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|Written by Janet Creery|
|Wednesday, 17 June 2009 19:00|
In mid-March, while El Salvador prepared for its ground-breaking elections, a group of Canadians set out to accomplish a smaller but nonetheless important transformation some miles North, in Guatemala. Twenty-one Canadians worked with Mayan villagers in the coffee-growing highlands, amidst lakes and volcanoes, to build nine houses over nine days.
It was an awakening for many of these avid coffee-drinkers. They not only worked long hot hours wrestling beams into place, but also spent an afternoon discovering just how painstaking a job it is to pick coffee beans. So much labour for that cup of coffee!
And for so little pay: the coffee-growers in these villages make $6.47 for an eight-hour day's work - and count themselves lucky. Most Guatemalan coffee-growers make $2.27 for a day that can stretch to ten hours or more. That's enough to buy a cup of coffee in touristy Antigua, but nowhere enough to live on.
The Comite Campesino del Altiplano (roughly translated: the agricultural workers committee of the highlands), which welcomed and housed the Canadian builders, also manages the fair-trade coffee brand Café Justicia. It's thanks to Café Justicia - and its buyers in cities such as Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Burlington and Vancouver - that these villagers are able to make about three times as much as the average Guatemalan coffee grower.
By helping the villagers build simple but solid houses to live in, project participants made a noticeable difference in their lives, and brought them new skills. They also worked in solidarity with a wider Guatemalan movement to improve the lives of these coffee-growers. The Public Service Alliance of Canada contributes funds to the project, and provided this year's building team leader. But the solidarity extends far beyond the labour movement, with participants joining from many walks of life and organizing well-attended fundraising activities throughout the year.
The project was the brainchild of students studying Spanish with Roberto Miranda at Health Canada. Roberto communicates such a passion for both the language and society of his native Guatemala that his students insisted that he organize some kind of solidarity project that they could participate in. Education in Action, which encompasses the building project and the selling of Café Justicia, was born. This year the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala signalled its support by paying a visit to the building sites. It was a helpful mark of recognition for this young project, now only in its third year.
This article was also printed in Vision Latina, a new magazine in the Ottawa-Gatineau region which encourages the meeting of cultures by publishing in English, French, and Spanish. Vision Latina aims to weave the Hispanic community into the Canadian mosaic while preserving and building on its unique cultural identity. Vision Latina, will celebrate its first birthday this August, and is distributed through the Ottawa public library system, Latin American stores, and community events. Publisher and Editor Felix Grande is always looking for new writers and also takes on printing projects - you can reach him at