By improving schools, the ECLT is brightening the prospects of children in Guatemala’s largest tobacco-growing region.
By Timothy S. Donahue, originally published in Tobacco Reporter magazine
The rain. It can be relentless. Next to a road that numerous children travel to school, a raging river threatens the route. Any more rain and the river will crest, making the road impassable. During the rainy season, flooding is a reality for everyone in San Jose La Maquina, a community in the middle of Guatemala’s largest tobacco-growing region. The floods can destroy crops and farming equipment. Often, lives are also lost. The flooding isn’t the only problem; crime is a serious concern, too. Children run the risk of being kidnapped and/or assaulted during their walk to school. Even if they are willing to take the chance on getting there, the schools they attend are often dilapidated, lacking learning materials, littered with trash and have bathrooms that are unsanitary. There may not even be a teacher. But they still come. Education is one of the only roads to a better life in these impoverished farming communities. For many of these kids, the risk is worth the potential reward. When the nonprofit Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation began its model project, the Education and Employability for Adolescents Workers in Agriculture (EEMPATA), in La Maquina in 2013, making a difference in the lives of the community’s kids was a primary concern. If the schools could be better, the students would have a chance at a professional career, according to Laura Collier, head of communications for the ECLT. The organization has spent more than $385,000 on the project. “What we have been doing is developing a small pilot model and putting together a rural job training project here in La Maquina,” she says. “One of the major issues was that there wasn’t a secondary school in the community, and many of these students couldn’t afford the logistics, such as transportation, to attend a secondary school in another community. That’s just the beginning, too.” It’s a complicated issue. Often, the lack of laborers for tobacco farmers to hire forces them to send their kids to school during the rainy season because during the growing season they need help tending the fields. It’s a vicious cycle, says Collier. “It doesn’t help to see a farmer as a criminal. People often misunderstand child labor; there are chores around the house or in the community that can be important to children’s development and education,” she says. “Children performing some of these duties is part of family and cultural dynamics. However, child labor is work that is harmful to children, like working too many hours, being prevented from attending school, carrying heavy loads, operating machinery or working with chemicals. The list goes on.” A lot of what the ECLT does is centered on raising awareness and educating communities about the difference between important life skills and child labor. Collier says the organization is still learning about Guatemala, where the infrastructure is better (but still lacking) than other regions the ECLT works in, such as parts of rural Africa. “This means there are different problems. Guatemala has safety and crime issues. Kids may have a school to go to, but the road to get there is dangerous,” says Collier. “There are realities on the ground that need to be addressed.”
On the ground The ECLT has been working with two schools in La Maquina: B16 and B18. In B18, the ECLT is looking at either building a flood wall or possibly moving the school altogether because flooding on the property is a constant concern. When Tobacco Reporter visited the site in October, the flood markings on the school’s walls showed how deep the water could get. It was easily three to four feet above the floor. Most of the ECLT’s current work has been in the B16 school. There, the ECLT helped to develop a secondary education curriculum, as well as improved the infrastructure of the school and added additional classroom space, according to Stephanie Garde, program coordinator for the ECLT. “We upgraded toilet facilities in B16 and made the conditions more sanitary. Before, there wasn’t even a place for the kids to wash their hands,” says Garde. “We also built and outfitted a computer lab and a sewing classroom to provide vocational training and offer hands-on experiences for these students.” The Guatemala model is one of the ECLT’s Key Intervention Projects. The foundation set out to engage the tobacco sector and other stakeholders to uncover opportunities for “punctual, relevant, and high-impact interventions to end child labor.” A key intervention the ECLT identified was the establishment of vocational training for children ages seven to 17 in the rural La Maquina district. “This is a test to see if the model works,” Collier says. “We have been getting a lot of traction, not only with job training but working with the community and local and state governments.” When the project began, the ECLT commissioned Defensa de Ninas y Ninos Internacional (DNI), which is part of Defense of Children International, to carry out a study to assess problems of child labor and youth employment in Guatemala. The Guatemala project is being completed in four phases. The first phase, from October 2013 to January 2014, provided a baseline that determined children living in the tobacco plantation areas in La Maquina required strong and sustained support to improve their possibilities of education and vocational training, according to Virginia Murillo Herrera, executive president of DNI-Costa Rica and head of the Guatemala project for DNI.
“The DNI study identified problems associated with child labor in tobacco-growing areas and found some visible gaps. We wanted to develop and articulate a specific youth employment and vocational training intervention targeting youth in rural tobacco-growing communities and other agricultural sectors,” she said. “The second phase, from June 2014 to May 2015, brought together local stakeholders, tobacco companies, educational authorities and other governmental and local entities to advance the proposal of the Vocational Curricula Model. The School Accompaniment Program (SAP) was also implemented at that time to improve the learning process for children in primary schools, thus avoiding the repetition of academic programs and confronting early dropout rates for students.” Phase III, from September 2015 to August 2016, made it possible to implement the SAP in a more systematic way by improving the performance of the children participating in the program. “Based on the increases of enrollment of children in this program, a result has to be the reduction of participation of children in the tobacco plantations,” noted Herrera. “This is also where we set up the ‘telesecundaria’ in school B16. That allowed for access to basic education (during the first three years of high school) through teleclassrooms. Another accomplishment during phase III was the adoption of the official constitution of an advisory committee, which focuses on promoting sustainability and replication of the model.” Currently, the ECLT is completing phase IV, which is expected to be complete in early 2019. The final phase concludes the application of the Rural Training Model Curricula as a whole. The foundation hopes to expand and strengthen the conditions around its implementation to guarantee the program’s long-term sustainability, according to Collier.
Community concept During TR’s visit, the ECLT met with the mayor of San Jose La Maquina, Ronald Aldana. He said that his municipality became independent in 2014 and he has led the community for four years. “I thank the ECLT for its hard work. I have requested from the Ministry of Communication (the government entity responsible for roads) for the roads to B18 to be fixed and a bridge to be repaired. It will improve the development in the area,” he said. “Trying to improve the roads improves the mobility for travel for tourists to beaches, and the overall community will benefit, especially for our kids because this will open new opportunities for good jobs.” Aldana said his office is focusing on projects to help support infrastructure. There are many things needed and much work to do. He also discussed with the ECLT team the possibility of acquiring a bus that would help transport the kids attending B16 and B18 schools—a project he would like to have start in 2019. The ECLT would possibly purchase the bus, the mayor’s office would be responsible for the upkeep and another organization would provide the driver. An advisory committee would oversee ensuring the bus maintains its purpose: to transport kids to school, according to Karin Van Wijk, the ECLT’s program manager that runs the ground operations in Guatemala.
“The advisory committee is made up of community leaders, parents, teachers and representatives of the local tobacco companies. They play a key role in the sustainability of the project model,” she says. “The project builds the members’ abilities to monitor the progress made by students, assisting with counseling and other vital tasks.” There was a meeting of the advisory committee during TR’s visit. Several members spoke of how proud they were of the project’s success and how it is impacting the community. Zoila Marina, a committee member, said the ECLT project brought something into the community that just didn’t exist before. “Now we have a chance to make positive changes in kids’ lives,” she said. “It is necessary to keep the projects going, and we will help with that.” Marcaria Garcia, another committee member, says the projects have given kids in her community hope for a better life. “This project is making a true difference in the education and future of our children,” she said. The ECLT hopes to promote and replicate the model program in other countries in the Central America region, according to David Hammond, executive director of the ECLT. “We aren’t done yet. We created these nodes of success, but we need to also create areas of responsibility where those in charge understand the needs of that area and how to confront arising issues,” says Hammond. “We can also use these nodes to link issues in other segments, such as one school bus may be able to service several schools. The pilot project is so we can figure out if it works. Then we need to figure out what other problems appear in completing those initial projects. All these issues need to be addressed before you are actually impacting child labor; if you can’t give them a pathway out of the fields, then they stay in the fields.” Child labor in agriculture isn’t just a tobacco problem. Sugarcane, cocoa, coffee and many other large industrial crops have the same issues, according to Collier. “Over 70 percent of all child labor is in agriculture, and many times this is across multiple crops in the same communities,” she says. “Unfortunately, the negative perception of the tobacco industry can sometimes affect available support for the farmers. It is a legal, labor-intensive crop, and tobacco farmers should not be viewed any differently than other farmers growing sugar or coffee.” The ECLT has also worked closely with representatives of Guatemala’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor throughout the project. Both government entities and Mayor Aldana’s city council signed agreements with the ECLT that guarantee ongoing support of the foundation’s projects at the local and national levels. It was a first for the ECLT. Hammond says that these agreements are necessary for the sustainability of the projects and give them real legitimacy. “The community and municipal governments must see to the lasting ability of the projects so that the ECLT can move on into other communities and other projects without worrying about if the investments we made previously will continue to make an impact,” he says. “Investing in a child’s education is one of the most sound investments that can be made. A lot has been achieved, but much more work remains.”