LHI serves the county of Chajul, an isolated community in the western highlands of Guatemala. Chajul is plagued by extreme poverty, substandard living conditions, disease, malnutrition, and illiteracy, as well as little access to medical care, education, and well-paid employment. Chajul also suffers from the psychological and economic effects of a thirty-six year civil war.
LHI seeks to address these barriers so that Chajul can become a productive, self-sustaining community with increased education and employment opportunities while retaining its Mayan traditions, heritage and Ixil language.
Chajul, Nebaj, and Cotzal make up the Ixil region, the only area in Guatemala that speaks the language of Ixil. The region is isolated by beautiful mountains and has maintained its rich Mayan traditions and language. Women and girls in Chajul wear colorful traditional dress, and weave clothing and crafts by hand. The people of Chajul hold a belief in the sacred nature of corn, and have a traditional Mayan corn-based diet. Many people in Chajul continue to practice Mayan spiritual ceremonies. However, most of the population has converted to either Catholicism or Evangelicalism.
Located at an elevation of 6,000 feet in the beautiful Cuchumatanes mountain range, San Gaspar Chajul is one of the more isolated communities in the department of Quiché in northern Guatemala. Chajul’s population of 43,602 is distributed between a single urban center (Chajul), and surrounding villages anywhere from a 10 minute drive to a 2-day hike away. The climate in Chajul is generally cool and rainy during the summer months, and warm and sunny during the winter months.
View Chajul in a larger map
In the wake of the civil war, education is beginning to improve for youth in Chajul, but remains an expensive privilege at levels beyond primary school. Chajul’s first middle school was built in 1995, and the first high school opened in 2000. While primary schools are free of charge, secondary schools charge for registration, monthly tuition, and uniforms, and require students to purchase a wide range of supplies. These costs are prohibitive for the majority of Chajul’s families. Until 2010, when LHI opened the first public library, children have been unable to access books, homework help, or a quiet, well-lit place to study.
Less than 1% of children graduate from high school (5% from middle school) as they are forced to leave school at a young age to help support the family household, leaving 75% of the adult population illiterate. Learning Spanish is a privilege for those children who have the opportunity to go to school. Spanish skills are needed to access medical care, employment, and higher education in Guatemala, as well as to understand and exercise constitutional rights.
Click here to read Schooling in Chajul: National Struggles, Community Voices, a 2010 report compiled by Lindsey Musen and Kate Percuoco.
1:19 infant mortality rate
99% of children are born at home and women are attended by midwives
21% of girls 17-19 have children of their own
34% die from respiratory problems like pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis
17% die from intestinal infections and illnesses
14% die from malnutrition
Women in Chajul must adhere to strict gender roles. They are responsible for cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and weaving clothing and crafts. As a result of gender inequality and a high number of civil war widows, women often live in elevated levels of poverty. Many women in Chajul also suffer the consequences of domestic violence, alcoholic husbands and/or fathers, and teenage pregnancy.
Furthermore, women have far fewer opportunities than men to study or obtain a job that pays a living wage. For these reasons, much of LHI’s programming focuses on expanding opportunities for women and girls.
Due to Chajul's isolated location and large indigenous population, Chajul was at the heart of the 36-year long civil war (1960-1996), during which government forces killed, tortured, and burned entire indigenous communities. Government forces occupied many Mayan indigenous villages, including Chajul, in order to pursue the guerilla army.
Over the course of the conflict, over 250,000 people were killed, one million people became internal refugees, and 50,000 fled the country. Ninety-three percent of the atrocities were committed by the army and over 80% of the victims were indigenous Mayans. Since the end of the war in 1996, Chajul has been slowly recovering from the genocide that occurred in the Ixil area.
$1 average daily income for women
$3 average daily income for men
90% of farmers grow corn crops
95% of corn is for consumption in Chajul
5% of corn is sold
While the majority of Chajul’s population grows corn, the agricultural economy is also supported by coffee and beans. Men typically work in fields located 1-2 hours from home, tending to their corn and gathering firewood. Women can sometimes earn supplemental income by washing clothes, weaving clothing for other families, sorting coffee beans, or selling snacks and gathered produce around town. Children work in the fields with their fathers, shine shoes, collect firewood, and sell products in the street. Elders look after the children and work in the home.
Some men and boys leave Chajul for one or two months per year to harvest coffee or sugarcane in other regions of Guatemala. Working conditions are harsh and hours are grueling, but they are able to earn about $60-75 per month, doubling their annual income.
Most of Chajul’s families live in small one or two-room houses. In a typical home, the wood-plank beds the family shares are on one side of the room, while an open fire, the family gathering place, is on the other side. Smoke escapes through a gap in the roof, but much of it hovers in the room, causing eye, respiratory, and other health problems.
65% live in basic adobe structures
88% have a dirt floor
75% have a latrine
72% have potable water
17% have electricity