First Person

Slow-motion crisis in Guatemala

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Farmer Maria Lopez says she has lost most of her corn and beans this year due to lack of rain. Photo by Chris Hufstader/oxfam America
Farmer Maria Lopez says she has lost most of her corn and beans this year due to lack of rain. Photo by Chris Hufstader/oxfam America















It is hard for visitors to fathom the depths of the tragedy Guatemala’s indigenous people continue to suffer, but a brief look at the museum in Rabinal will certainly get the process started. It commemorates those who died in some of the worst massacres of indigenous people during this country’s 36-year civil conflict.

Gloria Gonzalez, a young program officer at a non-governmental group working in the area, showed me the museum. It consists of two rooms filled with photos of the dead, one of whom was her grandfather, Camilo Mayor. The caption under his photo says “assassinated during the conflict in our community.”

The community of Rio Negro was particularly affected: when they objected to the terms of a forced relocation to make way for the Chixoy River hydroelectric dam, the military claimed they were allied with guerrilla forces and killed nearly every resident between February and March 1982, part of its scorched earth counter-insurgency policy. More than 250 were murdered, including 177 unarmed elderly, women, and children on one day. The Guatemala Truth Commission declared the incident a state-sponsored act of genocide.

Today, the Maya-Achi indigenous people who were pushed up the mountain slopes to make room for the Chixoy Dam are suffering a slow-motion type of disaster, no less deadly. The centuries of racism and discrimination that led to their precarious living conditions are now exacerbated by a long drought and high temperatures that have left most with little corn, beans, and other crops on which they depend.

In the community of Xinacati II, only accessible by a swaying 200-meter steel wire bridge high above the Chixoy and an hour-long walk on narrow pathways, Maria Lopez showed us her two small plots yesterday. One relatively close to her house might supply a little corn, since she could carry water there on her head and irrigate it occasionally. But the other on a sloping, rocky field seems full of dead plants.  “This is the first time I have seen a drought like this,” Lopez, a mother of five small children says, gesturing across her second field. “This year it all died, everything.”

Earlier I met with Juana Reyes, a 67-year-old grandmother who says this is the third severe drought she has seen in her lifetime. Unlike many others in the area who will probably migrate to coffee- and sugar-cane producing areas of Guatemala to work for a few months, Reyes is going to stay in Xinacati II with her 75-year-old husband. They are simply too old to migrate.

Gloria Gonzalez and her organization ASECSA are working with Oxfam to help households like this one keep earning money through community improvement projects (like perhaps fixing up the bridge a litte), raising animals, and vegetable gardens that will provide some cash and improve nutrition.

“I am a woman who likes to work,” Reyes says as she grinds some corn recently donated to her by the government. “I will do any work to earn money so we can survive.”

It might be tempting to blame mother nature for the crisis facing the people of Xinacati II right now, but it is really just an untimely addition to the injustices that have forced them to live in a place where it is so difficult to make a decent living. “We’d like people to have more options than just migration,” Gonzalez says.

I’ll be writing up a more detailed description of the ASECSA project this next week, check back here for a link as soon as it is finished.

Bridge over Rio Chixoy. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
Bridge over Rio Chixoy. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+