Chajul is a rural town in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. It is approximately 20,000, and comprised of the town center and ‘aldeas’—smaller towns that hug the center and are still within its municipality. Entering Chajul and the region, you’ll take notice of its cascading verdant hills and the breadth of land that is heavily forested, as well as the significant swaths that haven’t been replaced with new seedlings. The sky is vast, and while my days here have been punctuated by blue skies, there is a smoky veil from the burning wood in homes that sometimes makes an appearance.
While the beauty of the region reminds you of fairy-tale settings, the level of poverty in Chajul is very real. The adult population illiteracy rate is 75%, economic and educational opportunities are limited, and environmental challenges go without saying. Chajul is a community comprised primarily of the indigenous group, Ixil-Maya.
Politically-speaking, it is a conservative society and ripe with colorful traditions. Roles are still very defined, but forward-looking occupational opportunities are emerging. Education can vary, with classrooms consisting of multi-grades, but scholarships are not unheard of. New homes of concrete are replacing the older structures, defining a new standard of living for a community that has historically experienced isolation. Even when organizing transport up to Nebaj, a neighboring town that one must pass through to come here, travel agencies did not raise hands inviting their services—Chajul is located about 6-7 hours north of the colonial town, Antigua; switchback roads pave your way. Some might say Chajul is undeveloped.
I have mixed emotions about the word, ‘development,’ specifically in the developing world context and when speaking about community development. I imagine a number of aid and community workers share this attitude. Trying to improve or develop a community can be met with refusals and strained relationships. Local leaders may resist international NGOs or foreign support because, “How do they know what my community needs?” It’s a valid question—how do we know? How does anyone know though? If the community is struggling to create jobs, pull its people out of poverty, educate its youth and improve public health, why not accept the support of developed countries or organizations that are willing to help? Jeffrey Sachs stated, “The longer you wait, the less fun. If you wait until the bitter end, the whole economy can be destroyed.” If the way of working didn’t work before, a different plan has to develop and you can’t wait; something has to change.
When I began planning my trip with Philanthropiece and its partner, Limitless Horizons Ixil (LHI), these very thoughts crossed my mind. Am I contributing to the development of their community? What impact would my work have? How could I measure this? Will this be good for the community? My work in Chajul would involve shooting images for a photo essay illustrating Philanthropiece’s program, Philanthropiece Scholars; gathering images for LHI’s youth development, artisan, and sustainable tourism programs; and last, but not least, running a workshop focused on community and culture within Chajulnese youth. While photography is not unheard of here, it is not necessarily a common sight. I wrestled with exposing a traditional indigenous community to my work. Concepts of voyeurism and privacy were presented and the words, “change” and “social impact” challenged my notions about how to successfully carry out a project here. How could I create meaningful action?
The way I conceptualize development is the way I think about mistakes: if something good grows from it without harming others, then it’s worth the hardship. I believe there is positive social and community development and when approaching my work in Chajul and defining the parameters of my project, it became clear to me that change is inevitable (as human beings we age and that in itself brings a series of changes) and that change for the better, is meaningful. Looking to bring clean water, build schools, or teach financial literacy skills doesn’t imply you’re creating a mini-America or changing a traditional culture; the right to basic needs and education are human rights and I think it’s the responsibility of those who can help, to help. To quote Aung San Suu Kyi, “Please use your freedom to help promote ours.” Whether it’s freedom or education or basic health care, I think the same message translates across rights.
In the final days of my work in Chajul, reading a recent article on ARTSblog has helped me reframe my work here. When speaking about stewardship and methods to evaluate a community development project, the question they pose is, “Instead of asking, ‘Are we making an impact?’ we should be asking, ‘Are things changing for the better?’” Acknowledging that development happens and cultures are not static social constructs is good. Accepting that some change is a starting point to building a sustainable community is even better. Once we reach this point, the following questions need to focus on the community, not on ourselves. What can we do for them? How will our presence improve their livelihoods, health, etc.? Again, development does not hide behind sand dunes and an on/off switch will not activate a move forward or a step back. We can’t quantifiably control it by throwing some numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. However, what we can work to control is whether or not development and change are moving in the right direction.