SEG helps to support member go on learning tour to Guatemala
by Margaret Burnett
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation for the support of the amazing opportunity that I had to travel to, and learn about Guatemala in March 2017.
As outlined in my application, I travelled on a learning tour with a group supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Canada and Guatemala. The goals of this experience included walking with the Mayan indigenous community to learn about their culture, history and current challenges, study and observe ongoing projects currently funded by MCC and to provide support for these projects. We also visited several areas in Guatemala to learn about the contrasts in this beautiful central American country. My overall summary following our experience is that the trip met all of these goals, in fact exceeded many expectations and also provided so many more opportunities than I had thought possible.
I should begin describing out group – we were a group of 12 people from Southern Ontario and BC, ranging in age from 19 to 83 - all very adventurous and outgoing. We had two prep meetings where we met each other, learned about Guatemala and some basic Spanish and discussed activities and things we would be witnessing on our to help us be culturally and ethically good travelers.
I found Guatemala to definitely be a land of contrasts and the tour illustrated this daily. It is beautiful and rich in colour, striking geography with many volcanoes, tropical vegetation and we had beautiful weather while we were there. All of this really made the trip enjoyable. However the best part of the trip for me was meeting so many Guatemalans from many walks of life. Everyone was friendly, inviting, extremely generous, kind and very proud of their country. They acknowledge a rocky recent history of civil war and unrest but they are working hard to move forward.
Throughout our time, we learned about the history of this country from several viewpoints. The civil war in this country was happening when I was in late high school and University but I can honestly say that I knew very little about this - perhaps because of my age at the time, and / or lack of news reporting – but this happened in my lifetime and it was very eye opening to see the impact of civil war between two cultures in a country, heavily impacted by the arrival of Europeans to Central America. The Mayan indigenous groups currently make up about 40% of the population – the remaining mostly Latino. It made me ponder what the Canadian political scene would be like if the native population was represented at this level in Canada.
There were so many highlights – I could write for ever. I will highlight a couple for the purpose of this report. We visited several projects that are supported by MCC that are making a significant difference in people’s lives – in particular those in remote Mayan communities. One project is actually finishing its support as the project is now fully sustainable. Trout farm coops were created in a high mountain village – providing income and food for the families there. They have recently learned to hatch their own fingerlings enabling them to maximize the profits and sustainability of the trout farms. This is truly a community project – several ponds housed at various locations throughout the village but they work together to ensure all are successful. This has been paired with education on market gardening –again providing an income – in particular for the women – but also improved nutrition as they have learned about the value of including fresh vegetables and fruit. The community has also constructed a cooperatively run backpacking lodge to house trekkers to the local (and highest) volcano in the area. Families take turn managing the facility and making meals for the guests – it was one of my most favorite overnight stays on the trip. I loved knowing where our accommodation $$ were going! The end result - this is no longer a dying community but rather a healthy vibrant community that is growing and providing better services for residents of all ages. One of the challenges we learned about is the migration issue. Because so many indigenous people are living in poverty – they feel pressured to look for ways to support their family. Often this means the men leave the community for extended periods of time –and sometimes – trying to migrate through Mexico into the US to achieve “the American Dream”. We learned of so many horror stories of how this has gone very wrong and in fact news since out return – I have heard many news reports of these tragedies – I think because I am listening with more open ears. The project I described above – is providing ways for families to stay together and have meaningful employment and better quality lives.
ANADESA is a project in a community around Lake Atitlan. This community was almost completely wiped out by a land slide during a hurricane in 2010. MCC responded at that time for disaster relief. Once this support was nearing the end – it was clear that a different type of support was needed for the community. ANADESA was formed in conjunction with the local Mayan community with social goals to support the integral formation and sustainable development of communities; and of children, youth and women through programs of education, formation and community development. They provide educational support to encourage youth to go and stay in school, (barriers are finances and tutoring as education is often in Spanish and most families do not have these language skills and result in a very low indigenous education rate – even to grade 6) provide employment and empowerment for women in a society that often does not value their contribution, adult education, tourism development with cultural experiences and hospitality and much more. We were housed (and fed) with families – who were paid and trained to provide these services in their home – again I loved that our accommodation $$ directly assisted families. This was a very powerful experience – our host sharing everything they had in a very modest setting – open air kitchen where she taught me to make tortillas despite a language barrier – learning what living conditions were really like in rural Guatemala and the challenges facing these families. Such lovely people – a very big highlight of the trip. The cultural experiences hosted at the ANADESA center were fantastic and very educational and we witnessed first-hand the impact of their ongoing education activities. They have made a big impact on children going to school to grade 6 and they are now looking for ways to encourage and facilitate education beyond grade 6.
One final highlight. We visited an organic coffee plantation coop and learned all about the entire process – types of plants, processing etc. - witnessed first-hand the manual labour involved in producing my daily cup of coffee. This coop was fantastically run and organized – I was very impressed with their mandate – families involved must have all of their children in school – no child labour, organic practices only for long term benefit of the community (trying to deal with the pollution in Lake Atitlan). We asked about why they did not also obtain Fair Trade status and I learned the high cost for this status. They have Fair Trade principles and practices but the cost is so high that it would significantly take away from the profits of the coop – they feel being organic is more important for the people of Guatemala. Interesting take as Free Trade is not all it seems - am I making good coffee choices?
This is but a brief overview. The experience far exceeded my expectations and was a very authentic experience – I loved every minute and would return if the opportunity arose. I made some very good Guatemalan friends, and learned much about Guatemala, civil war, Central America history and current challenges, how working together and empowering people to achieve their own goals, the value of projects driven by the community involved. I enjoyed this type of travel and will seek more opportunities of this kind. I also created many questions – how do I take this information and apply it to my work at UW (ie empowering my staff to achieve their goals) and in my community (how I treat and welcome newcomers, indigenous people) and how I can give back to these projects and communities?
Many thanks once again for your support of this experience. Please let me know if you would like any additional information.