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Reducing risks and empowering

women in vulnerable rural areas in Guatemala

In Central America’s Dry Corridor – a parched landscape that extends through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – more than 10 million people are learning to cope with droughts that sometimes last for years. “In 2022, we got rain,” said Rumualda Real Pacheco, who lives in Pacán community of Sacapulas municipality in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. “Last year there was no rain. This year, it has not rained yet.”

Early in April, Pacheco convened a meeting of COLRED, one of 10 local councils for risk reduction created in Sacapulas through a CARE project called Communities Prepared for Disaster Response in Vulnerable Rural Areas, funded by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. In Pacán, COLRED members are all women. As farmers, wives, and mothers, they had no expertise in disaster preparation before joining the group. But they stepped up when the opportunity arose, going through training and building their capacity to protect themselves and their communities from the devastating effects of climate change, ranging from forest fires and landslides to long-term food insecurity.

Now, they are not simply waiting for the next disaster to happen. They are getting prepared.

“CARE helped us get organized,” Pacheco said. “Now we are important in the community. We are also important in the municipality of Sacapulas. We feel seen. We feel prepared. We have knowledge, and we are trained. We are prepared for a disaster. We hope that God does not let this happen, but if it does, we are ready.”

For the past three years, CARE has worked in 60 similar communities in six municipalities of three departments, with the aim of reaching the most vulnerable people in Guatemala. Because climate change is complex and ever-evolving, CARE continues to develop new approaches that involve not only anticipating and dealing with natural disasters, but also reducing communities’ exposure to hazards, and diversifying how land, water and ecosystems are managed.

Four of the eight members of Pacán’s COLRED group have gone through leadership training in Sacapulas, and they coordinate activities regularly with the municipal risk reduction council (COMRED) and the national council (CONRED). Through this chain of command, the COLRED group has immediate access to information and resources, including humanitarian aid as needed.

At the municipal level, a newly created directorate for risk reduction – with its own designated budget – will continue to work with the 10 local committees now that CARE’s project has ended.

In the beginning, CARE provided training on risk management, first aid, leadership, and basic rights. (“We learned that not only men have rights,” Pacheco said.) The project also supplied tools such as shovels, machetes, water pumps, helmets, lanterns, wheelbarrows, and a first aid kid. In the event of a fire or other disaster, Martha Real Lux, COLRED’s security and information officer, bangs a metal rod on a bell to alert the community. “In the future, we would like to establish a more formal early alert system, where we can have meteorological bases to monitor the weather,” Lux said.

In one of their first duties, the COLRED members created a detailed map of their community, including roadways, areas of risk, water resources, meeting points, and a census of all 70 households – noting gender, age, disabilities, and chronic diseases. “When there is an emergency, we need to know if somebody suffers from a chronic disease or a disability,” Pacheco said. “We will know what help to provide so we do not exclude anyone.”

In Pacán, the school was designated the community safe space and emergency shelter. But during the mapping exercise, it became clear that the building needed repairs and upgrades in order to be a refuge. “This school didn’t have a kitchen, so we built one just in case we need to use the building as an emergency shelter,” Pacheco said. “We needed a kitchen to prepare food.”

CARE supplied all the building materials, including cement, iron bars for the windows, and metal sheets for the roof. The community pitched in sand, stones, and all the labor. Within a week, the kitchen was built. Now, it is used to prepare daily meals for the schoolchildren.

“The community is very happy,” Pacheco said. “It was a win-win situation for everybody.”

As an added benefit, several women in the COLRED group have expressed an interest in starting a community enterprise baking bread so they don’t have to travel to Sacapulas to buy loaves for their families. “We want to learn more,” one woman said. “We want to learn how to cook bread or cakes. We want to be entrepreneurs. We want to start a new venture so that we can have an extra income for the community, for our children.”

Food insecurity, an insidious aspect of climate change, is a very real threat in the steep hills of Pacán. Most of the women in the COLRED group have lost their crops to drought or related forest fires over the past three years. The project introduced several innovations, including the use of hydro gel balls to store precious water and release it slowly over crucial bean and corn crops.

Through CARE’s project, COLRED group members received a variety of seeds – cucumbers, radishes, pumpkins, celery, onions, lettuce, chard, etc. – along with tools for planting kitchen gardens.

“Family gardens are an important mechanism for survival,” said Johanna Perez, risk management specialist for CARE Guatemala. “Members harvest their own food and sell the surplus.”

Over three years, the gardens have had a significant impact in reducing rates of chronic and acute malnutrition among children.

“These gardens have strengthened families,” Pacheco said. “There is an evident change. We planted the pumpkins and made a soup. We planted radishes, beets, and lettuce, and made salads. We can fix malnutrition. If we have a surplus, we can sell it, buy eggs, and improve the meals of our own kids. … You can see the change on their vaccination cards, where their weight and height are registered.”

For Pacheco, the kitchen garden has become a metaphor for wider changes she envisions for her community.

“We have to be patient, and things will come,” she said. “Not everything will happen from one day to another. We have to plant the seeds, be patient and wait for the harvest to come. We will find a way.”

Leadership training, along with regular interactions with municipal and national authorities, has empowered this group of women. “They have trained and developed capacities,” CARE’s Perez said. “They have also become leaders in their communities. And now we want to get more men involved, so they can work together.”

Men’s initial reluctance to embrace disaster risk reduction has nearly disappeared, as they have seen improvements in the school, in their children’s health, and in their own lives.

“Men didn’t see me as a leader at first,” Pacheco said. “They thought I wanted to control them. But I just said, ‘I want to make things better for the children.’ Everybody agreed we should not let this opportunity

“It is not for me,” she added. “It is for our future. We are not going to be here forever. And the younger ones behind us need to be well.”