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Health and nutrition of the Ch’orti’ Maya people and the imminent threat in the face of a lack of water

By Norma Sancir

“When I was growing up with my mother and siblings, we would carry water in tecomates. Back then, the water was nice and healthy. The sources of water were very close to our homes.” Francisco Ramírez, Ch’orti’ Maya Indigenous Authority from Olopa, Chiquimula.

Guatemala is a pluricultural and multilingual country where mestizos live alongside 22 Mayan groups, the Garifuna, and Xinca. Each community has its own way of organizing, language, spirituality, societal structure, diet, system of justice, and economy, based on the indigenous culture it belongs to.

However, despite the fact that more than 50% of the population is of indigenous background according to the recent census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), indigenous people have been excluded through racism, discrimination, and classism since the foundation of the Republic of Guatemala. These conditions stem from the three state powers, that is to say, from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, where decisions on public policies that guide the actions of ministers and government institutions are made, and where participation and representation of indigenous peoples is null.

Narciso Nicolas Cua Bulux, a K’iche’ Mayan from Totonicapán, who served as a member of the Board of Directors of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán and is on the National Board of Mayan, Xinca and Garifuna Ancestral Authorities, says that the State is responsible for the economic situation as a whole. 75% participate in the informal economy, from agricultural to artisanal production, and the rest work as cheap laborers. He adds that in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the government has not enacted an economic reactivation policy for indigenous communities, and furthermore, representatives of ancestral authorities were not consulted on COVID-19 relief programs.

The case of the Ch’orti’ community in Olopa, Chiquimula is not so different than that of many other indigenous communities. They continue to be made invisible in the face of the country’s development policies, as evidenced by the lack of access to land ownership, which is essential for economic and nutritional wellbeing. These families depend on small-scale agriculture but have limited land to cultivate: at most a parcel, hillock, small plot, or trabajadero, as they are known in rural communities. These plots are far from houses, meaning that more effort, time, and economic resources are required to work them. An additional complication is the looming winter, as those who lack an irrigation system (a common situation in the east) rely solely on rain. People who rent land and then have a poor harvest are in double jeopardy, which worsens the nutritional crisis. The most recent report on human development shows that 92% of agricultural producers occupy 21.9% of agricultural plots, while 65% of the country’s agricultural land is in the hands of 1.9% of producers.


Community health

The health system in Guatemala’s indigenous communities is split in two: one part is under state control and the other is based on a system belonging to indigenous communities. In accordance with the INE, the projected population for 2019 is 14.9 million people. The Ministry of Public Health reports that 70% of people have access to health care at three levels of attention: health centers, long term care facilities, and hospitals, with indications of low levels of access for indigenous populations. Narciso Cuá indicates that not only is there poor access to public health, but health programs are not culturally relevant to indigenous communities. “Throughout their history, indigenous communities have maintained their own health system based on natural treatments, since the State does not guarantee them access to medicine.”

The State of Guatemala recognizes the right to health in its constitution and in the Peace Accords that focus on indigenous populations, who were affected most by the conflict. Furthermore, the 2018 report to the National Commission on Food Security and Nutrition (CONASAN) by the Procurator of Human Rights (PDH) mentions the Nutritional and Food Security (Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional, SAN) policy, which receives an allocated portion of the budget; the collection of information through census of the stature of schoolchildren; and the National System of Food Security and Nutrition Information (SIINSAN). Currently, there is neither data disaggregated by indigenous community regarding the diseases that they suffer, nor in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, under which communities have turned to natural medicine to treat common symptoms and strengthen the immune system, according to Anacleto Pérez, indigenous authority of the Maya Ch’orti’ community in Olopa, Chiquimula.

Compared to Latin America as a whole, Guatemala is a country with high levels of malnutrition. Data from the Ministry of Public Health show that 46.5% of children under 5 years of age that belong to an indigenous community are of short stature. The Panamerican Health Organization says that intestinal infections and malnutrition are one of the main categories of conditions suffered by Guatemalan youth ages 1-9. In 2018, the PDH presented a report to the CONASAN, in which it stated that Guatemala ranks 6th in the world for chronic malnutrition, with rural and indigenous populations most affected. Guatemala has the second highest rate of mortality attributed to unsafe water and sanitation and a lack of hygiene in the Americas, with 6.3 deaths per 100,000, according to the PDH report.

Sources of water

The main sources of water can be found in the country’s mountainous forests where the trickles of water that feed the streams and then flowing rivers are born. “These sources of water are protected by indigenous communities in accordance with their own ways of organizing and their cosmovision of the earth and its relationship with human beings, which emphasize balance and harmony between both for the good of the whole community,” says Gerardo Paiz, from the Madre Selva collective. For the Ch’orti’ Maya communities in Olopa, Chiquimula, the forests, which they care for and administrate, are an important source of water. These forests provide water in the winter and people organize themselves to assure that the streams can fill their tanks to capacity with water for later redistribution to the population. During the summer season, when the constant droughts hit the country with greater force in the dry region, it is the community authorities who organize people to put out the fires that burn during this season. According to Paiz, in Guatemala, 90% of currents—both above and below ground—are contaminated, and spring water is the least contaminated. The main contaminants are agrochemicals. Paiz emphasizes that “water is a natural good. We need to protect our aquifers and other places that store abundant water, such as the Minas Biosphere Reserve, a chain of mountains that begins in the municipality of Purulhá and ends in Izabal.”

The environmentalist ads that Merendón mountain range, located between the Departments of Zacapa and Chiquimula, where the Ch’orti’ Maya are found, has the vegetation of a cloud forest, which means it has the characteristics that allow it to absorb humidity and allow water to condense and move throughout the land. However, this and other cloud forests are being destroyed.

Indigenous communities are making an effort to protect and safeguard their natural resources through community organization, social action, mediation, and politics, yet due to the global consequences of climate change and according to a study by the University of Notre Dame’s ND-Gain Country Index project, Guatemala is amongst the countries most vulnerable to the natural disasters and constant droughts caused by climate change.

Crisis in the face of water shortages

Water scarcity affects health, daily life, and hygiene. A nutritional crisis also stems from the constant droughts that plague the Ch’orti’ Maya communities, who live on corn and beans as staple crops. The lack of drinking water and scarcity of rain during the planting season is a cause for worry in the population. Santiago Guzmán, President of the Community Development Board (COCODE) of the Prensa community in Olopa, Chiquimula, explains that “droughts have affected us for 5 years. Our crops depend on rainwater. Those who plant coffee, for example, which is to say the majority of people, cannot do anything. People are willing to work, but constant droughts mean that nothing grows.”

Carmelita Pérez, from the Council of Indigenous Authorities of Olopa, Chiquimula, says that the water crisis has already affected her community. “During the dog days of our long summer, the soil dries up and food production diminishes. For example, in wetter areas cornfields can survive the summer, but here they struggle to produce ears of corn.” She adds that there is limited water for human consumption, but none for agricultural use besides rainwater. This adds to the economic crisis and diminishes the harvest of staple crops. “Then hunger sets in because we are forced to go without food. Only those who have small plots of land along the rivers are able to grow anything, but then the price of corn goes up, and those who make only 35 Quetzals don’t have enough money to buy food.”

Those who are unable to grow crops migrate to the Honduran border to work on the coffee harvest from November to February so that they can have a source of income. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been impossible, which will add to the region’s nutritional crisis. The cost to transport grain from rural to urban areas will increase along with the prices of products.

Health risks

Health risks increase with a lack of water, as without it there can be no food, medicinal plants, or hygiene. In the winter, the rate of gastrointestinal disease like diarrhea increases, affecting children from 0 to 8 years of age. In most cases, this is due to the consumption of unsafe water. The small amount of water that Francisco Zacarías of the Indigenous Council has access to is contaminated, which can also cause skin issues, like sores and rashes. Furthermore, he adds, “those who work in the fields drink water that is unsafe for human consumption, and this causes stomach issues.”

Leonel Ramos, from the community of Las Palmas, mentions that “another factor that puts the health of Ch’orti’ Mayans at risk is malnutrition, which is also the result of a lack of water, land access, and droughts that inhibit the production of food.” Without water, health risks increase. Without food, medicinal plants that grow in the winter, sickness will increase. Small children will suffer diarrhea because the only water they have to drink is unsafe. In some communities there just isn’t any potable water. “in my community, La Prensa, what we do is add bleach to our water,” says Santiago Guzmán from the COCODE. “This has led to a reduction in gastrointestinal disease.”

The other cause of problems

Mining is another cause of the water, health, and nutritional crisis that the Ch’orti’ communities face. According to indigenous authorities, the installation of a mine that they were not consulted on and has a license to exploit resources has caused the destruction of forests, as well as consumed the local aquifers. Currently, the Los Manantiales quarry and mine has been suspended by a constitutional safety review by the Indigenous Council of the Ch’orti’ Mayans of Olopa, Chiquimula, with the legal cooperation of the Association of Mayan Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala.

“Mining destroyed the forests, consumed and contaminated our water sources, and on top of this add in the effects of global warming which has caused there to no longer be clean air in the community, an increase in sickness, and also a loss of our medicinal plants. Furthermore, we cannot forget that the coronavirus has been a major hit to the Ch’orti’ Mayans,” emphasizes Carmelita Pérez. Pascuala Alonzo, a community artisan from Tituque, confirms how the coronavirus made the health situation even more difficult, as access to health facilities is complicated by long distances. Because of this, families have been preparing supplies of medicinal plans that they have harvested in the community. Alonzo adds that the economy is what worries the communities, as they have not been able to sell their artisanal products. She also adds that a large portion of the banana harvest has been lost due to a lack of transport.

According to an Amicus brief presented to the Supreme Court of Justice by students of the Faculty of Legal Sciences from the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, “a healthy environment must be free of contamination that puts the quality of life of its inhabitants at risk.” The Los Manantinales quarry and mine creates sources of contamination that affect the water that is essential for human consumption and agricultural use. According to the mayor of Olopa, mining affects human consumption, and it is easy to see that the river water is dirty. “For the moment, mining has been stopped,” he said. The Indigenous Council has sought the support of national and international organizations that support the human right to access water. According to a 2019 report from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights on the advancement of human rights in Guatemala, “24% of communities have a water supply system that complies with minimum quality standards for water for personal use.”

Climate change in the dry regions

According to Gerardo Paiz, there are two transboundary water basins that cross the dry region: the Jupilingo River that starts in Honduras and feeds into the Río Grande in the Department of Zacapa before flowing into the Motagua, and the Lempa River that starts in Olopa, Chiquimula, which is fed by water that flows from Honduras. This water flows towards El Salvador, he adds.

Climate change also affects the Ch’orti’ Mayan population in the dry region, as the destruction of native forests and pollution harm the region with constant droughts. “Megaprojects that do not consider the needs of the population are a threat. Any investment or significant action that puts groundwater or the health of the population at risk is not viable,” says the environmentalist. According to Paiz’ experience, in this region, Ch’orti’ communities need to resume agroforesty by planting fruit trees and staple crops so as to not harm food production. If forests can be restored, they will produce enough water to last until winter.

With climate change come two phenomena: one is the lack of water and winters with limited rain, which causes prolonged droughts that impact agriculture. On the other side of the coin is the abundance of rain that causes floods, landslides, crop loss, etc. Héctor Aguirre from the Trinational Fronteriza Río

Lempa mancomunidad, emphasizes that the loss of agriculture due to climate change in the Ch’orti’ communities of Olopa, aggravates the nutritional crisis even further. “And now we add the COVID-19 pandemic to this equation. No country in the region is prepared for the hunger crisis and its complexity. There are no sources of employment. People cannot go out and get a job and as a result they go hungry,” he highlights.

Efforts to fight the problem

In agriculture

For the Ch’orti’ communities in Olopa, the biggest worry is the food crisis, which is being exacerbated by the loss of the corn and bean harvest as well as constant droughts. They have searched for alternative means of production and found another source of income in bananas and coffee. Though these two crops are not traditional Ch’orti’ crops, the Indigenous Council will begin efforts to recover seeds and will plant native fruit trees, as well as opening a market for trade and shopping in the long run.

Community organization

For the Indigenous Council, the food crisis, lack of water, and health issues will be worsened by the installation of the mining project. Organization is key: through the judicial system they will be able to freely exercise their individual and collective rights, exhausting legal and administrative options to speak up, as the water that they are protecting is for future generations. Currently, community organizations have been able to deter mining and the destruction of forests by lumber work and fires in the summer while protecting water sources. The Indigenous Council of Olopa indicates that it will keep coordinating, organizing, and actively participating in the denunciation of the government’s actions, demanding the right to water and food.

Protecting water sources

Using his personal experience and knowledge of the water situation, Francisco Ramírez began reforesting the land with native trees, supporting a humid climate capable of capturing water. Also, as a member of the indigenous council of Olopa, Chiquimula, he coordinates between communities to stop the logging of native forests protected by the National Forest Institute (INAB).

“After I began to gain a little momentum, I started to take care of the trees and now I have a little bit of water here on the property. I have seen how trees catch humidity and make water appear again,” he said.

Equally, indigenous authorities protect the forests from summertime fires. They do this in coordination with Community Development Boards (COCODEs), the National Police (PNC), and the PDH. Santiago Guzmán currently organizes community efforts around water sources, protecting them from those who wish to take advantage of them. He also actively participates in the local government’s decision-making process to defend community access to this vital liquid.

Alliances in Olopa

The Trinacional mancomunidad undertakes efforts to protect sources of water, such as neighborhood reforestation projects and the protection of water catchment areas. “The solution is to empower the community to bring about the change it desires,” says the professional of the Río Lempa Mancomunidad. The Honduran mancomunidad installed a water treatment plant, but the costs are high and local governments in Guatemala have yet to budget for such a project.

The mayor of the municipality of Olopa, Jorge Lemus, assures that the municipality manages projects by holding water in tanks in preparation for the dry season. “Water chlorination was resumed in 46 projects, which allowed us to prevent disease in our communities. We are also looking to dig wells, but we have yet to find water and costs will be high.” In terms of the food crisis, he said that the municipality lacks sufficient resources to support the affected families and that support should come from the central government. The mayor says that support of state institutions is needed and that there should be collaboration between different institutions and indigenous authorities on the maintenance and preservation of forests.

The Ch’orti’ communities in Olopa, Chiquimula, together with their community authorities, want to protect their mountains, forests, and rivers in hopes of conserving the small amount of water that they still have for their children and grandchildren. Through community organization, social action, and coordination between different actors, they will take on the health and nutritional challenges caused by the lack of water in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, mining, and climate change.

— Norma Sancir is a Kaqchikel Mayan and community journalist. She collaborates with independent print and radio media sources. She is a defender of the freedom of expression and of indigenous communities.