Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

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Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Finca la Florida: ‘eco-tourist’, fair trade community, Colomba, Quetzaltenango

A brief word of warning! This is a long post with lots of pictures…sit back with some Fair Trade coffee…

From Xela I headed to Finca la Florida, a tiny community that grow fair trade coffee and promote eco-tourism. It was a couple of bus rides away and as I planned on returing to Xela I didn’t have any inclination to cycle there. Good thing I didn’t as the Finca is 12-15 km off the main road via some steep dirt roads.

With this visit I managed to get some kind of plan and a phone call to Rosaura at the Finca meant she knew I was on my way. Still, when I started walking up the road towards where I thought the Finca was, and greeted by Frankie, a young lad who unsettled me from the start, I wondered if I had made the right choice. Frankie does actually live in the Finca but my first encounter with him, his strange mannerisms, indecipherable speech and his willingness to show me his machete put me on edge for the rest of the walk there.

Luckily Rosaura greeted me when we arrived and put me at ease. I was shown to my ‘room’ and then quickly ordered over (in a nice way) to Miriam’s, where I would eat all my meals whilst staying there.

Finca la Florida is part of the organisation SCIDECO (Sociedad Civil para el Desarrollo de Colomba [Civil Society for the Development of Colomba]) that was formed in the 1980s during the civil war. The Finca produces coffee, bananas, macadamia nuts and cacao as well as other forms of subsistence agriculture such as farm animals and beans. They have also tried to establish an ‘eco-tourist’ project for foreign visitors and volunteers to come and stay. It is a self-sustaining community and everyone who lives there works together for its common good.

The history of the ‘project’ is very unique. In 2002 a group of landless peasants of SCIDECO began to occupy the Finca that had previously been abandoned by the owner years before. A three-year struggle followed, but in April 2005 the group were successful in its application to own the land, with the help of a loan from the government. There were many struggles over several years before this moment (for more insight, have a look at http://cafedigno.org/blog/). More struggles after 2005 followed, but at this point the community has no debt and owns the land as a community co-operative.

My visit was short so I only got a glimpse of the life the community has. The main resource the community has developed is their coffee. It is 100% organic and Fair Trade, and the group uses a larger, multi-organisation co-operative, Manos Campesinos, to export its coffee to the US and Europe. I also visited the Manos Campesinos office while I was in Xela.

The community seemed happy to have me there and were very hospitable. I ate with Miriam & Dionisio and their family, notably Merli and Esteban, the two youngest children. The food was simple but hearty and Miriam seemed to have no problem accommodating my vegan requirements. Lots of hand-made tortillas! Rosaura and her husband Esteban were also very warm and welcoming towards me.

Luckily for me my visit coincided with the coffee harvest time. It’s a very busy time for the community and everyone gets involved (usually coffee work is only done by men, but at harvest time women and children also contribute). Every day the coffee is picked and brought to the processing building to be washed. Coffee for export must be depulped and washed the same day. It is the left in huge tubs to ferment, after which it is ‘rinsed’ and set out to dry on large cement patios. Fermentation usually takes at least a day, and drying the same. Although hard work, the atmosphere is relaxed and happy. For the community this is a special time because coffee is their main source of income.

I got a tour of the finca and saw a few of the thousands of coffee bushes. In addition, I saw macadamia nut trees scattered around, and many banana trees. Bananas are typically harvested year-round and although plentiful, do not contribute a large source of income. On the morning I left, a truck full of bananas would earn the community only around CAN $650.

The community works ‘together’ on communal work each workday morning. In the afternoons and weekends people are able to work on their own plot of land. There is little opportunity for leisure days as a result. Most of the community gets up around 4am. I was woken each morning around that time when they kick-started the ‘tortilla machine’. This is when the tortilla dough is made for the day. Miriam probably makes 150 tortillas every day for her family. Even though the community has autonomy and exports its coffee as Fair Trade, it is still a very poor place.

Many families still live in tin-roofed shacks. Medical and dental facilities are lacking. Miriam says she rarely ventures to the nearest town (Colomba) because it costs money to get there. A pick-up truck comes a few times a week with basic food items for people to buy.

I was saddened about the progress of the ‘eco-project’. It looked like an ambitious undertaking. I was only one of a few visitors they had seen this year. Several rooms had been earmarked as accommodation, along with a ‘cafeteria’. When I was there, I stayed in what looked like the only habitable room. It had a bathroom but little water, and even a bidet… Electricity worked intermittently (it comes from a hydro-electric project, so in summer, the dry season, there’s much less electricity available). The cafeteria was full of junk and upstairs the balcony railings had been removed. Although it looked like reconstruction work was underway, it felt as though little progress had been made for a long while.

However, there were many decaying photos still pinned to the wall, showing how it had been only 2-3 years previously. Clearly it had been relatively popular at one point. Rosaura was keen to point out to me that they wanted to attract more visitors and helpers. So it is still in their plans to develop and refurbish the ‘casa grande’.

One of the major investments in the community of late was the opening of a new school (just 2 rooms) in 2010. It’s only at primary level, but the community has at least 50 youngsters so it is clearly needed. The teacher comes here from another community.

Events and festivals are rare here. I got a chance to see a community gathering, when there was a celebration for a female missionary who was leaving for Chiapas, Mexico after working in the local area for 12 years. A projector was rigged up, electricity coming from a generator, and a short film was shown, along with presentations and speeches for the guest of honour. Afterwards on the coffee patio, some of the younger people put on a play about some of the recent history of Guatemala. It had very limited resources, was funny in parts, and wouldn’t earn any awards for acting, but I was impressed that such a performance came from these group of people.

By my last evening, I was beginning to feel the sense of community within the finca. Although a very tough life, for the people here it is better than what they had before. They have autonomy and a willingness to share and work together. They want to provide a better life for their children and expose them to the outside world, which includes having outsiders coming to their community.

It’s possible to stay here for several weeks or months, but I was happy to get an insight into life here. A few days of ‘remoteness’ and limited facilities was a great experience but I was ready to get back to Xela and continue on with my trip.

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Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (III): Coffee visit, Chayotepec

I spent the next couple of days in the ‘village’ of Chayotepec. It is tiny; a collection of eight families perched in hillside dwellings at the end of the dirt road I’d travelled up the evening before. I didn’t really know what I’d let myself in for but it turned out to be hugely eye-opening and unlike anything I’d experienced before.

I’ve seen rural life in the developed world, but this was in another league, or at least to my eyes it was. From the buildings people lived in, to where they were situated, how they lived and got around, it was a real learning experience. I started out with breakfast at Irma’s (and went there for all my meals whilst in the village). Like most ‘houses’ in the village it is a basic brick building with open doorways and very random add-ons constructed. Coffee was available for each meal – easily available as most of the villagers have coffee bushes growing in their gardens that they roast and grind themselves. Despite the water (boiled over the stove which gave it a ‘tasty’ smoked flavour) the coffee was good.

After breakfast I spent some time with Rosendo, a coffee farmer. We walked and he showed me where his coffee bushes were located (more than 3,000 of them). It took me a while to notice the look of the bushes as they were growing amongst many other types of bushes and trees in the forest. The harvest doesn’t start until December so most of the berries I saw were still green. Rosendo is part of the UCIRI co-op (though some of the other villagers belong to another co-op) and he told me how that works for him and how it has benefitted him, his family and the community over the years. Unfortunately my Spanish is still limited so a lot of what he said I didn’t understand. His wife’s family also have neighbouring land where they grow coffee and it is all done in the traditional way using certified organic practices. Coffee-growing goes back many generations for them.

Village life still looks very traditional. The school has 11 pupils though it was clear that the ‘older’ young people had to leave the village for other opportunities. Irma has two daughters in the US and four of Rosendo’s children live elsewhere. The village has only had electricity within the last few years, and now they have TV and mobile phones. Internet access was not available when I was there. Everyone kept chickens, cows were kept in nearby pastures and everyone had some kind of fruit or vegetable tree growing on their land – mandarins, avocados, oranges, squash, peppers among others. I got to see how chiles are dried with a family who lived down the road from the village.

Time obviously works differently too. Most of the villagers are up early and the taxi leaves on its morning run to Santa Maria every day at 5am, repeating the round trip again in the afternoon. I got highly confused that the village runs on ‘normal’ time and not ‘summer’ time (1 hour ahead). I was early for all my meals…

I got a real sense that the people in the village seemed quite happy, despite the obvious hardships that life there can bring. Life is basic but everyone has what they need, including most of their teeth. I noticed most of the older adults had teeth missing and some gold replacements for the essential ones. It was funny just watching them when they had their mouth open. Most villagers seem to have a way of generating additional income outside of coffee. The ‘eco-tourist’ project has helped Rosendo and Irma’s families; the village taxi; villagers make or sell things for other villagers, such as cheese, peppers or fruit.

On the second night with rain having been falling steadily all day and the village clouded over, I got a little worried when the taxi didn’t seem to return ‘on time’. Perhaps the road got tricky, or the weather was really bad down below…and then I had to laugh at my Western way of thinking, of how we worry so much when things don’t run like clockwork. The taxi runs twice a day and has done for years and so of course they’ve experienced far worse than the weather I’d seen. It comes back when it comes back…not a minute sooner.

The promotion of the village as an eco-tourist destination is still in its formative phase, or so it looked to me, though they’ve been promoting it for a few years. There’s now a central learning centre (not quite finished) and five cabanas for tourists. The people offer guiding and an insight into local day-to-day life. But it’s not free! I was happy to support them in their project as it didn’t seem like they get many visitors right now. Cheese-making, local crafts, coffee, visiting the forest for animal and ecological interests were all possible. Rosendo told me about the numerous different animals and plants that can be found locally. It’s definitely an ‘escape’ and an easy place to switch off and learn about a whole different way of life.

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