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Supporting Community Resilience and Economic Recovery in Guatemala
Published 09/10/2022 by Global Communities
By Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano
When speaking to families in rural communities throughout Huehuetenango, Guatemala, almost everyone mentions that things have gotten more expensive. For them, this is not quantified as an inflation percentage but rather the price they pay for staples like tomatoes or beans when they go to the market or buy fertilizer for their crops.
According to the latest updates from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), prices of daily staples such as maize, black beans and rice are the highest they have been in 15 years, annual year-on-year inflation is up 9 percent and the price of regular gasoline is 44 percent higher than last year.1 This is significant, because the rise of gas prices has limited mobility for rural families, making trips to the nearest city to sell their goods or attend a critical medical visit prohibitively expensive.
According to the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), fertilizer prices have increased 222 percent since March 2021. For a region where much of the population depends on subsistence agriculture, the combination of price inflation, limited access to land and increasingly unpredictable rainy seasons had led to spikes in malnutrition and food insecurity not seen in Guatemala in decades.
Central America is facing a food security crisis. When people think about humanitarian crises, rapid shocks such as environmental disasters and conflicts tend to come to mind – sudden events that create visible, large-scale destruction and often uproot thousands of people from their homes. The ripple effects of the war in Ukraine have been felt all over the world, from higher prices at the gas pump to elevated grocery bills. For many living in Western countries, these price hikes have certainly made life more difficult, tightened household budgets and forced people to be more judicious with their everyday purchases. However, for the 30 percent of the global population that is already food insecure, many of whom depend on subsistence farming, these price hikes of key commodities such as oil and fertilizer have pushed them to the brink and placed them at risk of severe malnutrition.
Farming communities in Central America are particularly feeling the squeeze. Still recovering from devastating hurricanes in 2020, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic that caused some of the highest fatality rates per capita in the region, Guatemala is facing an unprecedented food security crisis, triggered by sharp increases in food commodities and fertilizer. In a country where two-thirds of the population of 17 million is living on $2 per day, these sharp increases have pushed people already living on the margins to precarious situations of food insecurity.2 Twenty-six percent of the population is likely to experience acute food insecurity between June and September 2022.3
“Families in Huehuetenango have seen their resilience continuously challenged by repeated droughts and storms, the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis,” said Pascale Wagner, Country Director for Global Communities Guatemala. “The humanitarian assistance they have received over the years has prevented further deterioration of their situation, improved their life conditions and helped them recover from shocks, while more long-term solutions through sustainable development interventions are needed to address the root causes of these issues.”
Global Communities (formally Project Concern International) has been working in Guatemala since 1975, focusing primarily on the Departments of Totonicapan, Quiche and Huehuetenango in the Western Highlands. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), Global Communities has taken a multi-pronged approach to supporting rural subsistence farming communities throughout the expansive Department of Huehuetenango, providing them with resources, training and technical support to overcome the setbacks that have drastically impacted their quality of life. Since 2019, a core component of our approach to building resilience and promoting economic recovery in the region has been the distribution of direct cash transfers to families affected by environmental shocks and food insecurity. Cash transfers have been used to help families cover food consumption needs after suffering crop losses, but also provide seed funding needed to jumpstart a self-sustaining business.
laying the Foundation for a Road Beyond Subsistence
Celia Carrillo has been weaving traditional güipiles (embroidered blouses) since she was 8 years old, a skill she learned from her mother. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she began selling her products to neighbors to make a living. She used to migrate with her husband Luis every season to work on nearby coffee plantations, making about $5-10 per day picking and processing beans. They would do their best to live on what they had saved during the 4-month harvest throughout the year, supplementing it with income from weaving traditional clothing and wicker baskets.
Under Global Communities’ Paradelante program, Celia and Luis received three cash transfers of about $90 each over a 12-month period, allowing them to purchase materials despite the recent uptick in prices. They received technical support from Global Communities on how to run a business – taking into account the time required for labor as well as materials to calculate the price points they needed to sell at to be profitable and sustainable.
“We’re grateful for the support, because now we can focus on this and it is dependable,” said Celia, describing how the Paradelante program has benefited her family during this challenging time. “We make something people need and travel to markets in nearby towns to sell our product. Our goal now is to continue to grow this business together, so we can create a better life for our daughter.”
Delivering direct cash relief to families affected by crisis in Guatemala has been a core component of Global Communities’ strategy for promoting economic recovery. Since June 2021, we have provided over $1.9 million in direct cash relief to 6,668 families throughout Huehuetenango. By providing cash directly instead of in-kind goods, Global Communities is able to contribute to the local economy, ensuring our support has a multiplier effect, fueling local businesses and markets. Furthermore, distributing cash gives families the agency to decide how to use the support based on their most pressing needs, often choosing to leverage the funds to invest in income-generating activities.
“Cash transfers are one of the most dignified ways of providing humanitarian assistance,” said Gesler Castillo, Program Manager for the Paradelante program. “It’s a way of telling people, ‘We trust you and we know you will do your best to improve your situation,’ and ‘We are here to work with you.’ Consistently, people surprise us with their capacity to get the best results.”
The vast majority of people living in rural communities in Huehuetenango rely on seasonable labor or informal livelihoods to put food on their table. During the coffee harvest season, typically between January and April, most families migrate to large coffee farms throughout the Department or in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where they are paid $5-10 a day for harvesting coffee beans. Stretching the income from those four months throughout the entire year when they return to their villages can be challenging, especially as rainy seasons have become increasingly more unpredictable, affecting harvest seasons and crop yields. Global Communities has supplemented the provision of cash assistance with financial literacy training, helping families create budgets to manage their limited resources and mobilizing women to pool their resources in savings groups.
The savings group program, known locally as Mujeres Empoderadas or Women Empowered, has been an effective tool for promoting economic recovery in rural areas of Guatemala. According to the World Bank, Guatemala has one of the lowest rates of financial inclusion in Latin America, with only 44 percent of the population having access to a formal bank account. When paired with cash assistance, savings groups have helped women build agency and maintain sustainable streams of income, working with their neighbors to set goals and hold each other accountable. Women Empowered has been implemented successfully in several countries where Global Communities operates and has been particularly impactful in Guatemala, where lack of financial inclusion — particularly for Indigenous women — contributes to inequality.
Strengthening Sustainable Agriculture
Global Communities is working in isolated, rural communities in the mountains of Huehuetenango that are part of the Dry Corridor, an area that runs through six Central American countries but is largely concentrated in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where years of unpredictable rainfall have decimated crop production and led to sharp spikes in hunger and food insecurity. For the families in this region that have lived off the land for generations, recent price inflation is just the latest in a series of crises over the past two years – Hurricanes Eta and Iota brought widespread flooding to the region in 2020 right before the harvest season, wiping out harvest and food reserves.
Global Communities has distributed seeds and provided technical support to 2,750 families, helping them diversify their diets and learn resilient, drought-resistant farming techniques to increase crop yields and produce nutrient-rich foods for their families.
Deborah Hernandez, 36, proudly walked us through the thriving garden behind her house in the town of Canton Palmita. Neat rows of lettuce, carrots, beets and potatoes and a budding avocado tree flank her garden, overlooking a panoramic view of the Cuchumatanes mountains. Deborah received seeds and training from Global Communities’ technical staff to set up her garden, which serves as a demonstration plot where her neighbors can learn about resilient farming practices to maximize their crop yields and diversify their diets as market prices for food staples reach record highs.
“It was a lot of work to get the garden to where it is today, but now that I have it, it has really helped me save because I rarely have to go to the market,” Deborah said. “My husband helped me build a seed bank, so we can save seeds at the end of the cycle for planting next season.”
Resilience is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot in the development sector, but what does it mean for communities like Canton Palmita in Huehuetenango? Environmental shocks triggered by climate change are making it harder for families to live off the land as they have for generations. Rapid price inflation triggered by supply chain disruptions and events thousands of miles away are acutely felt in tiny communities like this, forcing families to adapt and stretch scarce resources to their limit. For Global Communities, building resilience means facilitating that adaptation by linking families with the tools they need to overcome obstacles and maintain a stable quality of life.
Deborah, Celia, Luis and others like them will always have to contend with tough times, as their parents and generations before them did. Life in these isolated communities has never been easy. Despite these challenges, Global Communities has learned over the years that the strongest element of resilience is in people’s mindsets, in their love for their homeland, their culture and their community, and their commitment to stick to the land where they were born until it becomes impossible to have a better future.
 FEWS NET, June-September 2022 Country Outlook, Guatemala