Guatemala: No place like home
For the past two years, I’ve gone to Guatemala in the spring, tagging along with my nephew’s church to build simple homes for poor people in remote villages. It’s eye opening, to say the least.
Most of us only see real poverty on TV news clips. Go to a place like Guatemala (the first Central American country south of Mexico) and you’ll see it up close. It will change your perspective on poverty.
Many Guatemalan families live in houses with walls made of cornstalks. A family with five kids may live in a 100-square-foot hut and eat corn tortillas with a little bean paste three meals a day.
Guatemala is the second-poorest nation (after Haiti) in the Western Hemisphere. With a land area about the size of one Midwest state, 80% of its 13 million people live in poverty. The 50% lucky enough to have a job make about $5 a day. (A million Guatemalans live and work in the U.S.)
But sometimes you catch a glimmer of hope, even in such poverty. It happened to me last May, and that hope sprang from a little group of farmers.
NORMAN BORLAUG SPIRIT
I’d taken a few days off from house building to explore the agriculture of Guatemala, and I happened upon the village of Zaragosa, about an hour west of Guatemala City. I was taken there by
Rudy Navichoc, one of my hosts at the Norman Borlaug Institute, which works to enhance food production in poor nations. It’s named for the late Nobel Prize recipient, who launched the Green Revolution in the 1950s.
Zaragosa is noted for its livestock farms, a special interest of mine. Of all my time in Guatemala, I’ve never felt more at home than I did that day.
Something clicked, and those farmers adopted me.
SINK OR SWIM
The first farmer I meet was Jesus Guzman. In a small courtyard, he told me he was president of the local dairy farmer association. Within a few minutes, his neighbors and fellow members started arriving. One by one, they grabbed a chair, expanded the circle, and joined our discussion.
Eventually, 20 people sat in our circle. Of the 25 association members, 20 showed up to meet the farm reporter from the U.S. I’m flattered and impressed.
Three years ago, these dairy farmers were sinking individually from low production and prices. So they decided to organize and try to swim together. Several multinational dairy corporations had moved into Guatemala, and they were taking over the market. One group from Spain had 900 cows, they heard, and these Zaragosa farmers wanted to compete.
Their goal was to pool their milk and get government certification to process it, brand it, and market it as farm-fresh from Guatemalan family farmers. Individually, they couldn’t do that; but with 100 cows together, they had critical mass.