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January 2012

 

Turning Around America: San Juan Bautista - Veracruz, Guatemala, February, 2012

 

 

 

 

The visit by Beth and Jenn to the Veracruz community was a journey into uncharted territory.  With few exceptions, women are not carpenters in Guatemala.  The idea of two North American women teaching carpentry in a farm community, and working with women and men and boys and girls, was hard to fathom, for everyone involved.  Beth is a good friend of my sister, and I had heard of her skills as a woodworker and her hunger to create community and friendship through her work.


Veracruz is a community in south-central Guatemala, with a population of 205 sharing a 200-acre farm producing coffee and bananas along with some cattle.   We were invited into Veracruz two years ago by Sandra Durán, a community leader who had heard of our work from other campesinos. 


Veracruz is one of 250 farms purchased from private owners by the Guatemala Land Fund, a State-run entity created in the late 1990s and financed by the World Bank.  Access to farmlands has been a key issue in Guatemalan history, and during the negotiations to end the 36-year conflict, a mechanism was called for to provide lands to poor campesinos.  The Land Fund financed and coordinated the purchase of farms, paying owners with World Bank funds.  The debt – often onerous -- has been assumed by the campesinos. 
The program has been wrought with corruption, waste, poor management, divisions and conflicts. Kickbacks and payoffs led to the purchase of overpriced farms. Over the years, we have studied the process closely, working in several of the communities involved.  Our conclusion is that the program has caused as many problems as it has resolved.  We developed several concepts from this: functional dysfunction, the triple cocktail, and the crisis of intermediation.  We realized that the only way to effectively accompany a community is to share risk and to be honest about our own needs, capabilities and expectations.   


We were attracted to Beth because we sensed from her writing on turningaroundamerica.com  that she understood a lot of this.  At the same time, we could not expect her to commit to a long-term project without knowing more about Veracruz, and our work.  So Beth, and her cohort Jenn, agreed to come here and provide an introduction to woodworking.  We scraped up the funds for airfare and expenses.  They agreed to donate their work.  Both Beth and Jenn have written beautiful descriptions of their experiences here.

My first sense of Beth and Jenn came shortly after their arrival in Guatemala, before leaving my home for Vera Cruz.  I had a very old dismantled wood lathe, made from a truck differential, a 70 pound flywheel, and some rotting wood.   They quickly figured out the lathe´s original form (largely thanks to Jenn´s spacial intelligence) and built a new wooden base.  By the end of their trip they were turning wood on this ancient tool.

We travelled from my home to Vera Cruz, arriving in the late afternoon.   A road had been rebuilt to the “casa patronal”  specifically for this visit.   Before the land was sold to the community this house was used when the owners came to visit.  While some 40 or 50 families (known as peones) occupied tin-roofed, bamboo shacks, the owner had built a gorgeous home on a hill, with solar energy, geese-filled lily ponds, a tile kitchen, running water and two indoor toilets.  The contrast between this house and the living conditions for the workers was emblematic of the “finca” economy in Guatemala.  It is not uncommon for farm owners to fly from one farm to another in helicopter, while their workers live in shacks and scramble for drinking water from brooks and springs.

This contrast was a challenge for the new community when it purchased the farm in 2001.   How could the residents make use of this monument to inequity?  Initially it was used as a school and community center, although in recent years, with the construction of two schools closer to the center of the farm, the house had been abandoned.

For several years the community had discussed the idea of turning the house into a small hotel for visitors interested in experiencing rural community life.   In recent months, this idea was resurrected, in part due to the interest of our teammateTyson Cowles, who is convinced that “if we build the hotel, people will come”. 

A water line needed to be installed, the solar panels and charge regulators and invertor needed to be repaired, and the insect-eaten woodwork in the casa patronal needed to be replaced.  Doors were falling off hinges, cabinets had been turned to dust, and windows were missing.  Even some of the wooden pillars were rotten and bug eaten.

The project has become a central part of our work in Veracruz and is an interesting way of converting this anachronism into both a museum piece and a resource for bringing in cash to Veracruz.  Work will be created, an asset will be restored, a surplus will be generated and then collectively allocated.

It has also served as an exercise for people in Veracruz to “see” their community through the eyes of imagined visitors.  Suddenly the fallen roof of the shed over the broken tractor was repaired,  steps have been built on a path leading up to the house, concern over an abandoned bulldozer on the side of the road has turned into discussion regarding its scrap value.   Litter and road maintenance are discussed from this perspective.

While most group efforts require planning, room must be left for accidents, and two accidental happenings found their way into Veracruz.   A few months ago, we had heard of a foreigner in Antigua who needed to leave the country.  He was a general contractor and wanted to sell quickly his carpentry equipment and generator.  We suddenly became the owners of an array of power tools: a table saw, chop saw, circular saw, jigsaw, a 7700 watt generator, an electric sander, an electric plane, a jointer, a router and several other tools.

So we had both the tools and the need.  All we were lacking now were the skills.   We had two choices:  hire a carpenter to do the work, or figure out how to do it ourselves.   If we went with a paid carpenter, we get the concrete result, but procedurally, a paid carpenter is not that interesting or empowering.  Also in cash-poor Veracruz, we would have to front the money and get it back once the hotel was up and running.   On the other hand, Beth and Jenn offered a more interesting procedure, involving the community in a process that would require effort and learning, although the concrete results may be less immediate.

We opted for the second.  While a hired carpenter would have been an immediate answer to the carpentry problem (the “what”); it would not have moved us forward in creating skills and resolving our own problems (the “how”).  The carpenter would have been motivated by the  pay received and would not feel invested in the community or the hotel (the “why”).   What we are trying to prove with our work is that if you don´t struggle to bring all three together (a good what, how and why), you open the door to failure, even when  you obtain the concrete result.  This is the problem with most subsidized Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

This is hard for people to see, because we tend to be “self-bullshitting animals” and we pick the angle of perception that most pleases us.   Seinfeld, the comedy, has a great how (its architecture, its character development, etc.), and an absurdly mundane “what” (three white people in a New York apartment with nothing much to do); while development aid has an admirable “what” (ending hunger, empowering the poor,e tc); with an absurd “how” (incredible waste,  an absence of accountability, etc).  

We call this a triple cocktail, because self deception tends to seek the weakest link: if we have a good what and why, we let a weak how screw up the transformational value of our work.  If we have a good how and why, (procedure and motives) we develop unworkable project ideas (the what) that end up abandoned once the subsidies run out.  There are thousands of examples of this scattered throughout the Guatemalan countryside.

So along come Beth and Jenn, the second fortuitous accident that landed in Veracruz.  I picked them up at the airport and quickly noted the weight of their luggage.  They had loaded up with chisels and handsaws and vices and files.  (I saw no hair driers, however).   Beth did not speak a great deal of Spanish and relied on Jenn and my daughter Pilar for translating.  I could tell from their website that Beth was anxious to share what she knew and would not mistake the match for the kindling.   Her job was to teach and then step aside.  Jenn was the problem solver and Beth was the teacher, although they readily shared each of these roles.

Once in Veracruz they quickly set up their beds and mosquito netting (I did not mention that it was also bat netting).  By the end of their first work day they had won over the women and kids and before the end of the first week candles were being used to finish work after sunset.   Each night after going to bed, Pilar and Tyson would hear the murmur of Beth and Jenn discussing the previous day, for what seemed like hours.

Every day a different family would send food up to Jenn and Beth and Tyson and Pilar.  And as Beth describes in her post, a party was held at the end of the trip with food and music and dancing and speeches. 

By the end of their trip, they had conveyed their love of woodworking to most of the women and young boys  and girls in Veracruz.  In spite of the brevity of their stay, this was contagious, and women signed up to run the carpentry commission that will coordinate the use of the tools.

During their first days in Veracruz, I received a call from Beth.  We had told her that the doors and windows needed to be replaced and the women also wanted to be taught.  Beth asked me what was the priority: to work as carpenters or as teachers.  I knew what she thought, and I agreed.  They were in Guatemala to teach people how to make things.  It would take a while, the results would not be immediate, but in the end, the tools will be in the right hands, and the results will be owned by the builders.

Everybody involved think Beth and Jenn need to come back to Guatemala.  On their next trip we will have a supply of dry wood, harvested from the farm itself.  I agree with Beth that we should help build furniture for homes in Veracruz as well as think of carpentry as a source of income.  Furniture is longer lasting than profit.

Another triple cocktail we use in our work involves a measure of results, effort and process.   I believe that the effort and the process in this initiative were successful and positive contributions.  Some of the results are undeniable, while others slo far remain unmet.  Just as it is not enough to look solely at the results (a door, a window, a table) it is not enough to have a good process and solid effort, without assuring that they will lead to tangible results.  I think we need more of Beth and Jenn.

Knock on wood. 

Matt Creelman,
San Lucas Sacatepequez, Guatemala

April 18, 2012

 
 
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