The Guatemalan Flag

The vibrant Central American nation of Guatemala is rich in history and cultural diversity. Over thirteen million people of Ladino, Mestizo, K’iche, and Mayan descent make up the county’s population. Indigenously known as “the place of many trees”, Guatemala has had a long and often violent history. From the collapse of  the ancient Mayan civilization to the grueling thirty-six year civil war that only ended in the 1990s, economic and developmental growth in the nation has been slow, and in many cases, stagnant. While there has been a steady increase in Guatemala’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the last ten years, the majority of the population falls below the poverty line. The country is ranked as 131st  on the Human Development Index by the United Nations.

Guatemala has also been plagued by many natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes. This, combined with high disparity between the rich and the poor and soaring levels of corruption, has made Guatemala one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Despite this sobering reality, the country is rich in natural biodiversity, and its peoples are known for their vibrant and colourful cultural heritage. A prime development goal for Guatemala is to improve access to public education, proper housing, medical services, and employment opportunities. This can be accomplished through cooperation, greater political transparency, hard work, and the support of both national and international institutions. 

An upcoming project for Peacework at the University of Toronto is to provide maternal education and healthcare in the village of Calhuitz, Guatemala. Located in the remote Cuchumatanes Mountains in the highlands of the municipality of San Sebastian Coatan, the name Calhuitz means “in between the mountains” in the local indigenous tongue. The village is connected to others of its kind by dangerous, rocky, and unpaved roads. Consequently, access to adequate healthcare can be difficult. This project is designed to respond to the high rate of maternal and infant mortality among the indigenous Chuj population in the region, which suffers from a maternal death rate that is more three times the national average, and an infant mortality rate that is the third highest in Latin America. This specific region is known as the “Triangle of Death” because it has the highest infant mortality and malnutrition figures in Guatemala. In this area, sixty-eight percent of children under the age of three suffer from malnutrition. It is another unfortunate reality that many indigenous peoples, most of whom make up the population of Calhuitz and its surrounding area, continue to suffer from discrimination in Guatemala. This further discourages seeking outside medical care. Despite living in these harsh conditions, the people of Calhuitz are known to be extremely generous and kind. In participating in this trip, one must keep in mind that we have as much to learn about Guatemala as the local population can learn from us. Ultimately, we are guests in their homes, and our mission is to provide assistance and support in a respectful and kind manner.

The importance of childbirth education for women in this region cannot be understated, as many of the causes of infant and maternal mortality are preventable. A lack of access to adequate health care and a safe place for pregnant women to birth is truly the fundamental issue in this region. However, there remains hope for a brighter future. A Birth Center known as Casa Materna currently responds to many of the service inadequacies in Calhuitz by providing a safe and culturally-appropriate space for trained health personnel to work alongside traditional midwives in attending to pregnant women and their infants. The original Casa Materna serves over forty remote villages comprising of more than 20,000 indigenous Mayan Chuj residents. With the success of the original model Casa Materna, another has been constructed, and plans for two others have been drawn. At this health institution, women can receive reproductive health services and education and local health providers can receive further training in best practices. This community-based project has also joined with other local community health programs to reduce maternal and infant mortality through mobile clinics and house-to-house visits. It is apparent, therefore, that Peacework’s partner organization in the area provides the ideal setting and infrastructure for health-related international learning and service programs. 

It must be noted that the assistance provided by Peacework volunteers is not direct medical care. This would be an ethical and legal breach that is not, nor has ever been, the intention of Peacework. The primary purpose of the proposed trip to Calhuitz is to provide medical assistance and broaden one’s idea of the world through experiential learning. Additionally, it is Peacework’s goal to provide sustainable aid, which in this case means putting the patient’s health and safety first. Neither Peacework nor any of its volunteers would engage in any activity that would compromise this principle.