A Generation of Jungle Guardians
For 20 years, in the Petén Jungle, Hearts in Action has been building schools and enterprises
with local communities, helping them in every way to preserve the tropical forest.
In 1998, Suzanne and Mario Babarczy traveled to the least reached region of Guatemala, the Petén Jungle. The pressing threat of deforestation and extreme poverty they witnessed there made the couple feel compelled to stay. Having spent over 15 years teaching and leading youth programs for the underprivileged, Suzanne and Mario found the Petén to be the place where they could devote all their knowledge, experience, and passion to responding to the many challenges that the indigenous people were facing. They purchased an abandoned orphanage in a remote village in San Andres, moved in with their three children, and relocated Hearts in Action, the faith-based nonprofit they started a few years ago, into the jungle.
The Babarczies envisioned the desolate place turning into a home to foster education and conservation for the Petén. This region in northern Guatemala houses the Maya Biosphere reserve, a 5.2-million acre area that is part of the largest intact tropical forest north of the Amazon. However, it suffers the loss of a staggering amount of trees each year, mainly due to illegal logging by lumber companies. The chronic lack of work and educational opportunities also drives young people away to seek their fortune in large cities. As the first step of their solution, Suzanne and Mario started a school for children from nearby villages, and named it the Jungle School.
When the Jungle School first opened, there were only 15 students. Their curriculum, nonetheless, was tailored to be dynamic from the very beginning, with job skills, ecology, and values of purpose and belonging infused into each class. Most of the students came from indigenous families, and became first generation literate. With Guatemala’s high illiteracy rate, students and their families quickly realized the benefits of being able to read and write, as these skills drastically improved the families’ welfare. Each year, the Jungle School extended their services to reach more children through afternoon neighborhood clubs, which took place sometimes in bungalows, sometimes simply under the trees. Activities in this secluded campus enlivened the entire community. Over the past 20 years, the Jungle School has grown to 400 students and 40 full time employees.
Environmental protection is integrated into every aspect of school life. The Jungle School instills an appreciative and inquisitive mindset towards the wonders of the rainforest. From an early age, students are taught to reuse materials. Everyone participates in practices such as permaculture, reforestation, composting, earthworm farming, and organic gardening. To promote environmental awareness, students host events such as bicycle rallies and fashion design with recycled materials.
We are raising a generation of jungle guardians
to protect the endangered wildlife and Petén treasures,
so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.
Hearts in Action currently serves 10 rural villages composed mainly of indigenous Maya and Q’eqchi people, who are primarily subsistence farmers living hand to mouth, and often find themselves with limited access to basic services such as running water, electricity, waste disposal, and health care. In an effort to improve their livelihoods, Hearts in Action funds a variety of micro business startups to enliven the local economy, and organizes events from family festivals to farmers markets where community members can showcase and sell their products. At the Jungle School, the curriculum enhances entrepreneurial skills that enable students to gain meaningful employment or to create their own micro businesses. There are also two workshops on campus to teach professional skills: one for carpentry and the other gardening.
In 2016, Hearts in Action leveraged a grant for the school’s carpentry workshop to start a social enterprise, Itza Wood. People of the jungle know better than anyone else the importance of protecting forests. Itza Wood only uses sustainably sourced wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, most of which are harvested from naturally fallen trees. The Petén Jungle is a treasure trove of exotic wood like ziricote, jobillo, and granadillo, each coming in unique colors, patterns, and textures, as if painted by the brush strokes of nature. With help from experienced carpenters in the village and budding young designers around the region, the fledgling business began to produce unique woodworks, which are not just works of art, but also testaments to the beauty and biodiversity of the Petén region.
“We seek to be a bridge into international markets by using the natural resources inherent in our community and crafting a well-designed, high-quality product,” says Eliza, the Babarczys’ daughter, who grew up at Hearts in Action in the jungle, attended college in the United States, and headed back to make the dream of Itza Wood a reality. Her business acumen quickly helped the startup to gain important clients in the hospitality and restaurant industries. With the seed money from Mission Taiwan and Guatemala’s Ministry of Economy, Itza Wood joined the Export Commission, and started selling their handcrafted woodworks to the United States and Europe.
“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur,” Eliza confessed in an interview in 2018. “It happened because we needed to see a change in our community, and no one else was going to do it.” The benefits that Itza Wood brings to the Petén communities have been significant on many levels. It creates a stable stream of income for a few dozens of families; it offers jobs and practical training for young people to stay in the area; and it counteracts illegal logging by building a sustainable supply chain. According to Eliza, a solid connection to local communities has ensured that the company’s growth brings positive impact for all parties involved. “Real-world problems require innovative solutions that integrate local capital and stakeholder buy-in,” she says. “Everything we’ve accomplished has been with our community, for our community - that’s the real way to create sustainable change.”
Words: MINZUU Photos: HEARTS IN ACTION