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CCU Atheneum: Mario Morales holds one of the 3,000 seedlings he plants each summer on his land in Guatemala.
Mario Morales holds one of the 3,000 seedlings he plants each summer on his land in Guatemala.

Building a better world one tree at a time

by Mona Prufer
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As a 10-year-old child, Mario Morales used to walk 15 miles with his brothers to the village of El Naranjo to help his grandparents pick beans and corn during the harvest season in central Guatemala. It was a five-hour walk then, before the road was built in 1990 connecting El Naranjo to his hometown of Guastatoya.

“I remember the beautiful forests, the birds and springs and rivers,” he says. When he returned to the area a few years later, it was all gone. Thousands of trees had been cut down, with nothing left but tree stumps and mud and destruction.

A logging company from a neighboring city had cut down all the trees on the mountainsides. “A few landowners ended up with a few dollars, but most people got nothing,” Morales recalls, a dark cloud passing over his face. In addition, local farmers cut down too many trees to clear land for growing the standard crops of beans and corn, overworking the land in the process.

In 1980 he made a decision to do something about the blight of the Guatemalan rainforests, a mission that has become a life calling.

“By then, 50 percent of the forests were gone,” says Morales. “I was disappointed by what I saw. So I told my brothers that I would not return to visit my grandparents and other relatives in El Naranjo until I had the means to restore, in part, the beauty and biodiversity of the El Naranjo mountains.”

He kept his word.

It was not until December of 2000 when Morales first returned to El Naranjo. A neighbor from Guastatoya, his hometown, asked if he wanted to buy 60 acres of land for $4,000. (Three years earlier, the neighbor had purchased that land for one third of that amount.) “With no hesitation, I said yes. In May of 2001, I planted the first 3,000 trees, and I have continued doing so for 10 years in a row. “

Morales, a senior language instructor at Coastal Carolina University since 1999, lives very frugally in order to fund his environmental conservation project. He saves more than half of his teaching salary, returning to his homeland every summer to buy land and plant 3,000 seedling trees. His goal is to protect the land as nature preserve, while improving lives within the community by providing jobs and showing people there is more than “a beans and corn” future for them.

Eddie Dyer, executive vice president and chef operating officer at CCU, was interim dean of humanities when Morales first came to Coastal. “I made it a goal to know new faculty, and Mario told me about his restoration of areas that had been environmentally damaged,” says Dyer, who donates to Morales’ efforts. “I have come to know him as an earnest and hard-working man who is dedicated to being a good teacher and an environmentalist.”

During the academic year, Morales rents a room in Conway. He walks to and from work since he doesn’t own a car. Last year it was a two-and-a-half hour walk to and from the campus. This year, since he has moved closer to campus, it is only a 40-minute walk. He budgets $150 for monthly living expenses. If expenses turn out to be more than expected, Morales cuts back to one meal a day instead of three. He owns three pairs of shoes, one pair just for walking, and all his worldly possessions can be placed into one suitcase.

Morales is a humble man with a big mission. Unlike most professors, he isn’t interested in achieving tenure. “These are important things ā€“ to see hundreds of people benefit is more important than to publish an article that only a few scholars might read,” he says.

Sherer Royce, a health promotions professor who took 16 students to his homeland last summer for a cultural experience trip, nearly ran out of superlatives when talking about Morales, who put the whole group up in his mountainside home and acted as tour guide. While there, the students helped plant some of the saplings on Morales’ land, which is mostly hilly and sloping mountainside. It proved to be a challenge for nearly all of them due to the heat, hard work and the incline. “We Americans are not as tough as Mario’s people,” says Royce.

So far Morales has bought 500 acres near El Naranjo and Guastatoya, the province capital, and planted 30,000 trees on 22 properties.

Ten years ago when he first started buying land, he paid about 1,000 quetzales (Guatemalan currency) or $125 (U.S.) for a hectare, a unit of area equivalent to 10,000 square meters or about 2.471 acres. Now it costs 10 times that amount for the same land., about $1,250.

“I use up all my savings every year,” says Morales. “Right now I have $85 [in the bank], but I’ll start saving all over again.” Of his $40,000 annual salary, he saves about $22,000 for buying land and seedlings ā€“ after taxes and benefits deductions, airfare to Guatemala, personal expenses and Christmas presents for the family.

Morales hires 10 local villagers, including students, to work for him during the summer, and keeps two people on the payroll during the rest of the year. He allows farmers to plant crops on his land at no charge so they won’t chop down any more trees for farmland. In exchange, they keep him informed of tree cutters and poachers they spot trespassing. He does not allow hunting on his property.

But it’s not just about buying the land and planting trees. Morales is also working to change attitudes, raise the level of civility and make the community a better and more law-abiding place. It is not uncommon, he says, for male villagers to walk around with guns slung on their hips, punctuating their conversations and disagreements with gunshots into the air. By working with the church and school (where his sister teaches), Morales hopes to teach students that there are better ways to communicate and better futures for them than following in their parents’ footsteps.

Morales’ parish church in Guastatoya has been adopted by a sister church in Illinois. Through fundraising efforts, scholarships have been provided to 15 of the local students who normally would not have been able to attend high school. Recently four of them graduated: Two of the students have landed good jobs, one is attending the national police academy, and the fourth is going away to university.

That’s progress, points out Morales, who looks younger than his 47 years (which he attributes to his walking). “It’s not just about protecting the forests, but it is about changing things in the future and creating a different community of people living peacefully. It is a long process.”

“Mario is king in his community,” says Royce, who was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the Guatemalan people in the poor village. “He provides hope and opportunity for his people.” The Guatemalans are hard-working people who mostly live in impoverished conditions, she says.

As youngsters growing up in Guatemala, Morales and his brothers and sisters worked on a tobacco plantation to help support the family. His father was a blacksmith, and his mother washed and ironed clothes for people in the nearby city. They were better off than most, but it was a hard way of life. He was fortunate (and smart) enough to receive a scholarship that put him through high school, then he went on to teach elementary school in the village of El Carmen and was later awarded a Fulbright grant to attend college at West Virginia University, where he earned his degrees.

Morales envisions four more years of teaching and saving, plus buying 100 more acres before moving back to the mountainside home he built. Then he plans to build some simple cabins on his land for visitors and introduce ecotourism, hiring local guides and local residents to provide food and services.

In the meantime, the Spanish instructor will conduct his language classes (in 11 years, he’s never cancelled a class), eat in The Commons three times a week and listen to students complain about the food. “In a poor country like mine, the people eat tortillas with salt for a meal. This food is a Christmas feast!” he tells them. He would like to develop a study abroad trip to Guatemala during Maymester to show CCU students the beauty of his home country.

“When (CCU) the students come, they always say, ‘Wow! This country is so beautiful, look at all those waterfalls!”

As far as reaching his goals, he is confident he’ll get there. “I’m a patient man,” he says. “I think Iā€™m doing the right thing. I love my people, and I love my country.”

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