The people who decided to stay; in 1998 Hurricane Mitch unloaded all its rage on the plains of Santa Catarina de Ixtahuacán

The authorities decided to evacuate the town. But many families stayed. This is the brief chronicle of a community determined to resist the vagaries of the climate.

They say that Santa Catarina is prehistoric. That Ixtahuacán comes from the Ixtl or Ixtla voices and that besides the name, what that Nahuatl voice designates is a plain for cultivation. A productive geographical feature for this town, located 1,600 meters above sea level in the Department of Sololá, 150 km from the capital. Their elders say that the first people settled in these lands in 500 AD. And it must be true.

But it is also true that Santa Catarina was born again on November 2, 1998, when it barely survived Hurricane Mitch. The storm unleashed all its fury of wind and water causing disasters in the mountains and on the coasts, but mainly it ravaged the high plateau of Ixtahuacán. Rains, storms, landslides, agricultural losses and soil erosion were the result of a forecast shared by geologists and authorities: people had to be moved immediately to a safer site.

And this is what they did after four years: the New Santa Catarina was built with the agreement of the municipality of Nahuala, which would grant a total of 4.5 caballerias (44.7 ha) to resettle the district seat with a renewed urban plan and modern design. But the inventory of landowners generated strong confrontations among neighbours, with a lengthy process of negotiation, mediation and even an open town hall meeting that left enmities on both sides of the road.

The transfer began early on January 11, 2002. But a group of residents decided to stay, despite the warnings of meteorologists and the subsequent storm Stan that again tore up the precarious access roads and affected the area’s agricultural-livestock production even more. The issue is that in that January of 17 years ago, some families began their exodus, others resisted, and many were indecisive, they never finished leaving or staying. In between the new and the old Santa Catarina, they then used tactics to survive, resist and adapt to climate change.

This is how, for example, the communities decided form an association to produce peas for export. They did this with the help of the United Nations and European Cooperation. They now have a culling room and they purchase community supplies, which allows them to lower production costs and optimise their negotiation methods with exporting companies.

                                                                                                                                                    

In May, a delegation of the European Union’s EUROCLIMA+ Programme accompanied by leaders from 18 Caribbean and Latin American countries that execute projects for resilient food production, visited the community of Old Santa Catarina to see how its inhabitants are adapting to new climate conditions. The technician Jonny Toledo was the nexus between the Latin American researchers and extension agents and members of the communities of Old Santa Catarina, who received the delegation and explained the scope of their ventures in value chains with export crops and solidarity systems for selling horticultural surpluses in farmers’ markets.

"When the authorities decided to move us, government assistance stopped. For 19 years we did not have any support. This is the first cooperation project that we managed to obtain. Here the land is fertile and what we decided, in addition to our traditional bean and wheat crops, is to start producing sweet peas for export,” said Santos Guachiac Salquil, referring to the community. He said that initially, 22 families joined the effort, but today they already have 104 associates, who now have technical assistance, shared technology, a storage room and shared purchases.

"The processes require capital investment through a fund that we create to buy inputs in bulk and improve trading conditions with the exporting company. This way we managed to increase the price of a pound of peas from $3.25 to $4.60, and we have more negotiation capacity,” he says. Now they propose developing a cold chain, and they are also relying on forest diversification, which is why in the last period they introduced a thousand avocado plants in a 4.5 hectare plot, with a double purpose: diversifying the basket of basic foodstuffs and establishing forest windbreaks to restore soils eroded by the effects of climate change.

Although women are already able to participate in the venture, in reality where they have the greatest role, it is in the Ixbalam cooperative. Some 700 women farmers are there working in responsible consumption, with programs for citizen political participation. They produce vegetables in their family gardens and raise backyard animals: chickens, "campote", rabbits and sheep. They sell their surpluses through the cooperative and Miguel Iginio is the young manager of their association.

Miguel, a son of one of the founding members, is an agricultural technician and he is in charge of stock and marketing. “Here, work is always scarce, and many must migrate, we are achieving self-employment,” he says. He knows what he is talking about. He knows from his own experience what the statistics show: he does not resign himself to migrate to the United States, like many of his generation, nor to be employed in a factory in the capital, poorly paid with 12-hour workdays, where each year the workers are dismissed and later rehired without receiving their fair labour rights.

Miguel knows, and Santos knows, as does Juana Arimatea Tziquin Guarchaj - the one who keeps the books on the real sweet pea export numbers – she knows that agriculture absorbs 34.6% of the economically active population, although this occupation is not contracted (95.4%), provides no social security (94.8%), is informal (89.5%), and usually provides income below the minimum wage (96.2%) and lower than the cost of basic foodstuffs (98%).

These young people know, even if they do not have all the numbers at hand, why in this country where 65.4% of the productive surface is in the hands of 1.9% of the producers, the concentration in land tenure explains one of the main causes of poverty and hunger. This is the Achilles heel that Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres García talks about.

It is through this combination of indicators that the United Nations recognises that climate change, the sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of the environment constitute, without a doubt, the greatest contemporary challenge. “It forces us to rethink urgently the international and national governance frameworks required to respond to a great multiplicity of challenges: the eradication of poverty, the protection of biodiversity, the prevention of risks, sustainable food and adaptation to climate change”, the FAO advises. The cooperative that Miguel manages, along with his mother and 700 women, is part of a larger cooperation project that includes 11 municipalities selected from 19 prioritised micro-basins in the municipalities of Sololá Department.

                                                                                                                                                    

"The impacts of climate change faced by these municipalities include rising temperatures, a decrease in average rainfall, an increase in the frequency of extreme rainfall, as well as in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events", explain the local specialists from UNDP who accompany this initiative, along with a team of bilingual technicians who share the territorial complexity, linguistic diversity, territorial approaches and decisions made by the communities on a daily basis.

-Why do you decide to stay in this land in the face of these climatic risks?

"We stay because there is quality of life here", answer Miguel and Santos. They say it fast with the certainty of those who believe, while the Fuego and Agua volcanoes frame the picture of Ixtahuacán with uncertainty, they cultivate the plain that the new generations of Old Santa Catarina are determined to defend.

Reporting by Cora Gornitzky, communicator of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, Argentina.

The report was made during the Launch of the projects for the Resilient Food Management component, carried out from May 14 to 17. The NIAT is a decentralised, state research agency with financial and operational autarchy a branch of the Agroindustry Secretariat.