“The ash kept falling harder and harder, and then it was sand that began falling from the sky.”

Veronica Iscamey is the Project Manager for the Women in Enterprise Project in Guatemala. Here she talks about the impact of the Fuego volcano that erupted on 3rd June 2018 with devastating effect.

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Written by Emma Langbridge

Around midday on the day of the eruption, it started to get cloudy and feel colder.  We were surprised when ash suddenly started falling from the sky.  It kept falling harder and harder, and then it was sand that began falling from the sky. When we went outside, we realized that the streets, the sidewalks and the cars were completely covered in sand and ash, and people had to use umbrellas to be able to move around and protect themselves, especially from the ash, as if it were raining. We were 25km away from the eruption.

It wasn’t until we saw the news that we learnt that the volcano had had one of its strongest eruptions in the last 20 years.  Soon after the eruption, the media started broadcasting shocking footage.  The usual lava channels could not hold the lava and lahars which meant hundreds of houses were practically buried, trapping the people inside. The media, which tends to be a bit sensationalist, started causing panic amongst the population by sharing photos of people who had been burnt on the asphalt roads.

The volcano resulted in a terrible loss of human lives.  In the month of September more than 160 people were reported dead, and there are also about 250 missing persons.  In some cases entire families have died. Many of these families lost not only their loved ones but also their homes, which had taken them so much effort to build.  More than 3,300 people are still living in 11 shelters, supported by different organisations.  Some of these shelters are based in schools which also means education is interrupted.

As well as the terrible loss of human lives and homes, the volcano has also had an effect on the country’s economy.  The falling of ash and sand affected not only the areas surrounding the volcano, but also other places close to the area: among them, Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango and Escuintla.  The loss to the national economy has been estimated by ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) to be around 219 million US dollars.  The volcano has also heavily impacted local economies, especially agriculture, as well as household economies.  For those people living closest to the volcano, they lost 100% of their crops.  Corn and bean crops, which are very traditional in Guatemala, were lost, which means that for the coming year the famine may get worse, adding to the drought that was particularly severe this year.

At CARE Guatemala, we are supporting thirteen groups of women in the affected areas of Chimaltenango and Suchitepéquez through our Women in Enterprise project.  Those women that sustained the most damage are those closest to the volcano working in agriculture.  Their crops were covered in ash and sand – they lost between 10 and 20%.   The women who had their agricultural activities without any greenhouse or macro tunnel system suffered the greatest impact.  However, the women who had a greenhouse or a macro tunnel, also sustained damages as the sand deposited on top of the plastic tunnels or nylon greenhouses caused breakages.

Veronica on sight, photo: CARE                        

One of the women we support is Paola Chunchún, she has around six acres of land exclusively devoted to the production of green beans. She gives a percentage of her production to a cooperative and sells the rest in the local market. She told me that the day after the eruption, she and her husband went around the plots to check them out.  Unfortunately all the leaves of the green bean plants were completely covered with ash and sand.  She was overcome with sadness and indignation because two full months of work were spoiled. She was wondering what would happen if it did not rain and what would happen if the product was not accepted by the sellers she had an agreement with. With help, they began to bring water to clean the leaves of the green beans. However it suddenly started to rain, a heavy downpour that cleaned the leaves.  Paola described it as a divine intervention, giving her a second chance to regain the resources that were damaged.   Paola is still struggling as a result of the acidity of the ash and sand impregnating the soil, hindering the growth of the plants, but she continues to fight to get her business back on track – she’s a great example of a hard-working entrepreneur.

Paola Chunchú, photo: CARE                          

One of the Cooperatives we work with, located about 25km from the volcano, also suffered damages to around 25% of the crop, which included corn, peas and zucchini, which is practically everything they were preparing to sell in two or three months.  We are also hearing from the women we are working with that the savings they were keeping for the end of the year or to spend on some family expenses had to be reinvested to buy seeds or to repair the infrastructure that had been damaged. That makes it clear that the economy of the women and their small businesses has been impacted.

However, many of the women we work with are also engaged in other productive activities, including activities that can be performed under controlled conditions, that is, in their homes or in an enclosed courtyard, which means that products are better protected and safer. This is why it is so important for women to diversify their income generating activities, not because agriculture as such is bad, but because we, as human beings, cannot control these types of events, which can have a very heavy impact on economic activities like agriculture. That is why implementing other economic activities under controlled conditions or those that do not entail such a high risk for women in their small investments is vital.

For some years, we have been aware of climate change and the effects it is especially having on agriculture, and as a consequence, many women and men have started looking for lower risk alternative activities. That is why we are now offering more support to this type of initiative - without undermining the production activities of women, which have also followed their course. The important part has always been the technical advice, such as, how to reduce the effects and losses arising from events like the Fuego volcano – for example by using greenhouses or macro tunnels.  We are also helping cooperatives to implement faster recovery processes following a natural disaster.

In the months following the Fuego volcano eruption I have been constantly impressed by the resilience and perseverance of the women entrepreneurs affected by the eruption and I hope that, with a little support, they will soon be back on the road to business success.

Veronica and women entrepreneurs, photo: CARE                        

“Now we are the business owners, we are the queens of ourselves!”

It is an unexpected setting for a beauty salon. We find it tucked away inside a community centre in Al-Hashmi, East Amman. The five women running this new enterprise have heard that we have a male translator with us so we wait outside whilst they quickly put on their headscarves. As we enter the small salon – ‘Sabaya Style’ - there’s an excited buzz. The salon is professionally kitted out with Hollywood-style mirrors around the white walls, with accents of pink from the beauty accessories. The women greet us warmly and offer us cold drinks to stave off the heat.

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