The young man from Chiapas, originally from San Cristóbal de las Casas, is dedicated to adopting an approach founded on agroecology and peace to help young people living in extreme poverty and threatened by drugs.
Text: Javier Escalante Rosado
Photos: Laura Santiz García
Víctor Santiz García works in Mitontic, Chiapas, one of Mexico's most marginalised and migratory municipalities. Miles removed from privilege and against all odds, he came out ahead; he is a peace builder and works with 130 families offering agro-food training.
In Mexico, according to statistics from the 2020 Population Census, there are just over 10 million people living in extreme poverty. To get an idea, Mitontic is one of the 10 poorest communities in the country.
This village, located within the mountain jungle, has a development index comparable to the African nation of Gambia since 97 per cent of the population lives with scarce resources.
Victor's childhood and adolescence were hard. He grew up in a hostile environment, where drugs and alcohol are the resources at hand that allow young people to "escape" from the harsh reality in which they live.
Despite all odds, he decided that this was not the way to go, picked up a guitar and began to play. Music allowed him to get his first jobs in bars and restaurants, which gave him the opportunity to earn money to finish his law degree.
“To be young in my community, is to live in a context of addictions and violence, and given the lack of opportunities, these paths are often easily followed," he explained.
When he embarked on his university life, his perspective broadened, and he understood that there was a social-political system that in one way or another had oppressed his community, causing its members to live in poverty and to suffer from food insecurity. It was at that moment that he decided to do something.
His initial efforts were focused on organising football tournaments and offering music classes, as a pretext to bringing young people together and training them to have a vision that would allow them to defend their human rights.
In this way, he sought to offer them alternatives that would make them look beyond the consumption of harmful substances.
When there is hunger, education is secondary
“It seems a very trite phrase, but it resonates because it is impossible to want to talk about rights or education to a community that has basic needs such as food; when there is hunger, education is secondary", says Victor, based on the experience he has acquired.
This idea, conceived by him, led him to develop his project, which originated while he was at university and helped him to understand that in order to build positive peace, it was first necessary to address the issue of malnutrition.
He currently leads the Cultivating Food for Good Living programme, through community training, which carries out work such as planting vegetables and coffee plants and breeding native poultry. It has impacted 130 families and has benefited more than 900 people.
“Our work is bearing fruit. Working hand in hand with families and youth, we teach people, from an agroecological transition-based approach, how to plant vegetables such as cilantro, beets, and lettuce, to name a few; this makes it possible to increase food security in the region," he added.
In 2050, communities without youth
What worries this 30-year-old activist the most is that by 2050, it is estimated that there will be a decrease in the number of young people in rural communities, as they will migrate to the cities and large towns due to the lack of opportunities.
“This phenomenon is worrisome. If we do not do something for youth today, later it may be too late. To imagine communities without youth is practical to ensure that development indexes will not improve, that poverty will increase and that food insecurity will still be present," he warned.
Victor Santiz recently participated in the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26, 2021) held in Glasgow, Scotland. He attended as a representative of an observer organisation working to address climate change. There, he advocated for the need for a generational shift and talked about how the programme he leads allows young people to move to the Mexican countryside.
Currently, they work with farmers, based on non-formal education. They recently founded the Chalam Community Learning Centre, where they provide training in socio-emotional skills and youth leadership, artistic expression and entrepreneurship.
“Our intention with the Community Learning Centre is to promote practical teaching methods, which allow people to continue living with dignity in the community so as to avoid having to migrate away and to encourage community rootedness," he added.
Their work consists of three levels of advocacy: first they create a network based on activities, then they train the youth, and finally, they work on the training of trainers to enable them to replicate the processes.
“We work with young people between the ages of 15 and 18. We have impacted nine communities in three municipalities, and more than 1,200 people," he said.
Victor believes that university life greatly influenced him, as he considers that it provided the gateway to the knowledge to do what he does today.
“In the communities, it is still believed that young people do not know much; there is an adult-centric mindset that permeates the social collective; It is enough to know the government plans of the city councils or to see the ages of the people who work there, and the youth still don’t play a meaningful role", he lamented.
That is why he believes that his work empowers young people, especially in such difficult contexts as living in poverty.
This dedication led to him being awarded the 2019 National Award for Voluntary and Solidarity Action, which he received in Mexico City.
This award is given by the Mexican government, and it recognises people who implement voluntary and solidarity-based social actions to improve the disadvantaged conditions in society.
Among other achievements, he participated in the tenth anniversary of the Whitaker Initiative for Peace and Development founded by the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation, Forest Whitaker, attending as a representative of Mexico to share the community processes that we promote in Chiapas, Mexico.
This photo story was produced with the support of the Global Support for Democracy Unit of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. They are part of the dossier "Youth & democracy in Latin America. Young voices on the rise".