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?