The first thing that struck me about this country was its intense natural beauty and the pride Guatemalans have for it. Surreal, vibrant and largely untouched when compared to Ireland’s rolling domesticated agricultural lands (equally beautiful, and home to me, but so very different). That said, the second thing I noticed immediately after was the rubbish. Coming to Guatemala I knew that there was an issue with rubbish and it was everywhere to be seen but I had not anticipated the enormity of the problem.
Litter has always been a huge pet peeve of mine. I am that annoying, nightmare of a girl that will follow you around with the tiniest piece of plastic you drop, or get all antsy if you mix up your recyclables and general waste. Hands up, I admit that I’m a pain, but I swear it comes from a good place.
I love being in nature and value it dearly, especially if I need to think. A trait I credit in part to being raised in the middle of nowhere, and in part to my parents. My mam has always used long walks in the countryside as a means of clearing her head after a busy day or for having the ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations with me. I swear I’ve spilled more on those walks than 100 grannies in the confession box. That and my dad and I having spent countless hours watching national geographic as a kid, and him hounding myself and my brother to go outside, coupled with his own passion and enthusiasm for all things ecological. It was unavoidable that I would become a mahoosive tree hugger. It definitely instilled some sense of protective responsibility in me anyway, I can’t seem to help it.
I suppose you could say that if I see rubbish thrown around, in the countryside in particular, I almost take personal offence, like someone is intruding on or disrespecting something sacred. I know it sounds mad but bear with me, just trying to give some perspective. So, when I arrived in this almost mythically beautifully country, my heart swelled as I attempted to soak up the thick, undisturbed forestry on the sides of these towering volcanoes up to the point where the lava last chased the foliage back (yes some of these are presently active, yes I saw them erupt, and yes oh my god wow). Then my heart broke as I peeled my eyes away from the summits and saw the trash lining the roads and large pits dug as make shift landfills amongst lush greenery.
If I’m completely honest my first reaction was frustration, which I now know is possibly the least productive and most immature reaction to have, but it’s the truth. I couldn’t understand how people could treat such a scene as perfectly normal, as if there was no issue. What actually upset me though was when I discovered that the ecological park my project was based in for 6 weeks, Corazon del Bosque, was also suffering, choking on litter. Litter created by visitors, which I had anticipated, and by staff, which I had not.
One of the ongoing projects in the park at the minute is the creation of a nursery for indigenous plants and grains for feed for their rabbits, all encouraging people to use and live off the land sustainably. That sounded perfect for me. But I spent most of my first week ripping plastic sheets and hundreds of little seedling bags out of the ground and being told to just throw them in the forestry away from the trail and out of sight. Now I bet you can guess that didn’t exactly sit well with my self righteous eco-warrior notions. One dose of frustration mixed with significant communication barriers due my very limited Spanish and non-existent K’iche (Mayan dialect spoken in this area) is one hell of a way to get homesick though.
I had to sit down and have a serious chat with myself after a few days of moping. I was being ridiculous. The people I’m working weren’t and aren’t my enemies and being stroppy was counter productive and only annoying myself. Just because rubbish wasn’t their first priority doesn’t mean they are not doing good work. Ok so things aren’t ideal at the minute but change is happening. Having someone to chat about this stuff with helped a lot once Dominic, another EIL volunteer in Corazon del Bosque, arrived (cheers Dom!).
I decided to hit the books to try see where the root of the problem might be. Turns out waste management is a country wide issue. Guatemala city dump alone holds 1/3 of the population’s (16,580,000) waste with little to no regulation on what is dumped. Recyclables, biohazard, industrial and organic all stewing away in the most populated city in Central America. The dump itself regularly claims the lives of workers due to landslides. Not to mind the inevitable long term carcinogenic effects. You can have a truck take your trash to a hole, or dig your own, my project just happened to choose the latter.
After minimal reading it became glaringly obvious that this is a governmental issue, one which again is not receiving even a fraction of the attention it deserves. But then again neither is education and other fundamental departments. Guatemala’s, is a government that is infamously corrupt and in a lot of cases, ineffective. The attitude of the people towards waste is not unreasonable when you realise this is a country that is still recovering from a vicious 36 year long civil war that only ended in 1996.
How can I expect someone here to share my priorities and realise the urgency of environmental issues when there is still huge wealth disparities and extreme poverty in urban centres and in the Mayan highlands, when education and the needs of the people are largely ignored by their government? For many it just isn’t a priority they think they can afford to have.
Unfortunately though, people need to begin realising this urgency. What I’m beginning to realise is that none of these issues, health, environment, education, equality are truly individual. In order to solve one, all need to be addressed, but where to begin? Simple answer: adequate education. Obviously it’s far more complex than that but that’s what I hope to dedicate my few weeks to, creating a space where visitors can learn about the impacts of environmental issues and what they may be able to do about it.
We’ll see how it goes in a few weeks!