The Unsung Solution to Climate Change

The top solution for reducing climate change probably isn’t what you think. I am an avid outdoorsperson and have been a proponent of sustainable development and living lightly on the land for decades. But I missed one big factor in considering our environmental impact entirely until relatively recently. During all my years thinking about environmental issues and solutions, I thought very directly and narrowly about the more obvious aspects of the environment from pollution to deforestation.

I have had an epiphany in my thinking about environmental priorities lately, as well as long-term solutions. Project Drawdown, founded by author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014, maps, measures, and models the most substantive solutions to stop global warming, and communicates those findings to the world. Project Drawdown researchers published a list of their top solutions to climate change. It’s not recycling more and it’s not riding your bike everywhere or giving up your car – though doing more recycling and less driving aren’t bad ideas either.

What is it? It’s educating girls. If you look at their list of solutions, you will see Educating Girls listed as number 6 and Family Planning listed as number 7. If you combine the total atmospheric CO2-EQ reduction (GT) of these two solutions, which has been arbitrarily split in half by the list-makers, it climbs to the top of the list.

By chance, at the same time this solutions list came across my plate, I had just read The Education Crisis: Being in School is Not the Same as Learning. To quote the article, “Global experience shows us that countries that have rapidly accelerated development and prosperity all share the common characteristic of taking education seriously and investing appropriately.”

This data amplifies the power and importance of what I witnessed at the MAIA Impact School in Sololá, Guatemala. MAIA is an incubator of best practices in education from all over the world. The approach is community-based and culturally appropriate. And they are completely open source, sharing their knowledge and experience with 30 local organizations per year.

I am a little late to the party in figuring this out, but it is abundantly clear that education is the fundamental tool to unlocking the chains of systemic poverty and catalyzing positive, long-term change in communities across the world. Incredibly, by investing in something that is intrinsically good, we simultaneously reduce our impact on the environment. For $250 per month (or about $8 per day), a Guatemalan girl can attend the Impact School, becoming a stronger, more empowered and more self-sufficient individual, while leading the way towards a stable and sustainable future for both her country and our world. That is a transformative, life-altering and life-affirming impact. That is the kind of investment that makes the world a substantially better place – for everyone.

“The schools of the future are being built today. These are schools where all teachers have the right competencies and motivation, where technology empowers them to deliver quality learning, and where all students learn fundamental skills, including socio-emotional, and digital skills. These schools are safe and affordable to everyone and are places where children and young people learn with joy, rigor, and purpose.” – World Bank

#maiaimpact #educationmatters #investinpeople


MAIA’s Pioneering Impact

In my previous posts I provided a very brief history and economic background for Guatemala and then discussed the pioneering efforts Colegio Impacto/MAIA is making in educating indigenous girls.  Well-intentioned development work happens the world over, but with widely varying intentions and results.  Some development creates greater dependency on aide, intentionally or not, versus establishing systems to foster sustainability and independence.  Some development work downright backfires.  Some development work is positive but incremental, which can be okay depending on the circumstances.  And then there are the game changers, those organizations with a belief that incremental change is not sufficient, that the challenge is too acute, and that a new approach is needed.

So, what’s the magic formula that creates a successful development project?  I wish I knew the answer to that question!  But I don’t and I don’t currently have the capacity to embark on a scientifically evaluated study either.  I can, however, outline the components of an exemplary development program based on what I saw with the Starfish program.

Norma Bajan is the MAIA Impact School program’s Country Director.  She is an intelligent, empowered, courageous woman, who has an amazing story to tell.  Follow this link to read the text of the speech Norma gave at the Amplify Her Voice Annual Event in Colorado, in which she describes her childhood and her journey to where she is today.

Norma is a Mayan woman.  And it is she who leads the MAIA program in Guatemala.  She has a tremendous partnership with the Executive Director, Travis Ning, and incredible support from the U.S. Board, but the program is based in Guatemala and run mainly by indigenous people.  And that is by design.  MAIA aims to empower the local community and the U.S. team endeavors to be so successful in doing so that they work themselves out of a job.  Norma, her colleagues, and her Guatemalan Board want change to happen in their country and also to honor their culture.  As a result, the Maia school program covers the traditional subjects one would expect from science to math to writing and reading.  But the students also study Kachiquel, their native Mayan language, alongside learning fluent Spanish and some English.  The positive aspects of the students’ Mayan heritage are incorporated while the girls study new academic and social skills.  Home visits and mentoring and other aspects of the program go beyond the typical school day to foster new ways of communicating and relating in the girls’ homes and their communities. 

In sum, the MAIA development model is exemplary because it:  demonstrates strong, selfless leadership; maintains healthy, cooperative partnerships (between the administrative team, the Guatemalan Board, the U.S. Board, and their allies and supporters); reflects a community-based approach that is culturally appropriate; is an incubator for best practices from all over the world; and is completely open source, sharing their knowledge and experience with 30 local organizations per year.  The MAIA program inspires emboldened self-sufficiency and long-term stability and sustainability.  What more could a parent hope for for their child, for their family’s future, for their country, than that?

See what I mean?  Hope springs eternal, and human connections – to each other and to our own humanity – are the link.


Where is the hope?

So where is the hope in the story of Guatemala?  The statistics, especially for the indigenous population, are bleak.  In my previous post I outlined some of the headwinds facing Guatemala, especially within the indigenous population and particularly for females. I didn’t even mention the 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996, and the 200,000 deaths due to that war, 93% of which were indigenous people.

How does change happen, how does one ever move the needle to dismantle entrenched systems of inequality, how do people rise up and out of day-to-day survival to a more sustainable life?  The obstacles appear insurmountable.  And, yet, I had the opportunity to meet a girl pioneer from the Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now Maia Impact) program and her family in their home.  I had the opportunity to tour the newly-built school that will begin to welcome students in the classrooms, using the computer and science labs, reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and Charlotte’s Web, among many others, in the library in January of 2019.  I witnessed with my own eyes the families, this caravan of hope, walk through the gates of that school after the ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 3, 2018, and I glimpsed a powerful new narrative and a promising future for Guatemala.  

The Colegio Impacto/Maia program in Guatemala provides a model for education and economic development that can and should be replicated.  Maia Impact School is a school and mentoring program designed for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women.  Maia works with young women from low-income, traditionally marginalized communities who have the talent and desire to succeed but lack access to opportunity.  The program’s goal is “to create truly meaningful and long-lasting change” through the core fundamentals of community, academics, and culture.  Maia believes in empowerment, equality, and opportunity for all.  Check out their website – – for more information.  I can’t do justice to the full scope and impact of their work here.  But the work is powerful and they have results and success stories to demonstrate that this model works.  

One success story I can share is the example of the girl pioneer, Zonia, who I had the good fortune to meet while I was there.  Her grandmother is about 75 years old, was never educated, and cannot read or write.  Her mother is in her late 40’s and finished only 6th grade.  This level of educational attainment is pretty typical in rural Guatemala.  They live in a simple home, a short walk down a dirt path through open fields and corn stalks from a secondary road in their village of Chaquijyá, a division of Sololá.  This is an agricultural community and it is the 5th poorest in the country, according to data from WeGuatemala as of 2013.  In 2013, 34% of people in their community were surviving on $1USD per day.  There are no modern amenities or conveniences in the home.  Laundry is cleaned on a scrub board outside and hung to dry.  A wood fire heats the stove for cooking.  The sink is outside, as is the pit toilet.  The ceilings are low, maybe 5’5” at the door.  Potable water is a limited resource.

Zonia is 20 years old, petit, quiet, and polite.  She finished high school at the Colegio Impacto, and is now in her third year of a six-year nursing program.  Her family took a chance on this exceptional young girl.  Her family made a commitment to her education, and they broke the mold of the way it has always been.  They and all the Maia families had to be unbelievably brave.  They had to sacrifice in the present on behalf of their child’s future, giving up the child’s short-term earning potential selling goods, their help caring for other children in the family, their help going to the market, making meals, working in the fields. They had to have the courage, in the face of disapproval from their neighbors, their community, and possibly within their own family, to try something different, something new, and something previously untested.  

Zonia (in blue), her mother, her grandmother, and our Maia group

One of the goals of the Maia program is for the girls to be able to earn a middle class wage when they complete their studies and enter the workforce.  This would be approximately $3,500USD per year, an 8 to 9 fold increase from typical wages in this region.  Zonia is still studying, but she has already been able to help her community by administering medication and triaging sicknesses to prevent or delay travel to a health clinic.  Her family, and their broader community, is already reaping the rewards of Zonia’s hard work and her family’s commitment.  Her dream is to finish her studies, which currently require her to travel a fair distance from home, and to return to her family and to work in the Sololá community.  She has a high school education, is working towards a professional degree, and speaks two languages (Spanish and her native Kachiquel) while having stayed true to her Mayan roots.  Her potential, the horizon for her future, is truly infinite…

And now there is a magnificent, modern, new school building in Sololá in which other girls like Zonia will learn and become leaders for their communities and hope for their country.

The concept of the Colegio Impacto having its own building was a dream; the reality was many years in the making.  I can’t imagine the hurdles the Maia team had to overcome to pull all the necessary pieces together to make it happen.  But happen it did, and watching the Maia team, the students, and the neighbors marvel at the reality of it during the inauguration ceremony was humbling and powerful.

The building is unique in the Sololá landscape.  There isn’t much that compares to it in terms of modernity, sophistication, architecture and sheer size in the whole country.  The details are extraordinary, with the architecture suggesting the patterns of Mayan textile weaving, and symbolizing the drawing together of the community, the girls’ families, and the program’s allies as well as the past and the future.  This building is a beacon of promise, and a vision of hope for what could be.


Arriving in Guatemala

I traveled to Guatemala between October 31 and November 6, 2018, to attend the inauguration of the new Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now called the Maia Impact) school that will open to students in January 2019. What I discovered and learned in Guatemala exceeded expectations I didn’t even realize I had, and also presented me with a different narrative about Central America than I had previously encountered.

There is so much to share about my impressions of Guatemala as a first time visitor. There is the Mayan influence, the traditional dress, the woven clothing, and the cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors. There is the food – frijoles and pepian and tortillas, as well as fresh papaya, watermelon, avocadoes and limes, to name a few. There was the Kite Festival of Sumpango and the Day of the Dead ceremonies on November 1; we learned the next day that many families remained at the cemetery until noon on November 2 when the spirits of their ancestors returned to the Earth. There are the 310 microclimates as well as active volcanoes. There is Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, over which lightning storms light up the night sky and across which rainbows sometimes appear to erupt from the tip of a volcano. There is the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, a designated UNESCO world heritage site, with its cobblestoned streets, bright and colorfully painted walls, trendy restaurants and cafes, ruins from a series of earthquakes in 1773 that destroyed much of the original city, and tourists from all over the world.

Guatemala – from its volcanoes and scenic vistas to its hand-woven textiles in myriad colors – is a truly stunning, colorful, and inspiring country. Stepping off the plane in Guatemala City I expected the wave of warm air but not the wide, gleaming hallways in the small but modern airport. Colorful posters adorn the airport walls in an organized marketing campaign advertising the many tourist attractions. Coffee shops and convenience stores beckon. Guatemala City itself features a skyline full of skyscrapers and architecture that would be familiar in any small U.S. city. The arrivals terminal bustles with energy; a large crowd, most dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, awaits arriving travelers just outside the terminal. The weather is a perennial spring – 75 or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, with colorful tropical flowers adorning the roadside. The people are kind, gentle, talented and welcoming.

Guatemala is also a developing country that faces systemic poverty and gender inequality. The country’s population is the largest in Central America at almost 15.5 million people as of 2017. It has the highest fertility rate as well as the youngest population in all of Latin America, and suffers from high maternal and infant mortality rates. Based on 2017 data, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book ranked Guatemala 153rd out of 229 ranked countries in terms of GDP on a per capita basis (Purchasing Power Parity or PPP). For context, the U.S. PPP is $59,500 as compared with Guatemala’s $8,100. The distribution of income is also notably unequal in Guatemala, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line. Among the indigenous people, the income inequality gap stretches wider, with 79% living in poverty, 40% of whom live in extreme conditions.

The prevalence of child labor and adolescent birth rates are also higher in Guatemala than in any other Latin American country, according to data from Girl Up, a United Nations partner. Females, especially indigenous females, bear the burden of limited health information, sexual violence, constrained choices, and inadequate educational opportunities. Amnesty International reports that in 2018 unaccompanied children from Guatemala comprised the largest group of arrivals that were apprehended at the U.S. border. Inequality, limited opportunity, corruption, and localized gang violence spur Guatemalans to leave their beautiful country, their families, their history to make the difficult and uncertain journey north to seek refuge elsewhere. This is all part of the reality of modern day Guatemala. The challenges are real and difficult and unwieldy. AND there is so much good work happening there and so much hope for a brighter future being built from within. Those stories, those statistics, need to be amplified.

Colegio Impacto/Maia is a school for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women. Their brand new, state of the art school is ready to receive students starting in January. This is a story of dreams coming true on so many levels…and it is just the beginning. Tomorrow’s post will begin a tale of hope personified…