The village of Nahualá, nestled in the Guatemalan highlands, is a little more than two hours along the Pan American highway from Antigua, with spectacular views of high mountains and sunny valleys. It is a predominantly indigenous community where residents are striving to improve their lives and access modern services while at the same time maintaining their Mayan traditions.
When I arrive at the Asociación El Buen Sembrador, a grantee partner of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), I’m greeted warmly by a group of indigenous women dressed in traditional costumes. Proud to be members of the association, they know about my visit and are glad to pose smiling for the camera. Walking through the village and gazing across fields of corn and sweet peas, it is difficult to imagine the struggles this community association endured to get where it is today. Project Coordinator Pedro Carrillo recounts how the community of 90 families established the association and obtained legal status in 1993; when a Canadian organization, Local Development Support (PADEL), approached to offer help in building a community water supply system.
“My father and the other elders accepted, but they always thought they would disband the association once they received the water; they mistrusted outsiders,” Carrillo explained. However, the association persevered, which Carrillo attributes to having received training in resource management and agricultural production, along with being put into contact with an agro-exporter called Servicios Internacionales de Exportación S.A (SIESA), which was looking for partners to produce vegetables (sweet peas, broccoli and carrots). That partnership has now been in place for more than 10 years.
Having heard about the IAF from another grantee organization in Quetzaltenango, the association proposed a community development project to the IAF. However, it took a while for the project to be approved because, as Carrillo explained, “we didn’t have experience with agriculture commercialization or women-led projects.”
Carrillo introduces me to a group of young people chatting on the street who work with El Buen Sembrador. Young people in Nahualá are less likely than those in other rural communities in Guatemala to migrate to the city or leave the country in search of work or an education. Children of El Buen Sembrador members attend elementary school and some go on to high school, uncommon for indigenous youth in Guatemala, which has the third highest school dropout and second in child labor rates in Latin America.
A young woman invites me to see where they produce organic fertilizer and explains how they process it with croquetas rojas (worms for vermiculture). Normally this would be considered “men’s work,” she said, but her mother has encouraged her to work on the project. A young couple approaches us to inquire about submitting a proposal to the IAF for an art project.
On our way to visit a greenhouse, we meet Catarina Carrillo [no relation to Pedro] sitting on a bench in front of her humble home. She is one of the 16 women participating in the project initiative to grow greenhouse vegetables. A mother of 12, Catarina explains that her family was one of 18 families whose homes were destroyed by an earthquake in 2009. With the help of El Buen Sembrador, they were able to rebuild. Her family has very little land and her husband has to travel far to find work, but if the greenhouse is successful he might be able to work closer to home. For the moment, Catarina explains, the association has two greenhouses producing organic tomatoes for consumption, with plans to start selling them soon.
As with many development initiatives, there is no assurance that El Buen Sembrador in Nahualá will be successful with all its projects. So far, the association has developed the infrastructure to meet organic certification standards to export sweet peas, and has incorporated young people and women in the implementation of environmentally friendly production techniques. Local residents are even learning to eat sweet peas, which are not part of the traditional diet of maize and beans, but which are available because not all sweet peas are exported.
“The journey wasn’t easy, but now we have several projects going…and we are making a business plan to become financially sustainable,” explains Pedro Carrillo. “There is still poverty in our village, but we eat three times a day. In other towns they eat only two times and even once a day.”
Strengthened by the patience and confidence their projects have demanded, the women who are association members, Carrillo concluded, “don’t just want options, they want action that improves the livelihoods of their families.”