A Free Man’s Worship

Friday the 19th began strange and remained that way. I ordered a licuado – milk blended with fruit – and sat on a stool outside a shack on the roadside in La Maquina, Guatemala; or The Machine. I work here. Don’t bother: There is no sign that says Bienvenidos a La Maquina or I would have stolen it already. I sat disdainfully sipping the licuado after watching the kid behind the counter pour roughly a quarter pound of white sugar into the blender. I got up and walked back to the car, sulking about what could have been.

I tried to pay for gasoline an hour and a half later and could not find my backpack. The backpack with all of my money, my camera, my ereader, and my journals. I began looking around the car. It has to be here since this is where it belongs. I tried to be cool, watching myself go through the motions. Maybe it is under these papers or maybe it is under this jacket that I have already checked three times. I seemed to be doing all of this for the benefit of the gas station attendant. Then I accepted reality: it is at the licuado stand. I frantically flew out of the gas station, punching inanimate objects and shouting obscenities. I would do this for a few seconds and then laugh at myself for being ridiculous; there is no sense in fretting about what you cannot change or do not have control over.  My pictures, my writing, my money! Fuck! It doesn’t matter, they are just things, if it is all gone it is the universe teaching me to be more mindful. NO! FUCK! I would give whoever has it all of my money, I would do anything….seriously…..anything. I flew over speed bumps and threaded my way through fields of potholes on my return journey.  I arrive in La Maquina, almost crashing the car as I saw the backpack miraculously sitting where I left it. I ran up and aggressively grabbed it by its body, like the scruff of an insolent puppy.

‘Thanks for guarding my backpack!’ I shouted.

‘Uh….yeah.’ The kid behind the counter seemed confused.

‘I left this here for several hours and everything is still here!’

‘What is in it?’

‘Oh…uh… my notebook.’ I pulled out just the notebook to show him. I never performed any of the depraved acts that ran through my mind that would be necessary to recover my backpack.

I hopped back in the car and returned to Retalhuleu; met with a machinist; caught a tuktuk to the terminal; and finally hopped onto a bus, after merely glancing at the plaque in front listing Xela as one of its destinations, filled with merry musing about my upcoming sojourn in Mexico for a ten day silent Vipassana retreat. I began reading “A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell while I waited for a bus to depart and quickly became engrossed. As we thundered over potholes, the driver whipping the wheel and veering all over the two-lane road, I diligently maintained my deep concentration. I marveled at my aplomb; a bohemian vagabond deepening his erudition despite the pettiness and uncouthness that abounds.

‘Where are you going?’ I look up from my book slowly before responding to the ayudante’s question.

‘Xela.’ I smugly hand him 13 Quetzales, which I had already counted out, as that is how much the fare always costs. Everyone seemed to be laughing as they marveled at the gringo who knows the fares and routes on these rudimentary thirdworld transport systems.

‘We aren’t going to Xela; we are going to Coatepeque, but I can drop you off at a junction further down the road where you can get a bus  back towards Xela.’ He laughs at me and bellows out.

‘Oh. I uh..I saw the sign that…..Alright.’

I finished the essay as I sat sweating and pressed against 87 other people on the bus. 9 rows, 2 seats per row, 3 people per seat, count babies (sometimes as many as four per seat), count people in aisle, count ayudante that is occasionally on the roof. Sometimes you just read things at the right moment. The subject: Humanity under the blinding light of impermanence.

A Free Man’s Worship by Bertrand Russell

To Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch–as such creeds may be generically called–is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.

But gradually, as morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage. Some, though they feel the demands of the ideal, will still consciously reject them, still urging that naked Power is worthy of worship. Such is the attitude inculcated in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint. Such also is the attitude of those who, in our own day, base their morality upon the struggle for survival, maintaining that the survivors are necessarily the fittest. But others, not content with an answer so repugnant to the moral sense, will adopt the position which we have become accustomed to regard as specially religious, maintaining that, in some hidden manner, the world of fact is really harmonious with the world of ideals. Thus Man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.

But the world of fact, after all, is not good; and, in submitting our judgment to it, there is an element of slavishness from which our thoughts must be purged. For in all things it is well to exalt the dignity of Man, by freeing him as far as possible from the tyranny of non-human Power. When we have realised that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognised as the creation of our own conscience?

The answer to this question is very momentous, and affects profoundly our whole morality. The worship of Force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch. If strength indeed is to be respected, let us respect rather the strength of those who refuse that false “recognition of facts” which fails to recognise that facts are often bad. Let us admit that, in the world we know, there are many things that would be better otherwise, and that the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realised in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe. If Power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow-men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. It must be admitted that, of the things we desire, some, though they prove impossible, are yet real goods; others, however, as ardently longed for, do not form part of a fully purified ideal. The belief that what must be renounced is bad, though sometimes false, is far less often false than untamed passion supposes; and the creed of religion, by providing a reason for proving that it is never false, has been the means of purifying our hopes by the discovery of many austere truths.

But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every man comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of a passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.

But passive renunciation is not the whole of wisdom; for not by renunciation alone can we build a temple for the worship of our own ideals. Haunting foreshadowings of the temple appear in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture, in the untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact. In the contemplation of these things the vision of heaven will shape itself in our hearts, giving at once a touchstone to judge the world about us, and an inspiration by which to fashion to our needs whatever is not incapable of serving as a stone in the sacred temple.

Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rules of Fate and to recognise that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world–in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death–the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made. In this way mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature. The more evil the material with which it deals, the more thwarting to untrained desire, the greater is its achievement in inducing the reluctant rock to yield up its hidden treasures, the prouder its victory in compelling the opposing forces to swell the pageant of its triumph. Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues, while the legions of Death and Pain and Despair, and all the servile captains of tyrant Fate, afford the burghers of that dauntless city new spectacles of beauty. Happy those sacred ramparts, thrice happy the dwellers on that all-seeing eminence. Honour to those brave warriors who, through countless ages of warfare, have preserved for us the priceless heritage of liberty, and have kept undefiled by sacrilegious invaders the home of the unsubdued.

But the beauty of Tragedy does but make visible a quality which, in more or less obvious shapes, is present always and everywhere in life. In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, and in the irrevocableness of a vanished past, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow. In these moments of insight, we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears. Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness, is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes, the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, enunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins. To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be–Death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of Man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity–to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things–this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need–of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

The Strong Protect the Sweet

I have ridden my bicycle through Mexico and through Guatemala, learning about where our food comes from as the panorama passes and through conversations with farmers on the roadside. I have slept in corn fields, cow pastures, below apple trees and in the wild. I felt seen the trees, grasses, stalks and vines. I have met the sinewy, tired, wrinkled, tough, proud people who tend them. I became strangely interested in agriculture and today I find myself interviewing farmers on the Southern coast of Guatemala with the intent of helping a sustainable agriculture organization learn more about the communities where they work. I have spent weeks so far swinging in hammocks and reclining in the shade as I try to capture their story. In my spare time I climb mango trees and gorge myself, unsure whether my stomach pain is from too many mangos or parasites. I consistently fail at resisting the delicious cold beverages made with well water that consistently leave me running to the bathroom.

Here is generalized profile of a campesino (small farmer): A small landholder, with 1-3 manzanas (1.72-5.16 acres)  through land grant or a lease, that farms maize (corn) for consumption and sale and sesame for export. The typical diet here revolves around beans and tortillas, with occasional garnishes when they are affordable. Farming is the sole source of income for the family (occasional family members contributing through remittance payments from the United States or by working on palm, banana or sugar plantations). The agriculture in this region, due to the poor quality land of the land received, requires a substantial amount of inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Incomes have risen through yield increases that reflect an increased intensification of agriculture through the heavy use of these inputs and hybrid seeds adapted to their use. Money is borrowed from banks, money lenders or input distributors to finance the agricultural process at usurious rates. A succinct summary of their felt need: economic development, a healthy environment and a path forward for their children. It sounds relatively similar to what much of the rest of the world desires.

The connection that farmers here feel to the land is difficult to fully grasp for anyone from a culture that is disconnected from the land, as is typical of much of the industrialized world. The culture of Guatemala today grows from agrarian life, which is rooted deeply in the land itself. Virtually all strife within this country can be traced back to land, especially the 36 year civil war that ravaged the countryside before ending in 1996. Here is one rant from the coast, one of many that I hope to share. It is a rant because I am not sure if I know how to assimilate all of these things that I am feeling and trying to understand into a coherent narrative. We live in a complex world. Here is where sugar comes from:

Palma Africana
Palma Africana

Land ownership in Guatemala has a markedly skewed distribution: 2.5% of the country’s farms control 65% of agricultural land, while 88% of all farms, with an average size of 1.5 hectares, occupy 16% of the land. Approximately 40% of the economically active rural population does not own land. Along the South slope this distribution is reflected at ground level in expansive plantations that produce valuable export crops that can exploit the cheap cost of labor and the simple spreads of the cheap labor. The primary export crops produced on a large scale are: palm oil, sugar cane and bananas. I spend my days weaving through potholes and inhaling dust as I navigate the endless and confusingly homogenous landscape on my way to small communities sometimes only known by a name like A-13 or Calle 2.

Sugar processing facility with cane in the foreground.
Sugar processing facility with cane in the foreground.

After spending the week in La Montana speaking with farmers, I am driving the wife of a friend of the organization to the market in Retalhuleu. The air is sweet with the smell of burning sugarcane, a smell that has permeated the coast for months, one that I will never forget. I keep the truck in second gear as Graciela and I jar our way down roads ruined by overloaded semis stacked high with cut cane as white clouds streaked with black smoke billowed on the horizon. Many men and quite a few kids walk the scorched earth and cleave their way through hellish rows of blackened cane with machetes, their faces and arms swarthy with ash stuck to the sweat that runs in the midday heat. The machetes seem disproportionate in size relative to the kids.

Workers cutting cane.
Workers cutting cane.

“How old are those kids in the fields?” I ask Graciela with a grimace.

“Some are as young as 12. Most of the kids whose parents cannot afford to send them to school start working with their fathers on the plantations.” Graciela readily responds, her tone seemingly not adequately reflecting how sad and strange this reality seems to me.

Sugarcane is tall grass native to South Asia that has been cultivated for thousands of years. The production process in Guatemala occurs over the course of a year. The sugar cane is irrigated and left to grow on fields maintained clean through heavy applications of herbicides. After it reaches maturity, the fields are set on fire to remove the parts of the plant that are not used in the production process. This step significantly reduces manual labor costs. The cane itself is then manually cut and loosely piled into semis that are bound for nearby processing plants, as the cane loses sucrose with the passage of time. The canes are pressed to remove the cane juice, which is then processed and refined into the product completely devoid of nutritional value that we are all familiar with.

We pass fields of sugarcane kept radiantly green during the dry season through extensive irrigation that drains the earth with large motors pulling from wells over 30 meters deep. Many farmers have mentioned that their wells have run dry as the water table is has been consistently dropping since the sugar cane plantations arrived with advanced machinery in the past five years. A well 8-10m deep is no longer enough.

Planes hum overhead before they disappear in self-produced clouds of chemicals. The planes are dropping what is called a maldurativo, which is used to artificially ripen the cane, but has the additional effect of destroying the fruit on neighboring farmer’s land. Several farmers have spoken of mango trees dropping small unripe mangoes and of lime trees producing nothing. One of the few farmers growing vegetables in an area suffering from a very imbalanced diet decided not to plant tomatoes this year as it is too risky with the effects of the maldurativo.

The way in which plantations affect the area is part of a global economic problem afflicting thousands of campesinos. An interaction between various variables feed a cycle that appears to be without end. Maize is not a high value export crop, thus the value generated by a hectare is low relative to palm oil, bananas or sugar. Maize is life in Guatemala. Maize and sesame prices have been increasing in recent years, which has provided some gains for farmers, but this is offset by many other factors.

Input costs are rising. Rents are increasing. The land is degrading. In general the costs of life are increasing in this area, as are expectations related to quality of life.

A small farmer has the advantage of exploiting his own labor and that of his family to increase profitability, but this decreases with additional land, rendering non-mechanized agriculture at a scale more than a few manzanas not very profitable. The economic analysis that I have done in conjunction with the survey paints a bleak picture with no clear path forward. The long run is more challenging as land is expected to be divided amongst children, which deepens the situation created by a lack of land and resources. Many campesinos are now forced to work on plantations to supplement their income or to pay down debt.

After the harvest.

Is this just the process of development? The transition of rural labor into industrial labor? Not all jobs that are created equal: the plantations only hire laborers that are aged from 12-25 years of age from what I can gather. The jobs are almost entirely low value manual labor that entails toiling in the fields for punishing hours every day. After just a few years many of the workers are exhausted, leading the plantations to only hire young workers.

After age 25? There are no other jobs other than on the plantations or producing maize and sesame; there is no apparent or bright future for these kids in the fields. The viability of sustaining a family producing just maize and sesame appears increasingly difficult. This cycle is not new, but it is worsening.


I spend a week in Calle 2 outside of Retalhuleu. I am interviewing, Don Pedro, a boisterous man who spins tales from the hammock about the civil war and the time he spent working in the United States. He swats at dogs and throws objects at chickens as they cluck and strut around us. He tells me about a strange farm in South Carolina where he worked only picking small cucumbers many years ago. He doesn’t know why. I think about it for a second and start laughing.

‘It was a farm for pickles!’ I realize.

He tries grins with the teeth he still has and repeatedly mispronounces pickles as he laughs. I finish the interview with the following question:

‘Is there anything else that you want me to add?’ I ask randomly.

‘Well, yeah there is one thing that maybe you guys could help with since you know people in the government.’

‘Sure. What is it?’

‘Well, my brother just called me and he works in irrigation at the plantation up the river called ‘La Virgen.’ They plantation just dammed the river that runs behind the house to irrigate, el Rio Espanol. They did this a month ago with a larger river and we blocked the highway for several days before they removed the dam. Can you call anyone you know and ask for help? This can’t keep happening.’ He asks timidly.

‘Let’s go see the river.’ I am incensed.

We hop on bicycles and pedal hard down singletrack trails to the river; the level is low and it is barely flowing. I shout down to a woman washing her clothes in the river who confirms that something is wrong.

‘Where is the dam? I want to go see it.’

‘Let me call my brother.’


‘There are four men guarding the dam right now with shotguns. I don’t think it is a good idea for you to go there right now.’

‘Well we need to do something. They aren’t going to do anything unless you take action like before. You should block the highways again.’ I am indignant, the Western American urge to kill for water rising in my veins.

‘The sugar plantations pollute the air we breathe..’
‘For monoculture there will be more hunger’
‘The planting of sugar doesn’t help us, the other cost is high.’

We set out early for Xela after interviewing a few more farmers. We received word that the road is blocked, but decide it is worth the effort to try. We flag down a pickup truck that is carrying a few other passengers to carry us to the first roadblock. I get my wish: as we approach a mob comes screaming and running towards us brandishing clubs. Angela and I sit uneasily in the back of the truck as they hit the outside of the truck and force the driver to stop and turn off his vehicle. Eventually the mob subdues and returns to the blockade. The road is blocked with logs, rocks and several banners declaiming the campesino’s quandary. A woman is screaming loudly, the kind of desperate and angry wail that brings tears to my eyes. We talk with several of the protestors who explain to me that the protest is about more than simply the river being blocked, it is about air quality, it is about the roads, it is about their future. The plantations expect to expand several thousand acres in the next two years according to one of the protest organizers.

Sugar cane trucks.
Sugar cane trucks.

We set out walking in the heat, past lines of parked trucks from the sugar plantations. I feel like a scab. The highway is filled with pedestrians. We stop and chat with other people walking, we buy a watermelon from a family selling fruit on the roadside and eat it on the spot. One pickup truck carrying mangos hits a speedbump and a few fall out the back, I pick them up and feast. It is beautiful.

Angela walks a desolate road.
Angela walks a desolate road through the perpetually smoke filled air.

We arrive at the second roadblock after walking and catching rides for a couple of hours. We arrive at the second roadblock as the protest is breaking up.  A government bureaucrat makes incredibly vague conciliatory remarks while surrounded by police, ending by saying there will be a dialogue between the government, the plantations and the campesinos the following Friday. Women stand barefooted in the audience staring with eyes wizened by decades of the same rhetoric. The sugar trucks lurch back into action and we catch an old schoolbus back to Xela.

The protest breaks up.
The protest breaks up.

The fight continues. I receive word the next week that the roads will be blocked again as the government, nor the sugar plantations, made any concessions. Unfortunately change does not happen unless it is forced to happen.

Workers work through the night, the field burning.
Workers work through the night, the field burning.

I sit watching one of the fields burn at night, the strange orange glow of the smoke and fire on the horizon evokes thoughts of burning oil fields. Ash rains down upon me as I sit on a street corner in Los Encuentros speaking to a few farmers about the sugar cane that now surrounds their houses. It is the first year it has been planted in the area. I look up and a piece of ash goes into my eye and I go for a walk by myself as I wince for the next few minutes. Ash covers everything. I stand in the darkness thinking.

I want to live in a world where there are small farmers who have a connection to the land. I want to live in a world where people are paid fairly for their work and where we all have a right to clean air and water. I may not be directly fighting, but it seems inherent in so many aspects of my daily life. The degree of interconnectedness in our world, how the actions of millions of individuals on one continent can affect the lives of millions in another, is difficult to grasp and be conscious of at every moment. We have the opportunity to make the best choices that are in accordance with the information that we have and our values. We cannot keep diffusing responsibility, equivocating or looking to someone else. Be conscious of the decisions that you make, you choose what you support with your actions.

The path to a better world involves widening our moral circle, the extent to which we extend moral consideration. Is it just your family? Is it your friends? Acquaintances? Fellow citizens? People who you identify with culturally? All other human beings?