Empowering the poor in the Yucatan jungle

By Duggan Flanakin

In the heart of the Yucatan jungle lies the village of Becan, where CFACT recently sent a team to make a documentary film that demonstrates the principles of economic empowerment.   CFACT developed these principles five years ago through its international social entrepreneurship program. Aldesus AC, a Mexican nonprofit organization that focuses on assisting the poor in their quest for a better life, was inspired by CFACT’s vision and is now in the early stages of a major effort to help Becan’s residents improve their standard of living.

Aldesus workshopAldesus founder, Sara Andrade, explained that the Becan project involves a two-way dialogue—a dialogue in which the  ideas of the local people are just as important as Aldesus’. It began through a workshop-diagnosis, where the community realistically identified opportunities for them to start a project related to tourism and products such as honey (which is harvested from wild bees). About 30 people signed up for the workshop, at which they identified their customer base and decided how they might generate income from serving these customers.

CFACT agreed to come to Becan for four days to film the workshop, as well as conduct interviews with the Aldesus team, local residents, government officials involved in the project, and local business leaders.  The common goal was to showcase the Becan project as a model for helping the world’s poor by teaching residents  to use their own gifts and vision to lift themselves up to new plateaus of accomplishment.  CFACT  chose eight young people and two of their mothers as the primary characters in the documentary, which is still in production at this time.

The next step is for Aldesus to help facilitate the workshop participants in the implementation of their own ideas. This includes drawing up business plans, applying for scholarships and grants for additional education, and by opening up an Internet cafe and coffeehouse in Becan so that locals and tourists alike can work online.  Land along the highway has been acquired for the Internet cafe and information center, and Aldesus has already proposed a construction project. 

Andrade acknowledges CFACT’s major role in developing her philosophy of assisting the poor in their quest for a better life.  Indeed, it was reading CFACT’s vision statements (while visiting with colleagues at the City of Joy Foundation outside Cancun) that encouraged her to start Aldesus with several friends.  Through its partnership with the City of Joy, CFACT met with and began assisting residents of the impoverished village of Valle Verde in realizing their own dreams for a better life through the provision of laptop computers, emergency assistance after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and continued work with the founder of a small elementary school in the village.

The CFACT method begins with encouraging poor people in local communities to devise their own plans for economic growth and environmental protection and to join with them as partners in service.   Rather than treat the poor as incompetent and in need of parenting, CFACT agreed with the late Julian Simon that people are the world’s greatest resource, and that even the timid need only someone who cares to help them unlock that potential.

Becan is situated in the heart of the Yucatan jungle, but also in close proximity to major Mayan ruins at Becan, Chicanna, Rio Bec, Calakmul, and over 40 other sites in the Rio Bec region of Mexico. Workshop coordinator Lizette Rolland noted that the young people in Becan are limited in their ability to serve as tour guides by their lack of knowledge of English, a language which even most European tourists can understand.  Just to go to high school (in nearby Xpujil) costs 50 pesos a week in bus fare plus the cost of tuition, books, and uniforms—money hard to come by for parents who work cleaning toilets, serve as watchmen, and tackle other low-wage jobs at the Mayan sites or area hotels.

Future tour guidesTwo of the young men involved in the project, Enrique and Luis Fernando, have become well versed in Mayan archaeology and culture and have been teaching what they know to their peers.  The CFACT team was very impressed with their knowledge and especially their strong ability to communicate and to encourage their fellow countrymen—especially young women like Rosario, Rosa, and Diana—to follow suit.  CFACT interviewed each of these young people, and three others—Yasmin, Rogelio, and Domingo—and it is their futures that CFACT will be tracking in the months and years to come.

The community has already identified two key needs—one is for English teachers to come and live in the community for at least two months on a rotating basis, another is for a chemist with experience in cosmetics to help locals discover ways to market honey-based products.  A nearby town also needs help in getting its wooden utensils, furniture, and knickknacks and its beautiful hammocks to markets, and Becan also has a need for the development of local agriculture (produce).

In his new book, Building Social Businesses, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus declares:  “Every human being is born into this world fully equipped not only to take care of himself or herself, but also to contribute to the well-being of the world as a whole.”  Yunus later echoes the CFACT philosophy: “All it takes to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them.  Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.” With the help of Aldesus, the people of Becan are proving Yunus (and Julian Simon) right, and are carving out a brighter, more constructive tomorrow.  Andrade is taking four of the would-be tour guides to an archaeological museum in Mexico City, and a German archaeological team will soon arrive in Becan to provide additional support to the Becan project.

Others can help simply by going to visit and letting others know they learned about Becan from CFACT.  To learn more about Aldesus and its Becan mission, go to www.aldesus.org.

 

Duggan Flanakin is CFACT’s Director of Policy Research.

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