Army Steers Guatemala’s Development Train
By Karen Cardona/Diálogo May 16, 2017Four out of every 10 children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition. Although government programs over the past few years have focused on eradicating hunger, an average of 10 children dies from malnutrition every month. However, the Guatemalan Army has not been indifferent to the situation. By restoring more than half of the country’s 16,456 kilometers of road network, including rural dirt roads and paved asphalt roads, it has placed itself at the forefront of the prevention and eradication of child mortality. The Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers is the implementation arm of the “Development Train” government program. Over the past year, this Armed Forces unit has been clearing a path for basic services to reach the country’s most remote towns. Brigadier General Luis Miguel Ralda Moreno, the commander of the Corps of Engineers, received an order from Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to restore 8,000 kilometers of roads within the shortest possible time. “I remember when the Commander in Chief of the Army, President Jimmy Morales, gave the order. I couldn’t stop making calculations at the time, and a lot of people didn’t believe in us,” Brig. Gen. Ralda stated. “But we’ve demonstrated why the Corps of Engineers is the most efficient unit in the Guatemalan Army, and we’ve made major headway with the order, to the point of working 24 straight hours.” Over the past year, the restoration work done by Army service members has saved the Guatemalan government $24.6 million. Before the military took over the reins of “Development Train,” town councils had to finance the work, and the annual cost for maintenance of a [kilometer of] road was $20,500. Thanks to the Corps of Engineers, these costs have gone down considerably, to $3,400 per kilometer so far this year. The path of development Getting started was not simple, but the path was clear: The Army needed to build roads to communities where malnutrition had destroyed the lives of children and their mothers. So the Army decided it would be guided by studies carried out by the Ministry for Food and Nutritional Security (SESAN, per its Spanish acronym), beginning by restoring roads in the most desperate communities. “I can say with complete certainty that working with the Army means working efficiently. I recognize the leadership, the humanity, and above all, the resolve with which the Corps of Engineers has done its work to eradicate malnutrition,” said Germán González, a renowned public servant in the fight against hunger in Guatemala. According to González, Army troops have worked without a break, and that has allowed them to bring food and other assistance to families with limited means. That was the case in Jocotán, a municipality in the eastern department of Chiquimula that has some of the highest rates of chronic and acute malnutrition in the country, according to studies conducted by SESAN. The rebuilding of roads to Jocotán meant timely deliveries of food and health-care services for its population. “It is a pleasure to work with the Army because they understand the importance of investing in roads so that communities are able to better pursue development,” González said. Efficiency and savings According to Fernando Carrera, a Jocotán town council member, the president’s order to the military suited them perfectly because the road network had been destroyed. “With the convoy, we were spending between $685 and $822 per kilometer in fuel and parts. Using municipal funds, the standard cost per kilometer of road restored fluctuates between $14,000 and $20,500 per kilometer. Thanks to the Army’s timely intervention, we were able to bring these costs way down. We spent approximately $68,500 to repair almost 100 kilometers. That work, done another way, would have cost $2 million. We wouldn’t have been able to build the road network,” Carrera stated. The savings meant the town could take a census of the population to identify the townspeople’s needs and make decisions based on that information. Economy and education In addition to building a road network in areas affected by malnutrition, the Corps of Engineers also repaired roads in the departments of Izabal, Huehuetenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz, and Sololá, all of which suffer from extreme poverty. “I remember a community in Livingston, Izabal, in the northeast of the country, where the people had to walk four hours to be able to get to the nearest urban area. Now they arrive at their destination in only 35 minutes,” Brig. Gen. Ralda noted. “Transportation used to cost $17 per trip. Now the service costs $2,” he said. He also noted that many of the beneficiaries are merchants who are now able to transport their merchandise. Town mayors and community members in Sololá didn’t miss the chance to ask the Corps of Engineers to rebuild schools and health care centers, which had lacked roofs or desks for a long time. “We’ve left their facilities like new, and we’ve given them desks for the students. They were manufactured by the War Materiel Corps, which made 10,000 in total,” Brig. Gen. Ralda said. In addition to repairing roads, schools, and health care centers, the Corps of Engineers built housing for victims of natural disasters and carted away thousands of metric tons of garbage accumulated around the country’s major rivers and lakes, thus preventing floods that could sweep away entire villages. Their work is recognized by citizens who greet the convoys with regional foods and see them off with appreciation ceremonies for their work in bringing development to every nook of the country.