November 19, 2018
Far Flung
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Guatemala
From Guerrilleros to Cafeteros

A tale of two struggles

By Dana Farrington

We jumped on the back of a pickup truck with a couple of families, including a pregnant woman and young children, all making the journey back to their rural communities in the mountains.

We had been given vague directions by community organizers; supposedly trucks took people from here, the center of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city and a onetime Mayan capital, to remote mountain communities like the one we wanted to visit, Santa Anita la Union.

The dirt road made for a bumpy ride, but the freshness of the air, dense with fog, and the lush, green vegetation, instantly calmed me. We paid five quetzales each, (about 60 cents in the summer of 2009), and after about three hours, the truck dropped us off in front of an open gate with a sign.

Life in Santa Anita

Children were playing basketball in an open court, the mountains as their backdrop. Some stared; others just said “buenas tardes.” We asked a girl where we could find the community leader Don Sergio, and she brought us to his famil’s small cement house.

Santa Anita was developed after Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, by former leftist guerrilla fighters of the Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas. Now many of the ex-fighters have families, and are trying to support the next generation by developing the coffee-growing cooperative they’ve created here.

We learned that many adults went by two names: their birth name and their nom de guerre. Sergio’s birth name is Rigoberto Augustin.

Building a Community from Bare Land

After the peace accords were signed in 1996, and the guerrilla force to which the members of this community had belonged also signed, turning over their weapons, the ex-fighters were given an opportunity to buy this land.

Many of them had spent years in the jungle, separated from their former lives.

They named their community Santa Anita. They were only 32 families (they are 36 now), but over the past 13 years, they’ve taught themselves to cultivate, harvest and sell coffee.

To earn extra money, they encourage volunteers to bring in foreign visitors like us. Now there’s a community center to host us, with beds and two bathrooms.

Soaking in the comfort of plush couches and the warm richness of their fresh coffee, we sat with Sergio, 55, and the tourism coordinator, Gloria “Teresa” Elena Gomez, 34, and talked about life here, and recent events nearby.

The coup in Honduras was on everyone’s mind, and Sergio said he and others were watching closely, because they were afraid it could set a precedent for other Central American countries.

Sergio gave us a tour of the farm, so we could see the coffee production process, and become acquainted with what he considers his “schoolhouse”: the hum of Guatemala’s breathtaking mountains, where he lived for 17 years while fighting.

“When I walk the mountains, its always like a re-encounter with my house of many years, of much of my life,” he said. He pointed out that, as one of the founders, he had lived in Santa Anita, for 11 years, and that it would be another six before he’d match his 17 years of fighting.

“I think that the greatest memory of the mountain is that it was the bastion for the revolutionary war in Guatemala,” he said, surrounded by the call of tropical birds and the rush of a nearby waterfall.

“That, for me, is what the mountains mean –as a stage of struggle, a stage of liberty, to be able to establish for us in this country a system of peace and democracy, that we Guatemalans struggle now to construct so that this becomes a reality over time.”

People in Santa Anita are still trying to reconstruct their lives, after a war that left an estimated 150,000 people dead, saw hundreds of Mayan villages destroyed and, by the count of a human rights group led by an activist Roman Catholic bishop who was subsequently murdered, displaced as many as one million people. It is considered one of Latin America’s most brutal wars.

Growing Coffee: Another Kind of Struggle

In terms of self-sustainability and autonomy, a coffee plantation is by no means a sure bet.

Ever-changing weather patterns can delay the planting season, and the people of Santa Anita had a lot to learn before they could produce a quality batch of coffee beans, or even a good cup of coffee.

Money is scarce. The group has tried a couple of different models of income distribution, but families still can barely sustain themselves on the coffee harvest. Teresa’s husband must travel to Quetzaltenango for work. When he comes home, he pays other people to help him around the farm.

Coffee prices are volatile, too. In 2002, they fell to a 30-year low, inspiring Oxfam America to publish a report on the coffee crisis.

“Small-scale coffee farmers and farm workers remain extremely vulnerable,” that report, The Coffee Crisis Continues, concluded in 2005.

Santa Anita is still working hard to pay off the high-interest government loans it took out to buy this land. The group borrowed $300,000, at a 12% interest rate; since they’re paying it back very slowly, they still owe the same amount today!

Entire families work together on randomly-assigned plots. Some were lucky enough to draw good areas with lots of shade, while others needed to put more effort into clearing and preparing the land.

Smaller farmers lack the expertise, and equipment, of larger operations.

Here, for example, coffee growing has been based on trial and error. Before the war, some of the adults worked with their families on large farms, as day laborers, and knew how to use machetes to harvest. They have divided the process into stages, assigning each a leader. We met the man who plants and cares for the seedlings, which are first planted in the shade in individual bags and then moved to soil, to grow with direct sunlight.

The village makes its own fertilizer with special vitamins and minerals, which they carry to the vast, mountainous terrain where the coffee plants grow to maturity. During the fall harvest, families carry the heavy baskets of beans back up to the center of town, to be further prepared for packaging and consumption.

Santa Anita works with Cafe Conciencia, an non-governmental organization in Quetzaltenango that specializes in helping worker-owned coffee cooperatives develop their businesses. The Guatemalan country director, Omar Mejia, said the group also wants to broaden the definition of what makes coffee “fair trade.” Labels alone, he said, do not always guarantee fair or equal labor standards.

Cafe Conciencia sells coffee from Santa Anita and a couple of other communities through its website. Mejia, who is finishing a degree in agronomy, also offers scientific expertise about how to grow the coffee, so this community can produce more, higher-quality coffee with every harvest.

The community’s hospitality, and the constant crow of its roosters, were hypnotizing. A people that had lived through so much violence was trying to make life better for its children. But there is no guarantee that the next generation will stick around to maintain the cooperative. Sergio said that the children were like the coffee plants; some grow strong and bear fruit, while others do not receive the proper nourishment, and don’t give back in the end.

Santa Anita has created a supplementary school, with a modest library and a computer lab. The curriculum includes a kind of civil war history locals say is rarely, if ever, taught in state-mandated classes.

Machismo, Eternal Machismo

Sergio’s wife, Aurora Vicente “Juana” Jives, 51, leads a group of indigenous women in the surrounding communities who meet for discussions, and encourage one another to become more independent and self-confident.

Juana said domestic violence is a big problem in this region.

“We give help. If the companera doesn’t want it, she doesnt’ want it, or she is really afraid. If we can’t convince her, maybe we can convince some people who talk with her,” she said.

Juana later added,”The problem that we have had the most with the participation of women is dependence…because here the women depend economically on their husbands, economically on the home, economically on the living situation. So they don’t have this autonomy, this liberty to decide. For anything they have to consult their husbands — and if he says no, then she can’t.

During the war, Juana and Teresa said, they were treated equally with the men, unlike today. Teresa said that she and her husband still split household chores evenly, according to the ethics they followed as guerrilleros.

The war also gave Juana, Sergio and Teresa at chance to “study.” They learned to read and write in the jungle, guns by their sides.

But after the war, women mostly lost status; they began to revert to traditional roles.

Slipping Away Before a Protest

We debated staying an extra day, but were told that a single day could turn into three: area residents were organizing a demonstration against a nearby mine, one of those that had buying up area land. Such purchases force the residents to move, and also make them fear environmental dangers, such as acid rain. The march would block the main roads to Quetzaltenango, so we had to leave before it started.

Our insider information from Santa Anita’s leaders forced us into Sergio’s car at 4 a.m. We waited for a half hour in the cold Jeep, half asleep and speaking softly about the village, the protest and life.

We boarded the bus that Monday morning, clutching our bulky travel bags, to join the people heading to work for the week to compensate for the lack of economic opportunities in the countryside.

“The fighting ended when we turned in our arms,” Juana had said, “but our ideas continued because there wasn’t a change. That is to say that, with the dialogue and the signing of the peace agreement, there wasn’t lot of change. The same system continued. The same injustice continued.”

Learn More

Guatemala's civil war ends at last

Santa Anita de la Union info

Cafe Conciencia

Mining in Central America - an Oxfam report


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