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From the Ground Up: A Story of 7 Million Trees and a Guatemalan Nonprofit

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Guatemalan women around a traditional cooking fire with little ventilation (photos courtesy of Dr. Anne Hallum)
Guatemalan women around a traditional cooking fire with little ventilation (photos courtesy of Dr. Anne Hallum)

There is more to reforestation than just planting trees. It is an educational journey and a physical process, and eventually becomes a vital part of daily life. In order to truly reforest an area, all of these things must be incorporated while paying close attention to cultural respect of the community. None know this process better than Dr. Anne Hallum, founder of the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR), who has orchestrated the planting of over 7 million trees and the education of countless Guatemalan communities in agro-forestry to preserve said trees.

Dr. Hallum’s journey to build AIR Guatemala has been one of hope, faith, and adaptation. She began as a professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida, but always felt as if there was more she could accomplish in the world beyond that career path. In 1991, she volunteered to travel through the University to Guatemala, where she immediately fell in love with the community. During her stay, members of the community expressed issues they were having with agriculture, including mudslides and diminishing biodiversity, a result of the trophic cascade caused by extreme deforestation of Guatemalan trees for firewood.

Dr. Hallum's, who built AIR Guatemalan, smiles and poses for a picture.

Identifying a Culture-Conscious Solution

Deforestation isn’t unique to Guatemala, and there are plenty of reforestation projects in rural areas around the globe where teams come in, plant hundreds of trees, and then leave; lack of follow-thru diminishes the outcome. Dr. Hallum recognized that a more permanent, community-based forestry education program was needed, and the seed for AIR (Alliance for International Reforestation) Guatemala was planted. Her nonprofit soon began plans to build a training center where they would identify knowledgeable Guatemalan agriculturalists and hire them as trainers. The trainers would show rural farmers in different communities the best techniques to grow the raw materials needed to thrive and maintain their culture in a sustainable manner.

In order for AIR Guatemala to be successful, Dr. Hallum knew she had to work from the inside out. She understood that she could not just enter a community and tell them her ideas of what they needed to do, as she is not Guatemalan herself and therefore does not fully understand Guatemalan culture and defined needs. She hired all-Guatemalan education and training teams and made efforts to actively listen to the Guatemalan community so that her team of trainers could partner with them in spreading ideas of effective ways to farm and forest regeneratively. Additionally, she vowed that her teams would not simply give communities the materials for reforestation and leave, but instead would set up a 5-year model for each area, allowing time for the community to take its own initiative and fully understand the comprehensive reforestation process.

Anna Hallum having lunch with Mayan community members and AIR Guatemalan staff members
Anna Hallum having lunch with Mayan community members and AIR staff members

All of the farmers currently working with AIR are indigenous Maya, and 70% are female farmers, who sought AIR’s help and training. As Dr. Hallum began to fully immerse herself in Guatemalan life and let the community first educate her, she spent a great deal of time speaking to the female agriculturalists and other women of the community, who told her that they would not have to fell nearly as many trees if they had effective stoves for cooking within their homes since stoves require considerably less wood than other cooking methods. This moment was quite eye-opening to Dr. Hallum, as it was a root cause of deforestation that she never would have seen had she not learned directly from the community she desired to help. 

Therefore, it was a natural step for AIR Guatemala to start helping the community to build functional wood-burning stoves from brick, concrete blocks, as well as melted molasses mixed with mud, an old Guatemalan building technique. Additionally, Anne understood that it was important that the stoves were still wood-burning versus gas or solar-powered, as the cooking place in a Guatemalan home also acts as a heat source and family gathering place. Furthermore, traditional Guatemalan cuisine requires a smokey flavor that only wood can provide. Therefore, while some wood is still being burned, it is much more efficient than before, and more easily accepted because it preserves Guatemalan culture.

Guatemalan family around new stove built with assistance from AIR

Funding the Dream

At this point, Dr. Hallum was filled with the excitement of ideas, but there was one issue that is well-known by many early-stage nonprofits: lack of funding. Dr. Hallum maintains that a major turning point in the AIR Guatemala journey was also a major risk she took in late 1993 when she was sitting alone in an Antiguan restaurant, next to broke, and feeling lost about what to do next to further the AIR Guatamala mission. At that moment, she was approached by a man named Chris Wunderlich, who correctly suspected she might be a fellow North American. Dr. Hallum learned that Wunderlich had a background in agro-forestry and he offered to show her his current project working with water tanks nearby, so she “climbed onto the back of a motorcycle with a man [she’d] known for an hour,” and soon offered him her last $1000 on the spot to be the director of AIR Guatemala. Wunderlich accepted and Dr. Hallum describes him as one of the main drivers in laying out the groundwork and primary methods for the nonprofit’s 5-year agro-forestry education program.

Maintaining Faith

AIR Guatemala also receives funding from various partnerships, including a steady alliance with Clif Bar & Company, from foundation grants, and donations by multiple Presbyterian church congregations to whom Dr. Hallum, a woman of faith herself, has spoken about her mission to make a positive impact on creation. She believes that many aspects of AIR Guatemala’s development are the result of blessings and guidance from God, and she feels led to help the people of Guatemala and the planet without disrupting native culture or imposing Christianity on local people. One instance where she felt especially blessed was in 2005 when the nonprofit was extremely low on funding, and Dr. Hallum was wondering how she would be able to keep working towards her goals and fulfilling her promises to the Guatemalan communities with whom she was working at the time. And just when she thought all hope was lost, she received a phone call from a church in Atlanta, Georgia telling her that a benevolent family had decided to donate $10,000 to the cause, and she interpreted the donation as a sign from to keep moving forward.

Current Results

Today, AIR Guatemala has planted over 7.2 million trees, and is still growing! These trees help to protect local water sources, improve farming, and also absorb carbon, assisting in the global fight against climate change. However, it is not only the trees that make an impact, it is the nonprofit’s Guatemalan-led education program, now with training centers in both eastern and western Guatemala, that makes the difference, along the lines of the old “if you teach a man to fish” adage. Additionally, the nonprofit has built over 900 stoves, saving 900 tons of firewood each year. AIR Guatemala has received two prizes from the United Nations: the 2013 Momentum for Change Award from the Warsaw Poland UN Congress on Climate Change, and the 2017 Equator Prize from the UN Development Program to the 15 Most Effective Environmental Organizations in the World. In the future, Dr. Hallum wants to make sure that she always pauses to refocus her mission and never get to a point where funding is going towards keeping the nonprofit itself afloat instead of actually helping to improve Guatemalan agro-forestry and combat climate change.

AIR Guatemala as it is today is the product of many partners, whose cultural respect, risk taking, and follow through have been pivotal. It also owes its success to the dream and the faith of its founder, Anne Hallum, who seeks to improve the state of the world one Guatemalan community at a time without disrespecting native culture. Today, she is furthering that dream through the continuation of AIR Guatemala and the continuation of learning how to best serve Guatemalan communities in need.

Sarah Followill
Author: Sarah Followill

Sarah is a junior at UNC majoring in Environmental Studies and pursuing minors in GIS and Studio Art. She is particularly interested in pursuing sustainability in architecture and city planning. Sarah is also an athlete on the UNC D1 Fencing Team and spends a fair amount of her time training to compete. She is excited by the opportunities that HoW will provide to learn about the business side of sustainability firsthand from entrepreneurs, and she hopes to use that knowledge in the future as well as sharing it with others through her writing.

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