Guatemala - Developing livelihood opportunities for indigenous populations

Developing livelihood opportunities for indigenous populations

LDS Humanitarian Services

In Guatemala, the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people are the predominate inhabitants of the Polochic Region - one that is severely lacking infrastructure, government services, and economic opportunities.  As a consequence, over 90% of the population lives in extreme poverty with most families living on less than $1 per day. Those with education often leave the region to pursue better opportunities in Coban, Antigua, and Guatemala City, contributing to the stagnation of the region’s economy. Indigenous communities suffered a disproportionate share of the violence during Guatemala’s long history of conflict, leaving many families dispossessed of their traditional communal lands.  The region suffers extreme inequality, primarily due to its geography. People in the valley have access to both job opportunities through the small numbers of companies, mines, and plantations in the area and also to electricity and healthcare facilities. By contrast, the communities in the mountains have no electricity, running water or suitable healthcare facilities. The focus for our project was on mountain communities in the area of Chulac where the people are a mixture of subsistence and cash crop farmers.

What was the problem?

We partnered with the international humanitarian organization of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, LDS Charities.  Our partner had a long history of service in the Polochic region, and had recently undertaken the task of advancing food security by sponsoring projects such poultry, fish and pig farming. However, despite great effort, previous projects have not achieved their objectives, hampered by short time frames and program fragmentation.  LDS Charities asked our team to help them think through possible alternatives that may better relieve the poverty and increase the economic opportunities of the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people in Chulac.  Our goal was to design a pilot program that could test new ideas and that could ultimately help LDS Charities further its mission of self-sufficiency at the individual and family level and build stronger communities through improvement in economic livelihoods. 

What did we do? 

Our team spent considerable time before and during our in-country identifying, meeting and assessing potential partners in Guatemala to begin to address the challenges of the Polochic region.  In the two weeks that we had in Guatemala, we conducted over 40 interviews and meetings with experts in agriculture and its local growing techniques, markets, and exports.  These meetings included the national Minister of Agriculture, representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and USAID, local cooperatives, and AGExport, the largest exporter of Guatemalan goods.  Indeed, most of our meetings were with organizations that were eager to share their expertise but whom LDS Charities had never been in contact.  We also met with groups that were not directly tied to agriculture – schools, healthcare professionals, business leaders, local government officials.  These interviews provided us with more perspectives on the deep-rooted poverty in Polochic. 

From our analyses, we determined that Guatemalan cacao offers the best mix of market demand, marketability and long-term sustainability for the Q’eqchi’ people. Indeed, cacao also seemed fitting since it was the Mayan people that brought cacao and chocolate to the rest of the world.  Our team also balanced our analysis of cacao with other viable crops in the area, such as cardamom and coffee.  However, cacao requires economies of scale in cultivation and processing, and thus, we also would need to organize and launch the community cooperative correctly. 

What was the turning point? 

It became apparent to us early on when working with LDS Charities that they were stretched very thin from a personnel perspective. While we were in Guatemala, we also quickly realized that our partner had many capabilities, but lacked expertise in long term agricultural projects at the community level, and certainly lacked expertise on the tricky process of growing cacao well.  To build a successful cacao cooperative in Chulac, we needed to find and join forces with local experts in cacao cultivation, cacao markets, community organization and education.  

What was the recommendation?

Developed in three parts, our recommendation created an economic development framework for a cacao project in in Chulac, Guatemala. The framework focuses, first, on education and finding local talent to become the needed leaders in the agricultural initiatives; second, on community organization; and third, on selecting the right partners for cacao who had technically sound agricultural practices. 

We understood that simultaneously coordinating the contributions and efforts of multiple new local partners while learning new capabilities would be challenging for any organization, even one as determined and committed as LDS Charities.  As a consequence, we recommended starting with a small pilot program of 30 families in the Chulac area (essentially the entire community). Cacao requires 3-5 years before it can be harvested.  To support LDS Charities in this longer-term project, we have vetted several partners that have expertise in training, organizing, producing and distributing product. We estimate that a 5-year project would cost about $55,000, with $25,000 being earmarked for product and equipment, and another $30,000 to acquire 10 hectares of land. If the pilot is successful, we project that the participating Q’eqchi’ families could potentially double their annual income by year 5. 

What actually happened? 

Our BOTFL team travelled to Salt Lake City, Utah in April, 2018 to present recommendations to the leaders of LDS Charities, where they were warmly welcomed.  LDS Charities is determining the best way to implement the cacao pilot in Chulac. Our Business on the Frontlines team is committed to continuing to serve this valued partnership with LDS Charities to make the pilot in Guatemala a success.