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New hope for Guatemala’s Highlands
Photo: IFAD/Santiago Albert Pons
Before the Cuchumatanes Highlands Rural Development Project came along, life was intolerably hard for 37 year-old Ricarda. Up at four in the morning to collect firewood, she would then work the land and tend the family’s few chickens, pigs and sheep, before dropping exhausted into bed. She, her husband and their five children survived on a diet of potatoes, maize tortillas and, occasionally, beans.
This hand-to-mouth existence is now a distant memory. Thanks to technical assistance, training and marketing support delivered through the project, the family’s small farm was able to work more efficiently and productively. A new planting technique improved the potato crop, and hardier seeds meant they could grow forage and oats, something that had been impossible before. For Ricarda, one of the greatest benefits was attending meetings organized by the project. “I now know other people who have the same problems we have,” she says. “Before, I didn’t speak to anybody. Now, I’m really happy.”
An inhospitable land
The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes is the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. Isolated, cold throughout the year, and 2,000 meters or more closer to the sky, it creates living conditions that are among the most difficult in Guatemala. In this bleak and unforgiving region, 79 percent of the population subsist on less than US$1 per day.
Agriculture, especially smallholder farming, plays a fundamental role in the Guatemalan economy. The majority of these farms are concentrated in the Highlands, which are inhabited mostly by indigenous families of Mayan descent. These people are among the poorest in the country and barely speak Spanish. The steep slopes of the mountain range, as well as the forested areas, are all devoted to agriculture, leading to major environmental problems, such as soil erosion and deforestation.
Focus on several fronts
In 1998, the government of Guatemala selected the Western Highlands as a priority region for social and economic development. Three years later, the Cuchumatanes Highlands Rural Development Project was launched with co-financing from IFAD, the World Food Program, the Governments of The Netherlands and Guatemala, and OFID.
At the time, the country was just emerging from 36 years of civil war that had set back Guatemala’s entire social structure. Living conditions were harsh and social indicators correspondingly dismal.
The Cuchumatanes Highlands were targeted because up to 90 percent of the 22,000 rural families in the area were without drinking water or electricity. The primary aim of the project was to increase earning capacity. The area designated for the project covered 2,100 square kilometres in Huehuetenango Department.
On the agricultural front, many different tactics were employed. These included introducing new, more suitable crops and agricultural technologies, and providing modern inputs, tools and post-harvest storage methods, together with extension service training. Diversification into crops of higher value and sustainability was also promoted. As the lack of irrigation was one of the main constraints on productivity, the agricultural package included building catchment basins and small-scale irrigation systems, as well as identifying untapped water resources.
Because firewood is the only source of energy in most of the area, the natural forests had been heavily depleted. Environmental damage and erosion had reached alarming proportions. Special emphasis was therefore placed on reforestation, slope stabilization and soil conservation.
Roads were another focus of attention: mostly unpaved and extremely narrow, they represented a considerable obstacle to travel and were in desperate need of upgrading. In all, through the roads component, nearly 98 km of rural access roads were constructed. Another 13.5 km were improved, with annual maintenance planned on over 760 km. A total population of 54,500 benefitted from this component.
Regarding the strengthening of marketing conditions for the smallholders’ agricultural products, peasant groups were organized and supported, and training was provided to help the members work more effectively. In addition, marketing infrastructure, such as storage sheds, sorting and handling facilities for vegetables and fruits, and cold storage rooms were built.
Women were encouraged to take part in all aspects of the project and educated in the use of credit to fund initiatives for micro-businesses or production enterprises, such as weaving cooperatives, small restaurants or bakeries. Because literacy levels were low in the project area, logistic and economic support was given to the National Committee for Literacy, whose focus is on improving women’s education. Women also received training in nutrition and food preparation in order to improve nutrition levels.
Hope in the Highlands
The Cuchumatanes project succeeded in reconstructing the social fabric and strengthening grass-roots organizations. It attracted the cooperation of national and international organizations. A total of 17 cooperative agreements were reached with the major agricultural and industrial organizations operating in the project area. Together, they constitute the Association of Cuchumatanes’ Organizations. Moreover, agreements were signed with the Guatemalan Social Investment Fund, BANDESA and FONAPAZ, an organization that works to assist areas severely affected by the civil war. Their activities complement the work of the Cuchumatanes Rural Development Project.
The project brought many positive changes to the Highlands. A decade has passed since fresh hope was planted in those distant lands, but a good seed always produces good fruit, as Ricarda and thousands like her have discovered.