La Florida. View from the plantation house.
All of my ancestors lived in poverty.
They all worked on the fincas
And left nothing for their children
I may live in poverty as well
But I hope that my children can harvest
The fruit of my labour here
And break the circle of poverty
The campesino Jose Abel of La Florida [link].
My last weekend in Guatemala before heading back to the States, I went on a mini TecoTour to La Florida with Carlos Poza (tour leader) and 8 very cool volunteers. La Florida is one of our newest community partners as well as a favorite place of many of our interns. It’s a three hour jaunt from Xela to Colomba with the last hour and a half following a windy cobblestone road past coffee fincas, bamboo, jungles and waterfalls. The finca currently grows cash crops such as coffee, cacao and macadamia. They also plant corn, tomatoes and various fruits and as well as raise sheep, pigs, cows and bees. Their honey is excellent.
Saturday evening of the tour, Don Lorenzo sat us down and told us the story of SCIDECO (Sociedad Civil Para el Desarollo de Colomba – Civil Society for the Development of Colomba), the cooperative that owns La Florida. The following is a mixture of the story he relayed to us that night, supplemented with additional information from Chris Michael and Prensa Libre.
The struggle during the war years
SCIDECO’s initial struggle began with an attempt to organize finca workers operating in the Colomba area. In early 1982, La Organisacion Campesino por Tierra (the Peasant Association for Land), as they were called then, was created to unionize campesinos and obtain better treatment and wages on plantations. During this time period, the normal daily wage for plantation workers was about 25 Quetzales for men and 12Q for women. Finca owners often didn’t pay as promised; exploitation and sexual abuse of female workers were not uncommon.
In 1982, Guatemala was 22 years into its brutal 36-year civil war. It was a dangerous time to form a union, as any attempt by laborers to organize could be interpreted as guerrilla activity, which was often punishable by swift a execution.
Over the next several years and as the union grew in size and strength, the membership decided that they wanted to own a finca of their own and attempted to purchase the nearby La Esmeralda. Despite the help and support of the local Catholic church, these early plans failed. The union lacked the necessary capital and wasn’t officially registered with the Guatemalan government. In addition, the primary government program designed to help campesinos obtain land, INTA (Instituto Nacional de TransformaciÃ³n Agraria – National Institute for Agrarian Transformation), was underfunded. In 1990, SCIDECO was officially born and restarted the long process of trying to buy land.
Here is where things started to get really difficult for SCIDECO’s members. Some were indeed accused by finqueros (finca owners) of being guerrillas fighters or communists; others where fired from their jobs on other plantations and blacklisted. Many members fled, going to Xela, Palmera, Mercedes, San Juan, Pensamiento, etc. etc. But still they planned.
In 1996, the Peace Accords were signed and the war was over. The UN-backed accords called for many reforms, including agrarian land reform and resettlement of displaced persons. With help from USAID, the Guatemalan government budgeted $9,000,000 for the Land Fund (Fondo de Tierra), which was to replace INTA. Around this time, international coffee prices tanked hitting records lows. Many finqueros had to abandon their farms. Some cut wages. Some of the more unscrupulous types stopped paying their laborers altogether.
The war is over, but a new fight looms
In 2000, Rafael Monson, the owner of La Florida, was having financial problems. He couldn’t pay his mortgage. Bancafe put a lien on the property and later reclaimed it. October 11, 2002, the 50 families in SCIDECO decided to peacefully occupy the abandoned plantation. After over a decade of negotiations with the government, they felt this was the only way.
According to the farm’s records, there had been 200 plus families living on the farm; only 34 remained after bankruptcy proceedings. SCIDECO asked some of these families if they wanted to join in the occupation. Most refused. They were afraid. There had never been any successful attempts in the area before. Police and hired guns were given license to crack heads and in some communities campesinos had been killed. For more than two years SCIDECO members lived in ramshackle houses on La Florida and in constant fear.
Seven months into the occupation another group, El Esfuerzo [the Effort], laid claim to sections of la Florida. The plantation, itself, was 47 acres, with more than enough land to accommodate both groups. In fact with only 50 families, it would have been very difficult for SCIDECO to farm/operate the entire property. So they formed a commission and asked El Esfuerzo if they wanted to join forces with them. No dice. So it was decided that they should fight separately and whoever got a loan from the government first, could keep the property. SCIDECO tried to negotiate with Bancafe and MAGA, but with two groups vying for the same land, the bank and government were having none of it. Their response was essentially ‘work it out amongst yourselves; you both need to peacefully withdraw’. Feeling that they would never get the land, both sides left.
5 months later, however, in April 2005, La Florida was successfully purchased by SCIDECO through a government loan of 6.5 million Quetzales (USD $850,000). They have 8 years to pay off the debt and 0% interest. Huzzah!
Shortly after receiving title (the paperwork delivered in a grand fashion by the President Oscar Berger), another community group from San Marcos (Acaflor – AsociaciÃ³n Comunitaria Agraria Florida ) asked if they could get some of the land. Much of it wasn’t being used at the time because there weren’t enough families to work it. SCIDECO said sure, but (and there’s always a but) Acaflor members had to participate in the collective activities of the group. Depending on time of year and proximity to the harvest, the families at La Florida would work from 6 AM to 1 PM for the collective and after that they could work their own piece of land. This is not what Acaflor had it mind. They didn’t share SCIDECO’s vision of a community cooperative; they instead wanted to divide the property and own individual plots. For SCIDECO who had been struggling and striving together for 2 decades, this was non-negotiable. And in 2006, so began a longstanding, sometimes armed, conflict between the two community groups. Death and lynching threats sprouted.
Through negotiations mediated by the local Catholic church, the conflict has recently been resolved. This past March, SCIDECO agreed to sign away land to Acaflor if the government agreed to forgive their debt. It has been. They don’t owe a penny.
AIDG, XelaTeco and La Florida
AIDG and XelaTeco will be helping La Florida’s community meet their energy needs. SCIDECO has registered for a UNDP Grant that would allow them to upgrade their inefficient electrical distribution system and extend it to their homes. This is the same program that awarded Nueva Alianza funds for their hydro-electricity project.
At night, the families eat by candlelight. Here, Wilma feeds her parrot Tomas.
We have installed a biodigester as an outreach project for the community that will provide gas for the communal kitchen. The system will not only generate fuel, but also offers a sanitation remediation solution. Lacking other options previously, they had had to dispose of animal waste in the nearby river.
Several SCIDECO families are also interested in obtaining rocket box stoves as they find the smoke from traditional cookstoves and wood fires to be irritating to their eyes and lungs. They are currently talking with XelaTeco about financing options.
Rosalinda and Josefina testing the rocket box stove in the community kitchen.
Josefina’s son Sergio David with TecoTour volunteer Jose.
Traditional cooking methods over an open fire.
One Year Later: La Comunidad La Florida and the Campesino Struggle for Justice [pdf]