WALC empowers women to lead landscape transformation

Women in Agroecology Leadership for Conservation (WALC) creates opportunities for Q'eqchi Maya women to become involved in cloud forest conservation.

The Women in Agroecological Leadership for Conservation (WALC) initiative is a 25-day experience that combines life planning with conservation, health and agroforestry activities to educate and empower youth for responsible decision-making.

Teaching women to value and continue their education

Participants are Q'eqchi Maya women who come from cloud forest villages in Guatemala, where the high school dropout rate for girls in middle school is an alarming 75% each year.

The Life Project course is a major component of the programme, which encourages the students to develop self-awareness and view their identity as women in a positive light. It helps them to discover their gifts and abilities while aiding them to plan for their futures through goal-setting activities. 

“Through Life Project, the young ladies make decisions about their future. Girls who complete the programme do so having identified a purpose in their lives,” said Rob Cahill, from Solidaridad partner Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC).

WALC empowers women to continue taking steps towards the sustainability of our value chains.

In addition, to be eligible to participate in WALC, the young ladies have to make commitments to continue in their education. Through this programme and specifically the life project course, CCFC has successfully contributed to a reduced dropout rate, which is now less than 5% among WALC participants. 

Several WALC participants come from cocoa communities in which Solidaridad has worked in developing good practices for smallholders. In 2018 and 2019, Solidaridad sponsored young women from these communities, so they could benefit from the leadership program.

WALC empowers women by providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to create lasting change in their communities.

“WALC's work with young women in Guatemala is a living example of the change that matters that Solidaridad seeks, where change occurs not only in developing skills or knowledge for women, but a transformation is achieved at the personal level. This allows the young women to broaden their vision in search of better or new opportunities for their development”, said Patricia Gómez, planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning specialist for the region in Solidaridad.

The Life Project course provides a push to the participants to move forward, according to Ingrid Xuc, a former student of the program from San Lucas de Aguacate, one of the communities in which Solidaridad has worked.

The ladies reflect and draw a timeline to organize and follow a new path. They plan their purpose through objectives.” -Ingrid, programme participant 

Empowered women equals empowered communities 

Ingrid’s story is a confirmation of how building young women’s capacities in self-awareness and life planning Ingrid's story is a confirmation of how WALC empowers women in self-awareness and life planning and how this can have a tremendous impact on their lives, as well as the overall well-being of their communities. Ingrid completed her secondary studies and is currently studying at the university, majoring in secondary intercultural education, with a focus on Mayan culture.

The community formed through WALC empowers women as leaders  in an environment of collaboration and mutual respect.

“I do recommend this programme. In my community, it helps us seek new horizons, because we are very isolated. In my second session, they entrusted me with working in the vegetable garden. The work is an opportunity to engage with others, and time flies by,” said Ingrid.

With her leadership background through WALC, and the academic preparation she is actively pursuing, she is well-positioned to become an agent for change in San Lucas de Aguacate.

Another example is Vilma Leticia Toc Maas, who, after participating in the programme for five years, in 2018 represented WALC and Solidaridad at the World Cocoa Conference, adding to the discussion surrounding how empowering women benefits everyone in the cocoa supply chain, the central theme for the first day of the conference.

During her time in the WALC programme a few years ago, she was first a student and eventually grew into a leader, working with other programme staff to lead and mentor her peers in the programme. Vilma is also in university now, studying to be a nurse.

Building young women’s capacities to lead change that matters

The WALC initiative was started in 2007 by Rob and his wife, Tara, compelled by the idea that rural women can transform the way their communities engage with the surrounding cloud forest. 

“Where women are educated and empowered to make responsible decisions, we really believe that will translate to a social benefit, an economic benefit and an environmental benefit,” said Mr. Cahill.

The agroforestry system is one of the strategies that Solidaridad uses to transform landscapes into sustainable systems.

In addition, WALC empowers women to understand and address prevalent problems in the region that affect them and their families, including deforestation and its effects on the ecosystem around them. Through the remaining courses of the program, conservation biology and agroforestry, students learn to improve the production of their traditional plants and are encouraged to practice what they have learned by establishing a 20-square-metre plot at home.

“We recommend at least 16 trees, and beneath that, they add in… fruit-bearing bushes and trees… other crops and flowers that make a biodiverse habitat, mimicking the cloud forest,” said Tara Cahill.

The Cahills and the practices they teach have become important role models for young women. Alumnae like Vilma Toc express that they fully understand the importance of biodiversity and bring this new knowledge to their families, especially their fathers, who typically focus on monoculture production.

Women in Agroecology Leadership for Conservation today

Today, WALC continues to bring participants from more than 40 villages in the Cobán area and is also working with alumnae through a work-study programme, so that students completing their secondary studies can attend university but also have a small income through a paid internship. They form part of the WALC staff, supporting the new participants in the programme and are able to afford some of the costs associated with attending university. 

Rob and Tara Cahill have earned a very special place in the hearts of thousands of young ladies who have passed through the programme in the last 13 years.

“I see the capacity and patience they [the Cahills] have, despite the great responsibility they have acquired. They seek to envision positive outcomes for the young ladies and for the teachers. I admire their capacity; they are an example to follow. In my house they are highly respected; in my family they are like grandparents to us, too,” said Ingrid Floriselda Xuc Caal.

Rural women have the potential to lead change for our landscapes, to transform communities into sustainable systems that keep a harmonious balance between supplying our needs and protecting resources for generations to come. It is necessary to develop the leadership capacities of these women so that they can exploit their potential to the max and join the conversation, promoting sustainability actions.

Ingrid Xuc, Lilia Choc, Sílvia Mez and Mirna Xuc entered the programme as student participants and now work with the Cahills as paid interns to continue their university studies.

“The inclusion and empowerment of women by Solidaridad and Community Cloud Forest Conservation boosted WALC’s reach through the training of more than 200 young women in 2018-2019. Due to the success of the model, we are seeking funds to scale into other regions where Solidaridad and its partners work”, said Flavio Linares, Solidaridad’s head of technical programmes.

Learn more about Solidaridad's work towards sustainable cocoa production.