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Our volunteering experience

Visiting Palajunoj Valley ande the Municipal Dump in Xela

By Ursula and Tanel

In our table at the restaurant, we found the last number of EntreMundos Magazine. Looking through the first pages, we noticed articles about environment, human rights and culture in Guatemala that called our attention. With a brief thought, we reached out EntreMundos with hopes that as travelers and video creators, we could somehow contribute and help to picture some important topics the magazine covers. 

We got in contact with EntreMundos and shortly, we met María Longo, the new editor of the magazine, she took us to film a video story about a nearby community and its protests against the Municipality of Quetzaltenango, for dropping garbage close to their lands. When we sat at the car with María, we didn’t have idea of what to expect or how the day was going to be. We were only short-term visitors in this incredible country, Guatemala; and we didn’t have any knowledge about the problems the citizens struggle with. 

When we arrived to Valle de Palajunoj, made up of 10 communities, local people received us with open arms and hearts. We started taking pictures and interviews in the main access point of the protests and we immediately started to learn and understand about local people lives and the complexity of the problems they face. We thought at first we were just going to record a protest and a blockade, but it turned out to be much more than that. 

The warmth and openness of locals was touching. They provided us authentic and honest information. Their fight and protest for their needs and their wellbeing was genuine and real. We began to understand how a story and a problem can actually get deep in multiple and different aspects of life of so many people. We started to understand how a problem was in reality much bigger than we thought.  

In Palajunoj Valley “the garbage problem” is just one of many, but not the less important, since it affects the land they farm, their health, wellbeing, their children and their natural environment. It affects their daily life. One of the communities in the valley Chuicaracoj, is home of the municipal garbage dump, where all the litter produced in the city is taken to. The waste accumulation affects Chuicaracoj and other nine communities in the valley, due to the smoke of the frequent waste fires, stray dogs, flies and bad smell. 

Leaders of the local community took us by the streets in bad conditions and showed us the municipal garbage dump, next to their crops. We smelled the toxic smoke produced by the waste in fire. We felt for a day the discomfort of having a garbage dump nearby; the communities of the Valley have lived this for 30 years now. 

Being travelers passing by, staying here for a very short time in this country, visiting the most important natural and cultural places of Guatemala, we barely get to experience the way of living of a regular citizen. Besides of coming from different cultures like Estonia from Europe and Bolivia in South America, we could hardly know and imagine the reality of this beautiful country in Central America.

Covering this story, we learned how humans and society coexist as a fluid organism. This story is not only about the community. This story is about all of us. This problem starts individually and continues with all people from Quetaltenango, the communities from Valle de Palajunoj and also us, the tourists. We learned how one person’s simple daily action can have a great impact on others. 

As the local people showed gratitude to us being there, hearing them, we felt a profound gratefulness for being able to know them. We felt grateful they invited us to their home and told us their story. We felt grateful learning about this beautiful people and their life.

When you hear the term “volunteering”, the first thing that comes to your mind is to help others and give back to society. You think in giving your time and experience to the service of others. But you don’t think in all you get in exchange without asking. During the visit to the community of the Valley of Palajunoj that day, we learned so much about humanity and the different perspectives in a society. 

We as humans are responsible of all our choices. We need to be more conscious of our lands and out planet. Our daily choices improve or worsen other people’s life. As you take care of the others, the world with take care of you. Let’s make the world a better place together, staring with our own home and city. 

Ursula and Tanel visited the Palajunoj Valley to document how the communities of that valley live, where for more than a month there has been resistance to the Land Use Plan, which includes the demand for the municipal garbage dump. For this reason they blocked the way of the garbage trucks and the waste gradually accumulated in the streets of the urban area of the city. The neighbors were upset by the accumulation of waste, but these communities have been living near them for years, in addition to lacking basic services such as water and sewage, among others.