To protect Guatemala’s Laguna Grande is to also protect its people, as Marta Tiul Cabnal knows well. In a letter to World Land Trust (WLT) supporters, Marta tells you of her own journey: from being among the first in her Maya Q’eqchi’ community to graduate, to working with FUNDAECO so that local people benefit from conservation at Laguna Grande – a “majestic” landscape she invites you to help her save by donating to the appeal (Guardians of Nimla Ha’) that we have just launched.
My work with FUNDAECO began in 2015, when I started volunteering for their ‘Healthy and Empowered Women and Girls’ Programme.
My three sisters and I had been the first people to leave our small Maya Q’eqchi’ community for our studies, and to graduate. From my home village by the Sarstún River I’d travel two hours by boat to the seaside town of Livingston, where I stayed three years and studied Sustainable Tourism. There were challenges like learning Spanish but witnessing the sacrifice my parents made to give us an education was what convinced me to volunteer for FUNDAECO, and start helping other local people.
My community is just 15 minutes away from Laguna Grande by boat so I know it well. We Maya Q’eqchi’ call it nimla pumpukil ha’ and it’s such a majestic place. Everyone who visits is always impressed by the nature they see: the lagoon itself, as well as the rivers where we swim and listen to the many visiting birds and howling monkeys; the forests and the mangroves my mum would bring me to as a girl; the Caribbean Sea further to the east, where it’s easy to see birds, turtles and mammals like the Lowland Paca.
At Laguna Grande, biodiversity is everywhere. Jaguars are something you see, like the one my sister once spotted crossing the waters while she was fishing. Jaguars are also something you hear, like the calls my family and I once heard when we were together (I remember my mother telling me ‘it’s a Jaguar’.) There are crocodiles and of course there are also manatees, or wakax ha’ as we call them in Mayan Q’eqchi’. In the past we’ve run into them while canoeing, and I’ve sometimes seen them just a few metres from my house, which like every other home in my community is built on stilts over the river.
For us at FUNDAECO, protecting this landscape is about so much more than conservation. Myself, I’ve spent years now working with the communities in places like Cerro Blanco, Sarstún Creek or Barra Sarstún. With help from donations we’ve been operating health clinics at all these locations to work with girls and women in particular. To care for mother nature begins with caring for ourselves and our own bodies as women, and so we try to use education to raise awareness around human rights, reproductive health, the importance of routine health checks and such.
This community work has had its challenges, but it’s been so uplifting and motivating to see the results. When we look at the communities we’ve worked with we can see many of them now know how to harness their natural resources. Many, for instance, have created ecotourism infrastructure, women’s groups, craft workshops and agroforestry initiatives. It’s such a joy to watch so many girls who, after being helped by FUNDAECO’s ‘Healthy and Empowered Women and Girls’ programme, now have the chance to study and get scholarships.
To WLT supporters I’d say – if you help us protect Laguna Grande you will support this circle where conservation and communities go hand in hand. Our communities need their landscape: it is the air we breathe and our sustainable source of food and shelter. The life and natural resources of Laguna Grande are extraordinarily rich and not something that you find everywhere. If we at FUNDAECO don’t act, if we don’t continue to protect it, there’s a chance that someone might ruin and pollute all this natural bounty in the future.
For the people around Laguna Grande, safeguarding places like this has been part of our culture for long. Our Maya Q’eqchi’ ancestors used to observe a ritual known as mayejak, where permission would be asked every time a tree was cut or crops were planted. That’s something communities continue to practice because we know the forest and animals do not belong to us – if we take, we have to ask first.
That’s the bond that we can protect this year at Laguna Grande, with help from WLT supporters!
Marta Tiul Cabnal
Gender and Social Participation Regional Assistant at FUNDAECO
For generations, Marta and her Maya Q’eqchi’ people have acted as the guardians of Laguna Grande, a tropical network of forests, wetlands and mangroves all around this lagoon of Caribbean Guatemala.
The Q’eqchi’ have long relied on habitats that clean their air, filter their water and act as a barrier for storms and floods. Today, with 80% of lowland forests already cut down in the region and logging on the rise, Laguna Grande and its Q’eqchi’ communities need new guardians – guardians like you.