Yesterday (Friday), we left Quetzaltenango at 7 AM to make a 4-hour trip along winding roads to San Lucas to meet with folks from the CCDA, Comite Campesino del Altiplano (Highlands Committee of Peasants). On the bus ride, we reviewed some of what we had each learned at our Wellstone action trainings last year (I had flown to Chicago for an intensive training in political advocacy work last November as part of my AJWS fellowship): how grassroots organizations (step 1) can put enough pressure on electoral politics (step 2) to make real and lasting policy change (step 3). We know that the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. was a successful model of this kind of grassroots pressure (and I watched the amazing movie “Selma” through my Wellstone-trained eyes), and it’s pretty obvious through this lens that the Occupy movement was a failed grassroots effort, as it did not move on to the electoral politics stage to make lasting political change.
CCDA is a grassroots organization (the kind that AJWS likes to fund) which has been successful in the political realm. They do organizing, training and advocacy work. The CCDA works in 13 regions throughout Guatemala to confront land rights challenges for mainly rural, Mayan populations (many Mayans have been displaced because of mining and hydro-electric dams — here’s my REMINDER to you to see the documentary “Gold Fever”), including compiling accounts of human rights abuses against indigenous farmers and advocating for national legislation that will protect their rights. In the last 15 years, they got back the rights to 76 fincas (plantations) that had been improperly appropriated, and another 15 farms will be returned to their proper owners by the end of 2015. Equally impressive is that in the upcoming elections, they have 36 candidates running for congressional as well as mayoral and other municipal positions.
They also harvest and sell 25 different brands of coffee, in addition to macadamia nuts, honey, and raw sugar. (Buy fair trade coffee, folks! It is the just thing to do! This plea is to my husband, first and foremost, who is inconsistent about buying fair trade coffee, despite viewing the world through the lens of economic justice). By helping local farmers gain organic certification for their coffee beans and then selling them to global partners willing to pay fair trade prices, the CCDA has improved the economic stability of indigenous communities. The profits they generate are distributed to the farmers’ families and also invested in local projects like chicken coops and community gardens which benefit the entire community. In our small break-out group, Soyla told us that she is able now to send her daughter to school because of the chickens she raises. Her neighbors have seen how she has benefited economically and are now interested in joining CCDA. This is life-changing in the indigenous communities where 52% of children under age 5 are chronically malnourished and 58% of the people live in poverty.
However, for all this work of protecting the land, of producing food, of diversifying the local economy, and doing training to offer their youth skills with computers, cameras and a radio station, 84 of their community leaders have arrests out against them for challenging the status quo. One young man who uses Facebook says he doesn’t use his own name because it would be dangerous to do so.
In our small group comprised of CCDA members representing each of 3 areas (the youth, the production, and advocacy), I asked what each of them thought CCDA’s greatest achievement was. These are among the responses:
— “bringing women to the forefront and hearing our voices because in Guatemala women don’t usually have that opportunity.”
— “involving children again in agriculture the way their ancestors did.”
— “growing our own food.”
— “the trainings for defense of our way of life. We as indigenous people are exploited, our voices are not listened to, and we don’t want to live like that anymore.”
— “we want to struggle for a better life — access to land, health, education, dignity — so the government is more responsive to the needs of women, young people and old people.”
Of all those who spoke, I most connected with Arkavia who held my eyes as she said, “The land used to belong to us and it’s been taken from us. Our ancestors possessed this wealth and then they were tricked into giving it away. We, as women, have a right to demand.” Later she told me that a lot of blood has been spilled. “We have to be strong because of the violence in 1982. The army killed my husband. We have to be strong.” She is an organizer who teaches women the milpa system, a holistic system of growing the “3 sister” crops of corn, beans and squash which support each other for healthy land. Though both Rambo (our guide) and Megan (AJWS in-country consultant) had told us about some of their experience of the war, Arkavia’s was the first shared at one of our NGO visits. She cried telling it (she spoke in Spanish and someone interpreted for me), and I’m grateful for her open heart which pierced mine.
After our visit with the CCDA, Ruth Messinger said that the organization has become far more sophisticated since she last visited around 4 years ago. She also noted that the AJWS natural resources portfolio (under which CCDA falls) is a hard one to sell to donors, as it’s not sexy like the civil/political rights or the SHR portfolios (sexual health and rights). But it was such a holistic organization, working on so many fronts, that I found CCDA to be incredibly compelling.
If I didn’t make it clear already that this trip is very intense, let me reiterate. If we are not visiting with an NGO, we are processing that meeting and applying what we saw and learned to the next piece of learning, or reading something to discuss, or hearing Ruth’s perspective on U.S. foreign aid, or having to prepare something to share with the group. There has been so much learning above and beyond our visits with the NGO’s that I will be very excited to share and to integrate into my teaching and my worldview.
That is all to say that even the hour-long boat ride across Lake Atitlan to get to our hotel was used for learning. Lilach and Adina taught about a concept used in public health called “upstream/downstream.” Except for disaster relief, the AJWS method is to work upstream where the problems start rather than downstream where you may see immediate results for your charitable giving, but which doesn’t address the real underlying problem. Advocacy work is the name of the game, and that’s what all of these organizations we’ve met with do as a big part of their mission.
We spent Shabbat in Paradise, where lush gardens and toucans and parrots could be seen from both my front door and on the back terrace. I was thrilled to finally get a swim, and to share lovely worship and conversation with now-beloved colleagues. This morning we each took and led something from the service. Ruth gave an incredible teaching about our responsibility to the other based on Mishna Sotah. In the afternoon, we walked to a local nature preserve abutting the hotel property to see spider monkeys and the butterfly gardens, and we crossed three quite wobbly suspension bridges to see a waterfall.
Because AJWS is so intentional about its work and about process, we already began the conversation about transitioning to home and how we will respond to the question “How was your trip?” We are using bus time tomorrow to ask each other that question and help hone in on the message we want to give.
So, please be sure to ask me how my trip was. What you have gotten in this blog isn’t even the half of it.
BTW, to get this blog done, I’m getting by on 4-5 hours of sleep a night, but it’s really important for me to keep this learning close by writing about it and to keep you in the loop, day by day. I’m so grateful that you are reading!