Why For-profit is the Environmentally Conscious Future: The Tale of a Mayan Village, Part 2

Reader Contribution by Luke Maguire Armstrong
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Photo by Atitlan Organics 

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Part 1 explores the crux between environmental and cultural preservation.

Another morning begins in the Mayan village of Tzununá, Guatemala. Some villagers board boats to get to their jobs or schools in larger towns. Youth wait in tuk-tuks at the dock for lancha boats to bring them business. Other villagers — the old school ones — hike up to parcels of land to tend fields and gather fruit. A few dozen go to building sites where they work in one of the fastest growing industries in town — building houses for foreigners who have bought land in town.

While the first expats moved in two decades ago, the last few years have seen a massive influx of foreigners buying land, bringing with them income, work, development, complications, educational opportunities, and all the challenges of gentrified change.

Marcos, a local Mayan man of 25, finishes his breakfast of tortillas, rice, and fruit and sets off for work. For the past four years, he has worked for Lomas de Tzununá, a family-run hotel in the hills (lomas) of Tzununa with incredible views of Lake Atitlan. He’s their chupusero, capable of chapusear anything — a colloquialism that means, he Macgyvers broken things back together.

In his short life, Marcos has witnessed vast changes in his small village that typify such shifts afoot across the globe.

“Everything has changed from when I was a kid,” he recalls, “There was no water, no electricity, and no roads. We didn’t have schools with good teachers, there was no library where students could study, and my grandparents had to walk very far to sell what they grew. Now people can take a tuk-tuk to sell fruit and vegetables.”

Foreign Impacts on Traditional Life

Marcos attributes these changes to the influx of foreigners for the steady work he has now. “Before,” he says, “I earned a few dollars working all day, gathering firewood, or jocote (a local fruit), or working in the fields collecting coffee.”

Midway through our interview, Marcos doubts he is providing the right answers (though he’s doing great). He apologizes, “I’m sorry. I can’t keep many ideas in my head,” he says. “Because I only know a little Spanish.” At home Marcos speaks Cakchiquel, one of 22 officially recognized Mayan languages still spoken in Guatemala today.

Marcos only studied up to the second grade. His brother was angry that he studied when he could be out in the fields earning income for the family. So he was taken out of school and has worked ever since.

He’s grateful to his current employer and they appreciate him. He’s dependable and honest, two traits that ingratiate locals in foreign enterprises. The couple who opened the hotel were the first foreigners to set up shop in town. They did so only after asking the locals what they thought of their bringing a hotel to town. With the blessing of the village, they opened their doors and have run their business under a social responsibility model that benefits the community and environment while providing meaningful work to the locals like Marcos.

The hotel is really just a front for enabling positive, sustainable social change. As they say outright on their website, “Lomas de Tzununá is our best excuse to do social work that is our real passion. We run our business with Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives to benefit our small town.”

Their model cares for the environment, reforests through a permaculture project, recycles garbage, employs ethical labor practices, attends volunteering events around the Lake, and most recently they used their position to open a community center where they installed capable locals as the leadership.

All this provides well-paid, meaningful work for locals. They’ve set a positive example for the growing number of foreigners of what ethical, environmentally conscious business can accomplish.

Photo by Atitlan Organics

Issues of Equity in Modern Advances

With such business in place, it seems less likely unconscious bottom line business could compete or get village buy-in.

Meaningful work is a key element for communities like Tzununa. Shad QusDi, who runs the local permaculture farm Atitlan Organics sees the challenge of modernity and what it could mean for the village if a new generation of meaningful jobs for locals isn’t created.

“One big challenge,” he says, “is the onslaught of consumerism, pop culture, and the desire to participate in the global economy. While everyone should have the opportunity to participate if they want, most people here are highly aware of the U.S. consumer culture, and want very badly to participate, but lack the means to do so. I worry that as this progresses, we will arrive at a situation where we have a large group of disgruntled young people who desire access to the global economy, but lack the opportunities to do so. This can lead to trouble with gangs, theft, and worse.”

And that’s a fascinating piece of thought to chew on. As more villagers move towards — at least in desire — a consumerist market economy, members of consumer market societies have found themselves disenfranchised with such a system and have moved to this Guatemalan village to escape its pressures and consequences. As they pass each other going opposite ways on the same road, the conversation they’ll have and what will come from it is of great import on a global scale.

Giving young people meaningful work that pays well is important in addressing the oncoming challenge of cultural change. Foreigners who have moved to Tzununa have come here to have meaningful lives. Whether that’s guided by yoga, meditation, off-grid living, peace and quiet, ecological harmony, producing their own food, or natural building, that authentic search for personal meaning permeates into the projects they undertake. This has the potential to bring about positive change more fluidly and permanently than initiatives often undertaken by many NGOs.

Having been involved in nonprofit work all of my adult life, I have come to the following conclusion. Nonprofit work is only necessary because most for-profit businesses aren’t philanthropically organized in a way that seriously addresses community and environmental problems.

It reminds me of a question a reporter once poised to Mother Teresa, “What would you do if there were no more poor people?”

She answered with a wry smile, “I’d be unemployed.” 

Photo by Atitlan Organics

Permaculture Offers Private-sector Solutions

Abundant Edge’s arrival in Tzununa last year adds a newly organized example of what profitable regenerative work should look like. The three founders of the permaculture/natural building company deliberately didn’t make Abundant Edge nonprofit in order to express the idea that doing good for the world, the community, and ecology is something that you can make a good living off.

The best way to do that,” Oliver says, “is to start small, start working on projects that you have a skill set for, and directly impact your local surroundings and the people you interact with. It involves getting people involved with your passions and putting together a team to facilitate collaboration.”

Collectively we as consumers allow businesses to entice us with unhealthy products, infiltrate us with manipulative marketing, and succeed at the expense of others losing. Businesses like Abundant Edge are ready to change the paradigm. It’s SO 20th century after-all.

“By being for-profit we know that we can have a bigger positive impact on our local community if we have the funds to do it,” says Abundant Edge co-founder Oliver M. Goshey. “When you hire us, the money you spend goes back to the community. We are for-profit but we aren’t living lavishly on what we make. We are reinvesting it into the community.”

The current state of global affairs “needs” charities to fill social gaps that heart-fueled communities and business models could address in more sustainable ways. Right now this change is happening more from the top down. Grassroots business organizations like Lomas de Tzununá, Atitlan Organics, and Abundant Edge are implementing their ideals within their environments. If more consumers begin to care about who they do business with, what they care about, and why, business operating only for-profit without regard for people and planet would be in trouble.

The “edge” in Abundant Edge is that not only are they providing meaningful work and jobs—the nature of their work is opening doors to lost cultural traditions, like forest agriculture and building homes with local materials. Abundant Edge is passionate about arming locals with knowledge that gives them options to better their situation while teaching foreigners the same concepts alongside these locals in their training and internship programs.

Like Atitlan Organics before them, they look for the most responsible way to engage their own notions of permaculture and ecology with the locals. They understand that community matters, and operate as grateful, not entitled members of the village they call home. Oliver explains, “Like so many places around the world, people here have been duped into believing that the way to modernize is to build with concrete and steel, which come at higher prices for lower-quality buildings.” His global experience working in natural building has shown him that all over the world people are following the same uncompelling, environmentally harmful suit.

Through the training they offer, they are empowering locals with natural building knowledge that has the potential to break through concrete walls. We have to ask: Are locals who have learned how to build a house using rocks, soil, and plants from their local land going to be as inclined to cross illegally to the U.S. (a common undertaking) to work for years saving to build their family a cinder-block home?

Check outLomas de Tzununáhere, and help the local community center by visitingtheir funding pageoremailing them here. If this type of work inspires you, visit Atitlan OrganicsandAbundant Edge’swebsites to get involved with their work. And check out The Abundant Edge permaculture and natural building podcast.

Luke Maguire Armstrong has worked in development everywhere from Guatemala to Kenya, Uganda, and the Bronx, N.Y. He lectures on topics ranging from human trafficking, economics, philosophy, creative writing, and international affairs. He is the author of the intrepidly acclaimed travel anthology The Nomad’s NomadFollow him @LukeSpartacus and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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