Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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

Hurricane resettlements present challenges for the poor in Guatemala

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the July 5, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Hurricane Stan brought widespread destruction when it swept through the Highlands of Guatemala less than two years ago. Storm damage in the mountainous region of the Spokane Mission was especially devastating, as torrents of water converged in steep canyons. Surges of mud and water pushed through the Inter-American Highway in numerous spots, severing the main transportation link between the North and South American continents.

The storm’s impact on the lives of the native people in the communities of the region has not captured the same amount of media attention. Nevertheless, it has disrupted and dislocated the lives of thousands of Mayan Indians. In doing so, the flood waters washed away one year’s life-sustaining corn crop. For many locals, the storm also took away a long-standing style of life.

In some ways, the after-effects of Hurricane Stan are a rerun of what happened after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Following that storm, about 600 families moved from Ixtahuacán, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, to a new site in the “Alaska” region called Chwi Patan, at 10,000 feet elevation. With the transfer of official birth, marriage, and death records, the two villages became Old Ixtahuacán and New Ixtahuacán, respectively.

The move to New Ixtahuacán drew a considerable amount of media attention, along with international support. Many of the older residents questioned the wisdom of the move. Yet, outside aid was promised to fund paved streets, cement block houses, and community facilities. Moreover, the site was near the Inter-American Highway, with its busses and access to city life.

Sister Immaculata Burke chats with two new residents of the Chiquisis area. Following the devastation of Hurricane Stan two years ago, native people from about 10 mountainous villages accepted international housing aid by moving to the area. Although the block and sheet metal houses appear to be better than the dirt-floored, thatched roof huts of their former communities, they do not provide much protection against the cold at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level. Sister Immaculata, along with other clinic personnel based in Novillero, have taken on the added service of providing medical care to the migrants who have moved. (IR photo from the Diocesan Guatemala Commission)

Although governmental and non-governmental (NGO) subsidies have enabled New Ixtahuacán to survive and grow, some fundamental problems remain. Water and fire wood are in very short supply; the tundra-type land is cold; the people’s croplands are miles away.

The mudslides and flooding of Hurricane Stan in October 2005 brought about a migration that parallels the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, but one that has drawn families from a much wider region. Ten communities have relocated from their forested and mountainside locations to more flat and barren land near the summit of the continental divide. At an elevation nearing 11,000 feet, the winds are strong, the nights are cold, and water is scarce.

A map of the area would show the extensive impact of the migration as villagers have moved from the old villages of Chikisis, Pacutuma, Tzamchaj, Chuicu-tuma, and others, to the Alaska “cumbre” region. It is several miles off the highway from New Ixtahuacán and now hosts new villages of New Pacutuma I and II, New Tzamchaj, New Chuicutuma, and so forth.

Chikisis has about 100 families, and is one of the few villages with a small school. None of the houses have water or electricity, and their nearest medical clinic is miles away in New Ixtahuacán. Outside organizations are currently helping build a water tank (Oxfam, from Ireland), latrines (CARE), and stoves.

New Pacutuma-1 has only about 23 families, each of which has a small cement block house. None of the houses have water, but an Irish charity is working on a water tank project. Electricity is available, but firewood is very distant. A Catholic church is under construction, and Familia a Familia (“Family to Family”) in Spokane is providing a machine embroidery training course for some of the families.

Information on the other communities is available on the internet at www.

Father David Baronti visits with Adela Tambriz, manager of the Familia-a-Familia (“Family to Family”) program in New Ixtahuacán (Chwi Patan), and two of her children. Father Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese ministering in the diocese’s Guatemala Mission, has taken on the added responsibility of serving the new communities that have sprung up in the Chiquisis area, near New Ixtahuacán. International agencies offered some assistance with housing, so hundreds of natives from several mountainous villages converged on the area. However, the region lacks water and firewood, and is far from native corn fields. (IR photo from the Diocesan Guatemala Commission)

Hurricane Stan did not actually wash away the homes of many of the people who are continuing to move to the Alaska-type “cumbre.” So why would so many villagers join in the exodus?

There are doubtless many reasons. Severe storms generate fear. Moreover, the prospects of a house with solid block walls, along with the chance for a better life, can be convincing to those who have nothing to lose.

On the surface, resettlement to higher ground appears advantageous. International charities offered some generous assistance to the poor.

However, the longer term cultural impact of a massive resettlement process goes deeper than a block house.

Families that were once in small, isolated, independent communities have traded their meager existence for a “better life” in anticipation of homes with electricity, water systems, schools, health care, and markets to buy food. However, with this has come a dependence upon governmental and non-governmental organizations.

What is missing? Employment. Some of the families can hike back down the mountains to continue to farm their small patches of land. For most, it is a very long (even overnight) journey. For others, the transition must be more fundamental. Training and skill development programs are needed if the men and women are to engage in work activities that contribute to their welfare and to their sense of self worth.

Unfortunately, the international agencies that were quick to offer block houses have not always planned beyond the immediate needs. This leaves the challenge to others who work with the poor, such as missionaries and other nonprofit organizations.

The Diocese of Spokane, through its pastoral and development programs, is one of the organizations that is assisting the resettled families in the cumbre area. Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese serving in Guatemala, has added Masses and pastoral service for the people to his already heavy schedule. Catechist training responsibilities have fallen on Sister Marie Tolle. Sister Immaculata Burke and clinic staff are helping with the medical needs of the area. Other Spokane-supported programs are helping with training in gardening, machine embroidery, carpentry, and other skill-building activities.

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