Archive for January, 2009

Talking With Doña Gloria…

January 19, 2009

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Doña Gloria was a radio operator in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, a guerrilla battalion during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war. She’s currently Director of Hospitality, for the ecotourism program at Santa Anita la Unión. I sat down with her recently to talk about ecotourism at Santa Anita. Here is what she had to say.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: What is the reason the community of Santa Anita decided to establish the ecotourism program?

Doña Gloria: Ten years ago when we came here this place was an abandon coffee farm. We started growing organic coffee and bananas. The business of farming, even with fair trade export standards was not providing the people here with sufficient wages to survive. Santa Anita is a place of natural beauty. We knew this and wanted to share it with people. We established the ecotourism program to generate extra money for the community and share our ways of life with visitors. You won’t find fancy hotels here. We want our guest to experience nature the same way we do, when we work in the fields each day. Because we are farmers many of use refer to the business as agro-tourism instead of ecotourism.

Santa Anita La Unión blog: How is Santa Anita different from other ecotourism/ agro-tourism destinations?

Doña Gloria: Santa Anita is different because of its history. We are ex-guerrilla fighters. All other communities have their own histories as well.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: What hopes does the community of Santa Anita have for the ecotourism / agro-tourism program in the future?

Doña Gloria: Currently the ecotourism program is run entirely by the women in the community. Our hope is, in the future we will be able to employ many of the younger women in the community. They can gain new skills by working with us.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: What are some of the successes the ecotourism / agro-tourism program has had?

Doña Gloria: A number of people have visited Santa Anita. With this has come a lot of outside support for our community.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: What are some of the problems with the ecotourism / agro-tourism program?

Doña Gloria: We have had trouble doing sufficient publicity. At times we do not have enough space to accommodate larger groups of volunteers. We currently have room for twenty-five people and would like to expand that capacity in the future.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: Does the community as a whole have any mixed feelings about the start up of the ecotourism / argro-tourism program?

Doña Gloria: No, because when the community receives guests, the whole community benefits from having them here.

Santa Anita la Unión blog: What can visitors to the Santa Anita do when the leave to continue to offer support and mutual aide to the community.

Doña Gloria: When people leave they can tell other people about Santa Anita. They can talk to them about our history and the needs of this community.

post written by, Chris Heneghan

translated by, Laura Von Dohlen

photo by, Lauren Bennett

Santa Anita La Union Redefines Ecotourism…

January 18, 2009

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The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as, “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This idea appeals many socially conscious individuals because it incorporates travel to exotic locations with service projects, education and unique cultural experiences.

However, part of the problem with ecotourism is that outside of what TIES states on it’s web-site, you won’t find an actual definition for the word ecotourism anywhere. In some places I’ve travelled local tour operators consider it to be renting you a gas guzzling four wheel drive jeep to drive through jungle for the day.

Regardless, ecotourism brings with it certain characteristics of voyeurism. Its growing popularity has become an outlet for westerners looking for adventurous ways to escape their daily routines for two weeks a year, without making a long term commitment to the places they visit.

The desire for short term volunteer opportunities in impoverished rural Central American communities has created a kind of fast food market for ecotourism in Guatemala. Communities that are struggling to maintain traditional cultures often agree to host and feed volunteers as a quick way to generate desperately needed revenues. In many cases this is done without first developing a concrete plan for how outside resources and ideas can benefit their communities. To many foreigners this sort of advertising is an invitation to shoot photographs of peoples everyday lives without consent. This creates feelings resentment by residents within communities open to ecotourism towards visitors, who without knowing it behave as if it is their right to make a spectacle of people who’ve not been afforded the same privileges they have.

The short-term influx of quick revenue and foreigners though ecotourism has brought a number of communities more trouble than it’s been worth. Often projects are started and never completed and promises are made and never followed through on. Santa Anita is working to change this, by focusing on clearly defining what ecotourism means to them as a community. The ecotourism program was created and is managed by the women of Santa-Anita, who intend it to serve, the dual purpose of providing funds for community development and increased income for members of the community.” The community views ecotourism as, “a way for finca members to share their knowledge and stories and as well as a way for groups and individuals to participate and learn about the community, its agriculture, and its history.”

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Members of the Santa Anita view volunteer work as an act of solidarity in accordance with the visions, goals and directly democratic approach to government within their community. After talking with the women who run Santa Anita’s ecotourism program about their efforts give new meaning to the term ecotourism, and establish parameters for how volunteer labor can be best used within their community, I found that a rough guide to what Santa Anita expected to gain by opening the community to foreigners existed in their minds but nothing was written down.

One of the main concerns expressed by the women was a desire to learn how to create models of self sufficiency within the community, to serve as a means for continuing to promote and generate revenue through ecotourism without dependence on outside assistance.

They explained there is really no need for long term volunteers to come Santa Anita to do work for the community. What is needed is for people to come to Santa Anita and share with the community new skills which will benefit the people of Santa Anita in the future.

For example the community of Santa Anita does not need a somebody to provide technical support for their web-site and respond to e-mails about volunteer inquiries. What the community of Santa Anita needs, is somebody who is willing to give workshops and training on how to use a computer, check e-mails and maintain a web-site. So when they leave, the people of Santa Anita will have knowledge of how to maintain their own web-site, and respond to e-mails from interested volunteers.

Another concern expressed in line with the context of this article was a desire to eliminate the voyeuristic aspects of ecotourism. This can be accomplished by encouraging volunteers to continue to offer support and mutual aide to the Santa Anita community when they return home to their communities. By extending the volunteer experience beyond Santa Anita and into peoples home communities volunteers can become part of building a stronger solidarity movement with Guatemalan coffee farmers and banana growers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I’m opening up the comment section to discussion about things that volunteers can continue to do to support Santa Anita when the return to their home communities?If you’ve volunteered at Santa Anita for any period of time please take a moment to think about this and post a reply with three simple things you can do to continue to offer mutual aide to Santa Anita from your home community.

post written by, Chris Heneghan

Welcome to the Santa Anita la Union Blog

January 13, 2009

This blog was created to serve as a resource for volunteers and visitors to the Santa Anita community by providing a forum for people to share experiences they’ve had at Santa Anita. In addition to testimonials, this blog will also serve as forum for discussion on ways in which individuals can continue to offer support and mutual aide to the  Santa Anita community when they return home.  

Interested in posting: e-mail your stories, photos and comments to: santaanitafincablog@gmail.com

WHAT IS SANTA ANITA LA UNION?

Santa Anita la Unión is an organic coffee and banana growing community formed of ex-guerilla combatants who fought during the 36-year internal armed conflict that ravaged Guatemala until 1996.  For more information visit: http://www.santaanitafincacom