Familias de Panabaj sobrevivientes del Huracán Stan en 2005 – Foto Gobierno de Guatemala.

Poverty in Guatemala The Case of the Families of the Canton of Panabaj, Santiago Atitlán

By: Pedro Xeché 

Poverty is a global socioeconomic phenomenon that has an impact on many families that live in vulnerable areas due to the ruling economic structures. According to the 2014 National Survey of Living Conditions (Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida, ENCOVI 2014) conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, in Guatemala, the poverty rate rose to 59.3%, as there was an increase of 8.1% between 2006 and 2014. In Santiago Atitlán, the municipality to which the Canton of Panabaj belongs, the level of poverty was 78.9% for general poverty, and 26.3% for extreme poverty. I had the opportunity to conduct a study with 30 families chosen from the Canton of Panabaj for my master’s in research, entitled “Survival in poverty of families from the Canton of Panabaj, Santiago Atitlán.”

This qualitative study yielded interesting results about the interviewed families from the Canton of Panabaj, a rural area populated predominantly by Tz’utujil Mayans, and reflected the structure and history of each family, including the problems they face in various areas like health, food, education, strategies and aspirations. For example, based on interviews with the population, it was shown that 37% of couples were together in a de facto union, and 63% in a conventional marriage. The average age at the time of marriage was 17 for women and 21 for men. The youngest age at the time of marriage was 13 for women and 17 for men.

One of the reasons individuals got married at an early age was due to their socioeconomic situation and the number family members. In general, getting married and having a family wasn’t done to give stability to the family economy, because the poverty of many families was immense. For some marriages, the situation was even further complicated by alcoholism, which was the motive for temporary separation and divorce. This is shown by the fact that 10% of interviewed women were married or in a union with their second husband, while other women preferred to stay single and take up the reins of the family. Likewise, families that remain united and solid in adversity stand out from the crowd.

In terms of salaries, the investigation showed positive and negative outlooks in relation to the basic market basket. On average, the daily salary of interviewees was 38 quetzales, independent of the job. In a 30 day month, therefore, a person with such a salary would be earning 1,140 quetzales, below the minimum annual salary of 2016, which was 2,747.04 quetzales per month for both those in and outside of the agricultural sector, and less than the minimum wage for 2017, which was 2,893.21 for the same sectors (as published in the portal of the Ministry of Labor and Social Forecasting in 2017). Few are those who have an average salary of 50 quetzales per day, which is to say, 1,500 quetzales per month. This limit in income is due to the lack of employment opportunities, to which the only feasible solution is to accept any job at all.

Each family has its own way of distributing its income. In order of priority, the categories are a) food, because life and survival depend on the food that is consumed daily, b) health, because common illnesses are often contracted, c) items for cleaning clothes, d) clothes and shoes for children, e) education, when something is purchased for school, f) utility payments, such as electricity and water, g) the purchase of furniture, and h) household maintenance.

Since daily nutrition is the priority of each family, the average expenditure for each family is 31 quetzales per day, which translates to a monthly expenditure of 940 quetzales for an average of 7.4 family members, including the parents. 1,500 quetzlaes would be the monthly expenditure for a family if their daily consumption was 50 quetzales. A gap can be seen between this result and the calculated basic market basket (Canasta Básica Alimentaria, CBA) calculated by the National Institute of Statistics. Under a previous methodology, the CBA was based on an average family of 5.38 members, but in October 2017 it was updated to an average family of 4.77 members, which was then officialized in November of that year. That October, the cost of the CBA was calculated to be 3,549.40 quetzales. Among the included products are eggs, corn, beans, meat, fish, bread, seasonal fruit, coffee, sugar, sal, herbs, bananas, tomatoes, matches, cheese, and rice.

Thus, for survival, families turn to the following practices: a) all members are subject to contribute something, mainly work according to age; b) acquiring of the lowest-cost foods at the market; c) saving so as to not waste or lose the few resources available; d) resorting to natural medicine before conventional medicine to cure illnesses; e) the reuse of certain implements at home; f) doing any job with the goal of earning an income; g) professing the Christian religion, which through a belief in a Supreme Being motivates them each day to improve their situation; h) relying on a midwife for birth, which is an ancestral practice; i) the non-prioritization of education through schooling by some poor families; and j) the consideration that comfortable sleep is not important, rather all that matters is that families have a roof to sleep under.

In terms of housing, the majority of families live without the necessary services. Details include: a) 57% of dwellings had only one room, 33% had two and 10% had three, and these latter dwellings were sponsored by an organization in the wake of Tropical Storm Stan in 2005, which was a tragedy for the community; b) some kitchens were open-air kitchens; c) some families do not have appropriate sanitation; d) one family lacked electricity; e) one house had a tendency to collapse, as it was made of cane with a sheet metal roof; f) space was limited for a family with 5 children.

As mentioned in the beginning, during the study a number of deficiencies were identified, among which can be mentioned: a) the low level or lack of academic training of parents; b) 30% of parents were alcoholics, which had caused problems within families; c) some people took advantage of the neediness of the community, particularly through scamming; d) food was low in nutrition and variety; e) there were low levels of hygiene in some children; f) families acquired clothes in used clothes stores; g) some family members had died due to different causes: lack of medical attention, inadequate nutrition, and delinquent and political violence (one was kidnapped during the Civil War).

To combat poverty, it is necessary to prioritize specific areas of human development in the community: health, education, housing, and economic stimulus, under the principles of equality, efficiency, transparency, objectivity, coordination, participation, evaluation, and perfectibility. Actions should be taken by the Community Development Committee in coordination with the municipality. I believe that any government social program could also be operated under these principles to reduce the level of poverty and extreme poverty in Guatemala.

Pedro Xeché Ajcabul is a master’s student in the Humanities department at the University of San Carlos (USAC)