The Reality in the Rows

There are several sentences in this paragraph that need to be set to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. Now this is the story all about how my weekend got flipped, turned upside down and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, relishing the sunlight angularly splayed across my bed. My phone rings, I spring up and quickly answer it. I had anticipated this call as the night sky over Quetzaltenango erupted with dendritic shafts of lightning and a long anticipated deluge of water. I pick up my clothes off the floor and stuff papers into a backpack and run into the street, headlong into the maize planting season in the communities around Suchitepéquez, Guatemala. I whistle for a bus and as it comes near the windshield says “Lopez” and it has Jesus  in the mirror. If anything, I could say that this bus was rare. But I think nah, forget it. ¡Oye vos a Reu!

My curly hair expands outward as the magic school bus slowly immerses me in the coastal humidity. I get dropped off by the bus a kilometer shy of the mechanic’s shop where I will pick up the old champion of a Suzuki that I use in the field. I am walking against traffic in frustration until I hear someone shout:

‘Gringo!’ from across the road.

He runs to the curb with a mango in each hand. We stare at each other from across the road until there is a break in traffic. I run over and he hands me the mangos.

‘Por el camino.’ For the road he says through a smile.

IMG_3464I begin a pothole dodging drive, occasionally spraying rusty water out to the sides as the road itself becomes one large, unavoidable pothole. I shout out the window occasionally at teenagers on mopeds;  there is no time for patience when it comes to agriculture. A slate blanket of clouds smothers the fallow fields; men walk with purpose carrying machetes and hand hewn planting sticks.

I pass through Cuyotenango, prostitutes lean and leer from cantina doors in the early morning. A drunk pauses as I approach, staring into my eyes, the whites of his eyes cast against the backdrop of the brilliant blood pouring down his face. Nobody else seems concerned.

I currently work for a farmer to farmer organization that works with smallholders farmers on the Guatemalan Pacific coast to improve agriculture, livelihoods and food security IMG_3475through small scale experimentation. Farmers in this area of Guatemala, Suchitepequez and Retalhuleu, generally plant maize (corn) and sesame in soil depleted from years of intensive cotton monocropping that proceeded the land grants that occurred during or after the civil war. Sesame is planted purely for export, and maize for both sale and consumption. I am planting two different varieties of maize with the farmers that are nutritionally superior to the varieties that are currently planted in this region: Quality Protein Maiz and ICTA Maya. Farmers in this region traditionally only have access to information regarding seeds, chemicals, pests and weeds from rarely seen government officials or self-interested representatives from Monsanto or Disagro. We are trying to offer an alternative: I have collaborated with 15-20 farmers to set up small experiments on their parcels with the aims of introducing them to the experimentation process and these varieties of maize. We have been through the process of measuring and marking the experiment in the field; I am rushing to the coast to assist with planting to both monitor their experiments and to take part in the ritual.

I rattle through the shady tunnel created by a finca of Palma Africana; the symmetry is both beautiful and disgusting. My feeling is similar with regard to the strange smelling water that hits and cools my face from the sprinklers that line the roadside. I try to make it out to the field of Paula Jimenez in 2wd, but I am quickly mired in deep, slick mud as farmers knowingly snicker as they pass on bicycles. I wade out into the mud and lock the hubs, before emerging in a spray of mud.

IMG_3441I park the car before one daunting pit where a horse drawn cart wallows. I proceed on foot. I arrive late to Paula’s field, something that I see as a positive cultural adaptation to Guatemala on my part. I watch the farmers wander their fields, barefeet caked in black. I quickly come to understand the custom as I suddenly feel quite Dutch as my shoes are transformed into four inch clogs. I measure and remark an already planted experiment and make plans to return the following day to finish the planting of Paula’s field.

The day is fading quickly and I need to find somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep and then be back here before 6am. I pass by a few other homes on my way out of town to check up on planting plans, navigating roads riven by rivulets. I eat five empanadas on the roadside, situate myself in the municipal building of a small town called Lupita and cool myself by dumping bowls of water on myself under a constant cacophony of grackles.

I sit reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut under a single dangling lightbulb as I am assailed by mosquitos. In amusement I read, ‘Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.’

I hear a polite knock on the screen door and Daniel, Treasurer of the local development organization, pulls up a chair. We talk about the organization where I work and the challenges that Guatemala faces. Daniel explains the history of the village: Lupita was founded 17 years earlier by refugees returning for Mexico as the Guatemalan Civil War drew to a close in 1996. The founders came from indigenous communities in the highlands: Quiche, Quetzaltenango and San Marcos. There are still six different languages spoken in the community. The community has benefited from a high degree of organization, despite the cultural diversity. Community organization here is synonymous with agricultural organization; this has allowed the town to prosper through coordinated development projects.

Daniel sums up the government development and agricultural extension programs that visit the town by saying the following: ‘They love talking, but hate to get their boots dirty. We learn in the fields, we learn by doing. They pass out sheets about how to do technical things, like make organic fertilizer, to people who cannot read, then a farmer tries to do it and it doesn’t work because they didn’t understand how to apply it because it was never demonstrated. Everyone then thinks that organic fertilizer doesn’t work. It happens all of the time; I don’t even want to ask the community to gather for trainings or meetings from the government anymore. The people have no confidence in them and most of the time just hope to receive free fertilizer.’

‘How should an organization try to help people and make lasting change here?’

‘You should work closely with a few people that can create good examples. Show us what you’re talking about, show us the benefits. I went to university and studied agriculture, came back, and then tried to convince my father to try using organic fertilizer. He wouldn’t . If I showed him how to do it he might try it, but how does anyone expect to show up as an outsider and convince anyone of anything with words? You need to build trust and a relationship with the people and then they will listen to you.’

Nuevos Bracitios, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

I wake up to the same raucous cackling, the intensity increasing as dawn nears. I throw my things in the car in a somnambulant daze and take off. The sky is light as I park in front of the house belonging to a friend named Catocho in Nuevos Bracitos. I slap him on the back as he mixes his seed with a treatment to combat pests, a neon yellow substance called Blindage, with a grin on his face. We sit down for a bowl of black beans and deep yellow tortillas made from a native variety of corn. Catocho and his wife were brought together, in my mind, by one defining and hilarious mannerism: they scream to communicate. They will shout at you from across the table about a mango or to offer you a delicious, cold drink.

Catocho began working in the cotton fincas at the age of six years old, something that was normal in the 1970s. He grew to be a man who is constant motion and energy, words coming out of his mouth in torrents punctuated with laughter. He is off to an early start today, spinning tales of bad harvests and about the time they accidentally planted all of the rows maize diagonally. Everyone is in high spirits; there is an energy in the fields and houses that is a release after months of anticipation.

IMG_3455The fields in every direction are filled with men, women and children thrusting planting sticks into the ground made soft by the rain. They expertly cast two kernels into each hole before gently covering it.  I  measure several parcels, help plant one and then head out to help Catocho. I leave the car at an impassable mudhole and walk through the fields with my machete, a few sticks and some twine. I pull off my shoes and fill up a plastic container that I sling off my hip with seed.  We plant seed that will yield hundreds of pounds of food nourished by the sun, rain and soil…..well and copious amounts of chemicals. The fields are  littered with colorful plastic bottles from frequently fertilizer and pesticide applications, the water in one puddle glows bright blue. The poor soils and imbalanced ecosystem here have lead to an unhealthy reliance on chemicals, both economically and physically, to yield a decent harvest.

We work silently, each in our own row. It is a meditative exercise for me; Catocho talks on his cell phone and still plants quicker than me.

‘I didn’t hire anyone. I just have one slow gringo.’ He looks over at me grinning.

After planting, we head back to Catocho’s house to eat lunch. Catocho quickly bathes and changes before we sit down to eat. His wife Gaby has set the table beautifully, in keeping with the auspiciousness of the day.

I check up on a few more parcels before Humberto, an agronomist with whom I work, and I rush out towards Conrado de La Cruz to mark a parcel there, racing against the fading day. Mango trees line the road, holding the last of the season’s bounty, much to my dismay as I often pick mangos out of the car window for lunch. I get out of the car at one point and wade out into a flowing stream,  which comes midway up my thigh, to make sure it is passable. I think that I learned this from Oregon Trail. I shrug at Humberto and he grins before plowing the truck into the chocolaty flow.  The fan slaps the water and the truck billows steam as it roars through the waterhole.

Linea A-13, La Maquina, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

The rains are late here.  A-13 falls within the ‘dry corridor,’ something that local belief holds to have resulted from severe deforestation. I pass the following week in waiting, clouds perpetually looming in the distance. I mark parcels amidst the smell of rain and rumbling in the distance. I ask all of the farmers if it is going to rain and they always answer optimistically while looking at the sky.

The week passes without rain. On Friday morning I am awakened by a soft blob bludgeoning me in the face, interrupting my slumber in a bed made of straw.

‘What the fuck!’ I shout in confusion in the pitched black, windowless room.

I frantically grab around my face to confront my assailant. I grab a roughly textured, cool blob that takes both hands to corral before it urinates on me. I toss it on the floor.

‘What is it? What was that?’ Humberto inquires in concern from the floor where he lies.

‘A toad!’

‘What did you do with it?’

‘I put it on the floor.’ I start laughing.

‘You mean where I am sleeping?’

‘Yeah.’ He starts laughing as well.

To this day it remains a mystery how this toad got into the room, how it got onto the bed, how it gained enough force to bludgeon me from above with substantial force. There is simply no way realistic explanation. I briefly harbor suspicions that maybe Humberto is responsible, but I dismiss them as paranoid.

The one thing that I think that I, along with every witch or shaman, would agree upon is that this is a sign that it will rain today. I check a few more parcels and then wait. The sky unleashes a torrent all over Southern Guatemala that night, setting in motion the last round of planting.

IMG_3490The sky is clear, the cones of the volcanoes idyllically hang over the fields as the farmers plant a crop derived from a grass thousands of years ago; a sacred ceremony under volcanoes that have been shrouded in clouds for months. I plow through puddles once again, frantically answering phone calls regarding planting from all directions. I visited planted parcels in the morning and then plant all afternoon. Stab, throw, step, cover.

I eat dinner with Humberto at a family’s home in a town called Willy Woods. We repeat a ritual that keeps both of us contented in the field: eating stacks of ember toasted tortillas in Rosaura’s smoke filled kitchen. Chickens, a cat and a few puppies mill the room. I snicker to myself as Rosaura always makes noises at them and softly yells at them to get out, but never actually does anything about it.

IMG_3497The following morning we rise in the darkness to canvas different areas. I check two experiments before arriving at Cirilo’s house in A-13. We treat the seeds with a different neon blue treatment and then start planting with his sons; the four of us work two different rows, each one starting at an opposite end. We quickly shift the ropes and my inefficiency shines.

IMG_3499‘Let’s go to Los Angeles.’ Cirilo declares in jest.

‘Why? Do you want to plant corn there?’

‘No, I want to see the skyscrapers.’

‘I think we should go plant corn there instead.’

IMG_3501We finish up and scrub the pesticides off of our hands.  I decapitate a coconut and devour a mango, filling my beard with orange flesh. I get into the car in excited exhaustion, chickens and iguanas scatter as I clatter and clunk down the dirt roads of A-13.

What awaits these people? It is a question that is increasingly tied to the question of what happens to us, to the earth in general. The problems that Guatemala currently faces have not arisen overnight, but they are increasingly more apparent and exacerbated by our interconnected world. Inequality, resource scarcity, expanding populations and environmental degradation are universal problems that cannot be contained by borders, yet we live within an economic and political order that is currently structurally unsuited to deal with complex, global problems. I feel that, as individuals, we are left with several options:

1. Live in a solipsistic world and deny the reality of these problems.

2. Defer to some other hypothetical man’s infinite ingenuity as justification for personal inaction. To look towards technology as a solution to the problems that technology causes.

3. Recognize the reality of these problems.

  • Do nothing in despair/perception that one’s locus of control is limited.
  • Make mindful choices in your personal life each day to try and create a better world.
  • Actively work to create a better world using increasing interconnectedness; economically, socially, politically, informationally; to foster a counterbalance to these externalities.

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?