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Social Responsibility in Guatemala

The reason I took several weeks off from my weekly Fast Company blog was that I was traveling in Guatemala If you’ll allow me the hubris of sharing an outsider’s perspective after spending just a few weeks there, I’d like to make some observations:

The reason I took several weeks off from my weekly Fast Company blog was that I was traveling in Guatemala

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If you’ll allow me the hubris of sharing an outsider’s perspective after spending just a few weeks there, I’d like to make some observations:

  • Pretty much everyone we talked with is concerned in some way with social responsibility: preserving local Mayan culture, preserving the environment, healing in the aftermath of decades of fighting that ended in 1994
  • Poverty is endemic, and some people make as little as $7.50 per 10- or 12-hour day.
  • We heard a speech by Guatemala’s President, Alvaro Colom, on preserving culture and the environment. I was impressed not only that he choose this topic, but also that he didn’t use a TelePromTer, that he paced in front of the audience without obvious bodyguards (I’m sure they were in the room, but they gave him space) and that during the music and dance performance that preceded his speech he sat in the front row of the audience rather than up on a dais.
  • We met a surprising number of 20- or 30-year expatriates from the U.S. and Britain, and every single one of them is involved in some kind of indigenous-culture survival/rebuilding project, from rebuilding bridges deep in the mountains through Engineers Without Borders to growing organic macadamia trees for reforestation, carbon sequestering, and rural economic development.
  • Pollution and inappropriate mountain development are clearly issues, as is the mass migration of working-age men out of the mountains to work in the coffee plantations or in the U.S.
  • Awareness of organic agriculture and fair trade practices is growing, but is far from universal.
  • There is still, after all this time, prejudice against cultural Mayans who embrace their traditions. It’s rare to see men in traditional dress, and we were told this is a direct result of job discrimination. For women, who mostly work outside the corporate economy (in agriculture, for instance), it seems to be less of a problem and traditional dress is quite common.
  • Evangelical churches have made huge inroads in the rural areas; Catholics dominate in the cities–and either way, faith is a deep and abiding principle of pretty much everyone we met, and that faith incorporates elements of Mayan tradition.
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