Building Resilience in Guatemala

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How Agriculture, Infrastructure, and Education can Save Communities

It’s no secret that food security challenges, exacerbated by climate change, are spurring mass human migrations from Central America. Both small organizations and mainstream publications have reported on the gamble Guatemalans make when deciding whether to stay and risk starvation.

As a former small-scale farmer and long-term volunteer in Guatemala, and having grown up in California residing among first generation immigrants and their descendants, one solution stands out:

“Building resilience in Guatemala is a critical task as we move into an increasingly unstable climate.”

For long-term sustainability and resilience in Guatemala, regenerative agriculture – an agriculture that supports local ecosystems and human communities – is sorely needed. For regenerative agriculture to have a significant impact, it must be accompanied by infrastructure changes and education programs.

That’s why local nonprofit partners are critical. Bringing a holistic approach while working hand in hand with the local population is the only way to identify real solutions to their real problems. Below is a spotlight of how three Guatemalan organizations are building capacity in communities and rising to face emerging challenges.

Helping Guatemalans Grow Beyond Coffee

Coffee has long been Guatemala’s cash crop. But, coffee only brings in one harvest a year. On top of that, international price fluctuations can sink a family’s annual budget even if they bring in a sizeable harvest. Other vulnerabilities include drought and a deadly rust fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) which emerged in 2012.

Seeds for a Future’s “Casa Granja” program supports resilience in Guatemala. It assists families in diversifying their diet and increasing income through small scale agricultural and husbandry techniques.

When a community’s cash crop fails to deliver, the impact is tangible.

Seeds for a Future operates in Chocolá, Suchitepéquez, where 68.3% of the population lives in poverty. In Chocolá, families sell the majority of farmed food to provide for their families, and subsist with no food reserves. The typical local diet consists of corn tortillas, chiles, beans, eggs, coffee with sugar, rice, wild herbs, and occasionally chicken. Source: Plan de Desarrollo Municipal 2012-2025 Samayac, Suchitepequez.

To reduce vulnerabilities, the nonprofit’s “Casa-Granja” (Backyard Farm) program educates farmers in “crop diversification by adding cacao, fruit and lumber trees.” The organization also teaches about soil health, pruning techniques, and organic fertilization and pest control. Through developing local micro-businesses selling agricultural products, Seeds for a Future directly impacts participants’ income.

That increase in income leads to a higher quality of life for farming families. Seeds for a Future helps ensure that positive impact by teaching families how to improve their nutrition.

A joint INCAP and Nestlé study from 2014-2016 reinforced Seeds for a Future’s hypothesis that increasing local farmers’ productivity enhances their families’ health. The study found that the anemia rate among children under five years old dropped from 37.7% to 27%. For women, that rate fell from 17.3% to just 7.5%. Sources: Seeds for a Future Rural Program Report 2018 and Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil (ENSMI) 2014-2015.

Infrastructure and Improved Ag Practices for Watershed Protection

Coffee cultivation has wreaked havoc on ecosystems across Guatemala, resulting in serious deforestation, erosion, and consequently watershed contamination. 

In the Ixil region of Quiché, The Ripple Effect operates where diarrheal illnesses are responsible for 15% of total deaths. That figure rises sharply for children under one year of age to 31.69% of all deaths.

The cause? Lack of clean water access.

To that end, The Ripple Effect organizes village teams to build potable water systems that are gravity-based. The organization also helps install home rain collection tanks.

Beyond that, The Ripple Effect created a multi-purpose horticultural center. The center serves as a seed bank and classes are offered in soil management, nutrition, plant propagation and fish farming. The Ripple Effect then directly assists families with building small-scale gardens, and checks in at each site every three months.

The Ripple Effect’s project assisting with water systems in rural communities.

Planning and Planting for Climate Change

Overlooking Guatemala’s Lago Atitlán, Tzununá is home to a project that isn’t geared toward attracting foreigners. It is instead keeping locals in the community.

Centro de Educación para el Desarrollo Rural y Adaptación al Cambio Climático (CEDRACC) – translated as Education Center for Rural Development & Adaptation to Climate Change –has a core objective “to be a model school from which others can derive and replicate practices for sustainable development of rural communities facing the threat of climate change.”

Women and families learning about various resiliency agricultural techniques at the CEDRACC – the center run by the NPO Vivamos Mejor

Established in 2013 by Asocación Vivamos Mejor Guatemala, CEDRACC:

  • researches and implements agroforestry techniques.
  • generates organic fertilizer.
  • supports ecological restoration through native species research.
  • is home to seed bank.
  • has a greenhouse.
  • and, produces dozens of varieties of ornamental, fruit, medicinal, and forestry seedlings.

Is the Impact Real?

The need for help is clear. Rural Guatemalans suffer from degraded ecosystems and infrastructure leading to depressed local economies and poor living conditions.

For those not in rural Guatemala, it can be tough to believe that small organizations working in agriculture and education are creating long-term change.

Seeds for a Future, The Ripple Effect, and Vivamos Mejor are just three of many nonprofits building resilience in Guatemala. Fortunately, their internet presence is a means to contact them from abroad.

However, if one wants to verify their work, or connect with other organizations who don’t have a website? What then?

For those who want to support greater resilience in Guatemala, Pionero Philanthropy can support your mission. Whether it’s more information or assistance in finding a project to support, we are here to enhance your positive impact.


By Greg Heilers

About the author
Greg Heilers is a former small-scale farmer. After living in Guatemala in 2012 and 2014, he connected with Pionero Philanthropy in 2019 to see what he could do from afar. Supporting organizations that build local resilience is his best solution for addressing the crisis of climate change induced migration.