Photo: Esteban Biba / EFE
Photo: Esteban Biba / EFE

Guatemala: Resisting as a community to avoid contagion

The threat of COVID has kept the world at home, but some indigenous people have found ways to stand up together against more than one enemy.


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The Kaqchikel indigenous people have made uncertainty part of their lives. Their villages are located on the slopes of the Fuego Volcano, about 45 kilometers from where a terrible tragedy occurred two years ago when the volcano erupted and burned everything in its path: homes, livestock, crops, and lives.

Now these communities, which are set in the municipality of San Pedro Yepocapa, in Chimaltenango, more than 80 kilometers from the country's capital, must face a double threat: the unsuspected fury of nature and a pandemic that is ravaging Guatemala, with more than 34,000 cases reported and around 1,400 deaths. 

However, the Kaqchikels are moving forward. They celebrate small weddings and kiss with their masks, not daunted by yet another blow of fate. They do better than that, working in community despite the economic and social havoc. 

Collective farming is the key to everything. Thanks to a system of drip irrigation and macro-tunnels that protect the vegetables from the constant rain of ashes, the neighbors can feed themselves without having to travel to other places, go to market less, and stay surprisingly free of contagion. 

With the exception of Patzún, one of the municipalities in the Department of Chimaltenango, which suffered the first case of COVID-19 in the country, but managed to control it - Patzún accounts for 1.48% of the infections in Guatemala. 

"It's scary to live with the volcano here; it's going to bury us," Irma Chonay (35) told EFE, as she walks with other women to collect manure to fertilize the agricultural tunnels in the Ojo de Agua village, one of the subsistence communities that face volcanic activity and the threat of viruses. 

Another woman from Betania, Vilma Quebac (38), remembers the day on June 3, 2018, when the fire erupted and "thundered very loudly" and "became a big cloud." Now the explosions and rumblings of the earth are daily. Agricultural tunnels have become the solution to protect the crops that would be ruined by the continuous fall of ashes. 

It is not that villages like Ojo de Agua, Betania and Las Cruces live separately as if they were a different nation. They receive the help of the FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture, which has allowed them to vary the harvest around the macro-tunnels and maintain an ideal climate, despite the explosive soil. 

Tomatoes, jalapeños and peppers are some of the products grown by the villagers taking advantage of the invention, as well as beets, broccoli and lettuce. 

"With this project our lives have changed quite a bit, because now we are helping our husbands so that with something they earn and with what we get here we can invest in something else. We have learned a lot. Before, we didn't sow anything, now we can do it; we know how to prepare the land", said Irma Chonay, happy because these tunnels have already given their second harvest. 

Thanks to how well everything works, people like Rafael Umul, from Las Cruces, admits that it is time for reason to prevail and be more careful when going out to cultivate, to avoid risks. 

"We divide the groups by tunnel and two people at most come to check and work; we are also promoting family farming so that everyone can harvest in their own little fields and gardens and avoid leaving home," he concludes.

Again, the earth trembles. The volcano roars. The pandemic, a few miles from their homes, continues to rage. 


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