Natural Disasters and the Government’s Questionable Responses

By: Felipe Sarti Castañeda

During the last twenty-one years, that is, since the beginning of the decade, Guatemala has been battered by various natural disasters similar to those in which we find ourselves; adding to the sanitation crisis created by CoVid-19.  We are a country vulnerable to these types of phenomena exacerbated by climate change.  Historically, the government has not wanted to, nor been capable of promoting preventative policies, conscientiousness-raising and education.  In the end, the governmental agencies involved, when faced with serious damage caused by these types of tragedies, take the easy way out by diminishing, whenever possible, property damage as well as the resulting physical and psychological problems.

During these events, we have been able to verify that the first response, the most important one, given the absence of state and local government action, comes directly from the people through various methods of organizing, thus allowing them to offer mutual assistance of great emotional value during the first hours immediately following a tragedy.  Personally, I, along with my ECAP colleagues, have had the opportunity to offer psycho-social support in affected communities.  These experiences have been emotionally difficult for each of us individually, and for the institution.  And at the same time we have learned much from watching the responses organized by the people affected.

The Community Action Team for Social Action (ECAP) was founded in 1997.  Its purpose being to offer emotional support to victimized and survival populations from the counterinsurgency carried out by the army and its paramilitary groups against civilian populations, especially those in the interior of the country.  Also, we began to support victims and survivors of natural disasters because we also thought of them as having suffered serious violations of their human rights.  Part of work was also to focus on cases known as transitional justice where high-ranking national figures in the armed forces have been named and charged.  For example those involved in the Dos Erres Massacre, the Ixchil Genocide, the cases of Molina Theissen, Sepur Zarco, Rio Negro and the Sánchez Plan. In three of the cases there were court proceedings and sentences by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights and in Guatemalan courts, i.e. Sánchez Plan, the Dos Erres Massacre and the Rio Negro Massacre.  We also address other problematic, systemic issues, e.g. violence based on gender, issues around migration and violent displacement of peoples from their lands and the struggle against extractive megaprojects.   

These simultaneous experiences of learning and of dealing with issues has turned us into a national example in the area of psycho-social activities, which would not have been possible without the contributions of those who are communally based in our country.  Those, who with their varying  world-visions have clear, definite paths in the search for the best way to live.  ECAP is shaped by women and men from different ethnic groups, all with professional training in social psychology, who promote community mental health, human rights and struggles for (regaining) territory.  Our pledge is to continue strengthening a psychology of liberation and service to our peoples.

I have been present during the landslide (triggered by Hurricane Stan’s torrential rains) in Panabaj, Santiago Atitlán; Hurricane Agatha which hit the southern Pacific coast; and the Cambray mudslides in Santa Catarina Pinula.  These three experiences allowed me to make the following observations:

  • CONRED (National Commission for Disaster Reduction)  is a government institution that operates vertically, with authoritarian management, where decision-making is done by the national army.  The army imposes measures without taking into account the many opinions from other participating organizations, much less those of affected.
  • During these three tragedies and others I’ve monitored, psychological support offered by the government, universities, and other institutions, has not had adequate coordination in order to provide quality attention to those in emotional need.  Many of the services have been random, weakening them and preventing sufficient response to the particular mental health issues that are manifesting.
  • Many of the interventions come from the western clinical psychology approach focused on the patient and in search of pathology, rather than proposing group/community-based solutions where people can freely express themselves and share their emotions; where they can offer mutual support and find solutions among themselves.
  • During the previously mentioned events we also noticed that the primary care providers at the local level didn’t have the capability nor adequate tools for treating psycho-social problems resulting from natural disasters.  Unfortunately, this situation still exists because we have a weak public healthcare system riddled with internal corruption which is another piece of the problem.

I write this article as a call to health providers in general, universities, and public and private institutions in order to initiate processes of dialogue and reflexion which would allow us, in a self-critical way, to identify good and bad practices carried out during these events.  The central idea would be to permanently form a pyscho-social alliance as a response to problems of mental health issues caused by disaster.  This proposal is merely attempting to enrich the psycho-social services which have been developing for many years, by incorporating it with community wisdom along with religious beliefs and cultural practices in order to provide an integrated solution with a more collective vision where better quality of life would prevail.  I consider that creating a collective response is a complete process, given that most of us have had very individual practices where we do not take into account the socio-political context of our country, which, then, gets in the way of offering efficient and effective solutions that truly respond to people’s realities.  

I hope this article will generate reflexion and practical action since scientific predictions indicate such disasters will continue in the future.  A number of us, both professional and from the community, have reached the conclusion that these disaster events represent serious violation of the human rights of individuals, families and affected communities which makes a government response imperative.  It is the primary party responsible for guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the Guatemalan people.  If that does not occur, we might say, without being legal experts, that the State could be judged by tribunals for justice.

Felipe Escobar Sarti is a community social psychologist and graduate of the San Carlos University.  He has worked in Nicaragua and Guatemala providing psycho-social support, communal recollection, building up citizenry and strengthening community organization.  He also has worked on transitional justice cases in Guatemala and is the founder of ECAP.

This article was originally published in gaZeta, a widely-circulated digital communication, open to all points of view and critique, secular and partisan, it is created and produced in a non-profit manner.  Inquiries can be directed to the following link:  in order to read the original article.

Image: Johan Ordoñez