Youth in Latin America dream big for sustainable communities

Young people in Guatemala and El Salvador are tackling the effects of climate change at grassroots to build sustainable development into their communities.

They are part of the Youth Ambassadors’ programme run by Asociación SERES, an organization which was awarded the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in November 2015 for its outstanding work.

Despite the obstacles of poverty, war and shortages in the region, since its foundation in 2009, the organization has been bringing about positive change through sustainable development by empowering young people.

As part of the programme, participants design action plans to implement in their communities, from promotion of local food consumption, recycling and waste management, to forming local environmental committees.

"Despite the natural wealth of these territories, a lot of the people here live in poverty and are very vulnerable to everything, including climate change. Young people are left aside, with no social fabric, and forced to migrate looking for better opportunities and a system that imposes solutions without asking what they really want or need. That is why I thought the best thing to do was to start listening to them," says Corrina Grace, founder and executive director of SERES.

The "machete" for change

Through a series of workshops, participants grow to understand themselves and how to improve their and their potential to work on their goals. In parallel, the programmes include technical information related to sustainable development which is locally relevant, such as food sovereignty, permaculture, climate change and biodiversity.

"SERES provides us with a 'machete' to work, they help us to apply knowledge to our own realities and develop action plans in our groups, our communities and even farther," says Antonio Sánchez, 28, a former participant who is now founder and facilitator of SERES in El Salvador.

"Our participants have very diverse backgrounds, there are indigenous, mestizos, farmers, university students... and must find their own path to change what they want to change, there are no recipes," says Isabel Pérez, strategies coordinator.

Overcoming obstacles, building on success

SERES has faced two major obstacles; convincing mainly older people about the relevance of sustainable development and its role in solving problems such as improving crops and limited resources which affect the implementation of action plans. Grace says they want to expand from the current 1,500 young people they work with to seven thousand by 2020.

The UNESCO-Japan Prize on ESD served as excellent motivation. The award ceremony at UNESCO in Paris in November 2015 was attended by founder and director Grace, accompanied by Abigail Quic, 26, a young Maya leader from the Guatemalan highlands, living evidence of SERES’ work.

"When I saw all the people who were in the audience I could not believe how a young Maya woman was there talking to all these representatives of the entire planet ... then I said what I would say to everybody on this planet: we have a lot to do for a better world, so please, join our work no matter who you are," recalls Quic.

SERES is extending its range to other latitudes. In 2015 Global SERES was created to involve more partners around the world. SERES also received a donation of land in Guatemala, where they plan to build their Comuniversidad, a centre that would bridge the gap between community and academic knowledge.