Nuevo San José
The community of Nuevo San José was set up by the workers of the coffee finca San José Altamira, who won their back pay and benefits after years of struggle against an owner who had refused to pay their wages. The workers were then evicted from the finca they had called “home” for generations. Twenty-five families pooled their resources and, with assistance from the Catholic parish in Colomba, they bought land to start their new community in 1993. Since then, the people of Nuevo San Jose have purchased two springs and installed a potable water system, built a school and basic block houses and dug a drainage system with funding from the Spanish Red Cross.
In June 2001, the school received new neighbours when 18 organised families founded the community, Fátima. Like Nuevo San José, Fátima relocated to the area after a bitter labour struggle on the finca where they had previously lived. After being forced to work 18-hour days for less than Q18 at times, a group of workers organised in 1996. The workers were fired and black-listed as labour organisers and instigators, denying them work in the region. During the legal proceedings, the owners deprived those who remained on the finca of water, firewood and closed the doors of the primary school to their children. After failing to break the union during 5 years of retaliations and unemployment through blacklists, the owners finally agreed to a settlement providing back wages and benefits to the workers. Some of the families in the union decided to settle in a community together and bought the land where they now live from the Catholic Church. That same year, they built houses with help from a housing program linked to the Church in Quetzaltenango. In 2007 community members managed to get water and electricity in their homes and build a primary school, and in 2008 they dug a drainage system – thanks to their hard work and fund-raising by former students.
The area surrounding the Escuela de la Montaña and the town of Colomba, called the Boca Costa is the home of large coffee plantations, or fincas, which produce the “mountain grown” coffee that is one of Guatemala’s major exports. The workers on the fincas are usually landless rural workers, campesinos, who earn less than $5 per day, without job security or any of the legally-required labour benefits. Increasingly, finca owners find it more advantageous to replace their long-term permanent workforce with contracted workers who have no entitlements to housing, education or other benefits which may have been supplied in the past. In a linked process, daily work assignments are also increasing so that what was a “day’s work for a day’s pay” often now means the equivalent of two or three days’ work for a day’s pay. Workers in Guatemala who attempt to organize are blacklisted, threatened or even killed. Many small communities have been displaced from the fincas losing, in many cases, not just their jobs but also the places which have been their homes for generations. These changes come in response to changing economic and social patterns in the area and particularly changes in the world market for coffee which have taken place over the last decade.