Where farm meets forestNovember 7, 2008
In the early morning hours, three times a week, Rob ex’90 and Tara De Vries Cahill ’85 load up the truck and head towards a remote community bordering the Guatemalan tropical cloud forest. They drive until the road ends, and then they hike—sometimes for a half hour, or two hours, or five hours.
The Cahills are development workers focused on empowering Q’equchi’ Maya communities that lack access to roads. “If you compare communities that have a road with communities that don’t have a road, you see immediately why it’s important to work in these communities,” says Rob. “All measures of development—such as health care, education—decrease in communities without roads.”
Their work is funded by a grant from Heifer International, and for many years they worked with the Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. Currently they serve as co-directors of Proeval Raxmu, a local Guatemalan organization dedicated to nature conservation and sustainable development.
It’s important to approach development work holistically, says Rob. “Subsistence farmers really depend on their environment, and improving their environment improves their livelihood and their ability to provide for themselves.” Eight years ago, this knowledge was academic. But since moving to Guatemala, the Cahills have seen the intersection between food security, community development and conservation “in stark relief.”
"We’ve seen a lot of environmental destruction that causes—and exacerbates—poverty,” says Tara. "Deforestation, degraded forests, disease, malnutrition … and social injustice, too.”
Social justice, human development, environmental conservation and restoration—these are the three organizing principles of the Cahills’ work. “Our work is de facto interdisciplinary,” says Rob.
While on campus the week of October 17, the Cahills lectured to students studying history, botany, gender studies, and, of course, international development.
"We really believe that a liberal arts education, like Calvin provides, is what equips us to do the kind of work that we’re doing,” says Tara, who graduated from Calvin with a degree in biology, and later studied at the AuSable Institute and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rob graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later received a MDiv degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
For the past two Januarys the Cahills have hosted interdisciplinary Calvin interim classes—teaching history and international development—on the edge of the Guatemalan cloud forest. The Calvin students stay with Q’eqchi’ Maya families; “It’s really exciting when Calvin sends an interim down,” says Rob, “because it really helps the communities. We can really get the kids out there.”
The Q’eqchi’ Maya people live in northern Guatemala. “Culturally it’s a very rich experience; the environment is amazing; it’s green, wet, growing…” says Rob. “And working in a language besides Spanish—the Q’equchi’ language is spoken by less than 1 million people—it’s always a discovery.”
A “banana circle”
When their truck finds the end of the road, the Cahills hike to one of the many communities with whom they’ve built a relationship over the past eight years. Once the Cahills arrive, the local people gather for a "learning and capacity-building session.” A family in the village hosts these sessions, at which the Cahills demonstrate practical ways the community can manage wastewater, create sources for compost and otherwise improve their agricultural production.
For instance, the Cahills might demonstrate how to construct a “banana circle,” a circular hole three feet deep and six feet across which receives a flow of wastewater, improves sanitation and capitalizes on a previously untapped resource for fertilizer. Banana plants are planted around the circle, which increases the level of potassium and nitrogen in the soil and provides an added food source.
"When we help these communities become more stable, they stop burning agriculturally,” says Rob. “And that is a great step towards conserving the cloud forest.” Agricultural burning, a method by which farmers clear land for planting, is currently the greatest threat to the cloud forest in Guatemala.
The Guatemalan cloud forest is home to many unique bird species, and the Cahills help to administer local biological monitoring efforts. Their program is unique because indigenous subsistence farmers themselves are trained to collect the data. “It’s unlike any other program in Central America that we know of,” says Rob.
Local farmers monitor the bird populations in Alta Verapaz, and the data collection is evaluated by Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California. The data has been used to establish the important bird areas (IBA’s) for Guatemala—a project of global scale. "Guatemala was the first Central American country to have its important bird areas identified,” says Tara.
Equally important to the Cahills, however, is how these projects benefit local Guatemalan communities. Alta Verapaz has great potential for ecotourism—with caves, the cloud forest, waterfalls, swimming and Mayan culture. But the profits from ecotourism often bypass the local residents. The Cahills have developed a program that empowers local communities not only to host visitors, but also to provide guides for forest treks, and—for those who assist in bird monitoring—to act as special bird watching guides. “A guide can make more money just on tips than their parents can make growing corn for a living,” says Rob.
“A new way of being Christian”
How do the Cahills measure the success of their work in Guatemala? One way is to count the number of trees they have planted—together with local farmers—to “re-forest” the natural habitat. Another way is to measure the change in agricultural practices: “Eighty percent of the farmers we work with stop agricultural burning within two years of partnering with Proeval Raxmu,” says Rob.
A third way is to measure social successes. “We’re thrilled to see that communities we work with continue their monthly meetings after we leave,” says Tara. “People are passing on what they’ve learned; they pass on the offspring from their animals. … To me that’s a success, because that means it wasn’t just us. It was a project that people found useful; it’s something they wanted to do, because if they didn’t they would have quit.”
The Cahills received a letter from one of the communities where they had worked, signed with thumbprints from the women in the village. “They told us that the project had been a great help to them economically, and in terms of nutrition. But it’s really helped them to build community. They said ‘we’ve learned a new way of being Christian,’” explains Rob.
"This is our mission,” adds Tara. “It’s our passion to work with them, and it’s motivated by our Christian faith. We do it out of faith, out of love. We do it with compassion and solidarity, yet we’re not overtly teaching Christianity. So for them to come up with that themselves … It meant so much to us.”
Seek first the kingdom
The Cahills are often asked by Christians living in the United States what they can do to fight poverty and work for social justice. “This question is almost always linked to consumerism,” says Rob. “People want to know ‘What should we buy?’ ‘What should we not buy?’—and it’s true, you can affect things by what you buy. But a far more powerful way to affect change is to go out and do something.”
"Seek your calling and vocation,” explains Tara. “Don’t just look for a job, but pursue a vocation.” Every Calvin student should graduate with this in mind, adds Rob. “You should seek first the kingdom, because everything else is secondary.”
~by Ashleigh Draft, communications and marketing