Tejiendo Paz addresses environmental issues, conflict and the pandemic

by Janey Fugate

TOTONICAPAN, Guatemala — Wearing the brightly colored skirt typical of Maya women in the Western Highlands, Nicolasa Grasiela Checlan held up a baton with a black tassel hanging from the top. The baton signifies her status as an “alguasil,” a leader in her community’s elected council of indigenous representatives known as 48 cantones, which has existed for nearly 200 years.

As a woman and an indigenous leader, Checlan represents one of the primary groups that Tejiendo Paz, or the Peacebuilding Project, has engaged in its efforts to promote social cohesion in remote Guatemalan communities. These communities, like much of Guatemala, have a rich indigenous identity with members speaking Spanish as their second language.

Nicolas Checlan holds up the baton in her home, a symbol of her Maya identity and leadership. Photos by Janey Fugate.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International in consortium with ProPaz Foundation and PartnersGlobal, the project addresses violence and conflict related to land use, natural resources, youth, family and gender issues and governance by giving communities the tools to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflicts, and work towards their own development.

“The project is necessary so that the people can become empowered not just in knowing their rights, but in having the tools to make their rights count, and to build bridges between the state and private businesses and the communities using dialogue,” says Erwin Salazar of ProPaz, a Guatemalan organization with more than two decades of leading peace building initiatives in the country and Creative’s implementing partner.

With a focus on youth engagement and women’s empowerment, the project works with communities to develop “community visions,” which are action plans to address conflict issues, to serve as road maps for accessing resources and services and to set development goals.

“Finding solutions is important because if we are constantly in conflict, we’re losing our values,” said Neuton Barreno, a youth from Totonicapán who had attended several meetings hosted by the project’s community facilitators. “We want to do this so other generations can live in peace.”

#QuedateEnCasa: The project responds to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country to a standstill with nationwide curfews and a suspension of mass transportation, the project’s connections and its team’s fluency in indigenous languages suddenly became even more critical to continue reaching its intended audiences. The public health crisis has exacerbated tensions in an environment already conducive to conflict, giving the Tejiendo Paz team an unlooked-for scenario to apply its peacebuilding strategies and strengthen communities even under lockdown.

During the COVID-19 pandemic as in normal times, the project relies on community facilitators to build relationships in remote, rural areas. Often originating from the same places where they work, the facilitators are fluent in local Mayan languages and understand the layers of complexity that decades of instability, systemic discrimination towards indigenous people and poverty have brought to the four municipalities that the project currently covers.

Drawing on these relationships, the team has created eight WhatsApp groups for key community members, including for youth, women and leaders, to share reliable information on the pandemic in both Spanish and in the local languages Mam and K’iche. The community facilitators are managing the chats and are using them to address more than proper hygiene.

The project uses the WhatsApp chats to engage communities and share reliable information on COVID-19.

Deportees and migrants re-entering communities have escalated tensions because of community members’ concerns over their risk for bringing the virus. Economic loss due to closing non-essential businesses and decreased access to food are also hitting communities hard. But even as facilitators respond to immediate issues through the group chats, they are able to look at how the crisis can inform longer term community development.

“With the chats and the community facilitators’ work, we are able to see how crises bring destabilizing factors to light, and this gives us a chance to learn from how communities are responding and how we can incorporate these lessons into the community action plans,” said Sara Barker, the project’s Chief of Party.

Tejiendo Paz is also responding to the reported increase in rates of domestic violence since the nation went under lockdown. Often exacerbated by substance abuse and the lack of institutional repercussions for such cases, familial and gender-based violence are keys issue the project addresses. As the pandemic has heightened the risk for women and children in particular, the project has ramped up a social media campaign dedicated to promoting family unity and to providing information on how to report this kind of crime.

“Social media has an important role to play right now in the prevention of intrafamilial violence. We want to use these messages to continue to change people’s attitudes,” says Maria León, a community facilitator.

Water and the spread of COVID-19

Population growth compounded by prolonged droughts in the region have led to what many say is the gravest threat to poor, rural communities in Guatemala: water scarcity.

“What we are most worried about is our kids because they are the future of our community, and as long as there isn’t enough water how can we hope they will be better off than we are?” says Violeta Gabriel, a mother living in Comitancillo.

Half of people living below the poverty line in Guatemala don’t have access to sanitation services. Lack of sanitation and clean water is exacerbated in rural areas, where adequate distribution of water has not been a state priority. In community meetings, facilitators say that access to water is one of the biggest concerns that people want to address.

“The water that we get isn’t enough for everyone, and that becomes a conflict,” says Camilo Marroquín, a school teacher in Comitancillo and part of the local group that oversees his village’s water distribution.

Water scarcity and the burden it already places both on individuals and the healthcare system makes the communication efforts Tejiendo Paz is leading around COVID-19 even more critical. Lack of water available for cleaning heightens the risk of spreading COVID-19, so reinforcing messages around abiding by the lockdown measures and practicing proper hygiene will be the best way to keep cases from spreading in areas where getting medical attention is already difficult. 

This Facebook post is written in Mam, an indigenous language commonly spoken in several municipalities the project covers.

“In the communities where we work, families are big and often include elderly grandparents who are more vulnerable to the virus, and many don’t have reliable access to clean water,” says Eva Pinzón, the community facilitators’ lead coordinator for Tejiendo Paz. “Through our communications we want to make sure they know the risks and understand the prevention methods because a lot of information doesn’t reach them, or it doesn’t reach them in their language.”

Addressing environmental conflict

Before COVID-19 interrupted in-person meetings, Tejiendo Paz was in the middle of implementing conflict and resilience analyses with community members, which involves relationship building and gathering critical information on the kinds of issues communities are experiencing.

Community members repeatedly cite environmental issues as major sources of conflict and insecurity in the region. These issues range from protecting land from extractive industries to disputed land use among neighbors. But Nicolasa Checlan explained that one of the most pervasive and frustrating issues for many is waste disposal.

“The river isn’t like what it used to be, running with black waters and trash,” she says, explaining that trash generated by one community flows downstream to contaminate the neighboring village, leading to conflict.

As populations have grown in the last few decades, so has the quantity of waste. And the prevalence of single use plastics and other disposable consumer goods has not corresponded to an increase in recycling or waste management facilities in most of the areas where the project works.

“Our population has grown, but the education on how to take care of the environment hasn’t,” says Adan Rosales Velasco, an alguasil in Totonicapán.

Before the pandemic, community facilitators meet with youth and local leaders in a typical meeting.

The problem of trash may seem trivial, but it isn’t. For instance, facilitator Maria León cited that when trash blows into grazing pastures, there’s a risk that cattle could eat it and get sick, leading to economic loss for the owner. Because community members have varying levels of awareness on proper disposal of waste, these differences in expectation have heightened tensions between communities and neighbors.

As Tejiendo Paz moves into the phase of developing community visions the project will work with communities to devise solutions to address the issues such as trash pollution and waste management, whether through supporting youth to lead awareness campaigns or mobilizing community leaders to bring government services to address waste in their towns.

Looking ahead

Beyond responding to the coronavirus outbreak, the project’s broader goal is to support indigenous communities in strengthening their organizational structures to go to the government for services and resources, and to resolve issues amongst themselves. In this way, the peacebuilding activities and community engagement plans are intended to support communities in resolving conflict and promoting healthy environments where communities have collective goals and paths to achieve them.

“Because we are not only here to resolve conflicts but to restore the social fabric and rebuild peace, and that is why the facilitators insist on identity and that they understand in practice the concept of peace,” says Carlos Sartí, a founding member of ProPaz. “It is not a dove or an ideal place or paradise where everything is perfect. Rather, it means asking: today, what can we do to build good relationships?”

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