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Winter 2002/2003
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Peace Corps Volunteer Spots a Need and Fills It

Guatemalan Municipalities Begin Mapping Their Futures With GIS

By Luis Fernandez, President, Geosistec

  click to see enlargement
Service distribution map of Joyabaj, El Quiché.

In the fall of 2000, when Peace Corps volunteer Janet O'Callaghan arrived in Joyabaj, El Quiché, in western Guatemala, she soon realized that no accurate map of the municipality existed. In fact no one who worked in the municipality could exactly say how many communities there were or where they were located.

O'Callaghan is one of 17 municipal development Peace Corps volunteers working in rural planning offices throughout Guatemala. A primary task of the municipal development volunteers is supporting local governments' efficiency in the areas of management capacity, delivery of services, and execution of projects.

With more than 10 years of GIS awareness with an aviation consulting firm, she realized that what her planning office needed was GIS capability. GIS software would help it create an accurate basemap and manage its small but growing database of information.

Before long, she was in touch with Geosistec (Guatemala City), the local Esri distributor, and had acquired ArcView for use by the planning office. A search of potential data sources put her in contact with the Guatemalan office of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which is part of the U.S. Embassy mission in Guatemala. NIMA has ARC Digitized Raster Graphics (ADRG) on CD for all of Guatemala. Using the ADRG maps as her base and talking with knowledgeable locals, O'Callaghan was able to create the first accurate basemap of Joyabaj.

Once an accurate basemap was created, the planning office began using ArcView to create simple maps displaying basic demographic and social information such as population, education, and crop distribution. One of the first maps created displayed which communities had potable water, electricity, latrines, schools, and a health center. This map showed very quickly the degree of poverty faced by most of the municipalities' 117 communities. While many of the communities have some structure that serves as a school, most do not have a potable water system or adequate access to a health center. This map was distributed to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governmental organizations (GOs) working in Joyabaj to help them understand the distribution of poverty in the municipality.

Another map displayed the communities where the 12 NGOs and GOs were working. This latter map revealed that many of these organizations were duplicating efforts by working in the same communities while other communities received no support. This information is being used to help coordinate the future work programs of these organizations.

The mayor of Joyabaj, Raul Perez, used these maps at several regional meetings as an introduction to his municipality. Perez's profiling of these maps generated tremendous interest in GIS among Peace Corps volunteers, other municipalities, and NGOs. They began contacting O'Callaghan asking for similar maps of their municipalities. Realizing that there was the potential for many rural municipalities to begin using GIS if they had access to training, she requested a change in work focus from the Peace Corps so she could begin working with other municipalities. She also contacted Geosistec, Esri, and NIMA, requesting help to bring GIS capabilities to these rural planning offices.

(From left) Peace Corps volunteer Luke Griffith, agronomist Gerson Aguire, and promoter Mariela Lemus receiving training in Fray Bartolome De Las Casas, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

In the spring of 2002 O'Callaghan began her first three training sessions in the departments of Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz in central Guatemala. These municipalities were chosen because of the level of computer skills of the planning staff and the quality of their computers. The five Guatemalans and two Peace Corps volunteers who attended proclaimed the first three training sessions a success.

O'Callaghan spent a week in each of the municipalities. She installed ArcView, several useful scripts and extensions, ADRG maps for the municipality, and area-specific data she had compiled. By using data specific to the municipality for training, the trainees could quickly realize the benefits of the system and visualize direct applications of the software. One trainee in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas who was familiar with GPS realized he could now add the GPS points he had of forest fires and quickly plot the areas, print maps, and provide statistics to the Guatemalan forest service (the Instituto Nacional de Bosques).

Formal training took only two days, and after that trainees began creating basemaps of their respective municipalities. By the end of the week each municipality had created a draft basemap and joined up and displayed some basic demographic data.

With the success of the first three municipalities, the program was expanded to include nine additional municipalities, bringing the total of rural municipalities using ArcView in Guatemala to 12. Overall, 28 Guatemalans and 12 Peace Corps volunteers received basic GIS training from O'Callaghan during the spring and summer of 2002. All municipalities have created basemaps and are currently using the program to display their demographic and social information. In learning to use ArcView, these rural municipalities are laying a foundation for more advanced applications such as cadastral mapping, forestry surveys, and urban planning.

In August 2002 O'Callaghan completed her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps. She turned over the GIS training program to another Peace Corps volunteer who will continue to work with Geosistec, Esri, and NIMA and provide training to additional municipalities.

The municipalities that received training are Cahabón, Alta Verapaz; Chisec, Alta Verapaz; Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Alta Verapaz; San Cristóbal, Alta Verapaz; San Juan Chamelco, Alta Verapaz; Salama, Baja Verapaz; Chiche, El Quiché; San Antonio Ilotenango, El Quiché; San Juan Cotzal, El Quiché; Santa Cruz del Quiché, El Quiché; Río Hondo, Zacapa; and Esquipulas, Chiquimula.

For more information, contact Janet O'Callaghan (e-mail: or Luis Fernandez (e-mail:

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