Save Mayan Conservation Practices

by Creative Action Institute

ArtCorps Artist Allison Havens and 10 Youth Leaders in Conservation pile into a truck to learn firsthand about their ecosystem.

Over the past few months, the sessions with my core group of community service high school students have been devoted to getting to know ourselves better, using art and creative exercises to answer questions like: "Who am I? Where do I come from? What is important to me? Who are we as a group?" We've gotten comfortable listening and sharing in a circle, working as a team and learning to encourage everyone to participate. And now...we are ready to get to work on our first project together−a mural!

But first we need to learn a little bit about the topics and issues that we're going to be addressing in our mural−how the natural environment affects us, our water system and the future of the community. So we are taking a field trip to our water source, the life-blood of our precious ecosystem.

The Mayor's Representative, Don Marcos, graciously drove half of the group and Oscar, the CARE Watershed Coordinator, gave a ride to the rest of us. 10 screaming teenagers in the back of a pickup truck made for a lively start to the trip! Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we trekked about 30 minutes through the woods to reach the river. Talk about beautiful!

Oscar and Don Santiago, the President of La Masica's Water Council, explained how the water system operates hand-in-hand with all parts of the ecosystem to ensure a stable and clean supply of water. We often talk about "the environment" in abstract terms, but it's hard to have a real understanding of what it means to "care for our planet" or "protect our water supply". That's why I wanted our group to see up close where and how we get the water that comes to our homes. And to learn why sometimes the water doesn't reach our houses or we get sick if we drink the water from the tap. And to identify some of the current threats to our natural resources.

The youth also heard why one member of their community, Don Santiago, decided to volunteer his time to improve and protect this water system for the entire community. When the water doesn't run or there's a problem with the water supply, its easy for people to complain, but often those same people don't work to solve the problem, or participate in the water council meetings. Don Santiago inspired us by his stories and example to be part of the solution.

Overall, the youth loved the experience of the hike, the fresh air, the trees, being in the mountains and being together. Without doubt, these are excellent lessons to take away as well.

One of the first activities we did at the Artcorps orientation in Antigua, back in January, was a "desempalabrar" exercise. Using any or all of the letters in our name, we tried to form as many words as we could, and eventually, a sentence with those words. To me, the most significant word that came from Andrea was the word “red” (in Spanish, red = network, chain, connections). The sentence I then formed was “Andaré [y] daré en red” (andaré = I will walk, daré = I will give). This “red”, I’ve recently realized, has come to life.
As I explore deeper with my kids the traditions and memories that have been maintained by the Quiché for centuries here in Toto, the theme of “La red de la vida” (the network of life) surfaces constantly. It has always been said that the forest births clouds and the clouds birth water. There are certain types of trees in the forest that filter and cleanse the water, which is why if you go up far enough into the forest, the water is the purest you will ever find. But without all these trees, i.e. the forest, there are no clouds, and without clouds there is no water. So all the deforestation going on causes more problems than just taking away the breathtaking beauty of the mountains. And within this Mayan cosmovisión the red continues– the relationship between fire, water, soil, and air, for example, as well as the family of the sun, moon, earth, and stars.
I recently started taking K’iche’ classes from a wonderful señor who has offered to help me in my quest to communicate with more people in their first language; I have been learning not only how to form sentences, but how deeply connected the language is to the way of thinking. For example, ¿Cómo estás? en k’iche’ is Utz awach? Utz means bienestar, or wellbeing, and wach means rostro, or face – literally, is your body well. Buenas tardes is x’be q’ij; q’ij = sol o día, sun or day, and xb’e = ya está en camino, has set out on its path– the other greetings are similarly tied with the sun or the moon.

And while glimpsing into la red that has existed for centuries here in Toto, I have been forming my own red without really realizing it. While my plans were being conceived in the beginning of the year, I remember thinking, am I really going to be able to do all of this by myself? And the answer was no. I came here as an artist, and artists work not only to create and compose, but also to arrange and see and form patterns – look at things in freshly colored lenses from various distances. I never suspected it that I would be collaborating with such people ranging from a muralist to a Mayan spiritual guide to agronomists and journalists to a hip hop artist. All of our work here is deeply connected, and their experience and creativity has been holding me up more than I sometimes realize.

Framing the picture of myself and my work in this way – as just one drop of water or one star within la red makes me think about both the fragility and the strength of all of this is, and how a work of art is being woven this year -  or maybe it has already been woven and we are just adding some new threads to it. Whatever the case, my mid-year resolution is to continue andando y dando en red.

It was 9 am, and only ArtCorps artist Andrea Shigeko Landin and Anddy, a short 12 year-old who likes break dancing and riding bikes in dangerous positions, were in the room where the youth from 48 cantones were to meet. As a musician, Andrea knows how to improvise when activities don’t go as planned.

The youth group that I was expecting to meet with didn’t seem to have an interest in ancestral practices, the environment, or art−the three themes I was planning on working with this year.  I’ve learned that here in Guatemala starting times mean give or take half an hour, so I didn’t panic just yet. Sure enough, at 9:20, I heard the pounding bass line of “Sexy Bitch” from a cell phone, which meant that Miguel was arriving, with his companion Francisco at his side.

At 9:40 it was still just the 4 of us.  As the boys sat outside listening to more of Miguel’s hip-hop music, I took out my anxiety on the package of cookies I had brought for a snack for the kids during our break. I had a bunch of activities planned, but all for the larger group that I was expecting. What was I going to do for two and a half hours with these three boys and their endless playlist of rap music? I figured I could sit there feeling at a loss and finish the rest of the cookies, or I could try my hardest to improvise. So I went outside and told them we were going on adventure.  We walked down the road for 15 minutes until we got to the forested patch of Juchanep, the community where we had our workshops (all the while with Miguel’s music in the background). We sat down among the trees, next to a river, and I started asking Miguel about his music–what his favorite songs are, why, what he thinks makes good music. The four of us got on the topic of rhythm. I asked them if they thought that everything had a rhythm and they shrugged.  So I proposed that we try to find out.

We laid on our backs and closed our eyes, focusing on the sound of the river.  We stayed like that for probably 10 minutes. I thought that Anddy had fallen asleep, but apparently not because when we sat back up he claimed that there was a rhythm to the river, and starting tapping it. I was excited and started tapping what I thought I heard, which was just a subdivision of Anddy’s larger beat. We decided to try the same thing with the wind. After another 10 minutes had passed Miguel started waving his arm in correspondence to what he heard. I handed him a nearby stick, and pretty soon he was conducting the wind.

We continued to walk around the forest, opening our senses to the music of the trees and looking for patterns. We discussed our ideas for a project combining the sounds of nature with their love of rhythm and beats. And finally, we laid back down to enjoy the cookies. I was glad I hadn’t eaten all of them.

It can be difficult to captivate teenagers' attention when you want to talk about the traditional conservation methods and all they seem interested in is staying on top of the coolest trends. ArtCorps Artist Andrea Shigeko Landin is doing just that. But let's back up a little bit.

Like much of rural Guatemala, people who live in Totonicapán heavily rely on the land for their livelihoods - carpentry, forestry and farming. Unlike most of rural Guatemala, the forests of Totonicapán are managed communally and have been for over 400 years. In Totonicapán there are 48 cantons and each canton elects a mayor each year. From the 48 mayors, 9 are selected to form the Junta Directiva de 48 Cantones (Board of the 48 Cantons) or 48 Cantones. This board is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the forest via a set of very particular rules that prevent the cutting down of trees without permission or polluting the water. The problem is that local youth are not as interested in traditional conservation methods as in previous generations and 48 Cantones is concerned that these methods will be lost.

So, how do you captivate teenagers' attention when you want to talk about traditional conservation methods and all they seem interested in is staying on top of the coolest trends? Andrea is bringing technology such as video and radio into the mix. Not only is technology attractive to youth and likely to get them engaged, but it's also an excellent tool for documenting  and sharing the history, knowledge and stories behind the conservation methods in Totonicapan. In addition she will be introducing performance art such as music and theater as an engagement and education tool. Andrea will begin her work with 50 youth leaders, 5 youth from 10 communities. This year she will train them on how to create and share compelling stories. Her workshops will include training in storytelling, creative methods of communication, how to conduct an interview, theater and music.

With Andrea's help, the youth in Totonicapan will soon be convinced that traditional conservation knowledge is chido. It's cool.


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Organization Information

Creative Action Institute

Location: Ipswich, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Louisa Trackman
Ipswich, MA United States

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