Elodia Castillo Vásquez is the Mayor of the Mayan town of Ch'orti, in Guatemala, where the community is working with support from the GEF Small Grants Programme to safeguard water sources, plant trees, improve soil quality, and help natural ecosystems regenerate. In an interview, she reflected on the links between social justice and environmental stewardship, and shared how the sustainable management of natural resources is helping bolster livelihoods in her community.
What is your motivation to focus on environmental issues?
My name is Elodia Castillo Vásquez, the first female indigenous mayor elected in the Mayan town of Ch'orti. I am the first woman to speak out for the women of my community and the Ch'orti town. I am from the indigenous community of Campanario Avanzada and I'm 34 years old. About 15 years ago, I became concerned with threats to our territory that included the issuance of mining licenses in a mountain range located along the eastern border of Guatemala and Honduras that has great biodiversity value, including the cloud forest.
Because of the mining licenses, water and forest sources that had been the ancestral domain of Maya Ch’orti indigenous communities for generations were privatized. New charges for water service were introduced, combined with the dispossession of lands of indigenous families where land leases and contracts were introduced forcing Ch’orti families to abandon their land. Narco-finqueros appropriated the land and turned water sources into a business, selling our water in bottles. The privatization of water resources also increased deforestation of the forests that fall within our territories. That is why I am working to give voice to my community as a representative of the Maya Ch’orti people. As a young indigenous woman, I am concerned about the suffering of women, children, and the elderly.
Could you describe your organization and what it aims to do?
Our organization, which is called the Coordination of Associations and Communities for the Integral Development of the Ch’orti Region, or COMUNDICH for short, is supporting indigenous communities by carrying out participatory processes and ensuring that indigenous peoples' rights are protected with regard to natural resources management.
What projects are helping achieve these goals?
With support from partners such as the GEF Small Grants Programme, which is funded by the GEF and implemented by UNDP, our communities have been able to gradually recover water sources; to reforest areas deforested by illicit farmers that are now back in the hands of indigenous communities; and to improve soil management through the use of organic fertilizers to have a healthy diet and to help the natural ecosystem to regenerate.
One example is the family gardens and water reservoirs we were able to design and put in place with support from the SGP. The preparation of these water retention systems have been vital because in the hilly terrain of our territory, we have often faced acute water shortages during the dry season. The water tanks are crucial for the healthy diet of our families, and the improvement of the soil helps Mother Earth to produce healthier food and reduce carbon emissions. The tanks contribute to a stronger natural ecosystem, the protection of water sources, and self-sufficient agricultural production which benefits all the indigenous Ch'orti communities in the area as well as the global environment.
Is there a person or community you have met through this work that had a lasting impact on you?
Yes – as part of the SGP project, I have seen the effort of many indigenous communities working toward shared goals. I have learned from each and every one of them to continue working to protect our environment and our Mother Earth. We are also coordinating efforts with other organizations and leaders who are working to regain their territorial water and natural resource rights and have participated in large meetings to share our experience in this area. An important moment was when I participated in the World Water Forum in Stockholm, Sweden, as well as in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Personally, I find the Campanario Oratorio indigenous community very inspiring. It is an example of resilience and motivation to continue working with other like-minded communities and recover our livelihoods so that our families can have a better life. Campanario Oratorio is a community of the Zacapa Union from where the movement for the restitution of land rights and the defense of natural resources began, with 541 hectares recovered. The leadership of indigenous women has also been recognized in the territory. The community has also managed to regain respect for Mother Earth and to conserve natural resources, especially water resources of great importance in this territory that is part of the dry corridor.
How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work and community?
I am concerned about the extreme poverty that indigenous peoples face. The COVID-19 outbreak has caused this situation to get even worse. Many indigenous families in our communities live from a daily wage of approximately 25 quetzales ($3) to 30 quetzales ($4). The restrictive measures put in place due to COVID-19 do not allow us to work in the fields and it is negatively affecting our food security. This situation is very worrying since the vulnerability of indigenous families, especially women, children, and the elderly, could further increase. In the midst of the pandemic, the water reservoirs are also helping to ensure the production of vegetables. However, we still have great challenges and crises that have affected us over the years like shortages of basic grains and water. The COVID-19 challenge gives even more urgency to the work we are doing to protect the land, the water, and the natural resources that underpin our communities’ health and livelihoods.