For five consecutive years, farming families in the dry corridor of western Guatemala have watched their primary sources of income and food wither and die from severe drought. Season after season, failed harvests of maize and beans have led to grinding poverty and crisis levels of hunger and malnutrition among vulnerable households.

These persistent challenges have only intensified under the COVID-19 pandemic, as strict lockdown measures and restrictions on movement further limit or prevent access to markets, consistent work opportunities and affordable, healthy food products.

Yet, much like the clouds these mountainous communities sit above and among, examples of determination and resourcefulness continue to surface and rise—particularly among the region’s next generation of community leaders and farmers.

“I am a happy, hard-working, visionary young guy,” says Eliber López, a 17-year-old from the small town of Concepción Huista. He grows coffee, maize, beans and other vegetables with his father to support their family of five and describes how the fields have been his classroom since finishing middle school.

Eliber López, 17, is one of nearly 870 young men and women participating in ¡ÁNIMO!, an emergency food security project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by PCI, a Global Communities Partner. Photo by Gesler Castillo/PCI Guatemala

“I no longer study, because I never liked to study,” he says. “Every day, I bet on field work.”

For too long, it’s a bet that has not worked in the young man’s favor or his family’s, until their introduction to an emergency food security project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by PCI, a Global Communities Partner.

Through ¡ÁNIMO! (“Encouragement” in Spanish), PCI has trained nearly 870 young women and men such as López in health, hygiene and agricultural practices to address food insecurity and promote resilience in four municipalities of Huehuetenango. Although not part of the initial plan, project staff added a youth component in response to a growing demand among teens and young adults to take on more active roles in their communities’ revitalization.

“We have many dreams, and I want to be part of this story and continue to grow our youth group, so that everyone understands that the future is in our hands,” López explains of his interest in the project. “It is up to us to either achieve our dreams or just keep staring at what could have been.”

Over the course of the past year, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 35 youth groups — with members ranging in age from 13 to 24 years old — met with ¡ÁNIMO! staff every two weeks for learning sessions on health and hygiene, food and nutrition security, and ways to promote development while generating income.

“Girls and boys got together and decided to take full advantage of the technical assistance that PCI is providing to their communities,” says Pascale Wagner, PCI/Guatemala’s Country Director. “Their participation being spontaneous, voluntary and at their request, we started with the best basis for a successful and sustainable intervention.”

Projects included establishing 22 vegetable gardens and a forest nursery to grow plants for sale and reforestation. Each garden includes short-cycle crops such as beets, carrots, chard, cabbage, onions, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach to help improve access to nutritious food for their families. Any surplus produce is packaged and sold at the community level. ¡ÁNIMO! also led nearly 40 hands-on vocational training workshops focused on baking, using recycled materials to make handicrafts, weaving, tailoring and disinfectant production.

“I have realized that producing vegetables in large quantities is a good source of income, and there will always be food for the home,” López says. “This is why we in the group are supporting all members to develop a garden in their homes, with my supervision, while together we continue to work on a large collective garden owned by the youth group, where we grow vegetables for processing, packaging and selling.”

To provide sustainability to these agricultural activities, ¡ÁNIMO! supported youth groups to establish areas in their gardens dedicated to producing seeds as well. Participants learned how to collect, dry and store quality seeds for future production cycles.

“Instead of providing temporary help and then leaving, what we are trying to do with this project is to include a component that helps people to also get stronger and better prepared for the next emergency,” explains Salvador Baldizon, a livelihood advisor for ¡ÁNIMO!.

For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, ¡ÁNIMO! youth group members used the skills they had developed over the past year to support both their families’ basic needs and their communities’ response to the crisis. In addition to their vegetable gardens serving as a reliable and critical source of food at the household level, many young people also began producing face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and make an income during these difficult times.

“People are afraid to get together. There is a shortage of food, and the little that is available is expensive. Job opportunities are less and less by the day,” López says of the current conditions and challenges. “There is fear that people will get sick from the coronavirus and can die.”

To help address some of these concerns, ¡ÁNIMO! youth groups have also been part of PCI’s efforts to share key COVID-19 prevention messages among community members on handwashing, physical distancing and wearing a mask.

“To see them get organized, take full advantage of the program, devoting time, creativity and energy to agricultural activities that they quickly turned into a business model, bringing added value to the production, practicing sales and marketing techniques and applying all the new skills they were learning to a community-based COVID-19 response was like witnessing all that one always wishes for when working in development,” Wagner says.

And even though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on the region and much is still unknown about the long-term impacts, López says he remains hopeful and prepared to rise to the challenge.

“We do not want [¡ÁNIMO!] to end, because we are motivated by what we are doing,” he says. “For us, it is a great support. There are many things we do not know and through the program we can overcome these weaknesses. We want them to continue betting on us as a youth group, because the future of our community and of our families depends on us.”

All photos by Gesler Castillo/PCI Guatemala.