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Paving a path to climate resilience: Ancestral knowledge and women's leadership

A landscape shot of a field of crops in front of a misty mountain covered by large white clouds.

Photo credit: Carolina Rivas/CARE Guatemala

Photo credit: Carolina Rivas/CARE Guatemala

SDG 13: Climate Action

Guatemala ranks among the world’s 10 most vulnerable countries, with close to 75% of residents living in areas prone to climate-related hazards such as extended dry spells, forest fires, floods, frosts and landslides. Added to these stressors, more than half the population is experiencing poverty and nearly a quarter are living in extreme poverty, most of whom are indigenous peoples.

When a catastrophic weather event hits, which is often, it wreaks havoc on food production. Extended drought and heavy rainy seasons can be equally destructive, wiping out a community’s crops and forcing those already in poverty to depend on humanitarian aid or leave their homes and risk everything on a treacherous, uncertain journey to a new place.

Valuing ancestral expertise

For more than 20 years, CARE Guatemala has been combatting climate change through innovative, community-led initiatives. Rather than depending on outside experts, CARE has prioritized the knowledge of indigenous communities, learning about ancestral conservation practices and how they can be adapted to meet today’s climate challenges.

We have not only promoted these practices but have also facilitated implementation agreements between the Guatemalan government and regional indigenous authorities. To increase protection of forests, for example, CARE successfully advocated for the decentralization of forestry services, sharing forest protection between indigenous communities and the state. Of the 340 municipalities in Guatemala, more than 200 have now established local forestry offices.

Centering women in leadership

Women in Guatemala can suffer heavily when climate shocks occur – through the loss of livelihoods, which frequently rely on natural resources, and through hunger. CARE’s analyses show that in situations where food is scarce, women and girls eat last and least. Including them in efforts to advance conservation in Guatemala is crucial, and helping them lead the way is ingrained in CARE’s work. Our locally led and gender- equal approach strengthens women’s decision-making skills and empowers them to find their voice.

Through women-led advocacy, climate-smart agriculture practices, and access to better stoves, women in Guatemala are recovering their livelihoods, improving their families’ nutrition and becoming leaders in critical conservation efforts. Rosa Magdalena Chacaj, who lives in the Xecachelaj Village in Totonicapan, says, “I became interested in the preservation of our land in 2003, and I organized myself with 15 other ladies. The authorities initially had no faith in us, but now they value what we have accomplished. We have been able to acquire energy-efficient stoves, allowing us to preserve our forest and save household expenses.”

Meeting an urgent need

As temperatures climb, Guatemala’s ecosystems will become more vulnerable, and additional losses could have far-reaching effects. Trees pull carbon out of the atmosphere and release oxygen, serving as “lungs of the earth.” Guatemala is rich with forests, but they must be protected and restored. Together, CARE and communities most impacted by climate change are paving a path to climate resilience.


Restoring the land: A community success story

After the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, families who had previously worked as day laborers on agro-exporting farms acquired land parcels to establish agrarian communities with the help of the Land Fund (FONTIERRAS).

One of these rural communities was Xolhuitz, located in western Guatemala’s Department of Quetzaltenango. The community of 43 families legally acquired a 179.5-hectare farm to produce coffee and grain, leaving an additional 25.5 hectares of natural forest.

To encourage restoration and conservation of forests, CARE worked with the community to gain inclusion in the government’s forestry incentive program in 2021, which paid them their first payment of $5,600 at the end of 2022. The program provides yearly installments for 10 years, amounting to $56,000 for forest protection.

With support from the program and CARE’s promotion of agroforestry systems, the community can now diversify its coffee and maize plots, enhancing family nutrition while becoming more climate resilient. And, to reduce the amount of firewood and greenhouse gas emissions during cooking, CARE and the community of Xolhuitz built energy-efficient stoves for families in need.