When I lived in Santiago Atitlan in 2006, the town was rebuilding following a hurricane that had saturated the surrounding volcanoes, leading to a deadly mudslide that killed hundreds and buried most of the hamlet of Panabaj in a torrent of mud and rocks. For a number of years after the hurricane, Panabaj occupied the attention of international aid organizations, the central government, and municipal officials for a number of years. The result was a massive new development plan that led to the resettlement of Panabaj’s families to the newly created aldea of Chuk Muk. Relative to the extreme poverty and nonexistent infrastructure of the old Panabaj, Chuck Muk is a triumph of urbanization. That is far from the end of the story for the people of Panabaj/Chuk Muk’s suffering and poverty, but on the surface of things, it looks like the houses are decent, the layout of the new community logical and considered, and the community spaces and school adequate for the population.
In 2006, when after months of negotiations with the Guatemalan government, the idea of Chuk Muk began to emerge, I took a walk around Chuk Muk. I was with the staff of the Association for the Community Development of Panabaj (ADECCAP, for its Spanish initials) a local community organization advocating for the rights of the families displaced by the mudslide. At that point, Chuk Muk was just a rolling expanse of corn fields. Chico, ADECCAP’s director, was excited about the symbolic significance of Chuk Muk, an archeological site that was one of the original power centers of the Mayan Tz’utujil people. Other members of ADECCAP envisioned a new model of housing and communal living, with adequate space for family gardens and community spaces that would make the hurricane survivors more self-sufficient while also tying them together as a community.
Seven years later, the families who spent six years living in shelters with USAID-issued plastic tarps as roofs now have safe and well built homes, but it can’t be said that those visions of a strengthened community comprised of newly uplifted families were realized. The signs announcing the project costs, beneficiaries, and donors outside Chuk Muk refer to it an “urbanization,” and it is. While Panabaj’s organic development and layout was not ideal, it did reflect the traditional rural lifestyle of its inhabitants. Chuk Muk reflects a centrally designed urban planning process that has improved access to utilities and public facilities—like schools, health centers, playgrounds and playing fields—but seems to have left behind Panabaj’s sense of identity and place. The result has been documented in a recent study performed by the municipal government, which found high rates of depression and despondence among the people of Chuk Muk. Much of this is related to trauma from the hurricane and mudslide, but at least some of it is being attributed to the community’s broken connection to its own location and space.
The municipal project encharged with addressing this challenge is called “Tejido Social,” or “Social Fabric.” It’s surprising and promising to hear about a municipal project named for a somewhat esoteric social science concept, as it reflects an understanding of the needs of Chuk Muk that goes beyond concrete infrastructure. At the same time, there is a fuzziness to the term that might be resistant to rigorous monitoring and evaluation, and that could also provide cover for an unfunded mandate. Indeed, from the sound of it the Tejido Social team is not equipped with the kind of mammoth budget that could support a wide-ranging psycho-social support plan, so it will have to rely on a creative allocation of resources and collaboration with other government and civil society institutions to piece together the kind of response that could make a material difference in the daily lives of Chuk Muk’s still suffering families.