COVID-19 AND INEQUALITIES: Rethinking solutions for the long-term

We are all enduring an especially difficult time worldwide due to COVID-19, but its effects have not hit every community equally. Countries where living conditions were already poor and whose population lacked access to basic healthcare, nutritious food, education, and opportunities, have been especially affected.

Guatemala is one of those countries, a land that has long endured oppression, inequality, violence and disengagement, inherited from the colonization —invasion— era. This pandemic has revealed the country’s structural problems in terms of unequal distribution of resources.  And access to opportunities and to basic human services. All of which have been aggravated by the poverty and scarcity context in which most communities, rural and urban, live in; abandoned and victimized by the State.

Difficult times encourage people to be more creative and to find potential alliances to try to come up with solutions for the longer term. The State has ensured it will provide and distribute aid among the population to mitigate the economic crisis the country is facing, but to many this seems like an unreliable   promise that may never come. Therefore, many locally organized communities have started to implement collaborative community-focused movements across the country.

Such is the case of 32 Volcanoes, an association based in Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala as well as the main population center for the K’iche Maya. The founders of this association, Carmen Benítez and Roney Alvarado, worked for more than two decades in programs aimed to empower indigenous communities, and when they founded this new association —32 Volcanoes— last year, they did it with the purpose of making paradigmatic changes in the social, economic and food systems. They have established strong alliances with other organizations and institutional networks, as well as with local ancestral leaders.

This association seeks social and environmental justice through programs focused on five main axes: food sovereignty and nutrition; education; health; environment; and cultural relevance, identity, and access to art. All of them are aimed to attain food sovereignty to reduce the high rates of stunting, chronic diseases, obesity, and environmental damage through a variety of intertwined programs.

The Nutrition Program assists malnourished children and their families by providing them with food formula supplements containing necessary micronutrients for children under the age of 5. The pandemic has exacerbated the number of undernourished children that are accepted into the Nutrition Program as they are referred by the Ministry of Health, who don’t have the capacity to cover such needs. About 385 babies from 5 different communities of the Western Highlands are now registered but the number continues to increase by the week.

This being an urgent issue, 32 Volcanes has implemented urban, district and municipal gardens with the beneficiary families to produce food and generate native seeds. This means that the aid these families receive is for the long-term as by planting their own seeds, they are able to produce organic, nutritious food and generate income by selling the surplus. They are producing amaranth, chia, beans, and seeds that are used in the preparation of atoles —hot beverages— for children with malnutrition. This is, in essence, a circular economy approach that benefits not only families, but whole communities.

Public policies in Guatemala may change, but there is an urgent need to change the community context first.