A Discussion with Rachael Shenyo, USAID Western Highlands Integrated Program Coordinator in Guatemala

With: Rachael Shenyo

November 13, 2015

Background: Rachael Shenyo has a fascinating story of commitment and determination, sparked by her work in Guatemala as a Peace Corps volunteer and recognition then that many agricultural and poverty challenges facing Guatemala were linked to climate change. The NGO she founded, Alticultura, focuses on the Western Highlands, combining research on local trends and analysis of the implications for people living there. Currently with a USAID supported project, her work revolves around the same integrated nexus of issues, with a particular focus on citizen voice and food security. In this interview on November 13, 2015 with Carlos Martinez Ruiz, she describes her path and the interlinked issues facing Guatemala and its poorest, most rural, and remote populations. She explores factors that contribute to vulnerability, including the impact on people and the ecology. She links climate change and vulnerability to migration patterns and highlights related sensitivities surrounding population growth and gender inequalities.
What brought you to Guatemala?

I am an animal scientist and ecologist, and I have been working in Guatemala for 13 years. I came to Guatemala to work on an animal husbandry program in 2002 as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I worked as a veterinarian, geneticist, and project planner for a group of indigenous farmers in the Cuchumatanes mountains in the Huehuetenango region. While I was there, I realized that the stories that people told me were about climate change. They spoke about how seasons were changing, precipitation patterns were changing, trees were dying, and they couldn’t get reforestation projects to work. And I thought to myself, “This shouldn’t be happening yet,” according to all of the models that I had seen in my ten years of studying climate change before coming to Guatemala.

In addition to my work as a Peace Corps volunteer, I also worked for seven organizations voluntarily to design a big livestock genetics project. When I left Guatemala and returned to the United States, I stayed very active with this project and came back to Guatemala several times. I also wrote letters and worked very closely with the Guatemalan government to try to change the import laws. I was also looking for entry points that would allow me to come back and do development work on climate change, but realized that there were not any options. The next logical conclusion was to start my own NGO.

So I dropped all that I was doing and went back to school to get my master’s degree in agricultural resource economics with a focus on international development. I designed and developed an integrated science, policy, and practice study for the highlands of Guatemala. I came back in 2011 to do my field research and to start the basic groundwork to form my own NGO. In 2012, I came back to Guatemala to live in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) where I had formed a good network of contacts. I started working as a volunteer for the municipality of Zunil in the forestry and protected areas offices while I was starting up the NGO, which I named Alticultura.

We focus on basic climate change research and what is actually happening with the climate, rather than just saying climate change is happening. I adapted models and field techniques combining empirical data with information from local people to follow trends in weather patterns and precipitation. This is because above 9,000 feet, weather station data is not very relevant. We have no data for high altitudes in Guatemala from the weather stations because they are at lower altitudes, and the microclimates are so different. So I have been interviewing people to find out what is happening. If I ask people, “What is happening with climate change?” they don’t know what to say. But if I ask them, “What kind of crop losses are you seeing?” or “Have you seen hail or frost or changing weather in the past three years?” it gives me a much clearer idea of what is going on.

I interviewed about 200 people and did 40 years’ worth of data crunching on climate change and am now working on publishing that as my master’s thesis and as a report for Guatemala. During that time I was very active with groups that were developing climate change protocols, laws, and actions in Guatemala. I worked with three municipalities on climate change adaptation and using research.

In 2013 I became the in-house water and climate change expert on a USAID project called Nexos Locales for seven months before accepting the position with USAID as the regional coordinator for the Western Highlands Integrated Program (WHIP) strategy. My job there is to integrate, coordinate, and find synergy between various activities. I’ve been doing a four-month situational analysis of integrated activity function in the Western Highlands, trying to figure out which sectors we are actually working in, where we are doing well, where we are not doing well, and how can we document successful integration to improve the program.

I am trying to develop a program model and to advance adaptive capacity, which is the ability of people on the ground to be their own change agents—to learn, apply knowledge, and have access to resources they need to make changes in all the sectors that we work in. The four sectors that I’ve identified are human well-being, which includes education, food security, and nutrition; adequate income generation; citizen voice and participation; and environmental responsibility. In terms of integration, I am trying to look at how to make citizen voice and participation more active in environmental responsibility; how to integrate environmental responsibility with health and education; and how education helps everything.

Could you explain more about the WHIP project?


WHIP is an experimental pilot strategy that USAID supports, focused on integration. In the past we have been very focused on one area of development and not focused on integrating with other areas. It took us 45 years to realize that agricultural production might have something to do with food security. These are things that should be intuitive but are not. This resulted in a territorial, competitive approach to data between organizations, so there was a lot of duplication of effort and withholding of information that another organization could use. My job is trying to break down some of those barriers.

We work in the Western Highlands region in five departments: Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango, and Quiché. Within those departments, we cover 30 municipalities through 20 or so organizations involved in some or all of those departments. At last count, we had approximately 2,000 projects ongoing in the field.

On the USAID side, we have five levels of management that each have their own needs and vision that I am trying to navigate through, to put onto one page as the program model. This push for standardization affects not only USAID/Guatemala but also missions around the world that are interested in doing this. A lot of the work that I have been doing is very experimental and maybe not cutting edge for development, but cutting edge for USAID.

What prompted USAID to develop this integrated program?


It came out of the Feed the Future project as they saw a lot of areas for synergy. For USAID/Guatemala, we have three main objectives in our current country development coordination strategy: citizen security and justice; education, nutrition, and health, which relate to the Feed the Future project; and environmental responsibility and climate change. My job is to continue the work started by the Feed the Future project and integrate the other two objectives.

What are the environmental vulnerabilities that Guatemala faces right now?


I will speak to that as a subject matter expert and not as a USAID representative. In my own research, I have identified seven specific vulnerabilities, and only one is environmental. The first vulnerability is where there is a fragile ecosystem or interaction of natural resources; in the highlands of Guatemala, that means forests, biodiversity, soils, and water. Water tables across the highlands are going down because of a combination of deforestation, soil erosion, soil degradation, forest fragmentation, and population change, where the dynamics are shifting from a rural to an urban focus too fast. Guatemala’s highlands have the most fragile ecosystems in the world, due to the cloud forests, which are considered the most critically endangered ecosystems on the planet (they are tropical rain forests that occur more than 9,000 feet above sea level).

The second vulnerability is if the economy is based on vulnerable agricultural practices. Coffee is a good example; it is the base of agriculture of many of the regions in which we work. Guatemala produces some of the highest quality coffee in the world. But climate change is putting pressure on the ability to generate high quality coffee, because of temperature, precipitation changes, and diseases. There are at least two diseases that are affecting Guatemala’s coffee production. It has been estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 jobs were lost within three years in the coffee sector alone across Guatemala.

I went to the highlands and asked small-scale farmers who lived at 8,000 feet or above what had been happening to their crops like green beans, corn, or tomatoes, which they planted for home consumption or sold for export. I found on average a 25 to 35 percent loss in crops per year in one area or another. Some years it could be 50 to 100 percent loss. Every year, it’s something different. One year it could be a loss of tomatoes, and the next year it could be corn. One year it’s a loss in the growing season, another year it’s in the fruiting cycle, because the variability of climate factors has gotten so great. In talking with people from the Ministry of Agriculture and the USDA in Guatemala, we have already documented a 300 percent increase in pests in some sectors. As temperatures rise and humidity patterns change, the life cycle of insects decreases, making more cycles happen. All of these things are indicative of a vulnerable agricultural economy, and the way to combat that is to diversify the economy and agricultural practices.

One of the scary things is that the 25 to 35 percent loss I mentioned is not just for agriculture. It is also occurring in native plants and trees. That amount of loss is not supportable and is a big factor in migration.

Are farmers prepared for these changes?


No, they are not. Previously, a farmer might have known that it would start raining on April 17, based on 500 years of agricultural practices. Now, instead of seeing regular rains at the beginning of the year, we see a few heavy rains and then extensive periods of drought. It is a very subtle change, but it is enough to kill early germination. The rains now tend to be very extreme; there are these heavy rains that don’t soak into the soil, and instead just run off, taking all the nutrients. The amount of rainfall might be the same, but it rains less frequently and the rains are spaced further apart. Sometimes the rains are strong enough to destroy flowers and the pollination cycle. Due to the higher humidity, you have a higher incidence of disease. In Xela, they are having a lot of trouble with apple production, because it isn’t staying cold enough during the times that it needs to be cold for apple production.

The third vulnerability is the high rate of population growth without adequate planning for resource use. Guatemala has the highest population growth rate in the Western Hemisphere. But in many parts of Guatemala there is no planning for the land or resources necessary to support this growth.

The fourth vulnerability is the high rate of urban and national migration. I did some work with the city of Olintepeque in Quetzaltenango, which had has a 300 percent urban growth rate in 10 years, and this is normal. Resources are being pushed into areas that are not suited for use, making populations more vulnerable. A migratory population doesn’t have that same sense of ownership and belonging, so there is less civic participation and care for natural resources. The fifth vulnerability is poor land use.

The sixth vulnerability is inadequate government response to existing problems. Climate change is not the problem. What climate change does is take an existing political, social, or economic problem and magnifies it, as we saw with the collapse of Syria. Where you have an inadequate government response to existing problems like endemic violence, education, migration, or extortion, these things become worse with climate change. Climate change is a threat multiplier, a term used by the Pentagon.

The seventh vulnerability is the low adaptive capacity. This refers to a low level of knowledge and lack of the ability to assimilate knowledge to the needs of your population, which requires access to resources, motivations, and incentives.

Let’s delve more deeply into the question of the seventh vulnerability that you have identified, which is low adaptive capacity.


Adaptive capacity is the ability of an individual, family, or entire community to respond to changing surroundings and factors—to assimilate and apply knowledge. It’s not just learning capacity, but also the willingness and ability to apply what they’ve learned in a way that is productive and proactive. Low adaptive capacity indicators such as childhood stunting, lack of education, etc. are things that negatively impact the capacity of an individual to make decisions that are going to foment any kind of change.

Look at the case in Almolonga. One of the things that they’re doing is stripping the land of all of the organic matter, roots, and biodiversity that anchors the hillsides. Every time there’s a rainfall over there, the streets flow with three feet of mud, and it’s based on poor agricultural practices. But they’re making a profit on it. So how do you turn that around so that there’s a greater value placed on a better practice that holds nutrition and humidity in the soil?

Population growth is a very touchy topic in Guatemala. In the smaller communities, many believe that it is a Western agenda to control and reduce the native population, so they’ve been pushing back. Within the church, they’ve been saying that your contribution as a woman is to provide as many children as you can. I lived in a very small community up in the Cuchumatanes, and women would come to me and say they want birth control, but the church, spiritual leaders, and men say they can’t do that, and it always comes back to what the men say. How do you bridge some of that with gender equality, so that the women and the men who are actually having the children become the ones who actually make the decision about how many children they have? Especially in multigenerational families living together, there are often young couples who have this knowledge but are forbidden by the elders to apply it. A lot of gender equality comes from providing opportunities and resources for women outside of the home.

That’s another thing that comes up: gender equality. I open the Diario or the Prensa Libre, and I see half-naked women; I see women appreciated for their faces; I see women appreciated because they can sing or dance; but I very rarely see women appreciated for their mind or contributions. Young women say they don’t have any role models, so one of the things I had been focusing on was trying to make female role models more visible. I asked organizations with women in leadership positions to be more visible in the community and allow girls to interview them. This way, they can share their experiences and how they overcame all of the barriers that exist in Guatemala for women to become high-level professionals. Guatemala needs to reach a place where there are equal opportunities for women, and there is equal value placed on the contributions of women (many of which are unpaid and considered duties, such as elder care, child care, and household maintenance).

How about the participation of women in the agricultural work?


This is one of the things that some of the organizations I’ve been working with have been specifically targeting. We’re trying to find projects that aren’t too large and unwieldy for women to manage. The plot sizes need to be manageable for a woman with other responsibilities, and when we find that balance, and find something that actually gives a return, it is very productive. There seems to be less stigma now for a woman to have her own business and income, even if it’s agricultural.

What is land distribution like in the highlands compared with the rest of the country?


What you see here are mostly very small plots, which is another reason why the area has been ignored in agriculture. All of the traditional agricultural economic models say that you cannot make a small plot productive or economically viable, but that’s not what I’ve found. But it takes better practices and intensive focus on how you’re doing those practices, diversification, and market support and incentives.

How do all of these small cultivators with small plots of land come together to sell their product on the market?


Sometimes they work collaboratively; you’ll see a cooperative formation. The women’s group we’re working with is trying to turn a collaborative effort into a full cooperative in order to take advantage of better prices, both on the supply and demand side.

Can you elaborate on the causes of environmental vulnerabilities in Guatemala?


There are a lot of different factors involved: attitudes, religion, inequality between men and women (a serious problem here in Guatemala). A woman I work with here, a 22-year-old girl from Zunil—her name is Isabela—has been married twice; both of her husbands cheated on her, got another woman pregnant, and when I met her she was close to suicide. At age 20, even though she had two college degrees and is going for a master’s degree, is very accomplished and a professional, she’s considered unmarriageable. She’s considered too old, spoiled goods. She thinks that if no man wants her, it negates her purpose for being here, and she might as well kill herself. It all goes back to population growth without planning, and ultimately, women’s rights. Gender equality doesn’t work unless you work with both genders.

Thus any agenda for the environment would have to look at gender.


Yes, absolutely. I think that’s actually the most critical point. More than economics, more than any other. Because you’re talking about half of the Guatemalan population that doesn’t have a voice. So I’m against any church practice that denies women their sexuality, their reproductive freedom, their ability to make a decision—I can’t change my stance on that. Especially having had to make choices along the way to get to where I am.

In day-to-day interactions, one must often negotiate and meet these religious actors half way. How do you do that?


It depends on whether they’re willing to have a dialogue. One of the things I truly believe and will fight for is that human sexuality itself should be one of the universal human rights under the UN Charter. People should be able to choose and express their sexuality with a mutually consenting human being. Here, so many women are ashamed, and we find a lot of shame-driven action. People don’t get motivated through shame; we have evidence that shows the opposite. Women are ashamed of their bodies, their bodies’ functions, their desires, their fantasies—everything is so repressed.

Is this true both among Catholics and evangelicals?


I don’t make a distinction here because I’m not a churchgoer. If they are open to discussion, I’ll have a discussion with them regardless of denomination.

Can you elaborate on your current programs and projects, both with your NGO independently and with USAID?


Going back to the adaptive capacity case, knowledge is only one part of the solution. The other part is access to resources. Resources could include time, because especially with women, we find that time is a limiting factor, because there are so many demands placed on women. If you want to give a woman an opportunity to have a voice in the community, you have to take something off her plate in order to open that space for her. Other resources could be access to water, land, seeds, knowledge, improved practices, etc.

In the USAID project, I’ve been trying to identify synergies where we can take one project that’s working in, for example, community gardens, and link it to another project that’s working in family planning and nutrition. This is how we can provide double the knowledge. We provide the materials, tools, and seeds for the community gardens, but we also teach people about nutrition, how to use the products they’re growing, and how nutrition, family planning, and spacing of children contributes to overall family well-being.

How does family planning relate to the environment?


Overall, if there’s a drop in population growth, you have less pressure on the land. A lot of these small parcels start off at about 10 hectares. If you have a family with about 10 children, what they’ve done is to divide that land into ten plots, one hectare each. Now that family has 10 children, what are they going to do? This is where a lot of the migration comes in. There simply isn’t enough land left.

Migration doesn’t release pressure on the land, however, because you have two things going on simultaneously. In the rural areas, you still have a very high population growth rate. The land is being subdivided over and over, and then you have this excessively high rate of urban migration going on all over the world, which is changing your whole population dynamic. Therefore, even though you have smaller and smaller plots of land being used and kept in the family, you still have a greater demand on the rural side, except that now you have all of this migration pressure. In the past, it was about 30 to 40 percent urban and 60 to 70 percent rural, and now you find that’s reversed. And we’re moving towards world projections where it’s 80 percent urban.

Rapidly growing urban population centers create a changing population dynamic with pressure on transportation, infrastructure, electric, and water systems. This starts drawing resources away from rural schools, extension programs, and education systems. Through the traffic congestion problems alone, the local economy drops by 25 percent. That has been documented. The best thing Guatemala could do for its country is to invest in an affordable public transportation system.

In terms of concentration of people in urban areas, it’s so concentrated in Guatemala City. Decentralization is a problem we’ve been tackling in USAID for a long time. Everything is centralized, and it’s all top down. The government wants to come in and name solutions for the people in the outlying areas, but this doesn’t work. It needs to be a bottom up approach as well.

How do USAID programs seek to create change in this regard?


We have 22 organizations working in the Western Highlands. We work with formal and non-formal education, nutrition and health and sanitation, water access quantity and quality, food security and an integrated food security approach, family gardens, income generation, value chains, climate change, adaptation and mitigation strategies, community level governments, and financial transparency at the government level. We have a lot of foci. My job is to look for synergies between those programs and ask questions such as how does improving education increase adaptive capacity for income generation. I look for questions that perhaps in the past might have been considered nebulous.

We have a program called Social Behavior Communication for Change. It starts with identifying a problem, and then looks at the population most affected or most vulnerable. Then it looks at the influences on this vulnerable population, such as churches and extended family, and then at the secondary influences, such as community leaders. We have to look beyond the vulnerable population itself, and also start thinking about secondary and tertiary influencing factors and create a campaign of knowledge and awareness in these rings. Part of what you see is that the Guatemalan government itself becomes one of the factors that needs to be influenced. Laws and attitudes can either hurt or improve the situation on every level.

How do you change behavior at the secondary level? Among church leaders, for instance.


It has to start with two-way dialogue, and looking at how your audience learns, processes, and assimilates information. One of the mistakes that people make when working in the Maya community is that they print all sorts of documents. The Maya culture is not a reading culture. It’s an oral culture; it’s a visual culture; it’s a hands-on, tactile culture. So if you’re just printing something out for them to read, they’re going to toss it in the street. However, if you go in to work with them and put their hands in the soil and teach them, they learn.

I’ve seen some church leaders here that are very progressive and understand human rights and concepts, and others that are very controlling. My approach with each of them would be very, very different. While my approach with controlling leaders would be to limit the damage, my approach with progressive leaders would be to tell them that they could be agents of change if they wanted to join us. We could work on having environmental and population growth messaging, violence prevention, and nutrition messages come through the church. There are a lot of opportunities, but you have to understand that not all the leaders are on the same level. Many of them simply want to control how people live and think, and this becomes a big limiting factor. When we talk about the third piece of adaptive capacity, which is motivation, this is where I’ve also run into entrenched fundamentalist values. "It’s God’s will." If a woman dies in childbirth, it’s God’s will. It’s not something that’s preventable through better medical care or improved nutrition. If somebody dies, it’s because it’s God’s will. If the rains stop, well, that’s God’s will.

One of the things that frustrates me is that the Maya will tell you that it’s all about the land, but there’s no push to understand those natural processes and cycles or for humans to take on responsibility to protect the resources that are there. We’re losing that battle, and we’re losing that because it’s all God’s will; it’s all pre-written destiny.

Do the evangelicals and Catholics understand the causes of climate change?


No, there’s very little understanding about what climate change really is and that it’s human-based and not natural, that what we’re seeing is a product of our own actions, and our own actions can reverse it. That’s the core message that we’re trying to bring in.

What has been the reception of that core message, particularly with the churches?


When people understand it, the reception has been good. I don’t honestly think that we’ve tried any strategies directly with churches. An exception is one leader who has a program with his family’s local church where he tries to explain climate change and how to prevent it from affecting them personally. People are very receptive to that.

What are the most immediate environmental challenges in the next few years and what is your take on them?


I don’t consider climate change to be an environmental problem—it’s a social problem. I need that to come through very clearly. If we’re specifically talking about the environment, there are four things that need to be considered: biodiversity, soil nutrition and quality, forests, and water and the hydrological cycle itself.

Guatemala has one of the world’s most fragile environments, and we are about number five in biodiversity. It’s been rendered fragile because of its nature, because we have these very porous soils. We don’t have bedrock here that supports a lot. You have an island effect because you have all these mountains with all these different climatic zones as you go up the mountain. Each one is a distinct microclimate with a very distinct biodiversity. Many of these have species that are only found in these places. Then you add in one of the world’s most densely populated rural populations, plus every other vulnerability factor. Every development strategy forgets about the biodiversity. Guatemala is set to lose a lot of its biodiversity. Some of the modeling that I’ve done has shown that if temperatures rise as predicted, it is very possible that Mexico City and Guatemala City will be two of the first places in the world where the average high temperature now is going to be the average low temperature on any given day of the year. If that happens within 50 to 60 years—and they’re actually saying it could happen within 20—we’re set to lose up to 80 percent of our vegetation.

It’s unreal what we’re facing, so understanding that fragility and biodiversity are important is critical. It is a hard concept to sell in economics, but it’s essential to bring back some semblance of balance. I think two-way dialogue based on how people learn and change is key. You need to build incentives into your program in order to make change.

Those incentives can be intrinsic: because it’s the right thing to do. They can also be extrinsic: because there’s an economic benefit; because my children won’t get sick if I do this; because I’ll get fined if I don’t do it.

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