Did you know that people in this country of eternal spring and a population of 17 million not only speak the official language, Spanish, but also more than 20 Mayan languages? I cannot speak any Mayan, let alone any other of the indigenous languages, but I’m dreaming of learning a new language. As a piece of trivia (for the benefit of those who are interested in culture and mythology), the famous national epic of Guatemala’s Kiche Mayas, Popol Vuh, is also available in Finnish. The high culture of the Mesoamerican Mayas was destroyed long ago, but a considerable percentage of Guatemala’s population are still members of the Maya peoples.
SYL has been involved in development cooperation in Guatemala with the local Maya student organisation, AMEU, since 1994. Although the World Bank declared that the country was in the upper-middle-income category about a year ago, it is nevertheless quite a poor country for Latin America, close to lower-middle-income countries such as Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. As is typical for the area, there is major inequality in Guatemala, and a large proportion of the population lives below the poverty line. It is one of the most corrupt Latin American countries, which Transparency International has placed in the not-so-good position of 144/180. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly commented on violence against the indigenous population, women, children and young people. Guatemala is notorious for its criminal gangs, such as the ultraviolent Mara Salvatrucha, a name many Finns have probably heard.
We tried to get funding for a new project in Guatemala last year, but were unsuccessful. The previous cooperation project between SYL and AMEU ended in 2017. This taught Maya women how to grow avocado trees so that unemployed women staying at home and dependent on the men could gain some income by selling the fruit. The long-term target was to improve the position and income level of Maya women, thereby reducing income differences between population groups.
We asked how they are doing in Guatemala, and received answers from the viewpoints of the previous project’s beneficiaries and AMEU:
The communities that participated in the project have reaped harvests and sold the produce, albeit in varying degrees due to problems caused by the conditions in Guatemalaa. In Tecpán, about 90 km west of Guatemala City, frost destroyed many families’ avocado trees. Only a few have any trees left – but these are producing a reasonable crop. The community in Acatenango, some 75 km south-west of Guatemala City, suffered from a powerful volcanic eruption (which made the news in Finland, too), but the avocado harvest is nevertheless described as a success. Owing to lack of opportunities, the spouses of many of the women taking part in the project have had to leave their families behind and go to the United States, a trend that AMEU finds alarming. There have been no problems in Parramos, some 50 km west of Guatemala City, and the avocado harvest is expected to double as the trees grow.
AMEU describes the situation in Guatemala as distressing, because the people are unhappy with their corrupt administration. A general election will be held in the country in July and the related campaigns are beginning. Many organisations, AMEU included, have organised anti-government demonstrations. Owing to the country’s instability, AMEU has lost some of its partners, and the actors regret that no funding was obtained for SYL’s new project. Despite everything, AMEU’s volunteers have not given up, and are engaging in negotiations with a number of parties concerning new projects.
SYL, too, is considering new ways to continue its cooperation with AMEU. Although there are problems in the region, I’d like to stress the unbelievably beautiful diversity of Guatemala’s and Latin America’s natural world, not to mention the new potential created by positive development, and the country’s warm-hearted people. I would encourage everyone to learn more about Latin America with an open mind, and to see beyond the crises and violence that tend to preoccupy the media.