The Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Project (ECSP) and the Izaak Walton League of America co-sponsored a reception at the Wilson Center to celebrate the life of Guatemalan conservation leader Carlos Soza, who died of liver cancer on May 28, 2003. Soza's passing was unexpected, coming just two weeks after his cancer diagnosis.
Beginning life as a palm harvester, Soza transformed himself into a college graduate, teacher, community activist, and population-environment visionary. He led Guatemala's most progressive NGO, ProPetén, and served as the NGO community's representative to the government of Guatemala. Soza's leadership of the Selva Maya Coalition brought greater attention to Latin America's tropical forests through the coalition's partnerships with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Global Environment Facility, UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program, and international NGOs such as the Izaak Walton League, Population Action International, and Conservation International.
In addition to an extraordinary career as an activist, Soza was a poet and songwriter. In remembrance of Soza's creative gifts, guests at the reception were treated to live performances of traditional Guatemalan music and a reading of Soza's final poem entitled La Luna Llena (Full Moon). The gathering also included stirring memorial remarks by James Nations, Vice President of the National Parks Conservation Association; Henry Cano, Project Development Coordinator of ProPetén Guatemala, and James Baird, Sustainability Education Director of the Izaak Walton League of America.
James Nations on Carlos Soza
James Nations presented the following words in tribute to the extraordinary life of Carlos Soza:
"We've come together today to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Carlos Soza and to talk about what we can do to ensure that the work he and the ProPetén team accomplished continues to move forward.
"Many of you have heard the story of how Carlos was born in the Guatemalan Petén into a family of scarce resources. As a boy just out of the sixth grade, Carlos walked barefoot into the tropical forest to cut palm leaves for sale to middlemen who export them, even today, for the flower industry in Europe and the United States.
"Carlos encountered an oil company worker who was so impressed with this barefoot Guatemalan boy that he offered to fund a high school education for him in the United States. Carlos ended up earning his high school degree in the unlikely location of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
"He returned to the Guatemalan Petén fluent in English and eager to continue learning. But he found at first that all he could do was keep going to high school, and he went through Guatemalan high school twice for lack of another place to learn. Finally, Guatemala's Universidad de San Carlos opened a branch of the university in the Petén, and Carlos became the first Peténero to earn a college teaching degree.
"Carlos worked several years as secretary of the municipal government of San Andres, his hometown. It was this experience that gave him a wide understanding of community organizing and a deep appreciation of the need to work with local communities if you want to achieve long-lasting accomplishments.
"When the Guatemalan Congress declared a large block of the Petén as the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990, USAID initiated a well-funded project focused on improving the lives of tropical forest communities by keeping alive the region's biological diversity and promoting ecologically sustainable development.
"A search began for potential directors of a new community-based conservation group called ProPetén, and Carlos Soza quickly rose to the top of the list of candidates. For a decade, Carlos served as the Director of ProPetén, demonstrating a sensitive and insightful team leadership, an uncanny ability to gain the confidence of local communities, and a natural ability to inspire his fellow Guatemalans.
"When the USAID project finally ended in the Maya Biosphere Reserve ten years later, people worried that all the NGOs would pack up and leave, and many of them did. But Carlos Soza and the staff of ProPetén—an organization of Peténeros working to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and the environment that surrounded them—kept pushing forward.
"Carlos continued to expand the scope of ProPetén. He added a reproductive-health component to ProPetén's conservation work at a time when other groups were still afraid to talk about family planning. He understood the clear connection between women's empowerment, family health, family planning, and ecosystem integrity.
"Carlos saw the population/environment nexus as yet another way to help families protect their own health and their own environment.
"Today, the resting place of Carlos Soza does not need a headstone, because he left so many living monuments—a biosphere reserve with economic enterprises that benefit local people, family planning clinics, reproductive health networks, a library and cultural center in his hometown of San Andres, a language school called the EcoEscuela, a medicinal plant trail, women's groups, an alliance of ecotourism operators, an information center dedicated to the ecosystems and cultures of the Petén, and ProPetén, which continues as the center for ideas and training for Guatemalan conservation and reproductive health workers who understand that conservation is not about birds and bugs and beetles, but about the relationship of human beings to the ecosystems that surround and support them.
"Carlos Soza left behind entire communities of Peténeros who struggle now to follow his vision in a time when NGOs, foundations, and even governments are struggling to stay afloat. Carlos planted the flag of the future on a hill that took him and his team ten years to climb.
"It falls to those of us left behind to ensure that flag does not droop and does not fall. Even more, it falls to us to ensure that ProPetén can continue to carry the flag and the vision forward.
"Henry Cano is here today from ProPetén to seek the relationships, the information, and the funding to do exactly that. I would urge you today to talk with him and help him find the information and the financing that ProPetén requires to carry Carlos' flag into the 21st century.
"I would say that we owe that to Carlos Soza, but if he were here, Carlos would correct me and say, ‘We owe that to the people and the places of the Petén.'"
Drafted by Kurt Rakouskas.