Tucked away in a list of fascinating facts on humanity’s propensity to community, Malcolm Gladwell notes a perplexing and especially noteworthy tidbit in his book Outliers: the United States is the most individualistic culture in the world. And the most communal? You guessed it – Guatemala.
In some parts of the world we may have grown distant from our natural inclinations towards a cooperative spirit, but in Guatemala community is something you cannot escape. We see it expressed in the way hundreds of families share a single corn grinder for the whole town. We see it expressed in the shared history of how all of the communities we work in were formed. And this month, we saw community expressed through Kuchubales – communal work days where our farmers planted pigeonpea together.
Ciriaco, Don Chepe and Fernando planting Kuchubal style
Shared experience is perhaps the best fertilizer for growing community, and the triumphant history of the campesinos has certainly cultivated a strong sense of community. Nearly all of the places we work in were formed under land redistribution efforts. After the return to civilian government in 1986, the atrocities of conflict were inescapably haunting – the worst of which was the still shockingly unequal distribution of land. But while the elites may have held the land, they were outnumbered by a boisterous populous of dissatisfied rural peasants. Nearly 16,000 landless peasants marched to the National Palace in 1986 to demand land reform. It could not be ignored that the historical exclusion of campesino rural populations and the unjust land tenure-ship systems were not only causes of the war, but remained obstacles to long-term development. With this in mind, the government began buying up some of the largest landholdings across the country and redistributing them to landless campesinos. Massive cotton plantations in our project sites like Conrado de la Cruz and Willywood were purchased, divided up and allocated to peasants from the highlands eager for land. Families who had spent generations laboring unsuccessfully in the highlands packed up hundreds of years of history for a long hike down the mountainsides and into the coastal plains for a life in corn farming.
Shared labor is perhaps the best expression of community, and the inspirational work we have seen over the last month through the Kuchubales brings it to light. Semilla Nueva’s catchphrase for planting pigeonpea this season, Kuchubal, is a traditional Mayan practice, essentially a communal farming workday. Farming is a risky and costly livelihood including long hours planting new crops, turning the soil, or digging trenches of which the average family cannot afford on its own. Kuchubal addresses the heavy labor requirements by enlisting members of the community, unpaid, to assist in farming practices for their neighbors – each member is entitled to recruit others for help and the favor eventually returns to each participant. Throughout the month of September, Semilla Nueva worked the Kuchubal with groups of our promotores in each community, taking turns to plant pigeonpea on everyone’s land together until every farmer has an exciting new bean crop for February harvest.
While landlessness persists where we work, community persists even more so. Saul Gonzales, one of Semilla Nueva’s most active promotores and a natural leader in Conrado de la Cruz, is a landless campesino renting a mere three acres of land to farm corn and okra for export. Saul was immediately excited to grow pigeonpea as it requires less rain than any other crop and will allow him to take advantage of the time when he can’t grow anything else. With seed in hand, Saul was ready to plant 3 acres of pigeonpea that would increase his income and provide for for his family. But all of that changed when Saul was confronted with a number of women at a Semilla Nueva meeting who were excited about pigeonpea but didn’t have the land to try out the crop. Right away, Saul announced that he would share his mere 3 acres of rented land with anyone who was interested in pigeonpea. The next day, in Kuchubal style, Semilla Nueva staff worked alongside Saul and his neighbors, planting the entirety of his land in pigeonpea. Thanks to that natural sense of community embedded in Saul, three landless families will be able to cut their costs, increase their income, and provide added nutrients to their families. When asked about his generosity, Saul seemed confused by the question, as if the answer was so obvious it lacked necessity, “Pigeonpea is a great opportunity – everyone deserves the chance to achieve the benefits.”
Land has been a major root of all of Guatemala’s problems, and with dependence on chemical inputs and industrial agriculture that farmers, land will continue to be a major problem. But that dependence is being defeated with community, with cooperative support, and with Kuchubales. These trends of organization and community are sweeping their way across the Guatemalan developmental landscape, and they are proving that there is a nascent opening in the historical trajectory of modern Guatemala to social change, and to the possibilities of helping the poor grow better lives for themselves. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell is right, perhaps all we are seeking is to be part of a community. People are much more likely to experiment if there is a group of their peers experimenting, and they are much more likely to change their farming practices if a group of peers is doing so. Kuchubal may be the catchphrase for Semilla Nueva this season, but the ideals underlying Kuchubal are nothing new to the families we work with. By tapping into the inherent social capital of communities, Semilla Nueva is helping to unleash a sustainable system of locally-inspired agricultural extension that can defeat dependence. We see it when we have our regional conferences and not a single gringo gives a presentation because our promotores are so empowered. We saw it last week when Doña Josefa took it upon herself to give a makeshift presentation to her new neighbor on pigeonpea, how to cook it, and what kind of nutrients it brings. We see it when we pile in the back of a truck with ten farmers, men and women, machetes in hand ready to labor on a neighbor’s land growing seeds of pigeonpea, and seeds of community.