Solidarity and Social Change
By Jennifer Moore
A pair of hands entwine in a rainbow swirl above a description of solidarity tourism painted on a wall: “The opportunity to get close to Guatemala’s recent history and share the present with a community living in solidarity.”
It would be hard to come up with a better description of what New Horizon Cooperative has to offer, just off the highway south of Flores, on the road to Guatemala City, a short jaunt from famous Mayan temples, in the northern department of El Petén.
I spent a couple of days chatting with Arnulfo and Martín, ex-guerrilla combatants and founding members of the coop. It was a brief immersion in the history of Guatemala’s 36-year dirty war—juxtaposed with scenes from their ongoing struggle. What I came away with was the realization that change is possible through collective action.
Arnulfo and Martin did not realize their personal stories would be New Horizon’s principal attraction. They believe people come to New Horizon “to learn Guatemala’s real story; the side that isn’t frequently told or talked about.” Arnulfo and Martín are former members of the Rebel Armed Forces, the oldest of four insurgent groups in Guatemala during the war that ended in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people.
The U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification attributed 93 percent of human rights violations—including hundreds of massacres and roughly 45,000 forcibly disappearances—to state forces and their allies. Over eighty percent of those who died in Guatemala’s dirty war were indigenous. Today, impunity for past atrocities reigns, and perpetrators of the state’s scorched earth policy and intent to exterminate insurgent forces are still active in Guatemalan politics. In other words, little has changed.
However, since setting down their arms after the 1996 Peace Accords, these ex-fighters at New Horizon Cooperative have been working together to transform their nine hundred hectares of land into a place of hope and inspiration for their own young people and other communities. With 98 members and 105 families, efforts to diversify crop production and improve livestock are constantly being developed, while new projects such as tourism and reforestation create fresh sources of on-farm employment and income for social investments. Coop members continue to resist economic policies that jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of Guatemala’s poor, rural, and indigenous majority—such as free trade—through regional, national and international alliances.
The women I met during my short stay at New Horizon also impressed me with their sense of freedom and independence through participation in farm projects. Collective resettlement has been particularly beneficial for female ex-fighters. According to one 2007 study by the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, Guatemalan women who became guerrillas with little prior education show higher levels of social and political participation following the war when they resettled collectively, at New Horizon, for example.
However, the decision to resettle collectively also came at a high price. When the former rebels signed papers to purchase New Horizon in 1998, the anticipated purchase price suddenly doubled. As a result, the cooperative remains burdened with debt that they continue administering at a high interest rate, all the while maintaining education and healthcare as a top priority.
Such decisions keep cycling back to the value of solidarity and their conviction to work for societal transformation. “We learned solidarity out of pure necessity,” explains Martín, “…it was the only way to survive.” Once their lifeline, it is a lesson that they hope to impart to visitors. “Friendship is more valuable than a million dollars,” concludes the ex-insurgent, “because it endures a lifetime.”