Chickens, machetes and planting corn, an update of my latest activities
By Keegan Smith at May 08, 2009
Today I met with one of the victims of the massacre of Acteal. She was shot through the hand and through the pelvis leaving her unable to bear children and with difficulties to walk. In a place where women are expected to carry water and firewood strapped to their backs large distances she is unable to perform many tasks of daily life. The meeting was together with her brother and the mesa directiva to discuss the possibility of a project which can help her economic situation since she doesn't receive any form of disability pension or compensation for the acts that were perpetrated against her as part of a government strategy.
On a visit last year by Peace and Diversity Australia an agreement was made that she would receive a shop where she could sell everyday goods to make a small living wage. During previous discussions with the mesa directiva and again yesterday with Catalina it was mentioned that there are already a number of shops of this kind in Acteal where she has a house and that running a shop requires many hours of work to sell as well as doing stocktaking and organizing merchandise. The women's cooperative store that exists in this area isn't having the success that it had hoped for and is an example of how the retail environment has become overcrowded here.
Together with her brother they put forward 4 other options that they are interested in. They were the bulk sale of corn and beans, thread preparation and other sewing materials, cattle and chickens. The corn and beans was ruled out because it's very heavy work which she wouldn't be able to do and because the margins on small scale retail of these essentials are very small. They don't have the land for cattle and to loan it would make cattle high risk and low return. The sewing materials idea wasn't ruled out but in the end they went for the option of chickens. Most families here have about 5 to 8 mature chickens and another 20 or so small ones. They are proposing 40-50 which here is considered a commercial quantity.
They are going to put together a proposal of what it will cost to set up and run this business and submit it to the mesa directiva who will form an agreement with the mesa directiva about the terms of the support. The funds will then be solicited from PDA once an agreement has been reached and training has been given.
Next was a meeting between the mesa directiva, the holders of the land which is to be signed over to the organization of Las Abejas and two teachers who support Las Abejas in a number of ways. They spoke about possible functions for the land. The most common answer from the local people when there is land is to divide it up and plant their main crops on it. Those interested in education came to the meeting with the hope of inspiring the various representatives present that creating a place which would have a common purpose and benefit was the way to go. Their concept is for a place where secondary school students can study as well as a place for workshops on human rights and indigenous issues. When the opportunity was passed to the members of Las Abejas to put forward there ideas the most common ones were a medical clinic, community radio, a heritage sight to mayan tradition and a primary school because the current school system doesn't work. The fundamental that the land generates some sort consumable produce was also brought up by the mesa directiva but is not a principle concern of those who want to pursue education. I think that education must start from what is most important and what people already know. This is the land and producing from the land. It is by far the most important issue for the current generation who face the situation of a rapidly expanding population on the same amount of land.
Later I went to Maya Vinik with Sebastian and Marriano who wanted to speak with Justin who supports Las Abejas through the organization of Peace and Diversity Australia. It was mostly to inform him about the work they are doing. It also provided an opportunity for Sebastian to set up an email account and learn how to access it.
In the afternoon I saw Victorio and asked him if I could go with him to learn how to plant corn. We set the time of 6:30 in the morning to go to his fields.
At night we watched "La Gurra del Agua" (The war for water) which is about the struggle against the privatization of water in Bolivia. Sebastian, the president of Las Abejas was the one who wanted to chat about what happened and has the best understanding of Spanish to be able to understand the explanation that was given.
I woke at 5:30 and got myself ready. Victorio came at about 6am to ask if I wanted to have a coffee at his house before we leave. I accepted and headed up the hill 2 minutes to Victorio's house. Everyone was awake at his house getting on with their various jobs. I had my coffee with Victorio along with a sweet tasteless bread bun which has made it's way into communities in recent years and then we headed off to his land to get on with the task at hand. He carried on his back a sack of corn seeds to be planted and his son brought a gerry can of "posol" a kind of corn drink which every indigenous man takes with him when he heads off to work.
His land is about 20 minutes up the road. When we got there we waited for the rest of the workers to join us. By about 7am we were planting corn, 8 of us in a line walking up and down a bumpy field trying to form rows. The idea is to judge your row off the person next to you which seems simple enough but when you see the lie of the land and consider that it's not very easy to see the tracks of your fellow workers when the land is covered with vegetation. Gradually I got the hang of it and I didn't need to be followed too closely to makes sure I stayed on track. I definitely don't have the ease that everybody has for making the hole, counting out the 5 seeds without looking at them and then tossing them all together in a 5cm hole from waist height. I was working with some experienced campaigners including a 67 year old and another around the same age. They got on with the job even when it called for mountain goat like balance.
Part of the tradition of the may planting is that on the say when you finish planting you should eat a good meal on the land. I was lucky enough get some of the chicken stew and tortillas which I felt was more than fair compensation for a days work. I guess my concept of money and the value of food is changing a little now that I'm eating beans and tortilla for almost every meal. The women came at about 9:30 am to heat up the food they had prepared in the house. The 2 chickens were killed that morning and are real free range chickens. They roam about all day looking for plants and animals to supplement their corn diets. The meat is grey rather than white and the bones are heavy and unbreakable by hand! I can never remember having chicken like this anywhere else. It was definitely a highlight of the day and maybe the week to have real natural food. In a time when most foods should come with a health warning it's something I really value.
We ate at about 11am and then got back to work. We still had about half the land to go. In total I think the land is about 130m by 240m which is about 3 hectares. We had to put a hole about every meter of the 31200 square meter field.
Being white here means that you are immediately associated with every other non-indigenous person they have met. In this way most of them have never seen a white man do an honest days work. Almost without exception non-indigenous people are further up the social hierarchy than the indigenous people I was working with. They expect me to be able to read and write and speak spanish but they don't expect me to sweat or get dirty or do anything physically difficult. Because of this they offered that I leave after the meal and then again when the women had finished eating and packing up they offered that I leave with them. I stayed till the end as I always intended to. Although I was a little tired in the afternoon sun and I was really thirsty by the time we finished it was far from the hardest days work I have done. I hope they are starting to realize that they don't have to treat me like a china doll.
Towards the end Victorio who is almost always working some sort of angle asked about mestizo who he thought had married a woman in a neighboring community. He asked if I was thinking about staying. I think he has been talking in Tzotzil about me marrying his daughter, although it's impossible for me to know with my limited understanding of the language. I said that I didn't think I would stay beyond 6-8 months. He asked if I still had more places to see. The language and cultural barrier that exists between us meant that I didn't want to say that actually I have had enough of traveling and what I really want is to have some land and a family. If I said that I think that he would be really offended when I followed that with an explanation of why his community doesn't suit me to be that place.
The problem here is that there is such a cultural gap that I would never be even close to being part of the community and I would always be looked on as the rich one. Also the women here are taught to live in servitude from when they are young and although there is a trend towards respecting the rights of women it's still unlikely that I could find a women who I could understand and who could understand me. I don't know if this woman exists anywhere but if she does I doubt it's here.
The other guys earned themselves 30 pesos each which is about $3 AUS but you can probably buy about $6 or $8 bucks worth of stuff here with it. Victorio offered to pay me for my days work but I said that learning how to plant corn was enough reward.
Anyway, we headed for home just before 4 and the day is all but done.
At 5:30 Jose tapped on the window. I got up and got ready, 5 minutes later we were on the road. I borrowed a machete from Fransisco and we arrived at the land Jose is borrowing about 5 minutes later. The land was planted on last year which means that it has only been about 7 months since it was last cleared still it was covered in fairly thick growth. Our task was to get it ready for planting next week we hacked away with our machetes at the 6-8 feet growth of vegetation for about three and a half hours . I have worked a little with the machete before so I pretty much knew what I was doing but because I haven't used it for more than a year I got a big blister in the palm of my hand after about an hour. Jose got stung on the forehead by a bee which is most likely from the land owners bee hive which is just below.
There were 3 other young guys working on the same task aged about 20, 15 and 11. They had an area marked which would earn them $50 pesos when the finish it. The older guy and the 11 year old were working together and will probably finish $100 pesos worth or 2 tareas while the other will most likely finish one. Minimum wage in Mexico is about $125 pesos a day but nobody can afford that here.
We came back back in time for a late breakfast and a much needed drink.