On Saturday mornings in Nebaj, on the stretch of road behind the catholic church, is the weekly organic farmer’s market. The instagram image of a “farmer’s market” is not what you’ll find in Nebaj.
The rise of the farmer’s market in North America provides an interesting contrast to the situation in Guatemala. In Nebaj there is “the” market, as in the standard Guatemalan scene. “The” market is active every day of the week (with extra chaos on Sundays and Wednesdays) and is composed of a series of narrow streets and alleys packed with vendors selling fruits and vegetables and machine-made clothes and rice and soap, etc. It’s almost all imported, including the fruits and vegetables, from other parts of Guatemala and sometimes Mexico (ALL the eggs come from Mexico). By most North American standards, this sounds pretty farmer’s market-esque. One might assume that small-town Guatemala is a locavore’s paradise, sustaining itself on the rich harvest of its neighboring green mountains. Not so, with most of that produce being corn and coffee and other cash crops shipped elsewhere in exchange for fruits and vegetables shipped from the pacific coast and an area around Xela where big agribusiness produces that which supplies many North American supermarkets. Small towns like Nebaj get the rejects, sold mostly by intermediary vendors from other parts of the department of Quiche.
A deeper explanation of the social and economic context would be good here, but in my limited way I’ll just note that in rural Guatemala “organic” is to many just a nicer way of saying “too poor to farm the better way,” as in, the conventional chemical way. Years of USAID funded extension programs have rendered a firm belief in chemically-empowered agriculture, and considering the difference in crop yields, it’s hard to blame anyone without sounding preachy about environmentalism.
In any case, the creation of the Nebaj farmer’s market was an uphill battle. A battle whose charge was led by a European Union-funded development project no less, but at least locally designed, implemented, and managed. After months of recruiting small-scale farmers in Nebaj that didn’t use chemicals (some for lack of resources to buy fertilizers and pesticides, but some also out of an inherent belief that organic is still better), Fundación Maya inaugurated the first Mercado Campesino (farmer’s market) in Nebaj in the spring of 2013. Each Saturday morning we would grab our baskets and head to the parque central where about 20-30 Ixil Mayan women (and a few men) would be perched on the steps outside the church with their own baskets of surplus goods. Bananas, leafy greens, peppers, squash, limes, sometimes huevos criollos (organic, home-raised eggs), and even the Guatemalan god-send that was Pan de Elote (naturally gluten-free corn bread). All for cheaper than at the usual mercado, all fresher too. These were perhaps the only instances where my Spanish utterly failed me in communicating with Ixil-speakers (tantixh nan?), but a transaction was always achieved, and to their benefit I was incapable of bartering.
Racism against indigenous farmers thinly veiled as town politics would later see the mercado campesino moved to a less central, less visible location, and there were reports of outside vendors buying up the organic produce and re-selling it for higher prices in the usual market, as social ills are never so easily circumvented. But the mercadito lives on, bringing quality local produce to the community and supplemental income to those farmers resilient enough to stay true to their organic roots.