Reflections from Guatemala

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It’s just been two days since getting back from a month in Guatemala, where I spent my days studying Spanish, buying lots and lots of fruits at the market, and exploring the beautiful countryside in the district of Sacatep√©quez, about an hour west of the capital city. I’m glad to be back, but I will miss Guatemala. It is an incredible country, rich in just about every way imaginable: the diversity of ecosystems (coastal plains to dense jungle to cloud forests), the cultures (indigenous people make up over 50% of the population), and history (Guatemala used to stretch from southern Mexico all the way to Panama).

It remains beset by massive institutional problems, such as the lack of indigenous representation in government, rampant corruption and violence, and lots of other problems (e.g. environmental destruction from gold and silver mining; foreign-owned energy and water sectors send much of these resources abroad, leaving incredible scarcities within Guatemala; malnutrition; underfunded and under-supplied healthcare infrastructure). But its people are overwhelmingly outgoing, positive, friendly and welcoming, and while there is a general distrust and jaded-ness with government, people look out for one another and there is a strong sense of community wherever you go.

The family I stayed with was incredibly generous with their time, support, knowledge and treated me like a part of the home. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for their hospitality. An uncle was visiting for the latter part of my stay, and as he is involved in human rights activism, we had plenty to talk about, from international influence on Guatemala (for starters, just do a search for Jacobo Arbenz) to the crazy world of current politics. Their new president has a slightly Ronald Reagan-ish spin as a former comic actor, much of his career spent lampooning the political establishment. I was also unable to explain the rationality of several aspects of our electoral process, including the 1-year run up to the 5-month voting process followed by 4 more months of campaigning, complicated by things like coin flips and superdelegates that actually matter but have nothing to do with what people vote for.

There were several big takeaways from the world of agriculture, as the majority of the population is still engaged in farming, and agricultural products account for a huge percentage of the economy – coffee, banana, and African palm (for palm oil) are the big ones, with enormous plantations. Palm in particular is taking hold rapidly but also depleting water resources like never before, sucking entire rivers dry. Avocados, fruits you’ve heard of like strawberries, mangoes, and mandarin oranges, others you may not have heard of like zapotes, paternas, jocote, and guayaba, vegetables of all kinds, and just about everything else will grow in Guatemala. I saw kale plants on a hilltop at 6000 feet, and endless acres of lettuce, green beans, and melons. The real kicker for me is how non-mechanized all of it is. Most of the work – planting, weeding, making beds, even the backbreaking work of tilling soil and clearing brush – is done by hand, and agricultural land tends to be in lots of small plots, tended by a family or two (with the exception of the major crops like coffee).

Another major agricultural development recently was the passage and nearly immediate rejection of the Law on Protection of Plant Varieties, commonly known as the Monsanto Law, which allows intellectual property rights on seeds and plant varieties. There were massive protests from all sectors of the population, after which Congress reversed course. Guatemala represents an enormous wealth of seed diversity and local knowledge, and firmly believes in the un-patentability of plants.

I can’t even begin to fit half of my thoughts in a blog post like this. Part of me is still there, even as Anne and I get to work on farm taxes, organic certification paperwork, and making field plans for the year. It’s only 2 short weeks until we start our first seeds!

-Dennis 2/12/16