Apr 11, 2011

Yes We Can-ton!

I'm prepping and anxiously awaiting a field trip to Totonicapan soon.  I'll be meeting with members of the 48 Cantones, our regional partner for around 3 years.  I thought I would take this opportunity to ask Francisco, our Guatemalan Program Officer:  "What is a cantón, anyways?" 

EcoLogic doesn't translate this word into English in our documentation because it doesn't really translate.  It's always been sort of mystifying to me.  So what I discovered is that a cantón is a small, rural community on the outskirts of a more populated town (in this case the town of Totonicapán) that does not have access to the resources of the town, as in the waterline, the waste system, the street maintenance, etc.  A canton is sort of a little village left to its own.  But that's not to say that they're totally lost or without leadership.  The 48 Cantones is very structured and very well-organized.  It is an ancestral structure, centuries old, which Maya Quiche elders maintain.  Each canton has its local leadership to solve land disputes, record births and deaths, plan village improvements, etc.  Then those leaders form a general assembly with other canton leaders, forming the Association of the 48 Cantones.  This association has a regional mandate, taking care of the communal forest, protecting water sources, organizing local water committees, handling larger political and social concerns, and advocating for communities with the more "formal," state government. 

According to Francisco, who was born and raised in Totonicapán and is still a resident, the Association of the 48 Cantones is an extremely well respected and revered authority.  If there was a significant issue that required a community meeting, all he would have to do is call a member of the 48 Cantones Board of Directors and the next day hundreds of people would be there.  Despite the fact that it does not collect taxes or have any kind of legal authority, the Association of the 48 Cantones is essentially the government of these rural villages.  It has a local commitment and focus in small communities that fall outside the reach of the official government.  Few areas in Guatemala have successfully maintained this indigenous, parallel government.  Centuries of oppression against indigenous peoples, including a recent genocide in the 70s and 80s, have rendered most traditional authorities extremely weak if not completely obsolete.  According to Francisco, the Association of the 48 Cantones is the most powerful indigenous quasi-governmental structure left in Guatemala.  It is over 800 years old.  What an accomplishment for them, and what an honor for us to work with them.

So this is our partner; pretty inspiring.  A group of Maya Quiche elders - just everyday rural people - who are doing everything voluntarily as part of their heritage and commitment to their communities.  EcoLogic is helping them protect their water sources through reforestation and forest protection, the installation of fuel-efficient woodstoves, and the transfer of their traditional knowledge regarding environmental stewardship to younger generations.

I'm excited to go check out this project, too.  I'll have much more to share at that point.  But now you have a decent background on our local partner.  And you can impress all your friends with all your new cantón knowledge

- Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic's regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011. 

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