COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS AND COVID-19: Fighting the economic effects of the pandemic in San Juan la Laguna, Gutaemala
Erwin Colli Chayax
Guatemala is made up of 22 departments and 340 municipalities. 4 ethnicities (or peoples) inhabit the country, including 22 groups of Mayan origin. Many of these peoples have based their economy on tourism, be it through the sale of artisanal products or cultural community tourism. This is the case of San Juan la Laguna, Sololá, where people have dedicated themselves to the production and sale of textiles and coffee and sharing cultural experiences with tourists that visit the village.
San Juan la Laguna is located on the Southwest shore of Lake Atitlán and was founded in the year 1623 by residents of Santiago Atitlán. It is one of the four towns where the Tz’utujil Mayan language is spoken. The inhabitants of San Juan la Laguna have dedicated themselves to coffee and agriculture for many years, as well as the textile industry. In recent years, the town has had economic considerable economic growth due to the higher wealth of tourists that visit it, shop for artisanal goods, and support the local coffee industry.
Since March of this year, when the first case of coronavirus was identified in Guatemala, the government has taken steps to reduce infection rates, including the closure of the international airport and borders. Some of the results of these new restrictions have been the departure of almost all the tourists who were in the country and a suspension of tourism for an indefinite period. In touristy areas, the effect of the pandemic was soon apparent, reflected in low sales of artisanal textiles and coffee. San Juan was not an exception, as within a few days of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the impact on the finances of families who depend on tourism was noticeable.
Juana Mendoza is a textile weaver from San Juan who has been affected by the current global pandemic. As a young girl she learned the art of weaving from her mother and now has a small artisanal textile shop with her children. She has 32 years of weaving experience and is teaching her daughter Marly the art of backstrap weaving. During the last six months, Juana and her family have not sold a single product because their main clients, tourists who visit the town on a daily basis, have all left. This has impacted Juana’s family finances, mainly affecting their food situation.
Traditionally, families in San Juan eat meat twice a week, but since the start of the pandemic many families, like Juana’s, have had to reduce their consumption of meat and other typical foods due to the lack of resources. Juana is an optimist and keeps weaving but is also conscious that without tourists visiting and buying her products, her financial condition will continue to get worse. In the long term, this will mean that she will have to close her family’s small artisanal textile shop, and she will be forced to find another way of earning an income for her family.
Ixoq Ajkeem, a women’s association and artisanal textile shop that was founded 25 years ago and employs 40 weavers, faces a similar situation. The women work together to promote the economic and intellectual development of the association’s members and the community of San Juan. As a result of the pandemic, Ixoq Ajkeem faces the most difficult period in its organizational history. Its members cannot sell their handmade textiles, which usually provide their families with a large portion of their income.
Things have gotten so bad that the Association recently had to take the radical step of closing its shop and suspending its operations. Members have had to seek alternate ways of making an income, and many have started selling sandwiches on the streets to provide for their families. What was previously one of the most popular areas of San Juan, decorated with colorful clothing, is now dull and empty.
The La Voz agricultural cooperative was founded in 1979 and is dedicated to the production and export of 100% organic coffee. With more than 600 members representing 167 of the town’s families, almost every resident depends directly or indirectly on the co-op, which is almost like the heart of the town. Notwithstanding, the risks and restrictions associated with COVID-19 are slowly blocking the arteries of the local economy.
Local cafes which depend on foreign visitors, who are the principal consumers of coffee, are closed. This represents a total loss of 20% of the co-op’s annual production. Permanent employees’ monthly earnings also saw a considerable reduction due to the closure. Normally La Voz exports 12 containers of coffee a year (with each container holding around 25 tons), but in the shadow of the global pandemic it has struggled to sell its last batch.
For next year’s harvest, which begins in November, there have already been two cancellations and the co-op expects a continued decrease in sales. There also is a high probability that coffee prices fall due to the reduction in demand in cafes worldwide, an excess of coffee in international warehouses, and overproduction in other countries like Vietnam. As a consequence, it is likely that members of La Voz and the community as a whole will continue suffering the effects of COVID-19 on the coffee economy during the entire year of 2021.
In general, COVID-19 represents not just a physical threat to the health of the residents of San Juan la Laguna, but also a threat to their social, cultural, and economic lives. It is affecting the ancient custom of weaving as a family, like in Juana’s case, which now runs the risk of disappearing. It is affecting grassroots community associations like Ixoq Ajkeem, forcing its members to work independently in more precarious situations just to ensure their survival. It is damaging the traditional coffee industry, affecting both current and future sales, and affecting wages. As a whole, COVID-19 is threatening San Juan la Laguna’s vital organs. If tourism is somehow unable to return in the coming year, the tourist economy in Guatemala will continue to suffer a total collapse and ways of life—perhaps even life itself—and lives in towns like San Juan will be forever changed.
Products produced by people who live in San Juan can be found and bought on OG marketplace. Take a look at handmade jewelry, woven textiles, and coffee grown by the members of La Voz. For more updates about San Juan, you can follow The Hub on Facebook.
Erwin Colli Chayax is administrator of The Operation Groundswell Hub in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala.