Guatemala's wild, verdant Polochic Valley feels like a secret. It's a narrow, winding seam in the country's colorful fabric. As the Polochic River rushes toward the Caribbean, past indigenous Q'eqchi and Poqomchi villages, it seems to be the only thing in a hurry to reach its future.
The Polochic Valley is, in many ways, a concealed land that time forgot.
One of poorest and most isolated parts of Guatemala, the valley is accessible by a single, craggy road that sharply descends from the country's highlands. Within a few miles, the temperate highlands give way to humid jungle. Lushly forested mountains tower above, with small villages precipitously perched among the trees.
Within the pastoral villages, family life moves at a comfortable, centuries-old pace. Diminuative women in their colorful skirts, called cortes in the local indigenous language, maintain their humble households and care for smiling, energetic children.
Beneath the idyllic village scenes, however, are grim realities: preventable diseases are rampant, health awareness is poor and maternal and child mortality are epidemically high.
Over the past four years, though, hope has arrived in this isolated region of Guatemala. Many villages throughout the valley are currently being served by Mercy Corps' Health Citizenship Project, which is based in the small Polochic municipality of Tucuru.
In the mid-1990s, the privately funded Jack and Marie Eiting Foundation renovated and built onto Tucuru's existing health facility in order to serve the critical needs of over 30,000 people in the area - 70 percent of whom are indigenous Q'eqchi and Poqomchi women. The clinic was completed, equipped and staffed by 2001, but maternal and infant mortality in local villages remained high.
That same year the Eiting Foundation asked Mercy Corps, which has worked in Central America since the early 1980s, to develop programs that would address the area's staggering health crises. Mercy Corps responded by establishing the Health Citizenship Project.
The project, headquartered in Tucuru's health clinic with satellite offices throughout the valley's villages, promotes maternal and child health activities. The primary goal of these activities is to provide lifesaving health education to the area's indigenous Q'eqchi and Poq'omchi people and strengthen their ability to monitor their own health status - and determine when they should come to Tucuru for treatment.
Mercy Corps works with local organizations, health practitioners and government health officials, as well as villages, to ensure reliable health services.
Mercy Corps has also provided essential training to health clinic employees, which has helped them to improve patient care, diagnosis, planning and use of resources. One of the most innovative aspects of the Health Citizenship Project is the use of female "cultural brokers" - women from the area who provide language and cultural support to indigenous women who do not speak Spanish. In the past, these indigenous women were reluctant to seek medical attention from the predominantly male, Spanish-speaking government doctors and often died because they would not travel to the health clinic.
While the health activities are centered in Tucuru, villages throughout the Polochic Valley are doing their part to ensure better health care and education. Communities throughout the valley have organized voluntary health committees, which construct and maintain smaller local clinics where health clinic doctors and nurses can privately treat patients during monthly trips. Mercy Corps has trained these committees to monitor the health of pregnant women, new mothers and children under five to deal with critical high-risk cases for emergencies.
The partnership between area villages and Mercy Corps has already proven enormously successful. By mid-2004, maternal and infant mortality in the area had declined by over 60 percent.
Far below the breathtaking mountains in one of the most ecologically diverse regions of Central America, the cold, clear Polochic River accelerates toward its destination. In the colorful villages it passes on its way, time moves slower and remarkable cultures hold fast.
The health of thousands of Guatemalan families has, however, rapidly changed for the better.