From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala: relocating Ixtahuacán involves history, geology, politics

by David Dodroe, for the Inland Register

(From the Aug. 2, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán is a town in the western highlands of Guatemala. The town’s population of about 4,000 and the 35,000 people of the wider Ixtahuacán area are K’iche-speaking Mayan Indians.

Santa Catarina sits in the saddle of a mountain at an elevation of 7,300 feet. Maybe two-thirds of the municipality of Ixtahuacán is mountainous.

The long plateau opposite the old town is at an elevation of 10,500 feet. Corn is the predominate crop and is grown on slopes that we would think suitable only for mountain goats.

The other one-third of Ixtahuacán’s land are part of the broad Pacific coastal plain. Here coffee and bananas are grown on small holders’ plots. Mention is made of a rustic church being built around 1560 at the site of the present-day church.

The relocation of Santa Catarina actually began about 40 years ago, with a government-sponsored geologic report. The report warned of the instability of the area and the risk that the town would slide down the mountain to the creek below. No actions were taken at this time, but the report’s warning has stayed in the townspeople’s minds. The reason that this disaster never came to pass was attributed to the protection of their patron saint, Santa Catarina of Alexandria.

It took Hurricane Mitch to change all of this and provide the catalyst for the move to the new site of Chuipatan.

Damage from Mitch wasn’t extensive in Guatemala’s highlands. Ixtahuacán was the exception. In the surrounding cultivated areas to Santa Catarina there were lots of landslides. In town about 65 houses were destroyed. This damage was caused by heavy rains. In town, land sloughed from under adobe walls. In some cases fissures opened through the middle of people’s houses.

The people became absolutely terrified during all of this. It was at this time that the talk of a relocation began. Soon after a relocation committee was formed and weekly street corner neighborhood meetings began. The Guatemala government commissioned a study to search for and evaluate possible sites.

The relocation committee’s work and the neighborhood meetings continued throughout 1999. The government study came up with a list of nine sites and a plan to move the town in stages over a three- or four-year time period.

The committee favored a site called Chuipatan, though it was fourth from the top of the study’s list. The committee chose Chui-patan primarily for its proximity to the Pan American Highway and secondarily because of its relative flatness. This location was down on the study’s list because of its elevation — 10,500 feet — and consequent coldness, its problems in obtaining water, its lack of firewood, and its being landlocked by two neighboring municipalities.

Soon after the committees decided on the Chuipatan site — around May 1999 — the people of Santa Catarina began staking out lots and moving building materials to the site. Tensions and disputes quickly developed with the neighboring municipality of Nahualá over this land. As the people of Santa Catarina travelled daily to work the site, there was the constant presence of Nahualeños, trading taunts and threats with them.

In late July of 1999 a fight broke out between the two machete-wielding groups. Hundreds of men were involved. One man was killed and about 15 were hospitalized. If not for the arrival of the police, breaking up the fight with tear gas, the toll would have certainly been much higher.

This lead the national government to sit the leaders of the feuding municipalities down and come to an agreement. In the agreement that they came to, Ixtahuacán got Chuipatan. It seems that Nahualá got its name put on the title of Ixtahuacán’s wealthier coastal lands in a shared ownership agreement. Most of the people of Ixtahuacán’s other towns and villages saw this as a major sell-out to Nahualá by their leaders.

With government help, the people continued developing the Chuipatan site. Then, in the first week of January 2000, contrary to the government’s plan to make the move in stages, the town moved en masse. They emptied one of the few churches in Central America still in possession of its 15th- and 16th-century statuary. With the patron saint Santa Catarina to lead the way, the people began the 20-kilometer trek up the mountain to Chuipatan.

During the past year and with about $5 million in international aid a new town has been built at Chuipatan. There are about 500 identical block houses, one for each family. There’s a new city hall, community center, concrete streets, electricity, and a 1,400-foot well.

Through all of this there were about 100 of Santa Catarina’s 600 families that didn’t care to make the move. Those moving wanted unanimity in their own decision. Those who wanted to remain behind were threatened with the loss of electricity and water, and with bulldozing the old town. Those moving also worked to get the old town put under a “code yellow” alert. So, while millions of dollars were available, those remaining were ineligible to receive any aid.

One of the authors of the government study gave an interview recently. I heard what seems to be the best explanation for Santa Catarina’s geological problems.

He explained that Santa Catarina sits on a saddle with the land sloping away from the town’s center, to the east and to the west. The bedrock under the town is in this saddle shape. In many areas of town there is a strata of clay overlaying bedrock. When this clay is saturated with water it becomes plastic and slides on the sloping bedrock below.

With the heavy rains of Hurricane Mitch this phenomenon was exaggerated and caused the destruction. His theory also explains why people in some barrios of Santa Catarina were having to rebuild their homes with great frequency.

His historical records also showed that the church has been rebuilt on something like a 75-year cycle.

The author thought that Chuipatan was a poor location. He didn’t see much risk for those living in the old Santa Catarina but did say that, because of the geologic instability of some neighborhoods, it wouldn’t be his choice to live there.

(Dodroe is a long-time volunteer in the Spokane Diocese’s mission activity in Guatemala.)

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