Last week I traveled to San Gaspar Chajul, home of Asocacion Chajulense, a small scale coffee growing community in Guatemala.
San Gaspar Chajul, is one of 21 municipalities in the Department of El Quiche. It is also one of the 10 poorest municipalities in Guatemala. Like small scale coffee farmers in other regions and countries, the coffee farmers in Chajul pass their most valuable possession, their land, on to their children. With each successive generation, the land holdings shrink in size to the point when they are no longer economically sustainable. Families in Chajul and surrounding communities are facing this challenge today. This situation leaves little opportunity or incentive for young people who wish to stay in the area. Many migrate seasonally to do other agricultural work within Guatemala. Others move to nearby urban centers or to the U.S. in search of better economic opportunities. The average daily income in the area is less than $2 per day.
In Chajul, 56% of the population has had no schooling, and only 14% have reached the 6th grade. In 2002 the illiteracy rate was 65%.
In 1997, Chajul, with the support of Asociacion Chajulense, opened the Batzul Center of Development (Centro de Desarrollo Batzul), in a facility about 4 miles outside of the center of Chajul, that provided elementary education. The school gave priority to the sons and daughters of small scale coffee farmers, with the goal of helping them complete the primary grades. In 2004 there was an effort to establish a private secondary school at the site. In 2005, this was approved by the Ministry of Education, and it continued operation until 2007.
During restructuring of the organization, they decided to focus on primary education, withdrawing their support of the secondary school. Despite this, Asociacion Chajulense remained concerned about the educational opportunities available for youth and families in the area. It was critical that the Asociacion and the community invest in the education of future generations, because it could help families emerge from the extreme poverty in the area. The co-op decided to offer its support to the establishment of an organization that would promote social development, including education, in the Ixil Triangle, the area located between the communities of San Gaspar Chajul, Nebaj, and Cotzal. The Ixil Triangle suffered through a campaign of genocide in the 1980's and was one of the most heavily affected areas during the country's civil war. The organization that was conceived has been named Fundacion Ixil.
Late last fall, Carlos Murillo, a friend and supplier to GMCR, asked me to serve on the Board of Founders for Fundacion Ixil. Over the past few years, GMCR has made a commitment to the area in terms of coffee purchases, support for technical assistance to improve organic farmers' yields, and support of a weaving cooperative to provide the wives and daughters of coffee farmers with an alternative source of income. Given our commitment to the area, I accepted the invitation from Carlos and went down for the founding meeting of Fundacion Ixil.
During the meeting Carlos outlined the concept of Fundacion Ixil: The Foundation will contribute to reducing the severe social problems reflected in the high indexes of poverty and extreme poverty, the high illiteracy rate, and the precarious access to healthcare.
The objectives of the Foundation are:
1. To support social development of the communities and families living in the Ixil Triangle, in the areas of education, health, culture, and generation of economic opportunities.
2. To integrate the strengths and resources of the communities, local organizations, local governments, national government, churches, partner organizations, and volunteers that share the vision of the Foundation
The initial focus of the Foundation is the creation of a technical center for young people that will offer access to technical education to young people of both sexes in the Ixil region, via short courses designed to conform with the needs and opportunities that exist in the communities.
The initial courses will focus on:
1. Ecotourism: This program will be oriented toward developing tourism in the region, and will include training of young people in different specialties (like hotel management, restaurant management, tourist guides, etc.).
2. Agricultural Businesses: Given the local agriculture-centered culture, it is proposed to train the new generations to further develop agriculture with a business perspective, with training on integrating themselves into regional, national, and international markets.
3. Curricular Fitness: Improving the training of primary educators, to promote the improvement in the quality of education that children of the Ixil region receive.
All of the courses should correspond to the needs and opportunities of the area, and should also promote social and environmental responsibility so that the students involve themselves in community development.