Beauty masks oppression

Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century German scientist and traveler, described Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands as the "most beautiful lake in the world.

Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century German scientist and traveler, described Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands as the “most beautiful lake in the world.” The densely green lower slopes of the three volcanic peaks rising beside it, contrasting sharply with the deep blue of the lake, make it hard to deny Humboldt’s assertion.

Lake Atitlan’s stunning natural beauty masks a troubled history and continued struggles for fundamental social justice. In 1969, before the outbreak of the most violent and bloody phase of the decade of military repression touched the Mayan communities ringing the lake in the 1980s, I had a chance to witness efforts of community groups there building organizations and implementing grassroots projects to challenge the crippling poverty afflicting them.

The social and economic roots of injustice there have long been recognized. Writing in the 1970s the Guatemalan Catholic bishops stated, “The grave problem of land ownership … is at the base of our situation of injustice, and … has created and maintains a climate of tension, insecurity, fear and repression in our country.” This basic fact has not changed.

The “Comite Campesino del Altiplano,” or Peasants Committee of the Highlands from Guatemala (CCDA), works with communities on and near Lake Atitlan. Their website records that with “approximately two per cent of the population owning 75 per cent of the arable land in Guatemala, many small coffee producers have to live on small lots of poor-quality land.”

Leocadio Juracan, the co-ordinator of the CCDA, which produces Fair Trade coffee as one of its efforts at breaking the cycle of poverty for its members, will be visiting Whitehorse next week as part of a cross-country solidarity tour. Juracan personally knows very well that even the acts of community development, which the CCDA’s coffee sales contribute to, such as midwifery training or home construction, can provoke a violent reaction from powerful defenders of the status quo.

In a Halifax Media Co-op story, Juracan related how the CCDA car had been shot at and their stored coffee had been robbed, but when threats began targeting not only the organization’s leadership but Juracan’s children, he and his family sought temporary refuge in Canada. “There is a sector in society that is extremely rich, that has appropriated the wealth of the country and excluded the majority of the population.” Juracan didn’t find it hard to connect the dots. “We connect (the attacks against us) to political acts.”

Monsignor Alvaro Ramazzini, another outspoken advocate for the poor and last week named by the Vatican as Bishop of Huehuetenango in Guatemala, has had to deal with death threats as well. Speaking at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 2009 Bishop Ramazzini stated, “We have 49 per cent of our children one to five years old who are chronically malnourished and 59 per cent of children one to five years old in the indigenous areas that are chronically malnourished.”

The CIA World Factbook acknowledges that this is one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Ramazzini continued: “The bishops of Guatemala have always stressed that there are two major sectors in this country that have been excluded from the nation’s development, human and otherwise – the peasants and the indigenous peoples.

“(The preferential option for the poor) has led me to engage in a radical way, with a passion, as I have heard it called, to transform this society. I believe that this is the crisis of Christianity in this country, a crisis of inconsistency between what one says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and then how one tries to live.”

As the bishops of Guatemala said decades ago: “It is not enough to rebuild what has been destroyed … we call for integral reconstruction to take into account the vital needs of Guatemalans not only to have more, but also to be more.”

The Fair Trade movement is one of the many threads that links their future to ours. How do we shape our economy here in the Yukon so we can strive to be more as well?

Leocadio Juracan speak at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 31 in the CYO Hall at 4th and Steele. His talk, Fair Trade, Land Reform and the Remilitarization of the Guatemalan Countryside, will offer us stories of the rebirth of the Mayan farmer’s movement in the highlands of Guatemala, the challenges they now face and how our choices affect them.

Juracan’s visit is sponsored by Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Yukon Employees Union together with the social justice committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral, with the assistance of the Yukon Development Education Centre and high school social justice committees.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact