The community of Espumpuja can be difficult to find nestled deep in a small valley covered in thick clouds. This highland Maya village is an island of tranquility off the Pan American Highway teaming with tractor-trailers trucks carrying the regions wealth North and returning with ever increasing loads of manufactured goods from around the world.
The peasant farmers of Espumpuja are on the front-lines of adaptation to an economic invasion that is reshaping communities and cultures across the region. Not more then a decade ago, women held an empowered role in the regions economy. They were the producers and distributors of most goods and services consumed by Indigenous communities throughout the region. In a complex distribution system, community markets have been supplied with local commodities since long before the arrival of the Spanish.
Today, many families are struggling under staggering debt loads incurred to send a relative to the United States as the only viable strategy to escape crippling poverty. Local markets continue to shrink as Wall Marts pop up across the region. Even the remaining Indigenous markets appear to be an extension of Wall Mart with vendors trying to survive on meager margins on plastic plates and used cloths brought in from the United States.
The women of Espumpuja are a source of hope demonstrating that through hard work and an optimistic outlook, lemonade can be made from the lemons that history leaves at the door. The Women’s Circle in Espumpuja recently won a competition sponsored through the municipality of San Juan Ostuncalco to reward examples of entrepreneurial action in the region. They received a $6,000.00 grant to fund a green house project that they planned and have implemented on their own.
Ben Blevins and Guadalupe Ramirez (the founders of HSP) became engaged with the community in 1994. US subsidized products dumped in the local markets at harvest time had devastated the markets in the region. Farmers were not even earning enough to transport their produce several miles down the road. The U.S.A. “Food Aid” program had decapitalized the potato cooperative that had taken years of work to build.
Ben and Guadalupe were teaching rural administration for a Guatemalan NGO that supported agriculture cooperatives. Guadalupe’s father was a leader in the movement and she had learned from him that only through self-reliance could a sound future be built. While there was no funding at their disposal to help the women, they could not walk away. Guadalupe invested $2,000.00 of her own money to purchase threads to assist the women to weave table runners with the intent to recapitalize their potato cooperative. After a decade, these women continue to strategically use weaving income to finance business development.
The circle that began almost 20 years ago with 6 members has grown to include 30 active members. The lasting impact of a free enterprise vision is demonstrated in their plan to build a green house for growing and selling tree saplings, flowers and organic vegetables. This group took advantage of HSP’s reforestation program to build a strong tree nursery that now provides municipal government and private reforestation programs with an old growth tree species. They have specialized in maintaining genetic diversity by harvesting seeds from old growth sections on the mountaintop. They have diversified their production in recent years to specialize in hard to find native flower verities.
The original leader of the Circle, Dona Carmen Romero, led the group for 15 years. With the guidance and coordination of AMA, she actively participated in community organizing and educational workshops. She also encouraged and assisted other women in her Circle to discover and develop various natural abilities that are now helping them to become entrepreneurs. Dona Carmen ‘s 19-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Romero, has been attending AMA’s weekly circle meetings since she was child. She has assumed leadership from her grandmother who is now retiring while ensuring that the transformation continues into the next generation
This Circle is proof that the methodology of AMA creates sustainable change and transformation. Neither money, food, nor clothes were given away to the women of Espumpuja for free; instead, the members were educated and empowered. Today, Yolanda and her Circle are proud business owners with perfect credit history, who continue to seek outside opportunities. “I have been attending AMA’s weekly Circle meeting since I was 7 years old,” Yolanda says with a smile, “and I’m finally beginning to understand that my community has the potential to develop; AMA gave us the tools we needed to be successful an now it’s up to us to make it happen.”