Monday, February 1, 2010

Learn Spanish in Guatemala, Help Save the Rainforest

I think the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it.  Read books in the language you want to learn, eat the food of its cultures, and, if at all possible, travel to where it is spoken.

If you're thinking about doing this with Spanish, let me recommend a place to do this in Guatemala: the Asociación Bio-Itzá in San José, Petén, Guatemala, on the Northwest shore of Lake Petén-Itzá.

This is a small, non-profit group run by a few devoted individuals who are trying to preserve their language, their forests, their modes of agriculture, and their communities.  They teach Spanish by full immersion, providing four hours a day of individual instruction tailored to your needs, homestays with delightful local families, and the opportunity to experience both contemporary Guatemalan and traditional Mayan cultures.

So why am I writing about this?  Because their Spanish school is their means of raising money to support a number of other important endeavors including: 
  • Plantas medicinales and Sustainable Agriculture:  They are trying to teach their community the uses of the rainforest plants, and especially the medicinal uses of those plants, before that knowledge is lost.  Along the way, they're trying to promote sustainable agriculture in a place that is being ravaged by slash-and-burn corn farms.  These farms are only productive for 2-3 years on the fragile and thin rainforest soil of the Petén region, after which they are depleted.  The Mayans used a system of crop rotation and of letting land lie fallow as a sustainable means of recharging the forest soils.  
  • Reserva Bio-Itzá: They are preserving one of the largest pieces of unbroken rainforest in the Americas, mostly without government or NGO support.  While we were walking on one of the trails with two of their rangers (they have three) one of them stopped and got an anxious look in his eye.  He held up a hand for us all to be silent.  Very faintly in the distance, we heard it: a chainsaw.  The director of the reserve, who was with us, gravely sent off the other ranger to look into it.  "Sólo mirar, ¡nada más!" he said: just look, but don't do anything else.  The rangers don't carry any weapons and they cannot afford to carry powerful radios or telephones.  So they walk the perimeter trying to intercept people who are hunting endangered animals or cutting down ancient trees.  When they find those people, they use the most powerful tool they have: they talk with the poachers and try to teach them about the forest they are trying to preserve.  When the poachers have automatic weapons, this is a very risky business.  These intrepid rangers consider it worth their while.  Visit the reserve if you are able - it's an amazing education in itself, and the largely unexcavated Mayan ruins there are well worth seeing.
  • Asuntos Sociales:  They provide funding for rural students to stay in school, and are working on a number of other projects to try to improve the well-being of their community.
  • Lenguas Mayas:  One of their earliest movements was an attempt to preserve the Mayan languages of their region: Itzaj, Kek'chi, Mopan, and a handful of others.  One reason to do this is that the names of the plants and animals in those languages are not just names but stories.  Another reason is that the languages used to bind them together as a community.  Unfortunately, they lost a generation that was castigated and fined for speaking in Mayan languages. On the positive side, there is now an institute in San José that is dedicated to preserving and teaching these languages.
If you're interested, send an email to them at escuelabioitza at hotmail dot com.  Or check out their new website.

2 comments: