28 September 2006

Field-Based Training Week

During the fourth week of training in Guatemala, you have a Field-Based Training week. That means that you essentially go out to places that resemble sites or as models for what you want to make your site. While there you learn about methods and practices as well as get your feet wet. I'm hoping to put a little bit about each day in here.

On Monday we returned to a site that we had visited for an afternoon. It was in an aldea known as Estancia. It is near San Martin Jilitopeque, Sacatepequez. You say it hill-it-oh-PEK-ay, I guess.

The site is of a cooperative of about 80 farmers. The cooperative got started about eight years ago. They were organized for a while as a growers' association. The association started organizing their crops so they could sell to larger buyers like distributors, etc. instead of the one guy with a truck that gives them lousy prices. Thanks to free money from USAID and technical help from a mostly local NGO called ADHIL, they have a building that they now can use as a center of their processes. To improve the prices they get, you have to start following standards of best practice in all of your fields. If you follow them all, you can get certified, which means that supermarkets will buy from you. It's really hard, though. It's rarely worth it for a single farmer to get certified, so most farmers only sell in street markets and tiendas, which is where most people buy their food here. When you're organized, since you can sell more product, larger buyers are interested.

After you get your certification, are part of a legal business , and a bunch of other miserable steps, you make good money selling to supermarkets and packing plants. The ultimate prize is if you can also pass requirements for selling to either the EU or the US. This takes many years. Shockingly, this relatively young and small association has successfully passed all of these certifications and is currently exporting to the United States. Since they can obviously sell at a lot higher price, they guaruntee a premium to their farmers. In addition, they have a truck that drives around to the farms and picks up the product. The product then goes to the centro de copia (the donated building), where it is weighed, classified into exportable and nonexportable, packaged, and then driven to either the airport in Guatemala City or to a port.

Unfortunately, the organization currently has so few farmers that it can't keep up with the demand. Generally, when you're working with large buyers such as supermarkets and importing companies, they want product year round. For 80 farmers without greenhouses, it's very difficult to keep up in the poor growing seasons. To export over water, you are charged by the container (like the ones you see on tractor trailers) -- they can't come close to filling even one. Since their quantities are so small, it is actually cheaper to airmail them to the States. The cost to airmail is still so high, though, that they lose money during their off-season, which is 6 months of the year. The good news is that the ideal growing season for their crop (green beans) is during most producers' off season -- October through March. Therefore, they receive roughly 10 times the market price that their receiving now for their product when their fields are full of it. In the end, they profit, but this is very hard because you can barely pay your bills and buy the lime for maize and the wood for the stove. Nonetheless, two months of struggle is better than 12 months, so they keep exporting their green beans.

Estancia is a very rural area whose most of itspopulation is on the hills of her valley. It was an area deeply hurt by "La Violencia," which is how most people refer to the 26 years of civil war. In fact, they really are usually referring to the last 10 years of the war, where the fighting was really mostly one-sided: the government murdering mayans. Though mayans have been an unrepresented group throughout most of Guatemala's history, when Communism spread to Cuba, Guatemala was forever changed. The United States' fear of Communism spreading to Central and South America led to them (like in much of the world) supporting any government that pledged its allegiance against Communists. This often led to well-funded dictators who used their power to "fight Communism," which resulted in them fighting any opposition -- effectively killing democratic states in order to save them.

In Guatemala, the Mayans, who were entirely culturally separate from the political and legal institutions that called itself the government of Guatemala, were perceived by those in power to be at risk for becoming Communists. In other words, because there were many of them and were most likely to oppose their ongoing exploitation, they were feared. Many speculate also that because the Mayans were culturally distinct they were feared.

At the end of the 1970's, a group led by Rios Montt came into military power. In 1982, Rios Montt and a group of military officers seized power after (likely rigged) elections gave power to someone else. Rios Montt promised order to the country, and delivered. He gave weekly 'sermons' and used religious and moral speech in much of his work. He maintained a moral agenda and pleased the ladinos, who represented vast majority of power. After Rios Montt was ousted by a military officer, the ladino minority had become the majority -- Rios Montt had successfully murdered roughly 14% of the mayan population of the country in the name of fighting Communism.

It is worth mentioning that the United States provided more money than all Guatemalan government revenues during the Rios Montt campaign. After democracy came to Guatemala, Rios Montt ran for president. One of his campaign strategies was to include pictures of him with an ally when he was in power -- Ronald Reagan. Just to ensure that no Democrats can complain, it is worth noting that while Jimmy Carter was threatening to revoke humanitarian aid to Guatemala, the CIA was feeding more than double the amount of the humanitarian aid in the name of fighting Communism.


Chrisiant said...

So I was reading a book recently about alternatives to the Peace Corps (other long-term volunteer programs), and they had a whole chapter on why to consider not joining the Peace Corps as such.

Basically, their argument seemed to be that the presence of the Peace Corps is completely loaded because of its total funding and affiliation with the U.S. government and its interests, and can actually backfire in regions because of that.

Here's my question: What is your impression so far of the people in your local area's general attitude towards the U.S.? Do they care? Are they angry about U.S. support of Rios Montt? Do they know about it? What's their attitude towards our dominance in the markets in this hemisphere? Are we even on their radar that much? Or at all?

And, if you're at all able to guage this at this point, how do you think that affects how they interact with PC volunteers? Do they see you as an extension of the U.S. or as an NGO worker or just as a funny white person telling them what to grow?

Anyway, sorry this is so long and question-y, I'm just way curious. I'll send you an e-mail with more fun stuff about my life when I'm not at work.

Love ya - it was awesome to have you pop up in my gmail chat box this morning!

Elizabeth said...

Hi! I came here just to drop a line to Andrew, as I have a blogroll of people working in aid and development around the world. Andrew- you've been added to my blogroll. If you know of any other bloggers in South America (could even be, for example, your South American colleagues, also Spanish & Portuguese & French blogs are welcome), please stop by my blog and let me know.

To Christiant: I was in the Peace Corps. I've also worked with NGOs and other groups. Foreigner = money for most experienced people, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's because they're poor. An individual Peace Corps volunteer has access to just about twice as much as what, say, a church worker could raise, and MUCH LESS than what many foreign NGOs provide.

So I should think that the question is more about aid in general, than about Peace Corps.

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.