“When your neighbor’s chicken scratches in your garden and destroys your seedlings, will you throw a stone at it, kill it, or yell at your neighbor over the fence? Isn’t it better to go over and talk to her,“Por favor, could you make sure that your chicken does not destroy my garden?”’ With this story Doña Angelina (name changed) illustrated her story of the women’s organization La Union in their village of Santa Maria Tzejá.
On the run
In the 70s, a group of landless campesinos, primarily Maya Q’eqchi ‘, reclaimed the land that was previously rainforest, cultivated it, and settled there with the approval of the Government. They were previously working in the Fincas of the highlands exposed to the arbitrariness of the big landowners but wanted to build their own existence. The march with their women, children, some cooking pots and clothes from the cooler highlands into the tropical rainforest on the Mexican border took them eight days. During the strenuous trek and in the first year they had to live on what the forest offered them. The older people in the village still tell of the hardships and sacrifices of those times, but they are also proud about the successful construction of their village community. However, they could not enjoy it for a long time. In the 80’s, during the armed internal conflict, the military accused their village of cooperating with the guerrillas and in 1982 committed a massacre and burned the village to the ground. Some of the survivors fled first to the mountains and later to Mexico, others decided to reconstruct the village again and for better or worse live under the thumb of the military in an “aldea modelo”, a model village. Instead of the arbitrariness of finqueros they were now esposed to the tyranny of the military. The villagers who had decided to flee were decried by the propaganda of the military regime as members of the guerrilla.
Return to the ruined village
After the signing of the peace treaties of 1996 the way for the return of refugees from Mexico was safe, on paper at least. To enable them to make their way home reasonably more securely, various affiliates of ACOGUATE have accompanied them. In their village they were recieved with mixed feelings: happily, because after 16 years friends met again and torn apart families were reunited, but also suspiciously because of the influence of the whispering campaign of the military propaganda.
Competition or cooperation
During their time in exile, the women of this and other Mayan villages set up an organization of mutual support: the Mamá Maquin. (The name derives from Adeline Caal Maquin, who was murdered in another massacre in 1978 in Panzós.) Also, those that stayed behind had their women’s organization: El Progreso. While the women of Mamá Maquin and their families had to recultivate their overgrown plots of land and reconstruct their homes, those of El Progreso already had some cattle in a cumunity project. Cattle breeding in Q’eqchi ‘ communities is traditionally women’s work. Initially, both organizations eyed each other with suspicion, because of the prejudices implanted by the military, but also because of the economic differences. The women of El Progreso feared that the women of Mamá Maquin would sign a claim to their cattle. But it turned out differently. The Mamá Maquin got together and took counsel about how they might avoid this nascent conflict. They had had enough of the war, and wanted at last to live in peace. In this meeting, one of the women told the story of the neighbors chicken. Together they arrived at the proposal to dissolve their local section of Mamá Maquin if the members of El Progreso would do the same and help to form a new organization together. The proposal was submitted to El Progreso and after some negotiation they decided to liquidate both organizations and establish La Union. The main obstacle that had to be overcome were the cattle. The Mamá Maquin pledged that the cattle would not be part of the merger, but they would remain as a separate property of the women who already took care of them.
Women with business acumen
Already in the first year, La Union filed a request with an agricultural development fund for a gasoline-powered mill and got it approved. In the daily life of the campesinas, the freshly prepared masa (dough) for tortillas is an indispensable everyday ritual and the mechanization of this work in the early morning is a huge relief for the women. The credit for the mill also included operating costs for the first year. As such, they could have ground free of charge. Unlike other municipalities, who had also received a mill, they began to charge a grinding fee of 1 Quetzal (12 cents) per pound. This allowed them to save up some capital in the first year and the women were already prepared that from the second year on, the grinding would cost something. Two years later they made the request for a second mill and were able to throw some equity into the financing plan. For the business acumen they thus demonstrated they were duly commended by the manager of the fund. Of this praise Doña Angelina is visibly proud even today. The second mill was necessary because the different parts of the village are quite far apart and – as we have learned – in the rainy season parts of the village can only be reached via loamy paths that convert into torrential streams and after storms not at all. After the second mill it was not difficult to get another loan for the third mill a couple of years later. Nowadays one can see many women and few men in the mornings between five and seven o’clock with their daily ration of corn on their heads pilgriming to the mill, and returning with the masa for their tortillas.
A cattle for every woman
A further project of this women’s organization has caused them a lot of headaches. Before the war, the village raised cattle and they wanted to continue this tradition. Therefore they applied for a loan that would have enabled every woman to raise a calf. Unfortunately, only half of the loan was granted. The women on the committee considered that it might be better to decline the offer to avoid discord between them. They thought about drawing lots but those who drew a cow might be envied by those who drew a blank. After lengthy discussions they came up with a better solution: they would create a rotation of women and the women who started with cows would pass on their calves to the next woman on the list. Then when those women’s cows had calves, they would pass those calves onto the next woman on the list. Thus, the calves were not private property and the herds would continue to grow equally. Now, each of the women has a small herd of 5-6 cattle. Some milk them everyday and sell the excess milk or make cheese. To that end, they put up with a half hour walk to their plot of land. Sometimes the path is too burdensome during the rainy season and they leave the milk to the calves. The milk yield of these rainforest suitable breeds is naturally very modest.
Doña Angelina, who told us this story, is clearly proud of what they have achieved. She was twice in the committee and is proposed for a third term next year but she only wants to accept if she does not have to assume the office of Treasurer. Last time, this gave her a lot of headaches and sleepless nights.
We asked whether or not the men have similar organizations. It turns out that, yes, they have the Cooperative, but they have a lot more conflict than the women…
Sources: Santa Maria Tzejá
Hompepage the village: https://santamariatzeja.wordpress.com/
The blog of a villager: https://agustinortiz.wordpress.com/