children suffered from gastrointestinal illness. The community midwife affirmed that each time she looks for medicinal plants, they are more difficult to find. And now the mountain is a protected area, so going in to search for and harvesting medicinal plants is prohibited.
We have also been deprived of our ancestral, spiritual practices. Now we can no longer take our offering and go to speak with the Spirit of the High Place because it is a protected area. Regrettably, the situation is, that these lands used to belong to us the Q'eqchi's, and we made our case before the government, signing a written document in which we turned over the mountainous areas with the hopes that they would be better cared for. Nevertheless, nothing happened and now these lands are neglected so that we are still the ones who make rounds to prevent the spread of forest fires and to stop people from going in to hunt and cut down trees. Where are the government workers?
Our community's mayor told us that the offices in charge of these protected areas watch via satellite when there are forest fires or logging. That made all of us in the meeting laugh among ourselves. Some exclaimed, "what a silly government!" The elders, both men and women, told the community, "We believe that now is the time to take other measures. We have also cared for the mountain for many years, and for that reason, there are still trees, animals and medicinal plants. Up in the mountains, rivers still have water. That is the water we need during the summer for our crops."
Our territories hold vast areas of sub-tropical cloud forests from which it is possible to develop means of conservation, protection and recuperation of the ecosystem. But without adequate local and national policy that recognizes communities as actors in management of land and biodiversity, there's not much hope. So the first step for saving our surroundings and improving the situation for our crops is the establishment of legislation that recognizes and protects communities who exercise governance over conservation areas. We need them to respect the work we've already done and that which we continue to do.
The Maya Q'eqchi' people possess invaluable knowledge as do other Indigenous Peoples to work against climate change. If we were allowed to participate, we not only would save our own crops and families, but also our ancestral way of life, and as such, would contribute to preserving the earth.
--Melvin Picón is Maya Q'eqchi', from the Chicoyoguito Community in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. He is a member of the Council of Tezulutalan people.