Four days ago I left the steamy hot jungles of El Peten for destinations further south in the rolling limestone mountains of the municipal of Alta Verapaz. I had visited a small town called Chisec in 2004 with a high school organization and I was interested to see what had changed and revisit some amazing caves in the area. I also had a contact in Chisec through a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked out of Chisec, mostly in the area of community development and organization. After a one night stay on an American owned small farm along the way, I arrived in Chisec and met with my contact Ernesto at his office. Ernesto is one of the key organizers of a local community development organization called SANC. This organization is currently working to fortify communities in the area against encroaching foreign business interests, settle land disputes, open up new markets for local campesino products and also to educate local farmers in crop diversification and cultivation techniques to empower themselves and their communities. From the moment I first met Ernesto I experienced him as being very open, friendly and willing to share with me, we talked for hours and hours, him telling me all about the organization, his personal life and his experience with peace corps volunteers. One of my goals was to understand the role of the Peace Corps volunteer from a local´s perspective, and through my conversations with Ernesto I definitely got a feel for this idea. Ernesto invited me to stay with him and his family in their home and I have really been enjoying this experience.
It was also just my luck that for the past 2 days SANC was hosting a group of Guatemalans from the Mountain Highlands region of Nebaj. The aim of this meeting was to demonstrate the success that SANC has had here in hopes that that group members can take these ideas with them to their own communities. The opportunity to accompany the group in their daily itinerary was opened up to me and I accepted. With a group of around 30 campesinos; men women and children, old and young, I toured a very rural community in the Chisec area where we had to hike through dense forest to reach the community. In this community SANC had helped to establish crop diversity, (citrus, cocoa, maize, beans, sugar cane, herbs, pimiento, platano, among many others) and also more importantly a collective ownership of land that did not allow for the individual sale of land that could threaten the community (more on this later). It was an amazing experience to spend time with the group as we toured around the area visiting different communities and talking. Some of the group members didn’t speak Spanish so there were always translations into the Mayan dialects, which was very interesting to hear. (guat has 22 indigenous languages) I talked to most of the members and made some great contacts for when I go to the Nebaj region of Guatemala in 3 weeks or so. At times I found myself surrounded by about 10 Guatemalans fielding questions about a variety of subjects from international politics, travel, science, food (Guatemalans all seem to think that Americans eat nothing but bread), language, romantic practices and a variety of other cultural norms. The best though was when a gentleman asked me whether or not he should sell his land here in Guatemala and attempt to enter the United States illegally. He was serious and I advised him against this idea, but it is a very difficult question to answer. In Chisec, SANC has organized a Saturday morning market for the local campesinos to come sell their farm products. As the final activity before the group departed we toured the market together. It was incredible to see the scene, hundreds of people peddling their products of fresh cacao, chickens, spices, bananas, vegetables, fresh tamales, homemade concoctions of various derivations of corn and raw cane sugar, weavings and of course beans and corn. Hardly any Spanish was spoken here; all I heard was the soft clicking sounds of the local dialects. I said farewell to the group and proceeded to visit the close by cave system of Bombil Pek. An enormous water carved limestone cavern in which I crawled around and enjoyed the peaceful serenity of the cave. This cave system has a long historical use as a Mayan religious site and I can understand why. Caves are powerful places filled with mysterious energies and feelings. Tomorrow I leave Chisec and head south for higher altitude Coban where there is a local project that works to guide tourists into the cloudforests in the region in hopes of seeing the elusive Quetzal (the national bird). I am going to go see what I can find in the Coban area before I head east for the Caribbean.
So now that I am in a different region, there is a whole new set of issues that seem to be plaguing the environment and the communities (different issues yet recurring themes). On my way south from El Peten, along the road I observed thousands upon thousands of acres of freshly planted African Palm trees, in addition to seeing a massive plot of forest in the process of being burned and cleared for more palms. Ernesto informed me that these plantations have only been started within the last 5 years and represent the latest foreign corporate interest threat to the environment and the regional indigenous communities. The oil of the palms is mostly used to grease obese American´s french fries and processed food goods, but also for commercial lubricants and biofuels. This is a very shortsighted pursuit as the palms don’t stay viable for very long, require large amounts of resources to maintain and of course more forest must be cleared. Additionally the plantations only employ local workers several times a year during harvest times with terribly low wages and atrocious living conditions being the norm. What is happening here in the Chisec region is that foreign and national corporations approach communities living on viable land in an attempt to buy the land for plantations. When communities don’t have shared land titles and individuals are titled to their own land they are much more likely to sell. The vast majority of the campesinos who sell their land want to buy trucks and start cattle ranches. (this is perceived as being a very desirable occupation here in Guatemala) Once the corporation has infiltrated a community they can pressure others to sell by blocking roads that pass through their property, restricting access to water, polluting surrounding areas etc. I have heard enough stories to realize that the corporations will go to any end imaginable to get what they want from locals including threats of violence. SANC is working to fortify communities by arranging collective land titles where no one individual can sell anything because everything is communally owned. Then within the community, each family is given a certain parcel of land to work however they see fit and sell or consume the products totally for their own gain. It is a wonderful system that keeps the communities safe but also allows for more ambitious individuals within the community to work harder for their own advancement.
The topic is slightly different (African palms versus cattle ranches as in El Peten), but the theme is exactly the same; Foreign and national corporate interests looking to take advantage of local more naïve populations to exploit their land, resources and labor for their own profit driven, shortsighted motives. This seems to be the history of western civilization beginning with the European colonization of Africa and the Americas. And of course along every step of the way Governments are in on the tragedy as well through corruption and campaign financing. Ernesto talked to me about a phenomenon where the people of country are “colinized” and are basically brainwashed into accepting their subjugated role in society. I have very much observed this phenomena here in Guatemala. This is typified by a phrase thats common here “saber”, which basically translates to “who knows?”. In a conversation with a local man I asked him, what do they use the palm for? saber! Next question: what company is trying to buy your land? saber!, and so on for several more questions. Here is a threat to your very way of life that threatens your economic, environmental and societal well being and the best response you can muster is saber! Tragic.
Staring me in the face, thousands of rows of palms with a forest burning in the background I couldn’t help but think that all hope is absolutely lost. We as a human race are absolutely doomed on this planet. The forces conspiring to turn the planet into a desert wasteland in the pursuit of money are just too powerful and have too much control over culturally conditioned values that have brainwashed entire populations. But then, upon having the experience I had with SANC and the group members I am holding out a tiny bit of hope. Because I know for a fact that the key to solving our collective problems will only be solved by self empowered individuals acting in a conscious, aware manner. Only when every individual is awakened will we have a glimmer of hope to move towards a more enlightened society as a whole. This is the goal of SANC and thousands of organizations like it who are working to educate, enlighten and empower individuals to make the best decisions for their communities, themselves and their unborn grandchildren who will be the inheritors of this colossal fuck-up known as the corporate industrial democracy. History is the race between education and catastrophe. At this point It’s a toss up. In talking to all the campesinos I translated this phrase into Spanish for them and they all loved it.
“when the last tree is cut, when the last river is polluted, when the last animal is hunted down, we are going to realize that we cant eat money”
Evan…. Keep the thoughts, photos and worries coming. Knowing Ernesto and the village of chisec, I loved just reading your blog! Give him my best, and send more photos of the Village… Looks like Kelly really started something down there, and I wish that YOU would stay THERE and help more, instead of heading to Africa. Wherever you go, I’m sure you too, will make a huge impact. Thanks for caring and sharing!!! Grandy Jane
Evan… thanks for the updated portrait of Chisec and Ernesto. How is his family doing? sounds like he has become the “mayor” of the village. Give him my best wishes and keep up the good work there, wish you could just stay there instead of travelling to another continent! Best wishes, take your quinine!!! Grandy jane