A Discussion with Simona Rovelli, Program Coordinator, Entre Mundos

With: Simona Rovelli

November 16, 2015

Background: Simona Rovelli coordinates training programs at Entre Mundos in Guatemala. She brings considerable experience in Africa and Latin America to her work. Entre Mundos works on a broad range of issues linked to human rights, including gender roles and environment. It coordinates volunteers from different parts of the world, working in different organizations (it is involved with as many as 700 organizations). Its magazine Entre Mundos is a well-known and respected part of the organization. It makes small grants, funded by an Australian organization. Rovelli focuses on environmental issues and stresses both the extraordinary natural beauty of Guatemala and the grave environmental threats it faces, which are tightly linked to poverty and poor governance. This discussion with Carlos Martinez Ruiz in Guatemala on November 16, 2015 was part of research on religious dimensions of environmental challenges facing Guatemala.
Could you tell us about your background? How did you come to the work you do?

At Entre Mundos, I coordinate training programs and a program called Small Donations [Pequeñas Donaciones]. I am Italian, not Guatemalan. I have a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Turin in Italy, and another master’s degree in development from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. My work has always focused on international cooperation. After finishing my studies, I worked in Ecuador and then in Burkina Faso, where I spent three years with my now-husband. I have been in Guatemala for seven years, working with local NGOs.

Burkina Faso is an extraordinarily tough country—very impressive in many aspects, but physically very challenging. I was working in a city called Ouahigouya, which is not the capital. Life there was very difficult, and I had malaria and a number of other ailments. In other words, I lived the life of the people. I didn’t have running water in the house. Those were three truly intense years. The Italian NGO that I was working for was searching for one or two people to go to Guatemala, and I said, “You know what, let’s go to Guatemala.” This position within the NGO opened up, and we thought it was time for a bit of a physical break. So we came to Guatemala and fell in love with Latin America.

Had you been to Latin America before?


Yes, I did my master’s thesis in Mexico. I felt a theoretical love for Latin America, but it had not solidified fully yet. And at that point I said, “Wow, I really like it here.” I went to work in Ecuador and then to Africa, which by the way is spectacular, but it was also extremely tough. I did what I had to for my work.

What project did you start with or what organization did you initially work for in Guatemala?


At first, I was working for an Italian NGO called Spark [Chispa]. It’s an NGO that was founded by a Catholic priest from Italy in the 1960s. It started with social work in the city of Turin, and focused on internal migration in Italy, on people migrating from the south to the north, including to Turin, because of FIAT, the big auto manufacturer. The priest started the NGO to support Italian migrants. In the 1970s the NGO began to work in Burundi, thus moving beyond Italy.

At the time I paused my work in cooperation. Cooperation has its light and its darkness. After my years in Africa, I was somewhat more focused on the darkness, and I decided to work as a consultant for Chispa. But I got involved in something else: I started to teach classes at Rafael Landivar University in Quetzaltenango, in the Department of Political Science and International Relations.

How did you come to Entre Mundos?


Entre Mundos is very well known here in Xela, particularly because of the magazine. It’s located in a strategic area, so everyone knows about it. I have been with Entre Mundos for one year.

Can you tell us about the history of Entre Mundos?


Entre Mundos came to be in 2001. It’s an initiative located in Xela that was started by two foreign nationals, one of whom is from Australia. They came here a number of years ago and decided that they wanted to do something for the country and founded the organization. Thus, the organization is Guatemalan, but the founders are foreign. I believe they joined forces with some Guatemalans also. It essentially started with the magazine, which is the oldest part of Entre Mundos. They also developed a volunteer program for people of any age who want to come to volunteer here in Guatemala. That was the first step for Entre Mundos, which actually isn’t an NGO, but an association.

I’m responsible for the courses in the Community Enrichment Program [Programa de Fortalecimiento Comunitario], which started in 2006 with certificate programs and courses. In 2009, they added computer courses. What I essentially do is organize courses and certificate programs for small community organizations, which are normally from rural areas, though over the years, we’ve seen it all.

Did Entre Mundos start out with a focus on the environment?


The magazine addresses human rights in the most broad-reaching ways imaginable: gender issues, women’s rights, and so on. There have been articles about the environment, for example. I focus on the environment because that’s what interests me personally. Since I’ve been here, I have made a lot of changes to my courses in order to address it further. However, Entre Mundos does not focus on the environment specifically; we are an NGO for education and training more than anything else.

Thus, we have the magazine program and the volunteer program. The volunteer program coordinator’s role is to connect volunteers from all parts of the world with organizations that are in our database. Any organization that comes to us and requests to be added to our database can be added to it; there is no cost associated with it.

What do you look for in terms of good practices in an organization that seeks volunteers?


We have all kinds of security requirements. The organization needs to have a program that has a system and is somewhat established for volunteers, so that people won’t go and say that there’s nothing for them to do there.

Any individual can go on the webpage and offer their services as a volunteer. Normally, we request a one-month service commitment. When an organization is added to the database, they fill out a form. The volunteers do the same, and it’s the organization that decides what it wants: the personality traits it’s looking for in volunteers, duration of volunteer commitment, housing, and work conditions.

From there, we work out something with the organization that lasts a certain period of time. People sometimes do guided visits in different places. They work as volunteers for one day on very short-term projects, like reforestation and stove improvement. It is organized as an experience for university students, so that they can acquire a bit of perspective on life and the world. Any volunteer work should last a month at the very least. Anything less than that is not what the organizations are looking for, because if they come for two or three days or even a week, they can’t work on big projects. We also have internship programs, which usually last six months.

I know a lot of doctors who come from the United States to perform operations. I have spoken with local doctors, and they are pretty happy about it, and they tell me, “For certain things we don’t have the means, but the doctors are helping us, and we are even learning something.” For example, I know some doctors who work with cleft lips, and they are very welcome here.

Sometimes, with university groups or single volunteers, unpleasant things happen. They commit shameless acts. These are people who come to party, not to volunteer. But I think there are also a lot of organizations that are very happy with their volunteers.

What other programs do you have?


We also have institutional enrichment for the training programs we offer. These are certificate programs and computer courses. We work with a database of around 700 organizations throughout the country. At the beginning of the year, we launched a participatory assessment, in which we sent out a list of the options for certificate programs. We’ve worked every year since 2006 with 14 departments. Around 70 percent of people are from Xela and the surrounding areas, but there are a lot of people that come from around Lake Atitlán, Quiché, and the capital. This is because we also offer scholarships. With a scholarship, the students just have to pay around three days’ worth of classes, food, and materials.

We also have a certificate program for project writing. The nice thing is that we’ve seen people who have participated in the program and also participated in Pequeñas Donaciones, and they’ve done a good job. As technical staff, we make a selection, but the final decision is left to our board of directors.

Where does your funding come from?


It comes from an Australian NGO called Planet Wheeler. We receive the funds and then we give them away—so 200 come and 200 go. There’s a specific part of our budget that is for Pequeñas Donaciones. Simply put, we channel the funds and conduct follow-up visits.

How have the environmental vulnerabilities and problems evolved in Guatemala?


Guatemala is a country blessed with an impressive amount of rich natural resources. I am not just saying this because I came from Sub-Saharan Africa—it is paradise here. You can get two harvests of any crop every year. It’s the country of eternal summer. It’s spectacular. It’s shocking to see how a country so rich can be so poor at the same time. You can reflect deeply on the poor distribution of the riches of the country, the history of the armed conflict, the injustices, how everything is monopolized by a few people with certain resources, and so on. You see people dying of hunger.

The environmental situation in Guatemala is very much connected to the sociopolitical situation. You cannot separate the two. A small monopoly of people are in charge, and they simply see any natural resource as a way to make money. They suffer from truly insatiable greed. This is a country where there are no environmental laws. I’ve spoken with friends who have worked on this issue, and they have said that yes, there are laws, but there is ultimately no respect for those laws in Guatemala.

And there’s no power to enforce these laws on an institutional level.


Yes, that too. You see it in all spheres of life in Guatemala—everything is resolved informally. Having rights is very relative. With regard to the environment, there is almost no cultural respect. There is trash everywhere, contamination in the factories; waste practically goes directly to the water source—the rivers. So the landscape has been somewhat surprising. You see so much wealth and beauty, but also so much neglect, exploitation, and injustice of all types. Thus, the distribution of natural resources is totally inadequate. Because of this, people live in areas that are completely uninhabitable, and when there is a strong rainstorm, everything collapses and there are deaths and tragedies. This is also because these people are marginalized. No one likes to live in a place where only the eagles and the coyotes live. They’re there because they have to live there, because they aren’t allowed to live anywhere else. So this is what I’ve seen, and in the seven years that I’ve been here, I have not seen big changes or improvements.

On the coast, for example, with sugar harvesting, it is terrible. There are entire villages that live on one property. You’re born, you live, and you die there. You work on the plantation, you get married, and you die there. For me, as a European, it reminds me of medieval times when the lord had a feudal grant and people were working on his property. It’s enough to make your blood curdle.

What is cultivated on the coast?


Sugar cane, African palm, and coffee. That type of farming requires a substantial amount of water. It all drains into the rivers, so you can just imagine the consequences to the local flora and fauna and the people. There are rivers that dry out during certain seasons. However, it keeps happening, because people don’t give the issue much importance. Monoculture is a type of farming that involves fertilization and violent, chemical pesticide application. If you plant one type of plant along a mile-long stretch of land and one of the plants gets infected, they all get infected. You cannot allow this because it destroys the entire harvest; you have to fight the pests aggressively with chemicals. So you can imagine the consequences for the flora and fauna.

And you don’t see any protective laws to prevent this destruction?


As I mentioned previously, laws are just words. The respect for laws here is very arbitrary. On the coast, the main specific problems are strong intervention in the river waters, chemical intervention, and wealth distribution. Then, there’s the fact that people who work on the plantations are almost considered the property of the plantations.

Here on the high plateau, on the other hand, we have spectacular conifer forests that have pine trees and fir trees, among others. Since it’s a high plateau, there is also a lot of farming especially right outside of Xela, in the Zunil and Almolonga areas. They call those areas the vegetable basket of Central America. It’s shocking how all of the crops are planted one on top of another there. I feel like it is different there. People there are actually local; every family has its own piece of land. Every once in a while you see someone who has a little more or a little less, but it’s nothing like what you see on the coast, where one family takes over hectares of land. Land may be more evenly distributed, but that doesn’t mean that the use of chemicals isn’t aggressive. That’s why it’s called the vegetable basket of Central America. There’s impressive vegetable production there, but there’s also extreme chemical usage.

What are the environmental issues on the high plateau?


The first issue I see as a citizen of Quetzaltenango is the contamination of the Samalá River. It runs just outside of Xela and through Zunil and Almolonga and flows into Champerico on the Pacific coast. They say it’s number one or two in contamination in Central America.

And the contamination comes from agriculture, factories, and residential waste?


It comes from everything. Everything is dumped almost directly into the Samalá River. For instance, we have some textile factories. They work with hides and leather, which require the use of a lot of chemicals and colors, although the colors used to be natural.

We have the good fortune of having the people of Totonicapán as our neighbors. I believe they are the most involved out of all Guatemalans in the preservation of forests. They have a protection system for their reserves, such as their forests and water. They are Quiché, and their organization is comprised of 48 sections. It’s an impressive organization. In fact, when there is any problem whatsoever in Guatemala, such as laws that go against the will of the people, they are the ones who come together and blockade the highways. They are the first ones to react. They blocked the famous Monsanto bill. It was a terrible law where they were going to give Monsanto a number of rights—people were going to have to pay Monsanto for their seeds. The members of the 48 sections reacted, and the bill was not passed. In Totonicapán they have a system where they take turns as volunteers. The young people have to work for the community, usually as security guards monitoring the forests, for a year or two. So there’s that contrast.

How do you see the work of other NGOs and the universities?


I love that it’s growing. For example, amongst NGOs, agro-ecologic awareness is growing. As a result, a fair with agro-ecologic products is being held at least once a month here in Xela in the central park. We work with some organizations that focus on agro-ecology, and they have benefitted from Pequeñas Donaciones.

And churches of different denominations as social actors and their civic participation on environmental matters?


The problem in Almolonga and Xela is that the super production of vegetables is extremely chemical-based. Various people say that there is a relationship with the Protestant churches, because in Almolonga, 99 percent of the population is evangelical. And with the evangelicals, there is the idea that if you have a lot of money, if things are going well for you, it’s because you are blessed. This really motivates people. They are extreme businesspeople: they would sell anything. If they can manage 30 carrots where they could normally manage 10, they’ll do it. They are not looking at what is inside the carrots or worrying about anything else. Part of this mentality stems from belonging to evangelical churches that push this philosophy.

So there is little concept of sustainability?


No—they don’t consider that this is a high-risk area, and chemicals exacerbate erosion, which increases the risk of landslides and other problems. There are also vertical farming areas: during a big storm around four years ago, there were a number of deaths in that area.

The deaths were caused by landslides?


Yes, it was terrible. The river overflowed, and all of the hillsides came down. This is because the crops are harvested in a savage way with harsh chemicals. The agronomists try to raise awareness, but the response they hear is, “When it happens, we will deal with it.” People want to take maximum economic advantage from what they have for as long as they can, and when they can’t anymore, they will find a way to handle it.

Does your organization have a relationship with Catholic churches?


We have interacted with the Catholic Church through the early childhood ministry (Pastoral de la Primera Infancia). We have also worked with an Episcopal church on a project for AIDS awareness.

And what has been the reception, particularly regarding HIV/AIDS?


In this case, we’ve been received well, because the pastor has done a great job. AIDS is a very serious problem here. There is a lot of machismo, which means that AIDS affects women particularly.

How do you see the future of the country?


In Quetzaltenango we have had the blessing, after three terms, of having a new mayor, Luis Grijalva. He surprised everyone, because he came from nothing, but he won. He is a teacher with a very distinct vision for the development of Xelajú, a city that doesn’t even have waste treatment.

At Entre Mundos we want to keep promoting the protection of human rights, and above all, raise awareness and empower people. We don’t want people to feel that their opinions are never going to amount to anything because they are invisible next to the economic and political monsters. So we work to empower, highlight, and defend rights. And more and more, we are trying to foster environmental protection, with little things that matter. For any event that people have, they buy disposable plastic plates and cups, which creates a ton of trash. We recycle paper here, so we bring a recycler and share it with people. And the food we offer for the certificate programs is organic, which we pay more for, but it’s organic, and we tell people that it’s organic because we are trying to raise awareness about everything we do. This starts with the training we offer, where we help people to develop more skills, and continues with the lunch that we give them. Then, at the very least, they ask why we are providing them organic food, so we are able to plant a little seed there.

This year, we’ve had more beneficiaries that have an agro-ecologic focus. There have been very nice projects here near Xela and near the lake. We support these projects very enthusiastically. I see more and more organizations that are concerned about the environment, the sustainability of their lives, and so on. They are more like us now. We even had a certificate program for project writing with a focus on integral sustainability of three factors: social, economic, and environmental, so that they can see the sustainability of their actions. Thus we are planting seeds with organizations so that they can develop a broader vision of things. Thus it’s not just about making money for the organization.

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