Weaving Climate Knowledge in a Torn-Apart Country: the First Guatemalan Congress on Climate Change

by khristian méndez //



History was made today in Guatemala City: Government entities, private sector representatives, all but one of the universities in the country, international organizations, NGOs and indigenous peoples all came together for the First National Congress on Climate Change. To top off a rare collaboration: the presence and keynote address of Vicente Barros, Co-Chair from Working Group 2 of the IPCC, tied a neat bow around this day. After a little shuffling as everyone got their badges, a day ensued with lively conversations not only about climate change, but about how Guatemalans of all colors, native languages, socio-economic backgrounds, and levels of ‘education’ can begin to address climate change in a systematic way together.

Vicente Barros started out energetically, by praising the people in the room: rarely have I seen so much enthusiasm [about climate change] as I am witnessing here in Guatemala. Barros’ keynote, which served to kick-start the action on the Congress’s simultaneous streams, was very thorough, if a little too scientific. He may have peppered his address with too many English words for several non-English speakers in the room, especially coming from an Argentinian. He explained the background for the IPCC reports, and went over some of the key messages of the latest IPCC report (AR5), to illustrate the situation of our small country.

Guatemalans’ have it bleak: our country is a small contributor to CO2 emissions worldwide, (and most of our CO2 comes from deforestation, anyway), yet we stand among the top 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change. On top of that, we tend to be malinchistas, as they say north of here, and therefore we dislike ideas and projects made in this country to change -in this case, to save many people’s lives.

This time, however, we are trying not to drop the ball. The previous government approved a national Policy on Climate Change, and last October, we approved a Framework Law to Regulate the Reduction to Vulnerability, the Mandatory Adaptation to the Effects of Climate Change, and Greenhouse Effect Mitigation. These align directly with the objectives of the Congress, as one of its 5 main goals is ‘to integrate knowledge’ with regards to climate change. And Barros’ address was clear: ‘there is no solution to climate if only the rich commit to action.’ Although the action has to be addressed with historical considerations in mind -because countries like mine were not the main culprits in this pickle- it is true that -at this point- everyone has to adjust to a changing climate.

Given that we are so vulnerable to climate change, this country has to thrust heavily in its adaptation efforts, which is what most of the sessions in the congress are about. I went to two sessions on Adaptation, one which addressed ecosystems and biodiversity, and the other one about so-called ‘traditional knowledge’ and climate change.

The first one was some of the usual:

-(bio)diversity makes systems resilient -especially to climate changes’ uncertainties-.

-‘Traditional knowledge is more in line with conservation’ than conventional knowledge

-‘There is no development without conservation’

The second one, presented members of the for ethnic groups (as identified by the Guatemalan state) present in Guatemalans: ladinos, mayas, xinkas and garífunas. The addresses themselves elaborated on how their different world-views were addressing climate change. But one message was clear: adaptation is not a new challenge for indigenous peoples’ around the world. Sure, those of us raised inside (or on the outskirts) of what we call the Western way of seeing the world. Some of the audiences’ questions at the end triggered a reprimand towards a youth that’s not interested in taking the torch from their indigenous elders in exchange for iPods and western clothing. 

This momentum was carried towards the last two keynotes of the day which were -to most people- the highlight of the day. One of the keynotes on ‘ancestral knowledge and climate change’ featured a member of the Guna peoples in Panamá, followed by an eloquent, cheeky, and lively irreverence towards western-hegemony spelled out by tata Santos Virgilio Alvaradotata Virgilio -a Maya K’iche’ Guatemalan, former Vice-Minister of Culture and Sports- started out by asking the audience to raise their hands if they spoke only Spanish, and subsequently if they spoke English, K’iche’, Kaqchikel (which I proudly do), Mam, Ixil, Xinka, Garifuna, and many other of the languages in our country. He was very strong -and comical- when assuring us that traditional knowledge only exists outside of scientific knowledge because scientists make it so, but they are not only similar: they complement each other. The heart of his address was that scientists who conduct studies in indigenous communities -and all working professionals in Guatemala- should be ashamed of not speaking any indigenous language, since that blinds them to the communities, and more ardently, the otros saberes, they are not listening to. His address was highly received by the audience (most of whom were not indigenous), and so it seemed the day was going to conclude. And it would have, except we were behind on schedule, and we still had another keynote to listen to. Little did we know the room was about the be shaken alive.

Pablo Suárez from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Moon alliance, shared with us an incredibly effective way to train people and raise awareness around the myriad of issues surrounding climate change. As an artist, designer, and creative thinker, I was extremely pleased to hear his idea and test it out with the rest of the participants. Suárez had us play games to understand how to best prepare for drought, floods, or both, using only two foam dice and our bodies. The room felt light after a few rounds of the game, and people walked happily towards the end of this day: a cocktail hour for people to mingle.

Tomorrow, the panel discussions will continue around more of climate change, and on Wednesday, the Congress will wrap up with some thoughts on the way forward for this country. Stay tuned for more updates.

report from day 2
report from day 3

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