The Maya Achi resettlement community of San Antonio Panec is located in the countryside near the small town of Tac Tic, Alta Verapaz, nearly four hours north and east of Rabinal by car. The land was purchased by INDE in 1983 and is quite removed from the Chixoy River. I visited to organize COCAHICH’s weaving cooperative, Lik Chom (Leek-Chaum), which means ‘So Beautiful’ in Maya Achi.
Families in San Antonio Panec originally came from two different villages in the Chixoy River Basin: Pueblo Viejo and Los Chicos. The Chixoy Dam is located on top of the former village of Pueblo Viejo and the original village of Los Chicos was completely inundated apart from a small church.
The environment in which these families originally lived dictated the kind of riverine subsistence economy in which they were engaged prior to the construction of Chixoy. For most people reading this blog, moving your home does not involve a drastic change in lifestyle because your career is far less likely to be tied directly to the geography of your home. For the more than 13,000 people who are currently affected by the displacement of Chixoy, and most indigenous commuities throughout the world, their work and livelihood has always been directly linked to where they live and their environment. When they moved to San Antonio Panec, changes to their lifestyle were drastic.
Historically, corn and beans were grown in fertile fields along the bottom lands of the Chixoy River Basin. Semi-tropical fruits were plentiful and fishing was an integral part of daily life. It may sound like an antediluvial paradise, but they had the basics of a subsistence lifestyle that had maintained them for hundreds of years along the tributaries of the Chixoy River.
When these families were displaced in 1983 and arrived in San Antonio Panec, they had to adapt to a higher elevation which is much cooler than Chixoy. Not only were their cultivation and work habits disrupted, but they had to adapt to a new diet based on the fruits and vegetables that grow in the micro climate of San Antonio Panec. As one elderly woman told me, “Our plants would not grow here, so we had to learn how to cultivate different vegetables. I have coffee plants outside my door. We never had that in Pueblo Viejo.”
Many families are able to engage in small amounts of subsistence agriculture, as each displaced family was given one manzana of agricultural land and one manzana to build a house during their relocation in 1983. Other resettled people were not so lucky, but luck is not the best way to describe their ‘windfall.’ Much of the agricultural land available in San Antonio Panec is located along steep hillside slopes that prove to be dangerous to cultivate. Corn yields are diminished compared to the riverbeds of Chixoy and their fishing culture has nearly disappeared.
Rather than working in a semi-tropical riverine economy, today, wage earners in San Antonio Panec work on nearby farms as agricultural or manual laborers, find jobs in the local service industries, sell weavings and generally take on any kind of labor activity that will offer an income. The current generation of leaders in San Antonio Panec grew up in Pueblo Viejo or Los Chicos and moved inland to their present location as children. Their priorities for the economic development of the community naturally differ from those of the previous generation, and although they remember well what their lives were like before displacement, they are not looking for ways to revert to that lifestyle. That world is gone.
INDE says they built houses for the community along steep hillsides and some of these wooden houses have recently begun to give way to landslides. Last month, the community moved an older couple from their house after part of their front porch and outdoor sink fell into the adjacent ravine.
The real truth of the matter is that INDE paid these community members a small some weekly to build their own houses but did not purchase any of the materials to build them, not even zinc roofing. What they did do is buy PVC pipe to bring water to the village, but every family had to purchase their own PVC and install it to get water from the communal well to their houses. Other NGOs and government organizations donated aluminum or zinc roofing, cement and other building materials to community members, but not INDE.
I have visited San Antonio Panec three times to discuss the COCAHICH economic development plan and the artisans’ cooperative, Lik Chom. The strategy I have developed in some of the more rural villages for the preliminary discussions involves separate meetings for men and women. This emerged after a great deal of discussion with the community leaders. As women have a hard enough time opening up about their work when we are alone, this has proven to be the approach that works.
Our meeting with the men in San Antonio has been informal and general and focused on carpentry and capacity building in agricultural production. Coffee grows well in the region and they want to develop a coffee cooperative on a portion of their communal lands. For this, we are seeking technical assistance.
San Antonio Panec also has a functional micro enterprise selling sand to local builders and concrete companies in Coban. They do not work with the national cement company, Cementos Progreso, which has a less than stellar reputation in Guatemala. One meter of sand sells for $30 quetzales ($4 US) and they rarely sell more than 8 meters a day. Proceeds pay the four laborers employed by the community and fund communal projects when necessary.
During my last visit, I met with nearly twenty working weavers and nearly forty women who would like to expand their weaving skills to contribute to a cooperative in the community. Their work is typically Coban-style weaving for huipils, which involves dense colorful designs. Deer imagery is central to their work, although the women I spoke with did not have an understanding of underlying meanings to the designs they make. No one wears the huipils either because they cannot afford to do so. They weave strictly for economic necessity rather than for personal use.
Here are a few examples of Coban-style weavings.
Backstrap looms in this community are no wider than two feet, which means the huipils they make are woven in three narrow panels that are sewn together. The current market for their work is Tac Tic itself, which is twenty minutes away by bus. One huipil is worth about $250 quetzales ($34 US) in Tac Tic and represents more than a week of full-time work for those who have the time to devote to it. Most women can make one huipil a month due to their family obligations.
On my second trip, I met the four young Galliego sisters who are single without children and therefore able to make as many as three huipils a month each, which is tremendous. They weave from 7AM to 6 PM most days and still earn no more than $700 quetzales ($93 US) a month per person for their exhaustive labor.
This short video demostrates their weaving technique.[youtube]ugcqZpDka6U[/youtube]
During our first meeting for the artisans’ cooperative, we discussed the structure of the organization, its goals, and possible product lines that could be developed given the nature of their designs and the size of their looms. Each woman brought a sample of her work to photograph and we reviewed them together. This may have been the first time these women had ever met to discuss their weavings together and everyone was energized and ready to move forward. There is so much talent in this village.
We discussed a variety of capacity building opportunities, including weaving and business management workshops for adults. One woman suggested workshops for girls older than twelve who might be interested in weaving as a profession and we all agreed. Several women offered to serve as teachers and they promised to create a list of girls who might want to take classes in the future.
Now that I have spent time identifying weavers and familiarizing myself with local designs and available materials, the real work begins. The Advocacy Project, ADIVIMA and COCAHICH are actively looking for granting agencies and partner organizations who are both capable and willing to implement the work outlined in the economic development plan for these displaced communities. They have waited more than twenty-five years for this kind of assistance and deserve support.
Once we gain initial funding for the project, we will start with the weaving workshops and create the first set of product samples. I look forward to the day when we can return to San Antonio Panec and say, “OK, let’s get started.”
Posted By Heidi McKinnon
Posted Nov 12th, 2009