Panel discusses Guatemalan poverty

Nan Turner

Staff Writer
Students got a chance to hear a firsthand account of what it is like to live in poverty without government assistance in the Guatemalan highlands from guest speaker Hilda Chanchavac. Chanchavac, an indigenous community leader, co-hosted Tuesday’s program and luncheon “Beyond the Sinkhole: Guatemala Responds to Rains and Mud Slides,” where she answered questions from the crowd.
About 75-100 people attended the event, according to Ben Blevins, the executive director and co-founder of the Highland Support Project, an organization that strives to provide aid for small highland villages in poverty.
The name of the event came from the huge sinkhole that occurred last spring after hurricane Agatha came through the country. Blevins said that “Beyond the Sinkhole” was supposed to be representative of how the media attention-grabbing phenomenon over shadowed the bigger issues of poverty and weather. He said the event was special because it allowed students a chance to gain perspective they otherwise would not have because of Chanchavac’ s status as a regular person, and not a “superstar or expert.”
“It was about giving a voice to the voiceless,” Blevins said.
Many different issues regarding community development were discussed including weather, climate change, homeland security, and environmental and social issues. One of the environmental issues brought up was the dramatic rainfall Guatemala has experienced over the last two years, forcing some villages to move because they were washed away by mudslides.
Heavy rains have continuously pelted crops, so there has not been much of a harvest throughout the area.
However, the rains are not only affecting the environment. After the mudslide last spring, the main highway was unusable after vehicles were buried and people were trapped. Men from the highlands and villages two hours away in the mountains came to rescue the complete strangers and ended up losing their lives.
Blevins has kept in contact with the widows of these men, and VCU donated yarn which the Highland Support Project then gave to the women so they could knit scarves and hats. Besides giving the women a way to have additional income, Blevins said they also find the task therapeutic.
“Knitting helps them to replace that control over their lives,” Blevins said.
Chanchavac brought the finished scarves and hats with her on this trip. The knit items can soon be purchased by students at a booth in front of the university commons and James Branch Cabell Library.
VCU’s Janett Forte, Karen Smith Rotabi, Avrum Shriar, and Jason Levy were respondents to the program in addition to Blevins.
Students interested in finding out more about upcoming trips to Guatemala through the university either over spring break or in May can get in contact with the Highland Support Projects Club on campus. For more information on the situation in Guatemala visit

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