In the town of Chimaltenango, 80 km from Guatemala City, a group of young people from across Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador gather in a circle.
In a scene that could be mistaken for an acrobatics class, the teams of six discuss how they can hold a group pose with only eight hands and three feet touching the ground. There is laughter and high spirits as, one by one, each human pyramid comes crashing down.
Despite the jovial atmosphere, there is a serious reason why these young people are here today: each one is concerned about environmental issues affecting their local communities and wants to help prevent further damage.
Aged between 15 and 25, these young adults have come together for a four-day youth leadership camp organized by Seres, a Guatemalan NGO. For almost five years the organization has focused on inspiring and empowering the country’s youth and teaching them the necessary skills to tackle environmental problems, rather than rely on foreign aid to do it.
Along with staff, the young adults discuss the problems their hometowns face, create ideas to tackle them and draw up detailed action plans, which will then be presented to their communities in the hope that they can generate enough support to bring the proposals to fruition. Previous projects include tree planting, building eco-schools and starting medicinal plant gardens in areas where pharmaceutical products are too expensive.
“In Guatemala almost 50 percent of the population is 18 or under,” says Seres founder Corrina Grace. “But because of the country’s 25-year history of aid and charities that have formed a gift economy, there is this generation rising up that isn’t empowered to do anything with their lives.”
“As NGOs, what we really should be doing is writing ourselves out of existence and training up Guatemalans to lead their own communities. But at the moment we’re not in this mentality. What Seres is really about is recreating the development paradigm and putting power back into the hands of the people – because this is the only way we can achieve sustainable development.”
Sixteen-year-old Daniella Grijalua comes from nearby Escuintla. She says there used to be so much trash in her community that she could smell it from her classroom. However, since becoming involved with Seres, she has helped improve environmental awareness in her neighborhood, and there are now fines for people who litter.
“I’m so satisfied that I’m helping my community, and each time I come here I get new experiences to take back to my family,” she says. “I don’t use tins or plastic bags anymore and, since the school in my community doesn’t have a kitchen, we’re collecting bottles and filling them with inorganic waste so that we can build one.”
An organic youth movement
Guatemala hosts more foreign NGOs than any other country in Central America, but Seres thinks the country is becoming reliant upon international help.
Through word of mouth, it wants to create an organic youth movement by training up young Guatemalans who can then go back into their communities and share their skills with others. This year Seres has trained 350 young people, which staff estimate will indirectly benefit around 15,000 people.
Julio Vasquez comes from Uspantán, a mountainous indigenous area that recently found itself at the mercy of oil drillers, mining projects and hydroelectric dams.
“My community has a lot of problems from la minería [mining],” says Vasquez. “The mayor gave permission for the mining companies to go ahead two years ago, but they cut down all the trees in the mountains and the birds died. You used to be able to see and hear nature all around you, but now there’s nothing.”
Since starting with Seres, Vasquez has become involved in a project to encourage Uspantán’s youths to engage with local issues and help create change.
By receiving talks from their elders about how life in their communities has changed, taking part in nutrition workshops and watching documentaries about successful youth-run projects, these young Guatemalans are learning how to tackle their communities’ problems and are being given the confidence to create their own futures.
Over the next seven years Seres hopes to work with at least 7,000 young people in Guatemala and El Salvador.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could train up a whole generation that could grow up to be leaders, look at problems and know how to deal with them? Then we wouldn’t need to be here trying to fix things – we would have created a whole generation of leaders that could do that,” says Grace.