Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bethine Church, Rest in Peace

          When my friend Stan Zuckerman called last night to say Bethine Church had just died I received the news calmly.  Stan has been a good friend of the family, particularly of Bethine’s son, Forrest, we had worked together on two Church political campaigns and we had visited Bethine together the week before.  She was obviously near the end of her long and productive life and we were pleased to have seen her one last time.  It was okay, it was time, we said to each other.

However as soon as I put down the phone I was sobbing.  I was not sobbing for Bethine the politician, the conservation leader, the woman being called the grand dame of Idaho Democratic politics.  That Bethine was not always an easy personality for me to deal with in the eight years I worked for her husband, gracious as she so frequently was.  I was sobbing for the woman I came to know since we both came home to Idaho in l984.

In “Being Alive and Having to Die,” a new book by Dan Cryer about Bethine’s son Forrest, Bethine is portrayed as busier as her husband’s partner and running mate than as Forrest's mother in the earliest years.  But I was mourning Bethine as the last mother I had in this world.

Neither of us said anything of the sort, you can be sure, but I knew she cared for me and tried to protect me as I entered politics myself, failed twice, and then moved near where she was living in Boise.   She was always great company, of course, but she was also always welcoming, caring and quite dear as the year went on. 

Among the many powerful and fascinating tributes to Nelson Mandela was one written by Paul Simon in the New York Times.   He recounted how his magical album, “Graceland,” had brought together the music of South Africa’s bitterly divided tribes (“Homeless” being Zulu and “Diamond’s on the Souls of Her Shoes” being Xhosa, for example) and how the project, controversial at the time of its creation, had been joyfully received by Mandela.  Simon wrote how incredible it seemed that Nelson Mandela was alive in our lifetime.  And that now he is with us only in memory.

I feel the same way about Bethine.  Yes, it was time.  But it is incredible that Bethine was such an important figure throughout virtually my entire adult life (I joined Frank’s staff in l963), that I lived under the cloak of her friendship for the last 27 of those years and that she is gone.  I will miss her.

There will be much celebration and a good time had by all when Bethine’s memorial takes place in January.   The Clark and Church families have been among the finest spirits in the history of Idaho.  I am quite confident a final gratitude will be accorded to Chase Church, Bethine’s son and her father’s namesake, and his wife Pam.  They were her constant support.

Chase tells the story of Frank and Bethine visiting countless nursing homes over their political career and of the often sad circumstances encountered.  They vowed to improve the lot of seniors and did so.  We forget that at the time Medicare was passed a majority of older Americans  lived in poverty.

In the retelling of the Senator’s life, attention is seldom paid to his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging but it was an important one.  I do not know the details but I believe Church played a swing role in how Social Security is indexed to inflation and how seniors can earn or receive other income while receiving Social Security, two issues being reexamined today.  They also campaigned for hospice.  That hospice is covered by Social Security and insurance today may be traced, in part, to the Church’s—one more legacy to add to the list.

Chase Church was his mother’s constant support during the last 27 years she spent in Idaho.  He and Pam were her caretakers during recent years when she needed more or less round-the-clock support.  They moved to a home compatible with her needs and one of them was with her or close at hand most every minute.  She died at home with the support of hospice as she wished.

In a famous family, it was left to Chase and Pam to demonstrate the greatest fealty, the most generous patience and the dearest care anyone could receive and to do so with enormous competence, faithfully and with humility.   This is a service equal in its own way to that of the rest of the family.  All those who loved Bethine honor and thank him today. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Korea # 26 How the U. S. Brought Land Reform to Japan and Korea

Korea # 26 The U.S. brings land reform to Asia

I am posting again on Korea two months after leaving there because my great question about Korea and Japan--how did land reform come to Japan, Taiwan, and Korea after World War II--has been answered. 

The answer comes from a new book, “How Asia Works” by Joe Studwell.  How is it that Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China in northern Asia succeeded brilliantly after the war while Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines in southern Asia , have largely failed to develop, Studewell ask?  The answer is two-fold:  first, the successful countries developed intensive, small-plot agriculture after World War II to provide a livelihood for a vast numbers of peasants and thereby built a consumer society; second, each country then intensely and at times ruthlessly built manufacturing industries for the world market.  The unsuccessful countries did neither.

The north of Asia succeeded and the south failed not because of climate or the natural advantage of geography.  The opposite is true:  Korea and Japan’s climate is less hospitable to agriculture than Malaysia or the Philippines.  Nor can success be traced to culture, which is roughly similar in north and south Asia.  Success was the result of correct, fortuitious and timely political, economic and institutional decisions, starting with agriculture. 

In previous posts we learned that in Japan the land of large landowners was somehow transferred into the hands of their former tenants after the war (which I heard from an innkeeper whose father was one of those favored tenants).  We surmised this was the doing of the Douglas MacArthur post-war administration of Japan, which seemed unlikely.  Yet it turns out to be true, according to “How Asia Works.”  The occupying U. S. government demanded land reform.  The Japanese government then bought land from larger landowners using long-term bonds and sold it to more than one million Japanese peasants on generous terms. 

The same thing happened in Korea; however it took the Korean War and pressure on the ultra-conservative head of the South Korean government to finally accomplish in 1953 what the U. S. had tried to impose at the end of its governing Korea in l948.  Hundreds of thousands of bitterly poor South Koreans were given land.  Then their villages were given modest aid (cement and re-bar) and 15 years later Korea had a consumer-based economy.

Only because small farms finally had surplus income and thus became consumers were they able to provide surplus labor which enabled these four countries to turn next to manufacturing for export.  Hyundai and Samsung would not have been possible today without land reform breaking the economic ground and generating surplus wealth to invest in manufacturing.

The idea of imposing land reform on Japan and its two former colonies, Korea and Taiwan, can be traced to a 1945 memorandum in the U.S. State Department anticipating Japan’s surrender. Its authors, George Atcheson Jr (who was then appointed to the MacArthur headquarters) and Robert A. Fearey (a pro-land reformer working for the Office of Far Eastern Affairs), might have been trying to blunt or preempt land reform pushed by the Communists in China and Korea.  The Communist’s Nationalist opponents in China had themselves approved of land reform even if they did not implement it widely.  This carried over to Taiwan to which the Nationalists retreated after being defeated on the mainland. 

Seventy-five years ago U.S. agriculture would have been more sympathetic to land reform to benefit small farmers than it is today.  The British and the Russians alsso weighed in in favor of land reform in Japan as the war came to an end.

The one person most responsible for waging this campaign within the United States government was a Russian immigrant named Wolf Ladejinsky who worked for the State Department and consulted in land reform in Asia until the U. S. lost interest in the subject in l970, according to Studwell. 

The portion of the book devoted to small-plot agriculture is called “The Triumph of Gardening” to emphasize that farming was really gardening on a large scale.  The most important input is human, not chemical. In taking us through Japan, Korea and Taiwan, Studwell emphasizes that small-plot farming is more efficient than large-plot industrial agriculture, including growing sugar cane and rice. 

Another takeaway is that it was largely the sons of peasants who made not only agriculture successful but sophisticated export-driven manufacturing as well.  Peasant sons such as the military dictator, Chung Park Hee, who revolutionized South Korea between l970 until his assassination in l979, distrusted large landowners and established business leaders.  Upon assuming power, Chung Park Hee jailed all the big businessmen he could find and did not let them out until they promised to devote their businesses to the welfare of Korea.  He told them what they would be doing for the country and they had little choice but to do it.

The successful countries also defied advice of Washington economists, the World Bank and the International Development Fund, the “Washington Consensus,” which the southern countries largely accepted.  Successful countries’ leaders did not believe in the free flow of capital or the internationalization and deregulation of banking.  They believed a poor country had no choice but to grab control of how its limited funds and hard currency were used.  They would eventually accede to the accepted international behavior but only after they had succeeded. 

Agriculture changed in recent decades in the four successful countries but they continue to feed far more people per-acre than the U. S. while taking better care of the land. 

In the New York Times November 13, Mark Bittman, the paper’s lead food columnist, writes that while the proportion of the world’s population that is chronically hungry has decreased in the last 50 years, the absolute number has remained steady at one billion.  Moreover,  in the future, the poor will have less to eat because more of the world’s land, water and fertilizer will be devoted to raising food for animals, leaving less for the most vulnerable.

One way to prevent this is to provide to small-scale or peasant agriculture the research, energy and subsidies which now goes to industrial-scale agriculture.   Peasant agriculture is arguably more efficient than industrial agriculture, Bittman writes.  Studwell would agree. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guatemala # 10 Bowen, Neitzsche and Pigeonpeas

The charismatic young leader of Semilla Nueva, Curt Bowen, speaks with equal urgency about corn thrashing machines, liberation theology, open pollination, Frederich Neitzsche, American politics, microbial life in the soil and the cheapest way to feed yourself in Guatemala.  In a short life he has
been in and out of the commercial fertilizer business and the biofuels business in Central America and founded and run a significant new NGO, all while thinking about life’s great questions.  He is a philosophy major in dirty jeans and well worn boots, living simultaneously in the modern world and a deeply traditional society. 

During a stretch of the summer of 2013 Bowen was honored for his work by Arriana Huffington in New York City, toured farms and research stations in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania, then came home to Guatemala in time to plant pigeonpeas, meet with the local club of Rotary International and, for the first time in six weeks, sleep in his own bed.

September finds him preparing for the visit to Guatemala of a potential major grant-giver while getting more seeds in the ground between rainstorms and heading back to Idaho to raise money and engage with his many advisors.  It looks to be a fine time to be Curt Bowen.

At 26 Bowen has already lived in Guatemala more than five years, starting with a typical build-something-for-the-poor project by students from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then in and out of those two businesses and, for the past three years, honchoing Similla Nueva.  He is smart, good looking and well spoken but his particular strength seems to be intellectual and physical tenacity: following a question wherever it leads, learning, consolidating and keeping relentlessly on the move.  That’s why a philosophy major knows a very great deal about the chemistry, biology and financing of small-plot agriculture in Guatemala.

I’ve known Bowen and been on his board for a little over two years.  The first year he was like an organizational teenager, very bright and knowing but still growing into his body. I wondered how long SN could hold on; financing was tenuous.  The last year has been a wonder.  That he was among a score of young leaders picked out by Huffington’s organization is one thing, but that he was identified as one of leaders of those young leaders and their spokesman is another, and no accident.  On a Huffington panel of young people talking about their work, Bowen was the most grounded, the most convincing, from what I couldsee.  Something substantial happened in the last year, certainly to the organization but at the center of all this, to Bowen.

The SN web site has a video of Bowen speaking alone in a field for six minutes virtually without interruption about Semilla Nueva’s work.  This is entirely too long as these things are supposed to go. Yet it works because of its authenticity.

It would seem to be hard for bright young people to leave the comforts of the United States or Europe and drop into the life of five acre farms, 95 degree weather and another language.  Yet going back more than 50 years to Accion International's founding, I’ve watched special people do this naturally and without great fanfare or self-importance time and again. 

I wrote in my last post about the admirable Anne Barkett, SN’s nutrition specialist.  I could equally have written about Kristin Lacy who is Bowen’s sidekick and organizational genius in Guatemala.  I’m sure I could do the same for the original co-founders who have moved on. 

Curt Bowen and Kristin Lacy at lunch after a morning of planting pigeonpeas.

Until a few months ago, SN has a single small Jeep-like vehicle to get over rough roads, all other transportation being by “chicken bus.”  SN somehow kept four or five people and all the work in the field going on less than $40,000 a year for two years, with some of the support coming from family.  Bowen made the top salary at $500 a month or so.

At least three things happened which have turned the tide in roughly the last 18 months:

First, Rotary came to the rescue, particularly the remarkable way Rotary International triples local club’s contributions.  When Bowen first sought funding from them, it seemed the least likely and most labor-intensive way to pay the bills.  He could have lost the whole thing, it seemed to me, had he failed to clear the final hurdle in what became $60,000 a year from Rotary, a near-doubling of the budget.  But he did and Rotary did it.  The organization than banished polio around the world, Rotary, has scored again.

Second, Boise’s Steve Hodges, a low-key guy who started and sold four successful start-ups, came to Guatemala, slept on the ground and got his hands dirty and ended up buying land for SN’s new research and training center.  It may be just eight acres but it is up and running and already hooked into the world’s research network for tropical agriculture which will be important to improving farm income all over the country.  All this since February.

Third, Bowen was named the winner of the Mr. Whitman Award, a one-time grant of $25,000 given to an outstanding graduate of Whitman College.

Those are big financial victories.  Behind them is a Bowen’s growing maturity and settling in.  

In the next three years, Semilla Nueva can make real progress on the greatest challenge to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala: the productivity of very small farms.  By 2015 it could bring Guatemala into the world pigeonpea market, potentially worth tens of millions of dollars a year.  This one crop could jump income 25-30 percent on small farms, the threshold for “farmer to farmer” innovation to take hold widely.  That will be the subject of our next post on Guatemala.




Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Guatemala #9: Anne Barkett, A Champion for Guatemalan Women

The week of August 20, 2013, was Anne Barkett’s goodbye tour of the villages and families with whom she has lived on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala for the last 18 months.  She is full of good cheer and is replacing herself with Jennifer Erito, a Guatemalan, which is a great step.  Nonetheless, deciding to leave has been hard for Anne who has become something of a champion of Guatemalan women.

Anne is the blond on the back row, center left, on her last day in one of the villages.

When she graduated from Seattle Pacific University, Barkett bought a one-way ticket to Argentina.  A job on a farm proved to be a disaster; she lived in an ashram for a time; worked in an orphanage, all in Argentina; and took a job as a nanny in London, thinking she might be finished with Latin America.  “But I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says, and soon was
working with the Mennonites at Tzacani in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala.  There she lived with a Kekchi family, learned Q’iche, one of the Mayan languages, and became a nutrition specialist. 
Since February, 2012, Barkett has been the food security specialist for Semilla Nueva, spending most nights in the homes of small farm families and her days teaching nutrition in the coast’s often 95 degree weather.  Guatemalan children have the worst nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, she often writes.  To correct this she and Semilla Nueva have promoted the planting and eating of three foods not regularly seen in the Guatemala diet:  

          l. Quality Protein Maize or QPM corn.  It is much more nutritious than traditionally-planted corn: rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A and protein.  Her recipes emphasize eating it in the young or elote stage.

          2. Chaya, or tree spinach.  Chaya is a tall shrub which is native to Guatemala and was eaten in earlier times but then fell out of common use.  Now it is being actively cultivated and made part of everyday recipes.

          3. Pigeonpeas.  This is Semilla Nueva’s new crop, the first few hundred pounds having been grown last year.  It has all the nutritional value of peas and beans and can be planted together with corn and sesame, plus its nitrogen-fixing properties improve the soil for future years.  Called gandul in Guatemala, it is a staple in India where it has been cultivated for 4,000 years and is now grown in east Africa.

          Anne has developed a large, attractive recipe book blending these three crops with traditional ingredients.

          On the day Julia and I tag along, we visited a family notable for owning the neighborhood molino.  A molino is a high-pitched machine that grinds corn in a hurry, replacing the ancient stone-against-stone system
that goes back to ancient times.  For about 12 cents, anyone in the neighborhood can use it at any hour of the day.

          Today’s recipes are for recado and sopa de arroz.  The recado is made by roasting garlic, sesame and pumpkin seeds and is prepared with tomatoes.  Raisins, chili and chocolate can be added and all this can be rolled into tortillas or served in a bowl. The soup is prepared with tomatoes, red peppers, onion and carrots.  Today's main course has been prepared with a generous portion of pigeonpea or gandul. 

          Corn was the staple of the Aztec and Inca civilizations and remains so today in Central America.  Corn is ground into a dough called masa.  Making a round, flat tortilla out of a handful of masa is not a simple matter, as I learned.

          Guatemala is a classic gender stereotype society.  We saw no women in the fields.  Men appear in eating areas to eat.  I was challenged to make a tortilla and the women thought it was hilarious.  Men never do this.  Mine turned out looking more like amoebas than tortillas. 

Pigeonpeas or gandul being made into dough the traditional way.

Above, Julia tries rolling corn and pigeonpeas using what looks like a cylindrical rolling pin of lava on a base of the same material--the instrument tens of millions have use to make tortillas for thousands of years.  They are cooked quickly on a griddle, the same way in household after household.

          As the morning rolls on, women roll in with their children, there is much laughter and joking and before long lunch is served. 

Anne tells one woman, Margarita, that with all the good food she is now eating her soon-to-be- born baby will come out good and strong. “Yes,” she replies, “and maybe it will come out white too.”  Guatemalans believe babies are influences by whom their mother hangs out with, or even looks at, prior to birth. 

          Anne announces her departure and introduces Jennifer, an attractive, animated and delightful woman who will replace her and who speaks briefly. 

A woman named Dina responds for the group:  “We thank God for Anne and for her sharing so much with us.  We thank Semilla Nueva for teaching us about gandul and chaya.  May God bless everyone for being here.”

Barkett has been writing a blog for some time from Guatemala and it reveals a crusading side not evident in two days of driving and visiting with her.  The blog tells of her life in Guatemala, an admirable and loving life.  It also expresses a keen outrage at the treatment of Guatemalan women.  Physical abuse, which she has seen in the homes she has lived in, is common.  Sexual assault, which she experienced three times in a two day period, is common.  The killing of women, feminicide, goes unpunished an astonishing 98 percent of the time in Guatemala, she writes. 

The sexual and gender-role revolution does seem to have passed Guatemala by.  For all its turmoil and tradition, India is making progress more rapidly than Guatemala.  Korea, another country I've studied in the last year, has a female president and is catching up quickly.  Can Guatemala prosper when it effectively neglects “half the sky?” 





Thursday, August 29, 2013

Guatemala # 8 Miguel Scores Big, Then...

This post comes from Julia Gunther, 14, my granddaughter who proved to be very comfortable in Spanish during our ten days together in Guatemala.  This is the second of two posts on emigration from Guatemala to the United States.

How to Make Half a Million Dollars as an Illegal Immigrant: A Guide

During our time with Semilla Nueva, I spent one night sleeping in a farmer’s home with SN’s nutrition specialist, Anne Barkett. For her, this was routine; she spends most nights sleeping in a farmer’s home, but for me, it was a special treat in a cozy, family atmosphere.

You first come to a small, simple cement building with tile floors and a porch. Outside is a table, decorated with a flowered tablecloth. The surrounding area is covered with tarps to keep dry during the pounding rain of the wet season. There is a wood stove, clotheslines, dish racks, and a pilla (PI-ya). Pillas are cement structures with two basins, one filled with water, the other empty except for a drain. Plastic bowls float within them to scoop up water.  Hands and dishes are cleaned, then the water dumped into the empty basin to drain. It’s their sink. There is also a shower to bucket bathe and a bathroom.

This is Lydia’s house and it’s unusual in that she has a flush-toilet, not just a hole beneath the seat.  The whole place has the sense of being well lived in, a bit messy but everyone totally comfortable, casually hanging out. I was comfortable too, spending the evening with the kids, blowing bubbles and playing with a mostly deflated soccer ball.

It was reminiscent of my own childhood but in a completely different setting.  Lydia’s granddaughter, a 15 month old named Charlene, was the cutest kid ever. The chubby little toddler was constantly smiling and waddling around.  I also made friends with her cousin, a five-year-old named Daniel, and he was soon pulling me by the hand to play. Both are children of Lydia’s two daughters but neither has a father at home. 

Charlene and Daniel’s uncle also played with us. At age 14 he is of the same generation as his niece and nephew. As is typical in most of Latin America, he loves soccer and was only too happy to show off his skills to the gringas. He has two older brothers and two older sisters, 20 and 22, a total of five kids for Lydia. The 20 year old is just completing high school, only a couple years ahead of me in school and I’m 14. The difference between us was striking. She already has one child and is finishing high school at the same age I’ll finish college, which she won’t even get to start.  But as she is the only one of her siblings to have completed high school, this is a very proud moment for the family. 

After a meal of eggs, black beans, and tortillas, we found out who was the real outlier around here, her older brother, Miguel.

          Miguel recently returned from a roller coaster of experiences during ten years in the United States.  At 13 he started walking through Guatemala and Mexico to the US border. He hired a coyote (pronounced co-YO-te in Spanish) for about $3,000 and made it safely over the border. Walking through the desert he thought he was going to die at one point.  In fact, a few people in his group did die.

This dangerous attempt is not uncommon. Almost every member of a Guatemala family will try to make it across. They’re willing to pay pretty large amounts of money. If the person doesn’t make it, the money is lost. No refunds. In Miguel’s case, it paid off.

          At first, he worked somewhere in Georgia to pay off his debt to the coyote. He attended but never completed high school. Eventually, he made his way up to Kansas City, Missouri, where he had a low paying job, sending a little money home each month.

One weekend, a friend invited him to a horse race. Miguel had grown up taking care of his grandparents’ horses so he knew horses and agreed to go. He won $100 in a single bet. While the races were legal, the betting was not but that didn’t deter Miguel in the slightest.  Every weekend from then on, he loved going to the races and every weekend he bet. As it turned out, with his good eye he kept winning. Eventually, he saved enough to buy half of a horse with a friend which, in its first race, won $3,000.

 That wasn’t much considering it costs about $3,000 to maintain a horse. After that first race, his friend decided to sell Miguel his half because he lived in Denver and couldn’t visit very often. Miguel continued to enter races for himself and continued to pile up money, not only from winning but from betting on his horse. Together they traveled the country to illegal races. They took place, somehow, on the normal racetracks but Miguel couldn’t enter sanctioned events because officials checked the owner’s credentials which could get Miguel expelled from the country.  Although unofficial, the race stakes were not low. In one, Miguel won $125,000. From all of his races combined, he told us he made about $500,000.

          Then things took a turn for the worst. He lost three races in a row and $200,000. At the third, he was planning to compete in Florida but discovered somebody had tampered with his horse which was now sick and wasn’t going to be allowed to compete.

He then took his horse to an animal hospital and paid $5,000 to have him cured. As he left, he got a call from the government. His horse was going to be confiscated and then put down.  So he and a friend, who also had a horse confiscated, decided to say a last good-bye. However when they arrived, they decided to rescue the horses instead. So they stole a trailer and escaped. The story made the papers and there was a big search but neither the horses nor their owners were ever found.

After a few months of laying low in Texas, Miguel’s horse is now back racing in Kansas City while Miguel has returned to Guatemala.

          At the height of his success, Miguel lived a life of luxury. He bought a house and a car. One story that we couldn’t wrap our heads around was that he once spent $40,000 in 15 days. He decided to go on vacation to California and stayed at a ridiculously expensive hotel popular among celebrities. For breakfast he spent $125 and all that was served was scrambled eggs, the exact same thing as we had just eaten for dinner outside of a tiny house where five people sleep in the one room.

When asked for the reason of such lavish spending, his answer was simple: “I wanted to, and I could.” He told us that he had slept on the streets and lived the worst of the worst. He wanted a chance to experience the best of the best. To us it seemed crazy but having experienced extreme poverty he relished the experience of living like a king.
















Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Guatemala # 7: Immigration, The Other Side

This is the first of two posts on immigration/emigration.  Next up, Julia's story of a man who had it made across the border, then lost it all.

One night Julia and I have dinner in Panachel, Guatemala, at Lake Atitlan, with a man who owns an art gallery, frame shop and a lumber yard and once owned a construction company.  “I’ve employed about a hundred people over the years and every one who had skills or gumption went to the United States or tried,” Thomas Shaefer Cru tells us.

To become acquainted with Guatemala is to see the other side of the immigration issue in the United States: emigration and the remittances which have changed lives in Latin countries.  Money made up north multiplies many times back home.  Even when making little money, immigrants typically send money home.  A survey of 49 families in the region where Semilla Nueva works showed that 29 percent received some income from the United States.  Central America is poor but would be poorer still without emigration to the United States. 

Most studies of the subject make clear that immigration is a net benefit to the United States today, as it has been from the beginning. 

Israel is a farmer who lived one of the poorest communities, renting land and for 15 years saving for a home of his own.  Someone was impressed by his determination and offer him one acre but for an amount twice that of
Israel’s savings.  He said yes, then gambled on 20 acres of watermelon and paid off the other half.  Still he had no house.

A son in the U. S. helped him build one until running out of money.  Then a second son paid for the roof. 
(A side story: Israel told us he didn’t want to leave his old place until the new one was perfect but before dawn one morning his wife shook him awake and said “Vamos, we are leaving!”  His instinct to hold back

predicted the future, however:  he missed the old place so much he was depressed for three years until cured by a naturopath.) 

Now he’s back in action and expects to bring 500 pounds of pigeon peas to market next year making, maybe, $100.  We walk his field in the rain.  He’s experimenting by the color of his seeds:  will black or white be more valuable than brown?

Some variation of this tale could be recited over and over.  Our leaky border and higher-than-Guatemala wages have been a salvation for many Guatemalans  and prevented even more from coming north--in other words, money sent home helps Guatemalans to stay in Guatemala.

Another side of the story, however, is of a woman whose family fled their home in Huehuetenango because the government was killing her neighbors and family during the war.  Afterwards, her children had nothing to live for so all went “under the water,” as she said.  She has a place to live now but is so lonely that when her house is empty, “I go to my room and cry.”   In this picture she is happy to be at a Semilla Nueva recipe-sharing lunch.

How great is the pressure to go north?  An April 30, 2011, story in the New York Times showing hundreds of Central American emigrants on the top of rail cars, said that the number of arrests for illegal border crossers from the Central American countries doubled in 2010.  The U. S. has pressured Mexico to crack down on those crossing through it but surely nothing like what the U. S. is undertaking.
Of the farmers in Semilla Nueva, several have come home or stayed home to make it on a small farm.  This will become more important over time.  As  the seals its borders, the escape valve will partially close.  Climate change could easily make matters worse, and may be doing so already. 


Although extended families often live together, a small farm can typically support only one family.  Where do all the young men find work (for it is still mostly the men who work outside the home)? 

The largest crop on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala is sugar cane, farmed on very large tracts.  Not only are cane farms cleanly laid out and beautiful but the highway going through them is noticeably better.  This is industrial agricultural.  Coca Cola has a large plant here to take advantage of sugar at its doorstep.

Young men have found peon employment on these farms as long as they have existed.  It is dirty work, fearfully hot at times and physically punishing.  It pays poorly.   However it is a job.  But for how long?

Brazil is the sugar cane king country, turning much of it into ethanol, and it has learned how to do this mechanically with far less labor.  We learned while here that Guatemalan sugar farmers expect to mechanize within five years, eliminating up to 80 percent of the jobs.    

The Pacific Coast has gone into the palm oil business and several fruits such a papaya are grown here.  New crops such as pigeonpeas  and new jobs must be found. 



Sunday, August 25, 2013

Guatemala #6 Touring Guatemala, Shadowed by History

If Guatemala could retain its personality and culture while being run by the Swiss, this would be one of the world’s great tourist spots.   As it is, it’s pretty special. 

(Detail of a traditional fabric from San Juan Sacatepéquez, from the Ixtel Museum, Guatemala City.)

In front of the church at Jototenango near Antigua.

In most of Guatemala, one is never out of sight of a volcano, which continue to be startling no matter how many time’s you’ve seen them--this one looking east from Antigua. 

Its south-central Highlands are an attractive patchwork of green and varied fields, forests, valleys and mountains.  After bright sunny mornings, rains arrive this time of year, bringing an aura of mystery as clouds drift through.  For a desert-dweller, this is exciting.

To the landscape add the Mayan people who make up 70 percent of Guatemala’s population--a handsome lot with ready smiles and strong features that age well.  Now clothe them in some of the most audacious colors and combinations in the world.  Everyone can identify traditional Mayan clothing; it’s close to being a cliche.  Nonetheless it's still powerful to see.  While cheap clothing from up north has converted many to western dress, a remarkable number in the Highlands still dress as before.  A whole lot of traditional attire is dropping away but the first-time visitor doesn’t know the difference.

Finally, add the extravagant Spanish architecture of the 16 century and the habit of painting otherwise ordinary buildings outrageous combinations of colors.   All this makes Guatemala a color photographer’s dream locale. 

The photos above are of folks who sold us something, not taken because we were looking for people notably attractive. Yet indeed they are. Likewise, at the Geronimo’s house which we featured two posts ago—30 photos of one family and its guests taken under poor light.  I shot everyone who was there, not just those who were handsome.

Until my last afternoon in the country, I did not look at a photo book and it was all I could do to limit myself to just one new one, on traditional clothing published by the terrific Ixtel Museum in Guatemala City.  Mayan culture is so varied that it features 16 different textile traditions where 21 different Mayan languages are spoken.

Guatemala’s Pacific Coast could be Costa Rica with another history, or so it seems.  An afternoon at the beach and the surf was a trip highlight for me. 

The Department of Peten in the north occupies a third of the country and was once the center of a Mayan world of 9 million people and had the world’s largest city. 

The temples at Tikal, above, rise 200 feet, peaking out of the jungle in Peten, northern Guatemala.  At one time this was the largest city in the world and the large region--up into Mexico--supported nine million people.  Today it supports 500,000, mostly related to the recently-initiated tourist trade.

 After its collapse in about 900 AD, Peten became almost uninhabited and largely unvisited until 40 years ago when the government moved people into the region.  It remains healthily backwater by modern tourist standards, running on compact fluorescent bulbs or no power at all for two-thirds of the day in Tikal.


Lake Atitlan from Casa del Mundo in morning calm.

Atitlan is a spectacular lake completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, the result of an eruption so large that the weight of the magma collapsed, creating a lake 1,000 feet deep.  It is a caldera, like Yellowstone, in its own world, climate and ecosystem, perhaps comparable to Lake Tahoe but much larger. 

So steep are its shores and ledges that roads between many of its small communities are impossible.

Casa del Muno on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, reachable only by boat.

Boats run like buses around and across the lake, loaded with provisions and tourists.  Aldous Huxley famously compared it to Italy’s Lake Como but with volcanoes added, more beautiful than humanly permissible, he said.  Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince here and the volcanoes on his planets are from Atitlan.  It is Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction.

Number two must be the old capital of Spanish Central America, Antigua, less than an hour from the airport in Guatemala City.  Founded at the time of Cortez in the early 16th century and as grandiose as Spain could make it, Antigua prospered for 250 years.  Then a terrible earthquake prompted the Spanish to completely abandon it—to the point of forbidding people to live there—in favor of Guatemala City in l773.  It was gradually reoccupied and today its massive fallen walls and ruins are embraced by upscale hotels and make inviting subjects for photographers. 

A lap pool next to a garden of ruins at Hotel Ciroli in Antigua
Typical courtyard in the inexpensive EuroMayo Hotel in Atigua.
 Antigua has dozens of places to learn Spanish and many high-end shops and restaurants.  My friend and fellow Post Company board member, Joe Call and his wife Nola, spent Holy Week here and said he could happily spend the rest of his life at his hotel. 

But the Swiss do not run Guatemala.  You can’t take a train anywhere.  Roads can be rough.  Its people are remarkable buoyant and cheerful but in the pattern of Third World Countries women with children in tow are frequently pushing trinkets on you and there is a shabbiness to small market towns, not uncommon in Latin America.

For most, tourism is “If it’s Tuesday this must be Antigua” variety, rotating through a few places.  


Guatemala was misused by the Spanish, of course, and, in modern times was set up for United Fruit and similar multi-nationals, which still occupy large portions of the land.  Democratic reform came to Guatemala in the late l940’s, which worked great when limited to education and social services.  But when the government of Jacobo Arbenz forced the sale of some large landholdings in 1954, for what its owners had said it was worth for tax purposes, two cents an acre, the CIA--in a move as bold and ill-fated as removing the elected leader of Iran for the Shah--saw to it that Arbenz was tossed out in a military coup. 

There seems to have been a straight line between the coup and the brutal civil war which tore up Guatemala for 30 years and lives on today, both in the destruction of culture and distrust of government.


In Guatemala as in Argentina and Chile, many were "disappeared."  In fact, more disappeared in Guatemala than in those two better-known notorious cases. 

The uprising began in the late l950's and  a peace accord was finalized only in l996.  We were told the war is still not being taught or discussed in school.  These images above, from a large photographic account of the war published recently, perhaps shows a willingness to acknowledge the painful past.

Income inequality and absolute poverty remain.  This leads the ambitious to try to make it to the United States.
Guatemala has made progress in recent times.  The government may be more honest, well-intentioned and competent than its popular reputation. There is greater freedom of speech.  But if government gets things done it does so in spite of its perception among the populous.  Guatemala City has a reputation as a dangerous place, to be passed through quickly, (I spent two comfortable afternoons there in IXTEL Museum and Sophos bookstore so you couldn’t prove it by me).  The military’s mobilization to deal with (or not deal with) drugs mean that shopping for jade in Antigua requires protection by a heavily armed guard.  That may be reassuring but Switzerland this is not.

Unless you turn a deaf ear, there are tough stories behind beautiful places around Lake Atitlan.  A few days after being there, I had dinner with a woman from Great Britain, Claire McKeown Davies and her husband, Chris, an acting teacher from the Old Vic in Bristol.  Claire was working for Oxfam USA at a time when it was heavily involved in the cause of the poor farmers from whom the revolt against the government had sprung.  When she came to Santiago Atitlan on the lake in l990, the government had just mowed down peasants from 13 villages who had marched, unarmed, on the military base outside of town.  “It was a tense time,” she understates.  Oxfam had become accustomed to the CIA raiding its offices in search of evidence against the rebels.

On the wall of the Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlan is this picture of  a priest from Oklahoma in his coffin.  The president of Guatemala declared him a communist and he was then murdered.  

 Another story from Antitlan finds me again amazed by what by my country gets itself into.  When the Guatemalan government brutally repressed the revolt, it concurrently tried to pacify the Mayans in particularly with social and agricultural programs, which came to be called “Tortillas, rifles and beans.”  This included attempts to improve agriculture—through, for example, ag extension, which inevitably taints similar governmental attempts today.  The U.S. supported both the rifles and the tortillas and beans.

As part of this, the State Department decided to make Lake Atitlan a world-class sport fishing site.  After study, it supported the introduction of the black bass which, it turns out, ate the lesser fish and today Atitlan has neither sport fishing nor sustainable fishing.  
No one forces those who tour Guatemala to look into its most painful history  and most happily choose to avoid the whole thing.  For them we close with more of what's lovely about Guatemala: first, the full view of a huipil or upper garment of Guatemala women, this from San Juan SacatepĂ©quez.....

A food market scene from Santiago Atitlan....

... some roadside flowers--not the least bit unusual as they were sold in many little stalls on the rainy road from Panachel to Antigua.