Last week, Pete, Steve C, Candido, Pedro and myself drove to Comunidad Nueva Alianza, our strongest community partner in Guatemala. We’ve been working with them since 2005 on biogas, solar hot water and micro-hydro as the community has been very interested in both renewable energy and mechanisms for developing sustainably. I hadn’t been back in 2.5 years and it was amazing to see all the changes that had taken place over that time, particularly the work that XelaTeco had done (What can I say? I’m biased).
Background on the Community
Comunidad Nueva Alianza, located in El Palmar, Quetzaltenango, is a coffee and macadamia plantation owned and operated by a cooperative of forty families (roughly 200-250 people). The plantation is fair trade and organic, though not currently officially certified. They have, however, begun the long and costly certification process through the help of Cafe Conciencia.
Democracia Social Participativa
Profits raised by the community’s main 3 enterprises, agriculture, ecotourism, and the bottling of spring water, are divided amongst the residents and used to improve the health, education and living conditions within the cooperative.
Alianza Agua Pura
The families at Alianza, many of whom had been working that plantation land for 3 generations, came to own it after a long hard slog with the previous owner. In the 1990’s, coffee prices on the international market plummeted to their lowest real levels in the 20th century due to overproduction by coffee-producing nations. Throughout Guatemala, plantation owners were forced to leave the business and/or sell their farms. The owner of Alianza tried to soldier on by slashing costs and tightening belts, more specifically by not paying his laborers. From 1998 and continuing on for 18 months, the workers did not receive wages. Many hoped that back pay would be granted when the market picked up. Some stayed on and subsisted by gathering wild plants while the farm went into default. Others left to find work elsewhere.
When it was clear that the owner had no intention of compensating them, they sued for the back wages. To avoid his debts, the owner transfered his assets to his wife and declared bankruptcy. The bank repossessed the land and through some dodgy shenanigans, the owner’s brother was granted control of the property. Through advice received from several union organizations, the workers of Alianza occupied the land to force negotiations with the bank and the Guatemalan government. The following bargain was struck: if the workers would agree that the bank/financial group was not liable for back wages, they could buy the land. Through the Land Trust (Fondo de Tierras), a Guatemalan governmental organization to promote agrarian reform, they obtained a low-interest rate loan (0% for the first 4 yrs, 4% for the next 8) to purchase the property. December 18, 2004, they received title to the land.
The work by Fondo de Tierras can in no way be called an unqualified success. Many of the communities that have received similar loans are struggling to pay their debt despite the satisfactory loan conditions. Alianza has been particularly lucky to have exceptional leadership, community resolve, enterprising spirit, access to committed volunteers (gringo and chapin), technology transfer, and grants/financing from the UNDP, World Bank, etc.
Three of CNA’s residents (including the community’s leader Javier Jimenez) plus some of the many people who have passed through to lend a helping hand.
CNA and Renewable Energy
As I mentioned early, the members of Alianza have been very open to using renewable energy on the plantation and testing out new technologies. We first met Javier Jimenez, the community’s leader, in 2005 when they was looking for a contractor to build a micro-hydroelectric system on site as well as install an electrical distribution system to the residents’ homes. With the help of Erick Gonzalez Sr, the father of two of XelaTeco’s staff, Alianza had won a grant from the UNDP for the project.
Hydro system Manifold
The hydro system, completed in 2006, is operating very well. This time of year is the dry season which means less water for hydropower. So currently the community is running it primarily at night. A problem that they are having right now is that as they have become more prosperous, the capacity of the system is fast becoming too small for them. The max output for the system is 16KW which for 40 families gives you only about 400 Watts per household. Great for small appliances like cell phones and radios or for lighting, but rubbish is you want to use anything with a motor, like a blender for tasty licuados. Luckily and through great forward planning on their part, the distribution system installed by XelaTeco can be plugged into the national grid once a grid extension to those parts occurs. The community is still deciding how to use the hydropower once they make that transition. One idea is to use it exclusively for the eco-hostel. It is a bit of a bummer (okay a big bummer) to think of them going from clean to dirty energy, but they need more power than their existing renewable resources can provide. [As an aside, they previously tried photovoltaics. From what I hear, but they found them lacking. Too cloudy during the rainy season presumably.]
Biodiesel production during Hurricane Stan. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Rudolf
The Biodiesel Building
In addition to biogas, the Community has had a decent amount of biodiesel production. One of their first batches of biodiesel helped them weather Hurricane Stan and continue running their water purification business. In the past, they were contemplating making biodiesel from castor beans or jatropha grown on the plantation. For now, that project is still on hold.
From experience, Comunidad Nueva Alianza is one of the best examples of a worker-owned cooperative/community successfully loosening the chains of poverty through the embrace of sustainability.