mala-Farming-300×196.jpg” alt=”” width=”270″ height=”176″ />Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan novelist and poet who best expressed the aspirations and dreams of the oppressed of Latin America, once said: “Publicity is a formidable dream-seller. But I don’t want to buy the dreams of someone else. I simply want to accomplish my own.”
For the last six years, I have worked in Central America with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in a variety of projects aimed at helping youth in the region accomplish dreams of their own. According to Antony Sánchez and Irma Solano, regional directors for MCC in Guatemala and El Salvador, “MCC`s vision is to work with youth towards the construction of a future where youth can dream with dignity, recognize their own holistic potentials, and become active political subjects in their communities.”
Despite these lofty intentions, reality has shown that all too often the dreams of Central American youth are thwarted by external forces that impede the creation of a different type of future, or by the learned inability to dream beyond the imposed limits of our society.
In the northern highlands of Guatemala, the Mayan-Ixhil people have lived as subsistence farmers in relative isolation for the last 2500 years. Only during the last 30 years have the Ixhil people suffered significant contact with outsiders. In the 1980`s, during the Guatemalan Civil War, the Ixhil people suffered 114 massacres at the hands of the Guatemalan Army. Since 2009, the region has been at the epicenter of multinational corporate greed, as dozens of international mining and energy companies have arrived seeking land to launch mining and mega-hydroelectric projects, all of which will contaminate local ecosystems and leave zero benefits to the Ixhil people.
According to Fernando Morales, a young father and fisherman who lives downstream from the recently inaugurated Palo Viejo hydroelectric dam, “The worst part of the dam is that we can longer fish in the river. We used to be able to catch up to 20 pounds of fish a day, but now we have nothing. It´s clear to us that the (Guatemalan) government only protects the interests of big business while ignoring the voice of the people.” The arrival of these multinational corporations, however, is only one of many factors that have contributed to a context that is becoming ever more detrimental to the livelihoods of youth in the region.
The traditional livelihood of subsistence agriculture is becoming increasingly unsustainable for Ixhil youth due to unjust land concentration and population growth. In 1893, the population of Nebaj, the largest municipality in the Ixhil region, had a population of 5,945 people and every person had an average of 5.5 hectares (approximately 13 acres) of land to farm. In 2011, the population rose to 98,666 people and the average person had just a quarter of a hectare (approximately 0.6 acres) to farm, though there is a large percent of landless families that seek temporary work on coastal plantations and the urban centers. The lack of sufficient agricultural land and insufficient employment opportunities in the Ixhli region has led to a massive migration of youth to the United States in search of opportunities. Migration, in turn, has had the effect of skyrocketing land prices, making life all the more difficult for those that stay.
Facing the reality of injustice and poverty that characterizes youth in the Ixhil Region, MCC has sought to support youth through vocational training and through organizing small cooperative enterprises. In 2011, one group of youth started a small bakery in an effort to provide local employment opportunities for youth in their village.
After months of training and capacity building, the youth had converted an abandoned house in their village into a lively bakery that became the social center of the community. After various months of working and despite the enthusiasm and hope that the small bakery brought, the youth began to perceive that their small cooperative business was incapable of competing with the cheaper prices of more industrialized bakeries from the urban centers of Guatemala. The youth took out a small loan to try to increase their production and lower prices to compete with the imported products, but in the end the profit margin was too low to continue their enterprise.
The inability to sustain small, community oriented businesses due to the overwhelming presence of larger competitors brings to light another factor that is detrimental to the dreams and hopes of youth in the region. The ethic of competition inherent in the economic system in which we live overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and powerful as it discriminates against the poor and powerless. When youth have insufficient land to farm, insufficient employment options, and insufficient funds to start businesses that can survive in a competitive economic system, then their dreams are either degraded into accepting demeaning work as sweatshop laborers or dependent upon the luck of a successful migration to the north; something that is more dangerous and improbable every day.
José Corio is a 22 year old youth from a remote village in the Ixhil region of Nebaj who tried to migrate to the United States in 2009, but was caught at the US border and sent back. He is planning to try again in the next couple of months. “I am going to try to go to the North (USA) because I want to do something with my life. I want to “get ahead” and here there aren`t any opportunities for that.”
“Getting ahead” (salir adelante in Spanish) is the most commonly used term by Ixhil youth to explain their goals and aspirations in life.
Why did you decide to migrate?
“To get ahead in life.”
Why did you decide to continue your education?
“To get ahead in life.”
But why do you work as a farmer?
“Because there aren´t any other opportunities for work.”
It seems that to many youth in the Ixhil region, “getting ahead” means finding ways to live differently than did their grandparents. “Getting ahead” seems to imply the ability to obtain more commodities, make more money, and buy more stuff. “Getting ahead” seems to be synonymous with the supposed ease of living a consumer life.
The community of Xeucalvitz in northern Nebaj is home to 50 Ixhil families that have traditionally lived an agrarian lifestyle. In 2009 a Spanish company began buying up land along the local river in order to build a mega-hydroelectric dam. The majority of community leaders and Mayan ancestral authorities vehemently opposed the dam. With the beginning of the construction of the dam in April, however, local youth have been given sporadic opportunities to work for $10 USD per day.
Today, there is a bitter generational division between the youth and the elders over the hydroelectric project in their communities. The elders maintain that the communities were never consulted as stipulated by international law and that the dam will ruin their lands and natural resources as have done other dams in the region. The youth, enticed by the rare opportunity to earn a small salary, affirm that the hydroelectric company is bringing “development” and “progress” to their community.
Jacinto Ceto Brito, ancestral authority of the community of Xeucalvitz remarked, “We don´t understand why the youth in our community are so determined to sell out and work for the (hydroelectric) company. Here (in our community) we have everything we need. We can get two corn crops a year. We can grow coffee and bananas and fruits. No one in our community has ever gone in need of food. The land provides for us, but the youth are determined to make more money by working with the company.”
African American author James Baldwin said: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Poverty in the Ixhil region is not a simple matter as close to 80% of children are malnourished. It would be unfair to overlook the callousness and suffering of poverty and its effects on the Ixhil people.
However, there is no doubt that we live in a globalized, consumer driven world. The enticement of easy riches through migration, the desire for newer and better cell phones, nicer homes, fashion clothes, etc. is an influential part of youth mentality today. The question arises: Is that mentality compatible with the agrarian lifestyle traditionally lived by the Mayan people?
Rainer Maria Rilke once said: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.”
The Ixhil region and the traditional Mayan lifestyle undoubtedly offer a life full of riches: forested mountains, plentiful rain, fertile soil, abundant rivers, peaceful communities (compared to the rest of Central America), and a vivacious, rooted cultural legacy. But these are not the riches so coveted by the society we live in. They are not the riches that require on to “get ahead” to be able to obtain. They are not riches that can be quantified, or deposited into banks, or selfishly accumulated, or spent in meaningless and superficial ways. They are riches that are simply part of the land and part of the community. It is a wealth that is freely given to those who are content to accept them.
There are very few youth in the Ixhil region who are “poet enough” to appreciate and revere the riches of their lands and their communities. Gaspar Cobo, a youth from the region, is one of the few. When asked about his dreams and aspirations for his life, he remarked, “All I want is to have enough land to build a small house, raise my corn, potatoes and sheep, and enjoy the peacefulness of the mountain.”
And what about “getting ahead” in life? “For me, there is no reason to “get ahead.” I am happy here. This place offers all that I need and want.”
Undoubtedly, Gaspar represents a dying mentality amongst youth today who prefer the allure and enchantment of the infinite wonders of the western, consumer-driven world. But it is precisely the mentality that Gaspar embodies that MCC is trying to help preserve.
In the struggle against poverty and the chronic lack of opportunities that affect youth in the region, MCC supports small income-generating projects, advocates for more governmental programs benefitting youth, and supports communities in their resistance to the greed of multinational extractive and energy corporations.
Yet perhaps the best starting point in the struggle against poverty and injustice is to help youth discover the riches that exist in their traditional lifestyles and to learn to value those riches. The American author and poet Wendell Berry says, “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.” Life in the Ixhil region is filled with its share of adversities, and youth have good reason to seek ways to surmount those adversities. The American Dream of an easy, consumer lifestyle however, apart from being unsustainable and ecologically devastating, is hardly an improvement to traditional Mayan lifestyles. The challenge is to encourage youth not to “escape”, but to discover ways to “add something better” to a way of life that is filled with hidden riches.
The most important work then, is to help youth refuse to buy the dreams of others, as they simply seek to accomplish their own.
Tobias Roberts lives in Nebaj, Guatemala where he and his wife Yasmin Méndez are on assignment with Mennonite Central Committee, a development and peace agency of the Anabaptist churches in Canada and the U.S. He is a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky.