Helping in Guatemala: The Human Context

Posted By: Julian Moll-Rocek|Dated: December 17, 2012

The motor boat took us along the Caribbean coast and down a stretch of river dotted with palm frond huts, disembarking at a little dock in the heart of the mangrove swamp.  From there it was a long hike in the viscid July air, along muddy trails tracing through thick jungle and over sharp limestone boulders.  As forest gave way to corn fields and heavy-set Corozo palms swayed dreamily in the wind, we finally reached the first house of Cerro Blanco. A woman peeked out of her window with a huge gap-toothed smile as her little ones giggled curiously.  Passing the hut, Mateo let out a high-pitched ‘Whoo!’ in greeting, explaining who these two gringos were in the curt guttural tones of Maya Q’eqchi’.


Janie and I had come to Guatemala for three months to help evaluate an agroforestry project implemented by an NGO in Sarstún, a lowland region on the southern border of Belize.  Both of us were recent college graduates, and we wanted to help someone, somehow, and that was about as much thought we’d given it.  The sheer lunacy of expecting two twenty-somethings to be able to help anyone but themselves in a foreign environment, unable to communicate hit me as I settled into my hammock for the night.

Now here we were in Cerro Blanco, a large Q’eqchi’ village of about 75 huts and home to Mateo, one of the two local students working with us.  We were there to check on the agroforestry plots established three years prior and to teach people how this new way of farming would make their lives easier while saving the forest.  Unfortunately, the current mayor of the village soon informed us he had lost interest in the project: his fields had been burnt by an inattentive neighbor, he felt undercut by the organization and he basically wanted nothing to do with us.  He had already called together a town meeting for the following evening, obliging our ignorant requests made by letter before our arrival.  We decided to try out one of our participatory methodologies, a ‘visioning’ exercise, in which we asked the community to imagine what they liked about their town ten years ago, and where they wanted to see it in ten years.  People were skeptical, more interested in our cookies than what we had to say.  As people caught on that we weren’t offering any money, they began to file out of the crowded one room school building.

The Human Context

After an hour of oppressing social discomfort, we packed up our untouched posters and started putting the chairs back in rows.  About twelve little kids variously tried to help or disrupt our cleanup efforts.  One of them noticed me put away the pencils.  ‘¡Da me un lapiz!’  Exhausted and overwhelmed, the moment struck me as momentous: Should I give them out? Should I keep them, as planned, for use in the nine other villages we would visit? I was frozen with indecision, while bodies butted against me and grabbed for my arms. Finally, I had them line up and gave out a pencil to each, watching resignedly as they immediately began to squabble.I felt unsettled by the ambiguity of the situation — had we helped at all?  Or had we just wasted people’s time and our resources?

I returned to our motivating question: how can we help?  It seemed like a simple question, but the ‘who’ or ‘what’ to help was a gordian knot of Conservation and Development goals.  “Save the environment while improving people’s lives” — a neat tagline for a glossy fundraising brochure, but in reality often an impossible contradiction.  The environment is ultimately best off without any people around.  But the people living in these areas depend so directly on their natural environments that they understand the value of the land in a way that most of us, living in cities, can only attempt to grasp.  Their lives depend directly on the soil, water and forests around them.  Save the environment– save what, how? Improve people’s lives — what does that mean? What are the essential ingredients of a good life, and how can those be reached?

Fortunately, I would come closer to understanding this second part over the course of my time in Guatemala.  Life in these remote villages, a frontier existence so far removed from the comforts and vices of modern city living, helped put my priorities in perspective.  We spent a few days on the dirt floor of a thatched palm-roof hut in a little fishing village named San Juan.  The hut was owned by a family of poor fishers –three generations of loud, vital, energetic people– and was right next door to their house, always perfumed with freshly fried shrimp and resonating with shouts and laughter.  One morning the usual friendly smiles were replaced with expressions of deep concern.  Sandrita, 9 years old, had fainted and fallen on her face, leaving her with a thick purple bruise on her forehead.  This wasn’t the first time, and the family was very worried.  We sat by her bedside asking what had happened, and her father Isaac patiently explained.  We asked what could be done.  She needed to be taken to a hospital, but the gasoline cost for a boat was too high.  Besides, the public hospitals were so backed up they would be told to come back another time, and the final cost of making several trips would be higher than simply going directly to a private doctor.  I realized that Isaac was hinting that we could pay for the trip.  I stalled, asking more questions about Sandrita’s past.  The first things that flew through my head: is this a scam?  What a terrible thought, this girl is sick and her father is powerless to help her!  I felt sick to be in a position of power while Isaac had to wait for these two 20 somethings to decide the fate of his child.  Finally, after 45 minutes of halting questions and long silences, we gave Isaac the roughly $200 he needed to take Sandrita to a private doctor.  I felt numb.  Janie cried a little, and we bickered a lot that day.  It has taken me awhile to digest that experience.  But I began to understand how overwhelmingly debilitating poverty can be; preventing you from providing basic health care to your children. How clearly it could obstruct the living of a good life.

Where, then, to start saving the environment and improving lives?  I think the breadth of the question offers a clue in the right direction: we can’t isolate the environment from people, or vice-versa.  We humans are simply very influential members of this planet.  Perhaps it starts with building on the very foundation of our humanness—friendship. Understanding this humanness, this complex ball of emotions and logic, is the first step in conserving the environment. Ultimately, it is the cumulative sum of our human actions that has the potential to doom –or save– our planet.

Helping Human

In village after village, we saw abandoned agroforestry plots, half hearted attempts made only to receive the benefits of working with the NGO.  The reason the agroforestry projects failed was not technical, it was human: the farmers felt neglected and lost interest in the work.  The arrogance of assuming that scientifically tested agroforestry was the way to do things had precluded any chance of necessary dialogue necessary for any real improvements.  The pencils might not have helped the kids, but they did help me think about what was worth doing.  And Sandrita came back from the doctor diagnosed with three types of gastrointestinal parasites and malnutrition-induced anemia, as well as the drugs to handle it.

If advances are to be made in the vaguely defined field of sustainable development, an understanding of local context is essential.  The human context: what matters to whom.  And the underlying factor is friendship based on compassion.  If there is a situation where environment and development are complementary, it is rooted in an understanding of the human condition and its interaction with our world.

This project was made possible by the Davis Projects for Peace fund.

About the Author:

Julian Moll RocekJulian Moll-Rocek is a recent graduate of Harvard College, where he studied Evolutionary Biology. He has spent time in Panama, Peru, Guatemala and is currently working as a visiting researcher at the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical in Colombia. He enjoys rock climbing, mariachi music and trying to identify anything with a leaf on it.

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  • Scmantri

    Their r lot of things to do on  top Urgency basis. here it self….so better to put our all efforts for India ;s most unprivileged AAM AADAMI ……

  • manoj

    indian are always into that category
    sarkari naukri

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