- Rainforest Foundation US has partnered with the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) to support the expansion of the Mesoamerican Leadership School, a youth leadership development program in Mexico and Central America.
- The School is an investment in retaining and galvanizing indigenous youth in the region, whose participation is crucial because so many indigenous youth are leaving their communities for urban centers and are often migrating northward. And because developing leadership among the younger generations will ensure the survival of the indigenous peoples’ environmental movement.
- Carolina Alvarado (a Q’eqchi’ Maya instructor from Guatemala) and Diriam Walker (a Miskito student from Honduras) share their stories about the importance of the school to their lives.
Carolina Alvarado, 34 years old, wasn’t always an activist. It was her community that made her into one.
As an adolescent living in the small Mayan village of Uaxactun in Guatemala, she would spend her afternoons with her favorite art teacher. Under this teacher’s guidance, Alvarado and other classmates beautified several buildings in the village: first a church, then a health clinic.
A seemingly small act, it changed how she saw her role in the world.
“I realized then the power of groups. I loved it. I loved seeing the power of a group of people becoming organized,” Alvarado said.
From there, Alvarado’s activism continued to blossom. She joined a regional indigenous rights’ civil association, rising to the rank of secretary by the age of 20 and helping her community win a more expansive land title from the Guatemalan national government in 2000.
And according to Alvarado, it all traces back to her teacher.
So Alvarado was excited to earn the opportunity to teach these same leadership skills herself with the Mesoamerican Leadership School (MLS), a popular educational initiative of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (Alianza Mesoamericana de Pueblos y Bosques, or AMPB) launched in 2016.
“It’s such a unique space and experience,” Alvarado says. “I like collaborating with the youth, to help them build towards a better country without losing their sense of identity.”
Where the Mesoamerican Leadership School originated
The MLS has been funded by a range of international donors, and in 2021 began receiving funding from the RFUS-AMPB United States Agency for International Development grant. Rather than a brick-and-mortar institution, the MLS is a series of workshops led by instructors like Alvarado, who travel to indigenous villages across Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala with the aim of advancing indigenous cultural and territorial identity amongst participants.
The education is taught intermittently via four workshops (or “phases”): identity and group empathy; personal and collective identity; community learning and inquiry; and entrepreneurial practice. The program takes three years, and there are approximately 300 students currently enrolled in it—the vast majority of whom are twentysomethings. Together, these youth represent the future of the region’s indigenous rights’ and environmental rights’ movements.
“Although some may not see how leadership training directly correlates to rainforest protection, this kind of pedagogy is essential for the long-term success of a rights-based environmental approach in this part of the world,” explains Josh Lichtenstein, Rainforest Foundation US’s Program Manager.