As the owner of a travel company, JB Journeys, I have been fortunate on occasion to meet people in other countries who have the capacity to impactfully change the world for good. Tara and Rob Cahill of Guatemala are two such people.
I first met the Cahills while I was birding in Guatemala in 2017. JB Journeys runs a Guatemala Holy Week tour each year and I’d gone early to scout for a birding trip. I knew that the Golden-cheeked Warbler overwintered in the central part of the country and, in hopes of offering a future tour to see the warbler, I hired a local guide to take me around for a day. I stayed in the Cobán area and my guide, Rudy Botzoc, and I traveled by public bus from one preserve to another. The birding was fabulous. I was surprised to see several private preserves set aside specifically for the protection of migrants. At one point, we heard a screech owl, got excited, and then realized we were listening to a tape that a birding group was using. Rudy, pointed towards the group and told me, “There is the best birder in Guatemala.” I assumed Rudy was referring to the older of the two guides, but I quickly learned that the best birder in Guatemala was not Rob Cahill, but his 21-year-old son, John.
That birding group was staying at my same hotel, so I ran into them later at dinner. Rob asked if he could take a little time and talk about his work in Guatemala. When I mentioned I was from Texas, he asked if it was anywhere near where Golden-cheeked Warblers nest.
Rob and Tara run Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC) and he explained what they are attempting to do and some of their successes. The Cahills have a campus in the cloud forest and work with the local indigenous people from surrounding villages. During the school year, classes come to their campus for Kids & Birds, a 4-day environmental education program based on the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth, learning and experiencing the connection between the land and the creatures who call it home, and the need to protect it.
In November and December (school break) CCFC runs a 25-day residential program called Women in Agro-ecology Leadership for Conservation, or WALC. This program is life changing. Many of the girls come from large families facing poverty and malnutrition and live in areas of deforestation and environmental degradation. Traditionally, in rural Guatemala, girls leave school after 6th grade, get married, and begin up to 12 pregnancies.
In 25 days, they learn extensively about agro-ecology, but additionally they have instruction in nature, nutrition, cooking, hygiene, family planning, career options, self-confidence building, and many other life skills. To complete the program, they must also establish a small agro-forest parcel at their home, planting native trees as well as heirloom and traditional crops. The result is a better educated person who can supply healthy food for her family (with additional to take to market) and to begin reforestation of the cloud forest, which has been overcut for several decades for firewood and subsistence farming. Upon completion, each girl earns a scholarship to attend school for another year.
The WALC program began in 2007 with seven girls who wanted to continue to junior high, but their families did not have the means. Today, over 1,200 young women have completed the program. Most have gone on to finish secondary school, many attend university, and some have gone into professional careers. Quite a few come back to CCFC and work as teachers in either Kids & Birds or the WALC. These young women tend to marry later and have smaller families.
Before I forget, most of the students speak an indigenous language, Q’eqchi’. The classes are taught in Q’eqchi’ and the Cahills all speak it. Q’eqchi’ is one of 22 Maya languages in Guatemala.
Now, let me tell you about the CCFC campus. At our first meeting, Rob showed me some pictures of the buildings but until seen in person, it’s hard to imagine. Two large, undulating buildings have dorm rooms, large kitchens, and classrooms. The center is 100% off the grid, but no comfort is lacking. They have both solar and hydro power, grow much of their own food, use composting toilets, clean their wastewater through leaching fields, and much more. Just inside the front door you will see what appears to be a recumbent bicycle, but they use the contraption to grind freshly roasted coffee beans or wheat (or some non-gluten alternative) for breads.
Did I mention they have Golden-cheeked Warblers on their property? In fact, this area is where the bird was first described to science back in 1860.
Then there’s “Guatemala’s best birder.” John Cahill is now 23 years old and has birding and guide skills well beyond his years. John has done a few Big Years in Guatemala, each one bigger than the last. You can read about his big year here. He has helped train a number of guides in the country, and he continues to add to Guatemala’s list of birds.
John attended university in Colombia for a couple of years and JB Journeys is planning a birding tour with him in Western Colombia for August 2021. (let me know if interested.) He is now studying in Cobán and helping with the running of CCFC.
In January of this year, JB Journeys ran two successful birding tours in Guatemala led by the super team of John and Rob Cahill. As a result of these two tours, one acre of land was put into reforestation and will be maintained for six years, effectively offsetting the carbon footprint of the tour. Another departure scheduled for January 2020 is already full, but we’d like to offer this tour each year in conjunction with Travis Audubon. It is my hope that Travis Audubon will partner with CCFC to support their efforts to educate and reforest the area where some of our own Golden-cheeked Warblers spend the winter.
When it comes to supporting groups with donations, there are areas that mean a lot to me. CCFC hits them all. Women. Conservation. Education. Sustainability. Women. Check and double-check.
The Travis Audubon meeting is on Thursday, September 19. Doors open at 6:30 and the meeting starts at 7 pm. Meeting location is the First Unitarian Universalist Church at 4700 Grover Avenue, 78756 in Austin, Texas. The meeting is open to the public.