Indigenous Women in Guatemala Turn to Cooperatives to Protect The Environment and Grow Their Business


Founding members of Atitlan Recicla Cooperative

This article first appeared in NCBA CLUSA’s Co-op Weekly Newsletter and has been updated for MarketLinks.

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala is known as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Located in the southwestern highlands in the department of Solola, this vast, volcanic lake is less than 3 hours from Guatemala City. As home to the Mayan cultures of the Tz ‘utujil, K’iche’, and Kaqchikel, the Lake Atitlán basin is also rich in history and culture. Over the past decade, however, this majestic landmark has become increasingly threatened by pollution.

In 2017, the Association of Friends of Lake Atitlán (AALA) began working with several groups of indigenous women living around the Lake Atitlán basin to promote effective management of recycling activities and reduce lake pollution, while also promoting women’s economic development. Over the past few years, these recycling groups have grown to 28 groups representing 965 women. Their initiative has been supported by other organizations as well, including the Central American Bottling Corporation, the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation in Canada, Social Capital Foundation (SCF), and Roots for Sustainability (R4S).

With sustainability in mind, the initiative shifted toward helping women create their own companies. Different business structures were discussed, and since many of the women already had some positive experiences with cooperatives as their husbands are co-op members, they decided on the cooperative business model.

As a cooperative development organization, NCBA CLUSA was tapped by SCF and AALA to support these women with achieving their vision of becoming a formal cooperative business. Through its US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Cooperative Development Program (CDP) project, NCBA CLUSA partnered with SCF, AALA, and the women’s groups to take these next steps in their recycling business journey.

NCBA CLUSA worked closely with the National Institute of Cooperatives (INACOP) to help facilitate the cooperative registration process for these women. In Guatemala, formalizing a cooperative is a lengthy process with multiple steps. In addition to preparing the foundational documents such as the articles of incorporation, bylaws, and business plan, pre-cooperatives must also elect a provisional board of directors and founding members must participate in 40 hours of cooperative business training from INACOP technicians. The CDP team helped the founding members with their paperwork and facilitated discussions to help the women reach a consensus on their articles of incorporation and bylaws. NCBA CLUSA also collaborated with INACOP to organize and facilitate the training workshops.

After months of hard work, the women completed the cooperative formalization process, and Cooperativa Integral de Comercialización or “Atitlán Recicla” R.L. is now a registered cooperative. “At the beginning, it cost us a bit, but now as a cooperative, we feel that we are all ‘in the circle’, and we encourage each other to work and move forward together,” said founding member Orquídea Elisabeth Chocob Cos.

The first General Assembly was held on October 21, 2021, where the official board of directors was elected, and committees for vigilance and education were also established. Another committee is already being considered to promote additional income streams through designing and marketing handicrafts.

As the Board President Cindy Karina Dionicio Tuj explained, “As women, it is very important for us to be able to undertake and generate income. We have the right to participate and be part of a cooperative, which allows us to operate legally to transport our materials and seek new markets to be able to sell our products.

Through the CDP project, NCBA CLUSA continues to support Atitlán Recicla with ongoing coaching and training in cooperative governance and management, strategic planning, financial management, and business development. For example, the women have expanded their vision from a business focused on collecting, sorting, and selling recyclable materials to a recycling business focused on product transformation and value addition for local, national, and international markets. As the women embark on running and governing their own cooperative business, NCBA CLUSA aims to equip them with the necessary skills to help them sustain and grow their operations, contribute to their families’ and communities’ well-being, and protect their natural environment.

This post comes from an implementer of the Cooperative Development Program under USAID’s DDI LFT Bureau.