La Ruta Hacia La Prosperidad Journey to Self Reliance in the Western Highlands of Guatemala

The match flared up briefly as it was struck, and then one after another; red, white, yellow, and black, the four candles were lit. Indigenous leaders bowed their heads in silent prayer as the sun rose over the ridge illuminating the ancient Mayan invocation being held in Huehuetenango, Guatemala this past December to open the third dialogue of La Ruta Hacia La Prosperidad.

Huehuetenango, the capital of the department of the same name, is the last major city on the Pan American Highway before the Mexican border. It is a bustling center of trade and commerce set in a landscape as diverse as its ethnic composition. While the Mam people make up the largest population there are eight other indigenous ethnic groups, all with their respective languages and traditions. This diversity is evident as groups of indigenous authorities walk together across the parking lot to participate in the dialogue. Each indidgenous authority brings their community’s history and priorities to the table illustrating the challenges that the Governments of Guatemala and the United States are facing in tackling the development issues of the Western Highlands.

La Ruta Hacia La Prosperidad, or La Ruta for short, is led by the National Competitiveness and Investment Promotion Commission (PRONOCOM) of the Guatemalan Government, and is supported by USAID, INL, and the Political and Economic sections of the U.S. Embassy. It is an initiative to create bridges between the central government and indigenous groups in the seven departments of the Western Highlands to address the low quality of Government services, high economic disparities and long standing social grievances. This, coupled with the fact that the Western Highlands suffers from the highest levels of irregular migration north, is the reason that USAID has a particular focus in the Western Highlands. USAID’s support of La Ruta also furthers Guatemala’s progress on the journey to self reliance as the Guatemalan Government is leading the initiative and responsible for identifying Guatemalan solutions to Guatemala’s challenges.

La Ruta began with an initial dialogue in Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango on February 13th and 14th, 2019. Over 50 indigenous leaders attended this first gathering and it was followed by the second dialogue in April which U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga attended. During these two dialogues, indigenous communities' priorities were discussed and concrete actions that could be carried out quickly were identified. This was followed by site visits from USAID to better understand the context in which the indidgenous communities were living as well as to build trust. Over the summer, led by the Government of Guatemala and supported by the U.S. Embassy, two events took place in the Western Highlands: the donation of office equipment and laptops to indigenous authorities, and a Medical Civil Action Program (MEDCAP) that provided health services and medicine to indigenous communities. Long standing tension between these communities and the military were put aside during the day-long medical fair in which basic medical care was provided to those in need by the civil affairs units of the Guatemalan and U.S. Military.

One of the most important outcomes leading up to the third dialogue has been the development of eight priorities that La Ruta will address. The objectives of the priorities range from lowering social conflict to increasing value chains for local products. Yet, even with these self-identified priorities, there are hurdles to overcome to address the different interpretations that indigenous authorities have for each priority. For example, in order to improve local health services, the government suggested a new hospital and modern medicines. This was interpreted by the indigenous authorities as a disregard for their traditional medical practices. This is just one example which illustrates the sensitive and challenging nature of La Ruta. USAID is supporting the navigation of these differences through consulting with indigenous experts, field visits, and developing strategies to move forward.

USAID’s work supports the Government of Guatemala and indigenous groups to participate in La Ruta in good faith, and though there are disagreements and differences between the two groups, the solutions lie in peaceful and constructive dialogue. Through the initiative, Pronocom and the U.S. Government aim to increase the quality of government services like building better roads and investing in potable water delivery systems, address social grievances, and improve the quality of life for indigenous populations in the Western Highlands.

USAID supports the government of Guatemala’s leadership in La Ruta Hacia La Prosperidad and recognizes that in order to achieve a secure and prosperous Guatemala, it will be up to the Guatemalan people to devise and implement local solutions to address the challenges facing their country. This will improve the quality of life for these communities and thus reduce the drivers that have caused unprecedented numbers of people to risk their lives by irregularly migrating to the United States.

The third dialogue began with an invocation to the Mayan gods; an invocation for a peaceful resolution to troubles that have long gone unaddressed. As the candles flickered in the cool morning air, there was a clear sense of tension, but there was also a sense of hope and commitment as these groups, that have historically been in conflict, continue to return to the table in order to confront and solve the challenges they face together.

USAID supports both the Government of Guatemala and citizens through interventions at the national, municipal, and community level to to strengthen governance structures and civil society to improve advocacy efforts to demand accountable and transparent service delivery. Working with diverse populations—including women, indigenous, youth, and people with disabilities—to strengthen local organizations, develop robust community development plans and implement projects that respond to needs prioritized by the communities themselves. This includes improving citizen participation and empowerment, and engaging the private sector and for-profit entities in Guatemala to foster more sustainable community development in the Western Highlands to ensure that Guatemalans are able to thrive in their communities and not resort to irregular migration.


Photos By: Benjamin Ilka USAID