CRS regional information officer Robyn Fieser filed this report from Guatemala:
I must admit, the prospect of visiting a coffee cooperative formed by ex-guerilla combatants who fought during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict was exciting. It was enough to make me pack my six-month old and every toy I could find into the Toyota 4runner and head toward the country’s Western Highlands.
I knew Santa Anita La Unión was a community of 32 farming families which had received land the government distributed as part of the Peace Accords in 1996. The largely Mayan community, which grows organic coffee and bananas and runs an eco-tourism program, is well known among the Americans who come to Guatemala to help start cooperatives of female weavers and teach in local schools. There’s a certain mystique surrounding it. I’ve been told, for example, that it’s a model for how communal living cultivates self-reliance and alleviates poverty.
Driving up through the main gate, toward the big house, as they call it, Santa Anita was what I had imagined. Children played in a small, central school yard. Murals of farmers hoeing and women hauling firewood dotted the community. A sign on a boxy, concrete structure reads “community health clinic,” and flyers giving English-speaking tourists information on everything from dinner times to shower protocol abounded. But as Luis Rohr, my guide and CRS Guatemala coordinator for CAFE Livelihoods (Coffee Assistance for Enhanced Livelihoods), went from house to house looking for community members, it became clear that poverty lived alongside progress in Santa Anita.
Only Angel Benjamin “Minchu,” the treasurer of the board, was around. As it turns out, the health clinic is long closed. Three of the 20-something coffee farmers in the cooperative had migrated to the United States. The money they send back each month pays day laborers who work their land and harvest their share of the coffee. I saw one of their houses. It stood out. A concrete block addition was half constructed. And a car, one of the only I saw in the community, sat in the driveway.
Others were out working, some in neighboring coffee fields – where they earn about $4 a day. Their coffee plants went unattended.
By April, Minchu told me, the $430 dollars or so each farmer earns from the coffee harvest, which ends in December, is gone.
“That money covers food, and nothing else, for about three or four months and then there is no other road but to work.” Bananas that they cut and sell by the bunch help. Recently, some of the women in the community started baking and selling banana bread to students in many of the English schools in the nearby city of Quetzaltenango. The eco-tourism program, which offers international tourists the chance to share a meal with a family and hike up the mountain to fetch firewood, brings in extra income but that is unpredictable, one woman told me.
“It is not a question of market,” explained the 56-year-old Minchu, who spent the better part of his youth working on large, privately-owned coffee farms. “There is a ton of demand. We just can’t grow enough coffee.” The problem, he said, is that the bulk of the group’s coffee plants are too old to produce much and the sandy soil doesn’t retain critical nutrients. Even when farmers plant young coffee plants, many don’t stick. Organic fertilizer is key. But the cost is prohibitive.
I asked Minchu why the group chose to buy land a decade ago when they had the choice between that and other economic development projects such as micro-businesses. He said the revolution was always a fight for the land. For Minchu, owning land represents something substantial, something permanent. I asked him why he joined the guerilla movement originally. “Why I fought?” he asked. “I’m still fighting. That’s why we’re here, on this land, to fight and make a decent living.”
For more information about Santa Anita La Unión
– Robyn Fieser
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