Since returning from Guatemala, I have some updates to share with you.
First, I cannot fully relay how moved I was to hold hands with those beautiful children in Chajmaic. They literally would not let go of my hands until our contact there, Alfonso, told them that we had to go single file up the slippery stones, climbing the steep mountain to where the water tank has been built by the municipality.
Second, my heart was literally broken to hear that Alfonso was strongly considering coming to the U.S. without documentation to escape the poverty and gang violence. When he told us this, I had just read that the U.S. government was going to undergo a shutdown over the border wall. The desperate need of the Guatemalan people leads me to consider immediate action for our project.
Here are the facts, as we know them:
- The population of Chajmaic has doubled from 1,600 to 3,000 in approximately four years. This is due to new births – not due to people moving into the region – and the resources (land, housing, funds) that they have are the same as previously. There are still 250 families living there. Here we are entering the village on market day.
- The water project is on hold because this is an election year and the project is now under the auspices of the nearby municipality of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, which has built a water tank which can hold 600,000 gallons of water in reserve.
- This water would be pumped from the river and then piped to individual faucets for the 250 families.
- The municipality has installed a pump house and electricity, but no pump as yet. This is an election year, and we must be hands-off, in order not to be seen as being on the side of the government, which has historically taken from and not given to the indigenous poor.
- The pumped water does not take into consideration filtration. That is something that must be taught – the how as well as the why. For now, the villagers are continuing to trek to and from the plentiful, but contaminated, river, using it for all of their needs, carrying away buckets of water and their laundry on their heads.
- Ricardo and I asked the villagers what they want. Water they have, although it is not purified, but for now, they don’t see the need to change. A latrine project was started at some point in the past, but for a reason we need to explore, the villagers have no interest in adapting to them.
- The villagers want the municipality to complete the water project. But what they want most are jobs. We have a solution to that:
One of Ricardo’s agricultural engineers, Federico, started an agricultural project in a Catholic boarding school for indigenous children, teaching the young students to grow vegetables in greenhouse farming – a system he learned in Israel – for food and livelihood. We visited this school, outside of Guatemala City (in Mixco), and learned that his plan is to replicate this system in Chajmaic.
- Another project on a back burner is low emission stoves, for which one of Ricardo’s agricultural engineers, Antonio, has designed a proposal.
- When Ricardo and I visited the two nonprofit incorporation lawyers in Guatemala, we learned that it can take up to two years – especially during an election year – to get a Guatemalan branch of our nonprofit in place. There are many legal procedures, starting here in the U.S. – and with the government shutdown, we may face additional wait times. And, so, during this time, we cannot build, but we can raise funds, give donations, and do smaller projects.
- With the water project on hold due to the election year, it is our desire to start first with agriculture. Since we cannot build a greenhouse, we can start by using the existing schoolhouse on the land, by holding trainings there.
- Part of the process that Federico has established in the boarding school is “bag” farming, using low-cost existing materials and creating an easily transportable product. We saw corn growing at the boarding school in this manner.
- We could grow other crops that are not indigenous to the area in the same manner because we will use purchased soil – not the rocky local soil in which almost nothing grows.
- To set this up, Antonio has offered to stay full-time in Chajmaic, and our key people in Chajmaic, Alfonso and Lety, have agreed to build an extension on their home for this purpose. They own the deed to the land on which their home is built, so this is possible. This is an extreme act of generosity on both the parts of Antonio and Lety and Alfonso.
- It is also our intention to involve the children – through another of the villagers, Wendy, a young woman aged 18 – and to teach them the basics of Spanish, as well as to get them to participate in the project. They are young, eager, and ready to join in!
- We would pay apprentices a short-term stipend for learning the farming technique. 10-15 apprentices at a time would sign up (via a non-written sign-up system) for 2-3 month training sessions. After they learn, they can teach others and their ongoing compensation after initial training will be enjoying the crops that they grow for their families’ food and livelihood.
- We also plan to involve the informal leaders of the village, and to get the women involved. Women are the primary water-bearers and once they have learned the importance of hygiene for their families, they can teach others.
- The cost to set up an agricultural project is: USD $109,086
with this breakdown on an annual and monthly basis:
On December 21, 2018 Fern visited the remote village of Chajmaic for the first time since learning about it in early January 2015. If not for the reports and photos for several years, she would have been in shock at the abject poverty.
Before arriving in Chajmaic, she bought boots in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (30 minutes’ drive away) to prevent being bitten by a poisonous snake while in the village. We arrived in Chajmaic on their busy market day, which was just at the entrance to the village. The entrance road was paved six years ago.
We gave our project leaders in the village, Lety and Alfonso, a gift of appreciation for their work.
Here are some facts:
- Homes are constructed of raw lumber with openings for windows, tin rooves and dirt floors.
- Thanks to the municipality of Fray, every house now has a faucet, which will become functional when the water pump is operational. The water project was started in January 2018.
- Alfonso recently lost his job as a gas station security guard in Fray.
- They have a very small store adjacent to their home.
- Alfonso knows the owner of the land we plan to rent for the greenhouse, and it is available.
- The village size has grown from 1,600 in mid-2015 to 3,000 at the end of 2018, for the same square footage, which means more poverty in the same space.
- Some (very few) houses now have internet access via smart phone.
- Electricity is run by a wire through the inside of their home, on the ceiling.
- Some children sleep on the muddy/dirt floor, as they can’t afford a bed (Q. 2,500 / $300).
- Chajmaic and its river are stunningly beautiful and verdant, but nonarable, because of the rocky soil.
- They have a bridge that overlooks rapids where the river moves quickly due to its descent.
- Almost no one in the village speaks Spanish – just Q’echqi’.
- The warmth and kindness of the people is a statement of their integrity and resilience.
We climbed a steep, muddy, rocky and slippery hill of 60 meters (200 feet) to get to the water tank, which, when the water pump is installed, will become operational. There are two pipes – for inflow and outflow – that leads to each faucet.
There is an abandoned latrine project from years ago, which the villagers said they didn’t want. This needs to be explored further.
Bilingual (Q’echqi’ – Spanish speakers) may become the leaders, and this could be a motivation for young people to learn Spanish as a second language. Leaders could become Spanish teachers, as well.
We visited the pump house near the road on our way out of the village. It lacks installation of a pump.
We invited 3 adults and 4 children to come to lunch in Fray and discussed our plans. Alfonso told us he was thinking about going to the U.S. without documentation to bring his family out of poverty. To discourage them, we told them true stories – some from personal experience – and I cried. We hope that we convinced them. But this demonstrates the extreme desire to extricate one’s family from the oppressive conditions which they face daily.
As a testament to the depth of their empathy and character, one of the children with us at lunch, perhaps age 7, whom we learned was ill with fever, came to me after Fern cried and asked her in mixed Q’echqi’ and Spanish why she was crying. The girl had been holding Fern’s hand throughout my stay in the village. Fern told her it was because she cared about her and her family.
At the end of our stay together, Lety and Alfonso blessed us.
None of this would be possible without the able leadership of our Guatemalan project manager, Héctor Ricardo San José Roca. His decisions and actions have brought us to the successes we now have.
We can demonstrate need. We can demonstrate capability.
We can demonstrate solutions. We can demonstrate results.
Here are three videos of the group of 10 – 6 adults and 4 children – at the top of the steep hill, at the water tank. The first video is with Alfonso speaking in Q’echqi’ to the children:
The second video is with Ricardo speaking in English, with Alfonso carving a walking stick for a safe decline:
The third video is with Alfonso speaking in Spanish, handing Fern the walking stick that he had just carved for her safety:
Details on the entire visit can be found here: http://www.sowingops.org/en/learn/guatemala-travelogue-december-2018/
On November 27, while Ricardo and his wife, Eva María, were visiting family in Massachusetts, Ginny and Fern met with them. We discussed the village of Chajmaic and the “Water for Life” project.
You might remember that Ricardo and his team had visited the mayor of the nearby municipality, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, one year ago. The mayor had not only agreed, but one month after the meeting, had allocated funds and, when Ricardo and his team visited in May 2018, had begun building a pump house in Chajmaic. This saved our project $80,000 in start-up funding, using the government’s big machinery and funding. However, it was only through visiting the village in May that Ricardo knew about this improvement.
What we discussed last week with Ricardo and Eva María is that, as this is now an election year, we need to be careful about being connected with the municipal government. This is because of this historical relationship between the government and the villages in Guatemala. If we are associated with the government, we would likely be seen by the villagers as swaying the election results. This would make us lose trust with the village elders and the villagers.
As the mayor is seeking re-election, it is possible that she will continue the water project. However, at this time, we need to have a waiting period in order not to derail our safety or the project until after the election, in August 2019.
In the meantime, Sowing Opportunities plans to:
- Stay in touch with our contact people in the village to assess the current situation
- Possibly visit the village
- Engage the people of the village to find out what they want
- Do research into the most cost-effective measures for reaching our goals by learning what is done in other Guatemalan NGOs
- Raise funds through large foundations and partnership with U.S. corporations involved with corporate social responsibility (CSR)
- Not begin the project until we have a commitment of continued funds
Tomorrow (December 10) Fern travels to Guatemala for two weeks to explore options for moving forward. A major goal that is planned is to meet with a lawyer to develop a branch of Sowing Opportunities in Guatemala.
We envision having the students working on cost-effective ways to develop solutions in Chajmaic and to put on an exhibition that would include science presentations, as well as art, dance, and music from Guatemala culture. We also envision a travel component, with students and teachers going to Guatemala.
If we get funded, the funding period is July 2019 through December 2020.
Here are details about the grant requirements:
The pdf of our grant submission is at this link.
This was the original press release.
In prior newsletters, we had mentioned that Ricardo, our associate in Guatemala, and Antonio (agricultural engineer) will be taking a good faith visit to the village of Chajmaic. This is common practice in Central America and is necessary because we don’t have the funds to begin the “Water for Life” project at this time. Ricardo and Antonio are traveling this weekend. The cost of their trip is $1,600 for three people (including a bodyguard) traveling 14 hours each direction and spending three days.
The purpose of this visit is to maintain good relationships and ensure to the mayor of the neighboring municipality of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas as well as the COCODE (village leaders of Chajmaic) that we have the intention to carry out our mission to deliver clean and accessible water to the village. We need to keep the door open while we seek a large donor to begin the project in earnest, now that we have our tax-exempt status.
In December Ricardo and his team met with the mayor of Fray Bartolomé and she (the mayor) showed them the water filtration system on which Ricardo and his team will model the pump system for Chajmaic.
This is the piping leading from the river in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas to the pump house, to purify the river for the municipality. Photo taken in Fray, December 12, 2017
It is important to realize the historical significance of Ricardo bringing together the municipal government and the village leadership. The government is mostly comprised of mestizos (mixed Amerindian-Spanish). While the 26 indigenous Mayan groups in Guatemala constitute a majority of the population, they are very much treated as a minority.
Throughout history, the indigenous have been ignored, meaning inequitable access to health care, education, and other resources. Worse, they endure deep-rooted ethnic discrimination that has fueled many atrocities, including loss of land and rights, and most recently, the 36-year Guatemalan internal armed struggle, in which 200,000 unarmed, indigenous Mayan were slaughtered.
This has resulted in a distrust of outsiders among the indigenous and particularly regarding any government programs, which provide a paucity of options for education, family finances, and skill development. So, Ricardo and Antonio’s efforts are nothing short of a peace mission, which are providing healing and developing collaborative relationships.
Ricardo is not operating alone; on the contrary, he is working closely with key trusted individuals within the village of Chajmaic, who are very much on board with his strategic plan. The idea is to not only provide the villagers with potable, accessible water, but also growing food (agriculture) to sustain them, and a livelihood selling the food that they grow.
This entails renting a relatively small portion of land to build a tiered greenhouse, bringing in vegetables that are not native to Chajmaic. The team will use the now clean water for growing crops.
This is a full project rather than partial, in that the villagers will have food and jobs to sustain them, as well as the education to maintain their livelihood – not only clean water. This more fully fulfills the mission of Sowing Opportunities to cultivate self-sustainability, education, and wellness in rural Guatemala.
The total annual cost is $266,134*, and we need 1/3 up front to start the project, in order to pay for equipment, supplies, land rental, and partial salary, as in the U.S. This includes the cost of pumping water that will deliver suctioned water uphill and draw it into a tank that they must build in order to purify the water. They will send this water to the entire village by force of pressure and gravity push, approximately 450 gallons per hour, 24 hours a day. This will eliminate gastrointestinal diseases. The cost also includes maintenance of the system, the building of a greenhouse, renting land for erecting the greenhouse, and salaries for one year: project director, 2 agricultural engineers, greenhouse guardian, and assistant engineer. This will provide clean water – eliminating gastrointestinal diseases – nourishment, and a livelihood for 1,750 people (250 families).
* Update: In the fall of 2018, these costs were updated because the municipality of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas took on the water project. By December 2018, a 600,000 gallon capacity water tank had been built at the top of a steep hill in Chajmaic, with inflow and outflow piping, going to faucets at each home. In addition, a pump house and electricity had been installed alongside the road in Chajmaic. All that remains is the electricity. This has saved us $157,048. The updated cost table is at the bottom of this news bulletin: Updates Since Returning from Guatemala . In December 2018, we also learned that the village had grown to 3,000 people. This is still 250 families, using the same resources (same number of homes and land).
If you have given towards our “Water for Life” project, this is a separate request. Funds will be kept separate and sent immediately to the village. 100% of your donations will go towards aid. Any amount, from $5 to $5,000 helps!
Our fundraiser, Sip Sangria for Sowing Ops, was a wonderful success, thanks to the efforts of Sangria Restaurant & Tapas owners Marlon Cardona and Nora Elizabeth Niemotko, Erica Soscia, Nancy Peña, Ruby Santos, Ginny Remedi-Brown, and Netta Remedi-Brown. The Bailaranas Marimbas were exquisite, Selena’s singing breathtaking, and Netta’s viola performance soulful. We are grateful to all who participated.
We will have another event on Saturday night, September 16 at Sangria Restaurante, in honor of Guatemalan Independence Day.
If you would like to make a contribution, you can do so at http://www.sowingops.org/en/get-involved/giving/ .