In the Honduran north coast community of El Pino, in the Department of Atlántida, young people have few opportunities for employment beyond the occasional low-wage day labor. They also face encroaching violence from the nearby city of La Ceiba: a hotspot for drug trafficking, gang violence and a jumping-off point for emigration out of the country. As a result, feelings of insecurity about their future can hinder young people’s feelings of connectedness to or pride in their communities. This disconnect can also manifest itself as a lack of concern for the natural environment.
In El Pino, however, creative expression as well as environmental conservation and tourism are helping young people generate income, build valuable life skills and consider staying in their community as a viable long term option. For almost 15 years, the youth-led Empresa de Servicios Múltiples Artesanos y Guías (ESMAG) has worked to improve economic conditions in El Pino and neighboring communities by taking advantage of their location in the buffer zones of two renowned national parks: Pico Bonito National Park and the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge.
The success of this creative model is based on two main factors: economic and social sustainability. First, as a business, ESMAG offers nature and birdwatching tour guide services and sells art and handicrafts. ESMAG members earn money through commissions of murals, provision of tour guide services and sales of hand-made crafts and paintings. Sales have grown over the years —in some cases by as much as 100 percent—thanks to increasing recognition and the quality of the artistry. Secondly, ESMAG serves as a community development organization. ESMAG offers leadership courses to young people and art programs for children. They also coordinate community reforestation efforts.
ESMAG has several adult mentors, but most of its leadership and art activities are led by young adults who are 18 to 25 year olds. So far in 2018, ESMAG members have painted murals at 11 schools in five communities, with the participation of approximately 1,500 students. Organization leaders believe that collaborative art projects—placed in highly visible locations such as schools and sports fields with site-specific depictions of the natural and cultural beauty surrounding the community—encourage local residents to recognize the value of conserving rather than exploiting their natural resources.
Additionally, the participatory nature of the activity allows children to take ownership over a project and encourages young people to develop a leadership mindset. Parents of members of ESMAG say they have seen positive changes in their children in the form of improved communication skills and more confidence in their interactions with others. Others mention yet another positive change—their children urging them to recycle and prevent environmental contamination in their homes.
“I started in ESMAG as a student when I was 14 years old. I was interested in painting and being able to use my imagination. Now, four years later, I am one of the youth leaders teaching children about art and the environment. As a member of ESMAG, I earn some income from art sales and tourism guiding. With that, I am able to pay for my studies,” said Daniel Ulloa, an 18-year old artist and birder.
Jorge Díaz, a 15-year old tour guide, is living his dreams. “When I started, the idea that I could take people around to show them birds seemed crazy. For me, birdwatching is an escape. Birding has helped me and my friends get involved in an activity and away from vices. When guiding birdwatchers…I typically receive more than the previously agreed-upon amount [and] when I return home, I give some of the money to my family and pay for my schooling,” said Díaz.
What started as the seed of an idea of three local artists in a small community in Honduras in 2004 today is a thriving business with around 30 young adult members and 15 younger affiliates. ESMAG has become a local icon because of the depth of its community development work and the uniqueness of its products.
The Inter-American Foundation is proud to support grassroots organizations like ESMAG whose businesses and community efforts aim to strengthen social networks, build resilience, and generate income even in the face of such uncertainty and violence. Cultivating the talents of young people in areas that are vulnerable to nearby urban violence can empower them to make better choices when faced with life’s challenges. Additionally, supporting and strengthening local programs like ESMAG helps to create alternatives to migration.