Guatemala - Land for Living

Combating poverty has long been one of the main aims of international development policy, and the IIZ/DVV has been one of those working with the poor, and indeed the poorest, members of society. As part of the preparation for the conference held in Botswana in June on “Adult Education and Poverty Reduction – a Global Priority”, we published German and English versions of “Adult Education and Combating Poverty” in our series “International Perspectives in Adult Education”. This title describes concrete examples of project activities in various countries aimed at reducing poverty and improving the living conditions of the poorest sections of the population. We reprint below two contributions from Guatemala and Nicaragua. The complete volume may be ordered from the Institute.

Guatemala — Land for Living

Forty kilometres beyond Coban, the capital of the Guatemalan state of Alta Verapaz, the tarred road stops. After that, the road surface is clay. Sometimes washed away by rain and sometimes cracked by the sun, the kilometres stretch away. After another 45, the village of Cancho Caoba Xyaab’al I’x comes in view. Small seedlings stand out to right and left of the road, and some 60 domestic pigs are feeding, securely fenced in away from the village. Chickens run about freely between the houses. However remote it may be, the villagers, Q’echi Indians, know about the good life.

The positive impression made by the village today is thanks to its inhabitants and their willingness to educate themselves further. They were helped to build their new village by the “Non-governmental Organization for Integral Village Development in Indian Areas”, ADICI, the project partner of the IIZ/DVV. The current villagers had lived hidden in the jungle during the 36 years of civil war. When the peace agreement was signed in 1996, they dared to settle once more –albeit somewhere that they did not know. After three years the Government granted the Q’echi Indians new land rights. “ADICI helped us to legally register the land on which we live and then to organize ourselves,” recalls Valeriano Macz. The villagers set up an umbrella organization, the Asociación Campesina del Norte, with five committees on credit and loans, women, education, agriculture and marketing.

Harvesting Profits

“We can get loans for our projects through our Asociación,” explains Rosario Ché. Unlike individuals, the state authorities will recognise an organization as credit-worthy. A start-up capital of 755 dollars was sufficient for the Q’echi women to buy chickens and all the equipment they needed to keep them. They are now already making a profit. The Agriculture Committee received advice from ADICI about appropriate technologies. The Q’echi men applied the new ecological practices so well that they were able to double the maize harvest. And they now knew how to store the crop. Previously, the maize had simply been kept on the ground in the house, openly accessible to mice and other small animals. Now a metal silo was built so that the entire crop would be kept without loss: it was enough for their own consumption and for sale. The Q’echi immediately reinvested the profits from chickenrearing and sales of maize: in pigs. Here too, ADICI training led to considerable changes. Before, pigs had run freely around the village. They frequently ate or trampled down crops and with them the seed for the following year. Having received advice from ADICI, the Q’echi men and women, who rear the hens together, decided to fence them in. The pigs now feed the village rather than demolishing it.

Working Together

Working together to till the land and keep animals is in fact an Indian tradition on which ADICI builds, making it more effective by structur ing it. The 20 families of the village of Cancho Caoba Xyaab’al I’x have noticed that they clearly achieve more together. “We support our women, so that they can work with us,” says Roberto Ché, “but it isn’t always easy on account of the children. Many women also can’t read and write, and that makes it harder for them to join in.” Santos Col agrees with him: “The courses often last a whole day. It’s not so easy to stay away from our other work for so long.” But they and the Q’echi women have also come to see the positive side: “Learning and working as a group is much easier.” And it works.

“The chickens and pigs give us meat for the village,” says Amalia Quiix with relief. Together with ADICI, the villagers looked for sources of income to cover their living expenses once a basic food supply was assured. They decided to grow cardamom. The plant is one of the finest and most expensive spices. An aromatic oil extract can be derived from cardamom seeds. In Germany, cardamom is also widely used in spiced Christmas confectionery, especially in gingerbread. Alongside coffee, sugar, bananas and beef, cardamom is one of Gua- temala’s main exports. First of all, the Q’echi Indians sold the seeds un processed as pergamino. Then they obtained a further loan and bought a special machine for drying the seeds. Now they can earn more from selling their product.

Building on Traditions

The Q’echi are now starting to discuss with ADICI what they have learnt and their own traditions. Many traditions could not be observed during the years of the armed conflict, and many were forgotten. Gradually, the villagers have acquired the peace and the leisure to return to the ceremonial rituals of their rural life and to take them up once again. This helps them in many ways to heal the wounds of the military conflict. “The women particularly are giving a new impetus to Indian culture from within,” “I’m no longer afraid of speaking in public,” observes Ursula Klesing-Rempel, head of the IIZ/DVV Regional Office in Central America. The village elders used to make all the most important decisions for the community. The project has taught women and men of all ages to discuss things together. women say proudly. They are bringing a new perspective to the debate, as a result of which many decisions have been different from what they used to be.

By organizing themselves, the Q’echi have succeeded relatively quickly in assuring themselves of food and an income. The inhabitants of Cancho Caoba Xyaab’al I’x are now going one step further by taking part in an afforestation programme. Heavy rainfall and forest fires destroy many square kilometres of forest in Guatemala every year. The bare earth is then unprotected against erosion. A state agency covers the cost of tree seedlings. ADICI organized the requisite training for the villagers, and 6000 seedlings have already been planted. The trees protect the earth and store water. They and their offshoots preserve the newly acquired land for the Q’echi to farm – and make the clay road passable.

Poverty in Guatemala

Guatemala is the second-poorest country in the American continent according to the Human Development Index, with which the United Nations measures standards of living worldwide. Society is divided between rich and poor. The middle class is tiny and economically unstable. Historically the country has also been divided between “Indios” and “Ladinos”. This social division makes it harder to develop common political perspectives. While the majority of the Ladinos live in towns and are among the better-off, the Indians are generally poor farmers. Among women aged 15 years and over, the national average rate of those who can read and write is 39 per cent, but among indigenous women illiteracy is anything up to 90 per cent. The highest rates of illiteracy are found in states where Indians form the majority: Quiché and Alta Verapaz. In Alta Verapaz lies the village of Cancho Caoba Xyaab’al I’x, whose 140 inhabitants are supported by the IIZ/DVV through its partner organization ADICI.