Community development in indigenous Guatemala by Mayan Families

One of the issues I have been wanting to learn more about while traveling in the Americas is the lives and status of indigenous people. Recently I got to work closely with this issue during a three-month internship with Mayan Families, a Guatemalan non-profit organization that works with alleviating poverty in indigenous Mayan villages in Sololá department by Lake Atitlan. In Guatemala, approximately 40% of the population is indigenous, and this population has higher rates of poverty, shorter lifespans, higher rates of malnourishment and is less likely to complete schooling than non-indigenous Guatemalans. Indigenous people also face problems with discrimination, receiving lower salaries, and lack of economic opportunities in the villages.

Mayan Families aims to improve the lives of indigenous Guatemalans through its four cornerstones: educate, feed, shelter and heal. The goal is to create long-term progress through student sponsorship, vocational training, microloans and health initiatives, as well as providing emergency service to those in critical need. During my internship I worked with the Shelter Program that improves housing conditions and builds community infrastructure such as preschools. This program is well-established, but I had the special task of investigating how the Shelter Program could be made more sustainable.

Mayan Families preschool at El Barranco
Mayan Families has several ongoing projects, including building and running preschools, such as this one in the village of El Barranco.

Alleviating poverty through improved housing

Because of the extreme poverty, many families in rural Guatemala live in low-quality housing that puts the family in danger in case of flooding, landslides or earthquakes. Just like the name suggests, the main purpose of the Shelter Program is to ensure that families have decent and safe shelter, even if they are living in poverty. Projects are mainly done in the homes of families who have children in Mayan Families’ student sponsorship program. When a donor contacts Mayan Families and says they would be interested in sponsoring a home improvement, the Shelter Program visits the home to see what condition it is in and what improvements could and should be done.

One of Mayan Families’ conditions for doing construction projects is that the property title has to be in the mother’s name in order to protect the mother and the children in case the father abandons them. Whenever possible, Mayan Families prefers to do repairs on existing houses, such as changing leaking roofs. Putting in concrete floors is a common improvement as many houses only have dirt floors that create a lot of dust and heath problems. Sometimes a new house or room is needed and these are built with concrete blocks. These are cheap, earthquake safe, locally available, widely used in Guatemala, and have a good image and status in the eyes of the people.

A Mayan Families house under construction
This simple but needed house was built by Mayan Families during my internship.

Mayan Families also connects houses to water, electricity and drainage networks or builds septic tanks. In some cases donors have sponsored solar panels which relieves pressure on the family by removing the need to pay electric bills. Mayan Families also gives families water filters for safe drinking water and installs fuel-efficient stoves that reduce smoke.

Smoky kitchen in Guatemala
Stoves are a major source of household pollution in Guatemala, and Mayan Families combats this by installing more efficient stoves.

Community development for long-lasting results

Mayan Families promotes community development through various program involving health initiatives, education, vocational training, and even one community garden. The part I worked most closely with was education and more specifically building preschools. Indigenous children in Guatemala are often left behind even before starting school, which is why preschools can have a great impact. Learning Spanish is especially important and Mayan Families preschools are bilingual, teaching in both Spanish and the native Kaqchikel. Students also receive nutritious meals, which fights malnutrition and removes some of the financial burden from the parents.

Two preschools were under construction during my stay in the neighbouring villages of Tierra Linda and Peña Blanca. These preschools were designed to be cost-efficient with large classrooms, natural daylight, and an easily accessible kitchen for serving lunch. Just like the houses, the preschools are built with concrete blocks.

A Mayan Families preschool under construction
This Mayan Families preschool is under construction in the village of Tierra Linda.

Access to water and water scarcities are another problem faced by rural communities in Guatemala. During my stay a group of engineering students from the US came to install a rainwater harvesting system at one of Mayan Families’ preschools in the village of El Barranco. This preschool suffers from water scarcities, and parents are supposed to bring two liters of water when they pick up their child from school. The new rainwater harvesting system gives the school an alternative source of water, makes the school more self-sufficient, and relieves pressure on the parents.

New rainwater harvesting system at a Mayan Families preschool
This new rainwater harvesting system at El Barranco preschool discards the first rain so that the harvested water is free from the dirt that has accumulated on the roof.

Promoting sustainable building

A part of Mayan Families’ mission is to ensure long-lasting, sustainable results in community development. One of my tasks was to look at how the sustainability of the Shelter Program could be improved. Central America is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and even though the region’s contribution to the problem globally is very small, emissions and consumption are increasing. On the social side, the construction projects done by Mayan Families could do more to promote the local economy.

One of the problems is concrete blocks. Cement is a major source of carbon emissions, and the money spent on concrete blocks goes to industries and doesn’t reach the rural communities. An alternative could be earth, and in Guatemala there are two types of traditional earth buildings, namely adobe or mud brick and bajareque or wattle and daub. Earth buildings have a bad reputation in Guatemala, partly because of the devastating earthquake of 1976 where the majority of fallen houses were built with adobe. However, the problem is not the material but how it is used, and promoting correct and improved earth building techniques could reduce the environmental footprint of construction and make communities more self-sufficient by reducing the need to buy materials from industries.

Bajareque and adobe houses in Guatemala
Houses built with wattle and daub (on the left) or adobe blocks (on the right) are common in rural Guatemala, but the quality of these houses is deteriorating as people are forgetting the proper building techniques in favor of concrete blocks.

Another environmental problem is trash. Most of rural Guatemala lacks waste collection, let alone a recycling system. As a result, roadsides and even people’s yards are filled with litter, the majority of which is plastic that simply accumulates in the environment. Turning trash into building material could help reduce the amount of litter and create awareness about waste management, just like it has done in Comalapa thanks to Long Way Home.

A simple and safe way to reduce waste through construction would be to replace concrete blocks with trash-filled bottles, known as ecobricks. This could be done with the same kind of structural system as in the current concrete block buildings, so that earthquake safety doesn’t suffer. Concrete blocks would no longer be needed, and the money saved could be spent on the community, for example by exchanging plastic bottles for corn. This way Mayan Families could add to the positive work it is doing, by ensuring that the communities stay vibrant and livable for generations to come, so that the unique indigenous culture has a place to thrive.

Hiding trash in the foundation
Litter and lack of waste management is a big problem in Guatemala, and here is my spontaneous attempt at hiding some of the trash under the concrete floor of a new Mayan Families house.

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