Alba Verónica Vicenta Yacabalquiej Salanic is a youth, gender equality, and community governance advocate from Xecam, a village in Guatemala’s western highlands. In an interview for the Global Environment Facility (GEF), she reflected on how her Mayan K'iche' identity has informed her approach to environmental issues and shared lessons from her work as an Indigenous Peoples Fellow with the UNDP-managed GEF Small Grants Programme.
What does being an Indigenous Peoples Fellow entail?
My day-to-day efforts involve helping young Indigenous people and women get involved in sustainable agriculture and become more active in decision-making spaces in relation to the conservation of natural resources. As a fellow with the National Indigenous Peoples Fellowship Initiative, I am in contact with grantees and beneficiaries of GEF Small Grants Programme projects in the western areas of Guatemala, and am also working to empower and promote the participation of Indigenous women and young people in each of these projects.
During this fellowship year I have been able to meet several communities and groups, each with a different vision that are conserving natural resources and generating economic opportunities for their families and communities. Through the fellowship I have been able to give voice to many Indigenous women, and to raise awareness about the work they do. Women lead many activities that contribute to biodiversity conservation and local economic development and this work is often hidden from view.
Is there a project that is close to your heart?
One project I am currently working on is helping to increase women's incomes by implementing certified honey processes near the Nahualate River basin – part of this is ensuring equal participation of women in beekeeping processes. The work that people in this area do with the bees is wonderful. It requires great dedication and a lot of effort. The people involved in this activity develop a great relationship with the environment, because they know the importance of biodiversity to provide the right conditions for the bees.
Beekeeping and honey harvesting processes in this area consider ancestral knowledge practices, and involve entire families as a space of coexistence. In spending time with these communities and participating in these processes I have been able to learn about the creativity of female beekeepers who develop honey by-products with great dedication and constantly seek to find marketing opportunities in order to generate income for their families.
How did you get into this line of work?
I am the only child in my family. This allowed my parents to provide me with a good education, from the age of five, and to support me in the projects that I decided to pursue. This support was very important, as not all young people and especially women in my community had the same opportunities as I did.
I earned a scholarship to study international relations and political science at Rafael Landívar University in Quetzaltenango City. At the same time, I have volunteered in many social organizations including an entrepreneurship program called Enactus Landívar, the Women's Committee of Xecam Cantel, the Mayor’s community office of Xecam, and as an the Indigenous electoral observer during national elections. This work has helped me understand the needs within my community and how they connect with broader issues. Through my participation in each of the organizations, I also learned how important it is to work to ensure that women and Indigenous youth are included in decision-making, so their ideas and knowledge are taken into account.
Being an Indigenous woman has also influenced my path. Indigenous peoples have a very close relationship with the environment, due to the Mayan cosmovision – the philosophical way in which we conceive life and the universe. Within our communities it is very common to develop activities that are aimed at the conservation of biodiversity. I was raised with the Mayan worldview to value the land and care for forests, they are our Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). This has made me strongly connected to the environment and nature.
What life lessons has your work taught you?
First, the participation of women, youth and Indigenous peoples in biodiversity conservation is essential. We need to break the inequality gaps and change the structural paradigms of machismo and patriarchy within communities and institutions where we get involved. This can change so much about how projects and environmental initiatives are managed and what results they create. Unity is strength and by working together we will make a generational difference.
Second, young people have an important and long task ahead in the conservation of natural resources. The course that climate change will take depends on us, so it is important that we participate in the organizations and institutions working with the goal of curbing global warming. As young people and women we need to inform ourselves through technology and other media, and make our ideas known. By doing this we can be agents of change in every space.
Third, it is important that as Indigenous youth we do not lose our identity as Indigenous people and the knowledge that our grandfathers and grandmothers have taught us. We need to hold on to our practices and ways of life.
Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?
It gives me hope that now climate change is part of the global agenda, and mainly in the recent COP26 where there has been a recognition of the work done by Indigenous peoples in the conservation of natural resources. Currently there are more young people and Indigenous women who carry the voice of our communities, who join in the conservation of natural resources, and who tell our communities that the work they have done for several centuries is important. I know that we can continue to replicate this to new generations, for the benefit of environmental conservation and for community prosperity.
What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?
I am part of the Indigenous organization Naleb' and IDEI Association. After my fellowship ends I will be working with both groups to apply the knowledge I have acquired and strengthen the projects we develop with Indigenous communities. IDEI works to strengthen and recover the ancestral knowledge in Indigenous youth through agriculture – in addition to supporting projects, I look forward to helping to strengthen the participation of Indigenous women in these initiatives, so that they can be leaders within their communities and break the gap of women's participation. I will also be working to support education for Indigenous women, as this access is important for equitable and sustainable development.
What changes do you hope to see in the world by the time you retire?
I hope to see greater, widespread respect of ancestral knowledge as valuable; the conservation of biodiversity, including in Guatemala's forests; and an equal participation of men and women in decision-making about natural resources and the environment. I also hope to see a world with a sustainable economic model that reduces the use of chemicals and toxic elements that are harmful to the planet. It is also important to me that all people have access to clean and safe water.
I also hope that the projects that I am working on now continue to grow with more partners and beneficiaries; that they successfully conserve biodiversity; that they have parity of participation between men and women in their organizational structures; and that they are recognized in Guatemala and around the world for their successful ventures.
What advice would you give a young person contemplating a career related to the environment?
There is a wide path to achieve environmental sustainability. This means there is extensive work to do at the global level and also at the community level. All ideas are important in the pursuit of lasting solutions.
I would also encourage women and girls to get involved in environmental protection wherever possible. We must not limit ourselves when it comes to conditions that will affect the next generations.