A Discussion with Ramón Rixquiacche, Mayan Environmentalist

With: Ramón Rixquiacche Berkley Center Profile

January 12, 2016

Background: As director of the environmental forestry technical unit of Cantel, Ramón Rixquiacche focuses on a range of environmental issues and programs. He is also engaged on the political front, seeing low political awareness of environmental challenges as a major obstacle. He describes the attitudes and roles of religious leaders from Catholic and evangelical churches and Mayan communities. Their previous efforts to educate on environmental challenges have made a positive impact. Among Mayan priests the focus has been on maintaining sacred sites. Rixquiacche highlights the importance of countering the tendency of all religious leaders to view climate change as divine will or as inevitable, so therefore action is unwarranted. He describes the many changes he sees as signs of climate change. This discussion with Carlos Martinez Ruiz in Guatemala on January 12, 2016 forms part of research on the religious dimensions of environmental challenges facing Guatemala.
Can you please tell us about your background?

I come from a Maya Quiche community called la Estancia, in the Cantel municipality. I am 50 years old. I’m an expert in electricity, but I never worked in that field since other fields interested me more. When I was young, I initially wanted to become a teacher, but due to a lack of financial resources, I had to pursue a technical career with a scholarship from an evangelical church. After graduation, I worked for various organizations. Then in 1990, I began working for Habitat for Humanity as a promoter, and then became a program coordinator for San Marcos, San Juan Ostuncalco, Coatepeque, Xela, San Mateo, La Esperanza, and San Lucas. In 1995, I began a degree program in forestry and environmental science. I was eventually recruited by the municipality. I have worked with different organizations, including CONAP, a Guatemalan organization, and a foreign organization called HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation. At that time, forestry work was just beginning, and I was hired to work directly with the municipalities, and coordinate with the Peace Corps, Japanese and Austrian companies, and various other players. In 2001, we began to work on a technical study for the Cantel municipality to characterize its biological diversity. That same year, the master plan was issued for one-time activities in the regional park.

I currently serve as the director of the environmental forestry technical unit of Cantel. I am also on the environmental committee for the municipal board. I got involved in politics because I thought that we couldn’t exert influence in the municipalities if we didn’t get involved. In order to have an impact on environmental concerns in the municipalities, it’s necessary to participate in politics. I therefore took on this position four years ago.

Much has been achieved through our influence on the municipal board. In the past we saw that the local authorities did not take the environment into account; their focus was often on infrastructure, highways, schools, and bridges, but they neglected education, healthcare, and the environment. Perhaps 60 percent of municipal governments ignore the issue, and interest from the councilmen was almost nonexistent. There are environmental commissions in the municipalities, but the municipality offers them no support. We are trying to get people to talk about the issues, and we are also trying to create strategic alliances in order to relieve environmental problems. We are also figuring out how to raise ecological awareness in our communities, which is sorely needed. We do this by developing an environmental education plan. We believe that forestry management and other environmental concerns cannot be addressed without an educational program that fosters knowledge in both adults and children about the environment. This can be formal or informal, but regardless, it’s a necessary process.

How do you see religious institutions and beliefs involved in these matters?

Religion was not helping us. Doctrines tend to be more focused on reaching heaven, and it seems that thinking about the time human beings spend on earth is not seen as very necessary. For this reason, it was essential to start working with the evangelical and Catholic churches. We met with the leaders, and we see relevant themes in their messages such as restoration or strengthening of our natural surroundings. Taking some biblical passages where there is mention of the moment when God delivered the earth to our ancestors, we would tell them that we had already destroyed that beauty we were given, and that it was their responsibility to start working on rebuilding it. Thus some Catholics and evangelicals came forward and started to serve on environmental committees in their communities. In this way a situation that used to be negative has evolved, through our work and our environmental concerns. Our coming together with religious leaders was very positive, and their influence has been very positive.

This is also because the communities don’t trust their political leaders very much. They confide much more in the pastor, the parish priest, the deacons, and the Sunday school teachers, than they do in politicians, who they see as liars and thieves. Creating these strategic alliances has worked and even exceeded expectations. Water committees now exist whose leadership is composed of Catholics and evangelicals, and they are starting to work on community programs, including conservation of water resources, conservation of areas important for water, soil conservation, etc. These activities are already improving biological diversity conditions in some areas.

The situation for Mayan communities is different. Mayan priests in Guatemala interpret the Mayan cosmovision from a certain perspective; they value a relationship between nature and humans. Wind, fire, and water are the elements that they mention and emphasize. However, it was all about promotion and not action. They could preach about it but that had no impact. Recently, we have met with them several times, since the sites and altars that they consider to be valuable have not been properly kept up. These natural sites or spaces are considered special, but are not maintained. In contrast, the Catholic Church and the evangelical church have altars that are very tidy, beautiful, and decorated with flowers, as sacred places. We do not see the same care among the Mayans. So we started to work with them, reflecting: if these sites are so valuable, they need to be cared for and respected. And respect means not just faith, but also taking physical action to protect them. That is where we started coming together with them, developing an attitude of awareness, and thinking about cleaning these sites. We started to see changes in nature and in the underlying patterns involved.

We were also concerned that evangelicals, Catholics, and Mayan priests alike saw changes in climate patterns as something natural, prophesied, apocalyptic—that we just needed to let it happen. There was no sense of how to stop, how to regulate, or how to adapt to the changes that are taking place. Many said it was a divine mandate—if there’s no rain, no good harvest, a lot of drought—it’s the will of the Lord. It has been a challenge to work with them to see things from a different perspective. There needs to be awareness regarding the restoration of our natural environment.

Religious leaders were unaware of climate change or global warming, or that they are caused by humans?

They had heard of climate change. The issue is that since we live here, we gradually adapt to the small changes that are occurring. One doesn’t notice the changes; one only begins to notice when larger changes take place. For example, right now many families have fruits at home that used to grow on the coast, like lemons and oranges; they didn’t used to grow at this altitude, but now they do. What does this tell us? There have been small temperature changes. This may be a positive side, but if we look at the negative side, some species that used to exist in these regions have already disappeared. One of the most notable plants that women have been talking about is the species known as epazote, which is a common cooking ingredient. Women have been using it for years, and now it has disappeared, and they wonder what is happening. According to our grandparents, it has medicinal properties, used as a de-wormer, but also as a brain stimulant in school-age children. But epazote has disappeared, and so have other plants. Within the community, this was seen as something normal, the result of a divine mandate; we are paying for our sins and that’s why we don’t have corn; or drought, or heavy rains. It was not believed to be the result of global warming. Few accepted that we are already in a stage where there are alterations in climate change patterns; instead we blame ourselves and say we were paying for our sins. Catholics, Mayans, and evangelicals all had this perspective.

Currently, with the assistance of different organizations, an analysis is being conducted on influences in the community. Climate change and its repercussions are being explained. We are pausing, looking at the causes, the impact, and all of the adaptation measures. For example, we are currently surveying different places where teachers and the Ministry of Education are implementing measures to address environmental concerns. We are seeing that not only in the communities, not only in the religions, but also in academia, there is a lot of interest in the environment. Perhaps the issue now is that there are a lot of organizations that are talking about climate change and adaptation, but we are not clear on the projects that we are developing. Many times we see efforts that are focused on eliminating a certain problem, but we call it an adaptation measure, for example. In other cases, we discuss an issue but in a very generalized way. And when an issue is generalized, one does not manage to capture it fully. Another problem we have seen with different organizations is that many times, they only dedicate an hour or thirty minutes to discussing climate change. This is not practical. We believe that climate change should, at the very least, be a certificate program or a course to evaluate all of the processes and what needs to be done. The municipalities are starting to work a great deal on this matter. However, I see their work more as an activity in awareness; they don’t have the resources to work on some projects. One approach is learning and working on practical approaches with children or adults.

In your Mayan community and your municipal job, what climatic problems do you see?

I see changes in climate patterns. For example, in all regions, we sow during the month of March. Normally, we wait for the first rain, known as the rain of the sower [la lluvia del sembrador]. This comes in March and then we sow, hoping that in May, June we will have normal rain because we fertilize in May. In April, May, and June, our plants grow. Then a heat wave starts in July and ends in August, which usually lasts between two weeks and a month. There is no rain, so it gives us the chance to work the land. From August to November, we have constant rain. In November, the harvest season more or less ends. However, there have been a lot of changes, and now we don’t have a well-defined date for sowing because the rains of the sower don’t come at the same time anymore. Sometimes the rain comes before; sometimes it comes after. As a result, sowing dates have changed and now it’s all guesswork—we decide to sow March 20, or March 25, and wait to see if it rains. There’s no longer any certainty that will happen. Last year, for instance, the sower rain came much sooner, in late February. After that, nothing. No one was prepared to sow. And nothing. We had to wait because we were scared that if we sowed on that date, we could still have frosts. This created a problem.

Another issue is that now the heat wave no longer starts in early July. It comes in mid-July and sometimes lasts until September. Instead of lasting 20 days, it lasts for a month and a half. It brings strong winds and sun, which results in dehydration of the plants; the plants dry out. Then the rains don’t come until mid-September (the case this year). By that time, in some communities the plants are already damaged, or ripe, while in others the harvest is lost completely.

There have also been changes in precipitation. In the past, we knew that the rainy season started in late April or early May, and we would have rain for 45 minutes or an hour. They weren’t very heavy rains, and that helped filter groundwater. These days, it rains for half an hour, but the rain is very heavy so there is no groundwater filtration; instead there’s erosion. The water table thus begins to be depleted. Even though we have rich resources, we now face scarcity.

At the same time, the population is growing. Lack of rains plus a growing population results in a water shortage. Various communities are now rationing their water, communities where water is no longer reaching them, which is something that never happened in the past. I have some curious data from my municipality, Cantel, and I suppose that something similar is happening in other municipalities: there are a minimum of eight marriages a week. We are talking about 32 marriages a month, and that means 32 new families a month in this municipality. If we multiply this by 12 months, how many new families do we have? So the lack of rain, the lack of good filtration, and the growth of our communities only worsen the situation. We are experiencing plagues as a result of climate change. Different types of beans and other food staples have been significantly affected. So now we have fewer beans, and that affects household economies and the food chain in our communities. And malnutrition is rising.

Winds are another problem. Previously, the wind here was humid. Nowadays, women who wash our clothes say that it’s better to dry clothes in the wind because they dry faster and don’t lose color. So on one hand, it's a good thing, but it also suggests that we are now experiencing dry winds. When we look at the relationship between dry wind and farming, we also encounter a problem because dry winds result in dehydration of plants and the soil.

Do you know what’s causing this dry wind?

I still don’t know, but it is certainly noticeable. The laboratory for INSIVUMEH [National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology, and Hydrology] has run tests and the technicians told us that three years ago, samples evaporated at a rate of two liters per day. In 2015, however, the rate was six liters per day. This is one problem. Another problem they have brought to our attention is that the wind direction has completely changed. Previously, it went from north to south, south to north, but now it has changed direction. In Cantel, a group is doing an analysis on wind energy. They are trying to find a solution for the business sector. However, it has been problematic for them because they say that at the location where the device is taking measurements, the winds are coming from the south, and then sometimes the east. It hasn’t been possible to establish anything because the winds do not have a set direction. In Rachael’s studies, she has found that the velocity, incidence, and frequency of the winds have tripled in 15 years. This also affects malnutrition and the farming economy.

Another concern that I’ve identified that has been very present in our community is heavy frosts. In the past, frost season began in late October and continued through January. We had no frosts in February. However, this year we are halfway through November with no frosts.

What happens when there is a frost? Is there hail?

No, it’s just that the temperature goes down. We don’t have snow or hail, but with low temperatures, you can see outside and on the patio that everything freezes. This is what we are used to. That’s why in November our community harvests because the frost season is coming. If we wait any longer and the frosts hit our crops, they are lost. But in the past few years, we haven’t had frosts until late November, which means that we are losing almost a month. So when farming starts back up the following year, there are still frosts in February, and sometimes all the way into March. It’s as if the seasons are being pushed back. So the community is starting to wonder what’s happening. This has been one of the many noticeable changes the community sees, but does not consider repercussions of climate change, but rather consequences of our sins.

Given these phenomena, how have religious leaders responded?

There has been some work done with pastors. We have seen the most change in the past year. There has been recognition, and the pastors have at least accepted our invitations, which in the past was very difficult; they didn’t used to come. Now pastors who have heard our talks are exerting their influence. For example, on Tuesday morning we have a tour scheduled with a group of pastors. Our intention is to go see some examples and make some contacts in the field, because they often need to see to believe, and we want them to see so that they discuss it.

And the pastors go to the fields with the people?

Yes, they are in the fields, but their concentration is 100 percent devoted to the church, to salvation. They visit the ailing, they visit brothers, but they are not seeing what’s happening around them. It’s a bit different now. For instance, last week they committed to undertaking a campaign in December with young people from different churches to raise awareness through what we call personalized activities. This means going from door to door, delivering letters, talking to people about different topics. In this case we want to focus a bit on waste management, a large problem in this municipality. There is no recycling. The department of Xela has conducted practice runs with waste management. Certain municipalities that have invested 9,713 million quetzals have failed to produce any positive results. So this time, we are trying to address the issue with the pastors so that they can relay the message to their followers and explain to them that trash is not the government’s responsibility, but rather the responsibility of all, that we all need to be involved in waste management. Thus with young people, we will touch on three subjects: waste management, the conservation of hydric areas, and community empowerment.

Can you elaborate further on the concepts of conservation of hydric areas and community empowerment?

The conservation of hydric areas refers to working on soil conservation in the forests. This means activities related to reforestation, soil conservation, construction of irrigation canals, and any other activities having to do with the forests and water.

Community empowerment means that the community should take responsibility for necessary action in the community. For example, we do almost no communal work anymore. In the past, our ancestors dedicated days to work on social projects, like fixing roads. It was a community obligation. They would check along the cliffs to see if there were rocks to make sure that when it rained, there would be proper run-off. No one does this anymore, so we want to go back to working on these things. This concerns especially adaptation activities. What do we need to do? We need to make this our problem, and start to realize that there is a problem and it’s not the result of divine mandate, but rather it’s something that we provoked and we should fix.

How do you go about telling pastors that climate change is not the result of divine intervention?

We start with examples of the causes of global warming. We talk about who generates the largest quantities of carbon dioxide. We realize that problems do not come from God, but rather it’s a result of human activities.

How do the pastors respond?

They say that it’s true, and that we’ve acted without realizing. So it’s feasible. For example, when we discussed carbon dioxide emissions with them, it was trying. The first talks were a bit difficult because they thought that the problem was coming from developed countries, which generate the most because they have factories and so on. However, when we spoke with them, we showed them Rachael’s data, which demonstrates that Guatemalans generate 11 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. And where are these 11 million tons coming from if we’re a small country? As a small country we are producing 11 million tons. So that’s where we analyze and we discuss human activities that could have caused this. When we evaluate carbon dioxide emissions and waste, it’s interesting because often we brush off the Catholic Church as a culprit. However, the Catholic Church generates a lot of trash with its fairs, and through its followers. It’s the same situation with the evangelicals. In other words, we all produce trash, especially at Christmas time, because everyone gives Christmas baskets with wrapping paper that isn’t biodegradable.

In conclusion, we all produce trash, and we mostly don’t manage that trash, which is why there is so much of it. When we look at the issue of carbon dioxide emissions, it’s the same story, also for forest deterioration. We are all consumers of firewood. We are all chopping down trees and releasing carbon dioxide. It’s been very helpful that the pastors have gotten involved in this situation, that they have been open to discussing it and helping out.

Around how many pastors have come to these talks?

They call it a brotherhood: two groups of evangelical pastors work with us. Normally the board of directors attends, which is composed of six people who are the heads of the pastors. They meet with us twice a week. They bring our message to the rest of the pastors, and gradually the message spreads. They have committed to spreading the message. This past Friday, for instance, they agreed to distribute any informative flyers or brochures that we create on the environment. They also told us that as pastors, they will encourage young people from different churches to participate in awareness campaigns or events, or any days for cleaning, reforestation, or soil conservation. At the moment, at least in the municipality where I live, we are coming together with the pastors. In other municipalities, I’m not sure, but at least in Cantel this is happening.

A very nice example that we have seen in recent years is the intervention of Catholic and evangelical leaders as directors of water committees. They are bringing together the spiritual component and the social component for conservation of the forests and water. Within the spiritual component, they speak a great deal of God, Mother Earth, and water. Within the social component, they talk about how we all have the obligation to serve and maintain the forests. These water committees have twelve days of social work a year dedicated to forest conservation. What we are seeing is very novel, in my opinion, because they are the first committees that are relating God and Mother Earth. With all of this coordination between the municipalities and the churches, I see a very important instance of connection. I believe that the COCODEs have the authority and power to bring together religious leaders.

What are the COCODEs?

The COCODEs are community organizations. The Council Development Law establishes citizen participation in processes of community development. This has its different bodies. In Xela, for example, there’s the CODEDE, or the Departmental Development Council, which is in charge of assigning projects and funds in the different municipalities. In the municipalities, there’s also the COMUDE, which is the Municipal Development Council. This body approves yearly project proposals. At the community level, there’s the COCODE, or the Community Development Council. The primary allies we are working with at the moment are the COCODE and the community mayor’s office. Many times the religious leaders don’t believe us and say we’re politicians, we’re liars, we’re thieves, and all of the problems that occurred this year have only further damaged politicians’ credibility. I think our community authority is a fundamental component, and the municipality should not just work for the environmental commission or the health commission. The strength of the municipality lies with its internal bodies, which in this case are the COCODE and the mayor’s office. They are the ones facilitating the process for us. These are components that have helped us immensely in our attempts to raise awareness.

How do you see the future in terms of the relationship between church and municipal leadership and your work with the environment?

The mayors’ offices change governments every year. They deliver a “legacy” to the incoming government, known as slogans. One of our dreams is to ensure that the new governments take our activities into account and follow up with them, because sometimes when new governments come in, activities can be abandoned or neglected. So we are asking now that the COCODEs and the mayors’ offices become empowered. That’s where the other component comes in: empowering processes. If the municipality fails to follow up, then the mayors’ offices and community organizations would have the right to demand that the municipality follow up internally on these activities. Externally, various supporting organizations exist to safeguard water, community impact, the environment in general, and health, which has a lot to do with water. We often talk about health, but they also talk about nutrition and hydric resources. This is why we decided that there needs to be a strong sense of empowerment in the community, so that they ensure that the government follows through. The willingness will not come from the government, but rather through the community.

In terms of NGOs, many institutions support us. The problem is fragmentation. One organization works by itself, another organization works by itself, and suddenly, two or three institutions are addressing the same issue. There is no coordination between them; there’s a duplication of efforts, duplication of documents. I don’t think this is leading us anywhere. I truly wish that the NGOs had a coordinated strategy to know who is doing what. That way we could take advantage of the economic and human resources available. The NGOs are so capable of addressing issues in the community, but often they don’t consider alliances with religious leaders. Instead, they look for groups that are organized here and there, and many times you have one person who belongs to four or five groups. I don’t think this is practical. It would be beneficial to start working with government institutions, so that all of their activities would be sustainable when and only when the community thinks they are. They shouldn’t do it out of obligation, or special interests; rather, it should be when the person sees the benefit for him, his family, and those around him.

An activity is only sustainable when governments are involved and have a true understanding of the issue. Many times we have gone to municipalities, ignorant about the issues; we are just starting to learn about the issues when our time there is ending. Organizations have the opportunity and the right to train municipal authorities. Once they train them, they will understand better and allocate a budget for different environmental activities in the municipality. The community can make requests, but if the municipality does not respond, they won't be able to work on activities having to do with adaptation and relief. And municipal governments are not very interested in relief expenses since our efforts are often directed towards post-disasters. Once the disaster has already occurred, that's when they tend to people. This is the biggest problem in the communities; as a community, we are not very interested in prevention activities. Instead, we are more interested when the damage is already done. So we collaborate and we offer support when we see economic losses and loss of life. That is when we react. NGOs have the obligation to sensitize religious leaders. Communities deeply trust their leader, they trust their parish, they trust their pastor. If we work with these people, I think we can present a strong front against the changes in climate patterns seen in Guatemala.

Given the political changes in Guatemala in 2015, what is your take on the future of Guatemala?

At present we at a stage of reflection. In the past, we let ourselves be led on by nice speeches and did not use proper judgment to evaluate the situation. On a certain level, I’m scared. What happened this year had to do with political opportunity and voting patterns. Our mentality now worries me: we say we don’t care who comes into the government, as long as it’s someone new. We need to remember that a good politician should be familiar with his country’s economic concerns, environmental concerns, and disaster concerns, and he should have specific solutions to address these problems. But if we elect someone with the mentality that it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as it’s someone new, this is a mistake. I dare say that a government official needs to have an understanding of how to run a country. I agree when this person says, “Even if I don’t know how, I can hire someone who does”, but it’s better when the boss knows his job and hires appropriate people to support him, not to teach him. I think that the community’s attitude is a form of protest against corruption; what happened in the election was a response. I often compare the millions spent by the political parties, which is an indication of the interests of certain parties in their quest for power. Why spend so many millions? Why incur so many expenses? Why compromise the country? This is another element that could lead us into serious problems.

I see the participation of the community this year in events as something positive. It’s a rebirth of public opinion. Considering the mood of the public during this last election, I think the political parties should reengineer the system for the next electoral event. This is an opportunity for analysis and reflection for the politicians and for us as citizens. This can open our minds and bring our children to conduct the proper analysis, which hasn’t been done in the past. Every person has the intellectual capacity for analysis, but often we don’t take advantage of it. In many cases, we citizens simply improvise and act. I believe it’s necessary for us to follow three principles: First, that in order to perform an act, we first have to develop the act. Second, think about it. Is it or is it not good? And after we think about it, we can take action. In our case, we have just been improvising and acting. This is why many times things don’t turn out well for us. But I think the community is waking up now, and we are not simply led on by politicians’ speeches; now we are looking at their capacity to lead, their background. We are not just casting a vote, but are assigning responsibility. We are deciding how our country will be run for four years. It’s a moment when all politicians should think about what to do, and we need to analyze our actions with care.
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