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The Case for Chocolá, Guatemala

After leaving the big modern highway, you drive along a paved two-lane road, passing a couple of hamlets surrounded by lush greenery, enormous trees and a profusion of flowers. As you enter Chocolá, you glimpse coffee bushes under the taller trees and of course, an array of small homes. The main road through town is variously paved with cobblestones, or paver bricks, and the little tiendas which line it offer sodas, an enormous variety of bagged snacks, a few eggs, some sweets. If nothing else were to alert you to the economic distress of this community, the number of bone-thin scrofulous dogs roaming exhaustedly in the heat would speak of hard times.

In this way, Chocolá is not too different from hundreds of other small towns in the skirts of Guatemala’s mountains.

Chocolá is also a modern Maya village in trouble! Townspeople are poor - average household income: $1,000/year. Unemployment exceeds 60 per cent. The difficulties of their lives result from 500 years of (a) conquest, slavery and disease, (b) colonialism and forced labor, (c) postcolonial foreign owned plantations and labor laws requiring them to work for scant wages., (d) military repression of post colonial governments and, now (e) negative impacts of globalism. Dependent on small-plot coffee cultivation, with no capital to convert to more profitable cultigens, they are trapped and their cultural traditions are imperiled. The poor economy forces young people to leave their homes and immigrate to the US, where they are often unwanted and abused.

Yet Chocolá is the focus of considerable attention from the international archaeological community, US and Guatemalan non-profits, a variety of agencies of the Guatemalan government, religious organization, agriculturists, business interests both international and local, health practitioners, social scientists, historians and more. Why? Because Chocolá has within it the natural assets, human resources and real life problems to be solved by applying principles of self-help, education and sustainability.

It's Assets
Pre-Classic Maya Site: Over 2500 years ago, Chocolá was the site of a large and thriving Pre-Classic Maya city, home to sophisticated water systems and early Mayan writing and carving. We are only beginning to unearth this powerful and important city and to discover its role in the centuries which followed.

Birthplace of Chocolate: Ancient Chocolá very likely drew its power from growing and controlling trade in cacao, the ceremonial beverage of Maya priests and kings. Current scientific thinking places Chocolá at the center of the origins of the plant that gives us the delicious chocolate of today.

Maya Mathematics and Language: Incredibly exciting work in archeoastronomy gives strong indications that Chocolá was seminal in the development of the Mayan thought system for time, one of the many intellectual riches of this flowering culture, and language.

Coffee expertise: As coffee became a significant crop in Guatemala, Finca Chocolá became one of the largest producers, encompassing over 50 square miles. In the late 1800s, one of the most important machines for coffee processing was invented at Chocolá. The Guardiola dryer is still used throughout the coffee world today. The original machine is still in operation in the beneficio (coffee processing plant) in Chocolá today. Finca Chocolá sent the first exported coffee to San Francisco in the early 1900s.

German Pioneer Legacy: The Nottebaums, a German family, bought the Finca in the 1890s and their amazing legacy may be seen today in the wonderful German-style buildings which remain in the town center and surrounding the beneficio. This family was among the most prominent in Guatemalan agriculture and business until the time of the World War II, when the Guatemalan government seized their assets and subsequently operated Finca Chocolá until 1981.

Land Reform: During World War II, Finca Chocolá was divided into four pieces, each segment piece was distributed in "parcelas" to the workers under the guidance of an ECA – Empresa Campesina Associativa, a type of official cooperative which continues to be the main organizational structure in the community today.

Natural Beauty: The natural environment in and around Chocolá is remarkable. It may be best depicted with photographs such as those seen below. (Mountains, pictures of deep forest with light streaming in, butterflies, trails, panoramas, and some text to deswcribe what is not easy to see.

Chocolenses: Undeniably, the greatest asset in Chocolá is its people. The community is a melting pot of industrious Maya people who came from all over Guatemala to work on the German Finca at the end of the 19th century, indigenous Maya from the region who may be direct descendants from the great pre-classic city, German descendants and newcomers from throughout the nation. Their determination to pursue a better future for themselves and their families is powerful.

The Problems
Poverty: Amid this astonishing array of potential assets, Chocolá is a microcosm of Guatemala’s history. Public education of native people has been neglected for centuries and has left them ill equipped to compete in the modern economy. Collapse of world coffee prices has left small coffee farmers at the mercy of unscrupulous coffee brokers. Farmers have no trucks to get their vegetable products to market and so are daily scalped by vegetable brokers. Technical assistance and agricultural education are not accessible to small rural communities such as Chocolá. In the post civil war environment, programs for rural redevelopment are just beginning to emerge but are often set back by political instability and difficult to change culture of corruption. And the Guatemala financial and banking community extend no credit to small Maya communities to help local employers develop local jobs.

Health and Education: Few children go beyond the fifth grade. What education they receive excludes problem solving, critical thinking, civic training or history that includes a respectful treatment of their Maya heritage. There are no physicians or nurses in Chocolá, no health care clinic, no health education and no ambulance service to transport ill or injured people to help. Water supply is primitive as is waste water disposal and children suffer from parasites and other bacteria in the water. Electrical service is intermittent - generally only for a few hours each day. Trash too often finds its way into the rivers, roadsides and arroyos.

Protecting their Treasure: For complex historical and social reasons, the people of Chocolá have only a embryonic understanding of the importance of the Maya history beneath their feet or of the German Finca Chocolá that played such an important role in the history of agriculture in Guatemala and Chocolá. To some significant degree, this traces to generations of Federal and religious educational programs that sought to trivialize Maya history and civilization. Chocolenses are only beginning to appreciate their very old and impressive history and part of our program is to help accelerate that learning curve. Only in this way can these historical treasures be both preserved, studied and put to work for the people of Chocolá. To preserve these assets requires helping the community develop a vision of that past and how it can become a part of their future.

What's Next
Self determination, Leadership training, Technical and Financial  Assistance
: Semillas Para El Futuro, and its ally Amigos de Chocolá have created a partnership with the community to plan for the future and support programs that have a real potential to become sustainable. Our goal is to let the community lead the way!


School Girl

Organic Fertilizer Plant