I was graciously awarded the opportunity to serve as a scholar onboard the Peace Boat this summer for its 94th voyage around the world.
As we learned at our orientation, Peace Boat was started in 1983, after a group of Japanese students wanted to promote peace and understanding as a result of the “Textbook Scandal, when Japanese students wanted to change the misrepresented views/information in textbooks of South East Asian countries. The students decided to do this by traveling on a small ferry that has since then evolved into a mid-sized cruise ship – And very soon (launching in 2020) into the world’s first “Eco Ship” – which will be a sustainable vessel, sailing as a literal flagship for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It will feature amenities like wind and solar power, and a dance floor that captures the energy people exert while dancing on it.
The ship, which travels to over twenty countries every 3 months is open to anyone, regardless of nationality or age. However, aside from our program, which calls for youth from all corners of the globe, one must be aware that the ship is “heavily Japanese”, as most of its marketing and operations are based in Tokyo, thus attracting a large Asian crowd.
This calls for a very interesting experience onboard, including, Cuban-style salsa lessons, held in Japanese (luckily, you only need to know 3 numbers and about 5 words to follow along), lots of great Japanese foods for all dietary requirements, and in general, the opportunity to learn a variety of languages, including English (for the non speakers), Japanese, and Spanish.
For me, personally, it was an opportunity to become a student of the SDGs, mainly seeing how a very theoretical system of goals is practically applied and viscerally benefitting the lives of many.
I shared this with the DPI: While there is an innumerable amount of summer programs for youth, the Peace Boat provided me with the unique opportunity to travel to Latin America “through the lens of the SDGs” — we met with government officials and farmers alike, much as we do at the UN, but this time, we were on the ground with them, having a tangible learning experience. We stayed with the Embera Quera Indigenous tribe in Panama and learned, as best as one could, what it means to live sustainably. Also in Panama, we met with the UNDP regional office, which shared how the SDGs are being implemented in Latin America. On board the ship, we hosted a Peace Forum with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in El Salvador. As a youth scholar for the SDGs, I was invited to present on the SDGs that I closely resonated with, ran workshops on Social Enterprise and Design Thinking, as it is relates to promoting the SDGs. The experience complemented my recent completion of a Master’s degree in Food Studies and Social Entrepreneurship. This truly emphasizes the importance and autonomy that is given to youth as part of this program, which I am eternally grateful for.
I’ll give you a brief run down of how the next two weeks unravelled:
June 20 – Orientation at Peace Boat Office
June 21 – Fly to Panama City, hotel check-in, and welcome dinner
June 22 – Visit UN Development Program regional office, session on Sustainable Development Goals in Latin America
Today, we learned about the rapid development of Panama City, in the greater context of Latin America, about the importance of the Panama Canal, and of the great history of colonization and liberation that has greatly impacted this beautiful nation.
At UNDP, we learned from Javier M. Blanco about the importance of the three principles of the 2030 Agenda: universality, integration, and leaving no one behind — as it relates to the greater context of ensuring that countries are first and foremost able to adhere to the Agenda. We learned about how, in spite of suffering from other violations, like those of human rights, Cuba rates relatively high on quality of life for a relatively low level of income.
He continued with examples of how, while Brazil is developed, the rates are not inclusive, as some are geographically left behind
In the US and Europe for example, lots of crops are used to feed animals and not humans, which creates an inefficient use of these crops; whereas in India, one can see a relatively low level of meat consumption and high crop usage for human, which leads to a lack of universality amongst participating members
In Haiti, the integration of SDGs when natural disasters happens is key — i.e. access to water, resilience of its infrastructure, and the reparation of its cities/zero hunger
From Romeral Quintilla, we learned about the importance of UN volunteers, particularly youth volunteers, in securing the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. She emphasized that volunteering is a powerful means of implementation of the SDGs, as oftentimes, the volunteers were working on the ground long before the Goals were established, which gives them a unique leverage in the field.
Lastly, we heard from Adriana Zacarias who heads UN Environment and who shared key personal and governmental suggestions on the implementation of the SDGs, as it relates to the protection of the environment.
On a personal level, she advocated for decreased consumption, and urged us to think about this in terms of food, housing, mobility, consumer goods, and leisure. To complement this, she focused on 4 tenets, which are common in sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle, and respect — these, she emphasized, could only be achieved after a change in attitudes, paired with facilitators and the infrastructure to allow us to achieve these goals.
We continued our day with a visit to the Panama City Mayor’s office where we learned about the importance of positive reinforcement, as it relates to encouraging youth who are leaders as representatives in their community. The city has established three programs: Joven a Joven, Vivir Con Propósito and Foro Juventud Por la Paz – all with the purpose of encouraging youth, even those who are “trouble makers” – to divert negative energy into positive energy.
June 23 – Visit RET (Resilience, Education and Training) program for refugee youth in Panama
By sharing in a series of SDG – focused activities with youth who had been exposed to some of the most callous sides of life, we learned about the impact that government crises have on fragile populations, especially youth.
What is remarkable, however, is that the youth is resilient, hopeful, and some of the most energetic human beings I have ever seen. I was in the midst of filming a 13 year old girl Venezuelan who gave her testimony before she proceeded to passionately crush an egg we were supposed to keep intact throughout the day break), because she was so dedicated to share the inequalities of her current educational system.
These are the kinds of stories we need to continue to tell.
June 24 – Study Program and cultural exchange with local indigenous communities in Panama
This was the day that I fell in love with a monkey. Manolo had lost his mother, and the Embera Quera community, which we called home for an evening, also welcomed him.
The 3 month old spider monkey will remain with them until he is an adult, at which point he and his fellow adopted toucan will be freed.
What I loved most about our stay is the true sustainable nature of these indigenous communities — while some of the women gloss their lips and the children sing some of the latest songs, they manage to keep some of the traditions of their ancestors, which have also kept them alive for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, the government no longer allowed them to plant in their region, as it was declared a protected area, so they had to relocate. A comment from a friend shed a lot of light on this situation: “…the indigenous people weren’t indigenous enough for the government” — this is so true! In this case, the plants and the land were more important than its people.
In spite of the injustice, the children seemed to be more knowledgeable than many adults I know — some spoke French and Japanese and one recounted the history of The Great Wall.
Some highlights of our stay was cooking with the women — which involved finely grating rice for a sort of wrap, learning about traditional healing plants, including plants that remove fever and the bark of a particular tree, which they use to paint their bodies for protection from insects and disease. Lastly, we learned how to make traditional bracelets, which I was surprised to know was not all that easy – even for the simplest of designs!
I can’t forget about our sleeping situation, which involved us sleeping hoisted above one of their wooden houses with a mattress and mosquito nets — I would pay for this experience alone!
June 25 – Embark on Peace Boat in Cristobal, Panama, onboard orientation
Today we boarded the ship for the first time, which was really a fun experience, especially having the opportunity to share it with our friends at RET, who joined us for a visit.
My peers and I practiced our presentations on the SDGs, which allowed me to learn a lot about the SDGs through what they were specifically passionate about.
I ended the the day, taking advantage of the gym on board and singing to the tune of many songs at Karaoke.
June 26 – Panama Canal passage, preparation for lectures and study sessions onboard
I’m still not sure that I know exactly how it works, but I can tell you that it was very exciting to pass through the Panama Canal.
We spent most of our day outside, again preparing for our presentations, and figuring our the mechanisms of the canal.
I changed Karaoke for salsa dancing onboard, which allowed me to practice Cuban style salsa dance for a second time in my life!
June 27 – Onboard lectures and workshops
Today, I finally tracked down the matcha ice cream, which I had not indulged in since my time in Japan in 2014 — for future Peace Boat voyagers — it’s in the gift shop!
I returned to a group salsa class from 11:30 – 12:30pm, proceeded by lunch with my peers and our presentation on our respective SDGs, which was concurrently translated into Japanese, Korean, and Chinese – a mini UN!
From 6 -7pm, we watched the documentary, Paper Lanterns, which told the story of the American prisoners of war who were killed during the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
After dinner, the film was complemented by a private conversation with four Hibakushas, survivors of the nuclear bombs. As some of the only survivors left to tell share their testimony, this was truly an honor.
I was especially motivated by their advocacy work, which takes the form of talks on global voyages to 80+ countries on and off the Peace Boat, emphasizing “words instead of wars.”
In support of SDG #16 – which advocates for peace, the Hibakushas are unrelenting promoters of clean energy and continue to work with the UN on a nuclear ban.
June 28 – Arrive in Nicaragua, Climate Action study program and mangrove forest visit. Return to ship for departure.
A delay in the passing through the Panama Canal caused the ship to arrive in Corinto, Nicaragua in the late afternoon instead of in the early morning, which sabotaged our visit to the mangrove forest.
It was, however, the perfect reprieve for us. We rented bikes, which toured us around the peaceful town. I was surprised to see a poster of Chavez, Venezuela’s former president, which I was told was put up by the local government, which was grateful for the support that he provide the people with.
Being here reminded me of a briefing I attended at the UN, which spoke about how Nicaragua did not sign the Paris Treaty, as it felt that it would be disadvantaged if it did sign, given its low level of development, which would only be aggravated if they committed to high levels of sustainable energy usage without having the necessary infrastructure.
Before I could continue to think about this, we danced for a bit on the streets, and the ship called us home.
June 29 – Arrive in El Salvador, disembark from Peace Boat, cultural exchange program
We hosted students from the University of Don Bosco in El Salvador for a Peace Forum, where we learned from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the ways that the SDGs are being prioritized and implemented in El Salvador.
As a country previously divided by civil war, priorities are on SDG 16: restoring peace, justice, and strong institutions because as was repeatedly emphasized by many of the panelists, peace is not the absence of war.
The government has decide to delegate the tasks of the SDGs among 71 groups that work to implement them on a national level.
We got to hear from the youth, who play a particularly important role In El Salvador, as, unlike in more industrialized nations, the population is very young. They urged the government to establish programs that would involve youth to assist in the process of SDG implementation.
Of course, we took a break to eat a pupusa, a Salvadorian pocket of corn stuffed with an array of beans, vegetables, and/or meat — which we ended up having at least once a day for the rest of our stay.
Our visit continued to a school in the town of Santo Domingo de Guzman, which houses the country’s sole language learning center for children to learn the indigenous Nahwat language. The is the language of the Pipil people, who are “cousins” of Mayans, but direct descendants of the Aztecs, as they came from Mexico to Central America, but were more culturally integrated as Mayans. Their roots were nearly obliterated, after an ethnic cleansing by a dictator in 1932.
For fear of persecution, the indigenous people chose to be clandestine about their practices, often changing their clothing, religious traditions, and slowly forgetting their language.
Fortunately, a partnership between the University of Don Bosco and the Ministry of Education was established in 2010 to revitalize the Pipil language, the result of which is a school where children, ages 3-5 years old join elderly ladies who cease to work in order to become teachers at the center.
The incredible thing about this is that the classes are taught by these ladies who have never gone to school and who are themselves illiterate! Regardless, the Ministry of Education has recognized their teaching capacities as surpassing that of many formally trained instructors throughout the country.
Dr. Lemo created this program, which now has a partnership with the University of Navarro, Spain, which sends student-teachers over for 3 months to assist in the teaching process.
He urges that the grandchildren of these ladies are the hope! There are 7000 different languages that are spoken around the world, but more than half will die in 50 years because of the same situation as Nahwat languages, the inability to use language publicly i.e. on the radio, in places of worship, in court etc. which forces people to speak other languages.
Is learning this language even practical? Well, as a person who has long advocated for bilingual education, I can attest to proven scientific benefits, which Dr. Lemo is cognizant of – however, for the local community, it means the preserving the way in which future generations will acquire their values and maintain their culture.
Most biodiverse places in the world are also the most linguistically diverse, which does not seem to only be a product of causation.
We “don’t expect El Salvador to become bilingual, but we have to have this community preserve its culture.”
June 30 – Visit University of Don Bosco in San Salvador, forum on Peace and Sustainability
We completed our exchange with Don Bosco University by visiting their campus and listening to a few of their professors discuss peace and how it is manifested in El Salvador.
We learned that for various reasons, 200,000 youth drop out of school every year – 8/100 have access to college, and only 21/100 have access to a baccalaureate degree.
The first professor urged that for a small country, El Salvador’s “only asset” is its people.
The second professor who spoke was a former member of the military who emphasized that friendship is hard between the rich and the poor, between the rich and the rich, and between the poor and the poor, which often incites conflict, and at the base of that conflict is a relationship of different interests that are constantly in flux.
For him, war is a result of unresolved conflicts. His belief is that humans are the most violent of beings, which means that conflicts are often violent.
His experience as a military officer led him to test his ultimate ability to be resilient, and wants El Salvador to be the same because “no one negotiates with the weak — in El Salvador, there are never any negotiations – even the dollarization is imposed on us!”
“Are we in peace today? No. We are still in war.”
25 years after the Peace Agreements were signed in Mexico, he believes that social movements are necessary in order to live in true peace.
Youth, he urges is the key: for him, it’s not about age, but about the capacity to see the world, to make a difference, and to have the courage to make a difference
July 1-2 – Cultural exchange in El Salvador with local community groups focused on the SDGs
Panchimalco is a small colonial town in El Salvador. Just 4 years ago, there were a lot of problems with a gang called the Maras in this area; there were armed people everywhere, but for as long as it has been in existence, it has been known as “Ciudad del Arte” – “ Art City.”
And that underlying beauty is what healed the town.
Artists in Pachimalco were convinced that art is the way for peace, and with a supportive mayor, they started programs to support folkloric dance, paint, music lessons, and sculpting for the youth.
They used this as a tool for violence prevention and the construction of peace, which to date has decreased homicide rates in the town, by decreasing the amount of free time that the youth has, diverting the energy into positive skill building.
We were honored with a showcase of all of these art forms.
In the afternoon, we visited the Alberto Masferrer Univeristy, with a student-run presentation about the culture of El Salvador, as well as its Civil War.
From 1981 to 1992 El Salvador was historically marked with war, leading to a loss of infrastructure, economics, and above all, its people.
It began as a result of a series of human rights violations, resources being concentrated and controlled in the hands of a few, overall inequity, 60% of population being marginalized, and the organization of these peoples in the name of national liberalism.
Development of the war: many organizations merged to form the FMLN Political Party in 1980 to incite/instigate the insurrection. They were not strong enough to deplete the government, but they clearly left their mark on the government, fighting for the next decade until amnesty was declared.
When the peace accords were signed, much of the damage was reflected on its educational system, which now leaves my peers to revitalize it.
The day concluded with a visit to San Isidro, where we learned of the importance of corn, as a member of the community said: “we belong to corn – because corn is the foundation of our diet”.
We also learned about the Mana Ojushte project, which aims to revitalize the ojushte seed, which was forcibly forgotten by the locals as a result of the 1932 ethnic cleaning, which promoted assimilation and an obliteration of indigenous practices.
Also known as the “sacred seed”, “maju”, and “ramon” in Mexico, Ojushte contains vitamins and minerals like protein, iron, zing, vitamins A, B, C, E, fold acid, potassium, triptofane, calcium, and fiber and is naturally gluten free and low in fat.
in 2010, Zacarias, a Peace Corps volunteer came to San Isidro and liked the way that our host, Ana Edith made all-vegetarian food. He first tried ojushte in the house of an elderly member of the community.
Zacarias thought the town should rediscover the crop as a great source of protein since the community didn’t have enough money for meat. He brought it back to Ana – who then joined him to visit the lady who had first shared it with Zaharias but who refused to share the secrets with them. Eventually, they figured out how to cultivate it on their own and since then have won multiple awards for reforestation, as a way to combat hunger and malnutrition in the region.
This is particularly important because after Haiti, El Salvador is the second deforested country in all of Latin America.
Ana not only employs the farmers, but also those who cultivate, and gives scholarships to local students who want to be in the culinary fields.
For lots of youth, their only hope in the San Isidro, is going to the United States, but she believes that there are lots of opportunities right within San Isidro.
- Buy seeds from local cooperative
- Cultivators are paid $8/day ($3 above average) to dry, toast, and grind the seed for drinks, breads, crackers, or as a supplement for food
- Can last for 5 years in perfect state, unlike corn and beans
Blessing of the Seed:
- Use tree bark that is blessed by the Catholic Church as incense
- Partake in a “monkey” and “jaguar” dance
- “All humans walk on the earth, but we think about the sky
July 1-2 – Cultural exchange in El Salvador with local community groups focused on the SDGs
We had a pretty relaxing day before our departure, hiking up a volcano, visiting Mayan ruins at Joya de Ceren – a World Heritage Site, and different from all of Meso American Mayan ruins, as instead of displaying temples and religious sites, this archeological site is a showcase of normal life, a community where people coexisted 1500 years ago.
They lived among homemade gardens, agave, cacao yucca, and guayaba cultivations, with three to five people per family, and each family sharing something with the community, be it his/her shaman abilities, a communal sauna, and of course some of the crops from their gardens.
This spirit of communality and equality is what El Salvador is craving at the moment.
We had coffee and shopped a bit in Santa Tecla, where an artisan handcrafted a dream catcher for me, in my favorite hue of turquoise.
Back at the hotel, I had the honor of co -leading the rest of the Design Thinking workshop on the SDGs.
July 3 – Return home
Before parting ways, we had the honor of sharing our time with former guerrilla warrior, Ana Francis.
After 1992, she did not pick up a single weapon, and upon her reinsertion into civil society, she started working against the exploitation of all of civil society and is now an incredible advocate for women’s rights.
She co-founded Las Melidas, a center that now serves as one of the primary spaces for advocating for women in El Salvador, leading efforts to fight the criminalization of abortion, domestic violence, and a paternity law, which forces fathers to be emotionally and economically responsible for their children, even retroactively, and even if they are out of the country.
She also advocates for women’s rights as workers, sex workers, intergenerational dialogue, and against the wage gap.
On the 26th of July, the center celebrates is 25th year in operation.