Building the foundations for self-sufficiency and sustainability in Guatemala

Dona Catalina has seen a lot of strife in her lifetime. So it's a pleasure to sense her quiet pride as she walks me through her fields.

Catalina is one of 30 women in her community who has been trained as a promoter of organic, sustainable agriculture. After four years she's seeing the fruits of her labour, with a bigger and more diverse harvest. And she's committed to training eight more women—with equally promising prospects.

We are in La Lupita, a community on the Costa Sur of Guatemala. Catalina, a young woman in 1982, fled this area, escaping the violence and repression of the scorched earth campaigns launched by the Guatemalan military. Her family first sought refuge in the Ixcan, fleeing the coast to hide in the central highlands. But the death and destruction followed them there and in 1988 they again fled to Quintana Roo in the south of Mexico, where they lived as refugees until 1995.

After years of negotiations to secure land and safe passage, before the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Catalina and her neighbours returned to the Costa Sur to begin a new life.

"There was nothing here when we got here," she tells me. "It had been a large cattle ranch and there wasn't a tree in sight—and no firewood to be found." Today it's green and well shaded—with most homes surrounded by flowering trees and bushes fully abloom at this time of year with hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani, sacuanjoche and more.

Catalina grows corn, of course, interplanted with beans, squash, sesame, peanuts and a wide range of vegetables and greens. After years using commercial fertilizers and pesticides, she no longer pays the high costs for toxic chemicals, relying instead on compost and organic treatments she prepares herself. 

The results have been very gratifying though she admits ants have devoured a portion of her sesame crop. "I'd have to stand here all day spraying the plants [with a natural pesticide] to keep the ants at bay," she tells me.

As well, Catalina has banana and plantain and an orchard of lime and mandarin orange trees, mangoes and cashew; most for her own use, some for sale. On a third of her land she has a woodlot; the only one in her community.

Appalled she had to buy firewood when she first arrived, she sowed some trees and protected others so they would grow naturally. She now sells firewood, stakes and fence posts while conserving hardwoods and bigger trees.

With a cow and some poultry and only three mouths to feed—herself, her husband and a 20-year old daughter—Catalina is pretty much self-sufficient, producing enough to meet her needs and share with others and selling the surplus to meet her cash needs.

As part of the return package, each family in La Lupita received six manzanas or about ten acres of land as well as a plot for their home and garden. And after waiting more than a decade, those families who lost homes now have fine new cement block homes and latrines. With schools and a health post, sports fields and community buildings, the quality of life is good compared with many communities in Guatemala. And Catalina welcomes her good fortune.

But there remain many challenges. After walking the perimeter of her fields, Catalina and I join a meeting convened by Madre Tierra, the group that trained her in sustainable farming methods. There are about 30 women and men and a few fidgeting children seated in a circle, sweltering in the midday heat. 

They share their concerns about the lack of support for small producers and pending constitutional changes that undermine land rights. They note parts of the peace accords remain unfulfilled and complain they have been forgotten by the government. Roads and services are poor. Privatized electricity rates are very high. And while they aren't in the most dangerous parts of Guatemala, they are not immune to its violence.

But their most immediate concern is the impact on their lives of the huge plantations that surround them. La Lupita is tucked in among mega-monoculture farms that grow sugarcane, palm oil, pineapple and the proverbial bananas for brands like Dole and Chiquita.

They describe how despite their hard work and best efforts they remain concerned their food is contaminated by pesticides sprayed from planes flying over the plantations and ground water that runs from drainage ditches. They cite rashes and kidney problems and worry about cancers.

They relate how their homes were flooded and crops lost last year when the irrigation gates along a nearby river were closed to protect the plantations, diverting water onto their lands. They worry their own wells could run dry as new wells, ten times deeper than their own, are drilled to meet the plantations' insatiable thirst.

Madre Tierra, which is part of the Alianza de Mujeres Rurales (the Rural Women's Alliance), an Oxfam partner, is working with the community to tackle these issues. Through training, mobilizing and support for collective action, they are building the community's capacity and resilience. They're also helping ensure the community's voice is heard at the municipal and national level as they press for the structural changes needed to assure respect for their rights and improved living conditions.

There are some very powerful actors arrayed against them—a mix of national and transnational interests that don't much care what happens to the citizens of La Lupita. But Catalina and her neighbours know what it means to struggle. And they're not prepared to give up.

Robert Fox is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada. He is in Central America visiting Oxfam Canada partners.