Worth The Wait

Guatemala, April 3, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Valeriano Sis Isem hopes the spring pineapple crop will help pay school fees for young people in his community. "With this pineapple, it can raise us up, our kids can get an education." Photo: Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps

Alta Verapaz, Guatemala — Machetes are ubiquitous here in rural Guatemala, and Valeriano wields his expertly as he slashes away at weeds on his hillside field. The fast-growing, unwanted grasses are threatening to strangle his maturing pineapple plants — fruits that he hopes will raise his family's fortunes.

Valeriano belongs to the Asocación Campesinos para el Desarollo Agropecuario Sechaj, or ACDAS, a self-help agricultural cooperative of indigenous farmers who live in the lowlands near where Alta Verapaz touches Mexico. Last November, the 44-year-old farmer planted 30,000 pineapple seeds on one manzana of land, a Guatemalan unit of measurement that equals roughly 1.75 acres.

Ten other association members also planted pineapple seeds, which were provided by Mercy Corps as part of a program to boost farming incomes by selling high-value pineapples directly to major fruit processors in Guatemala's capital. Seed money for the project came from Mercy Corps' Phoenix Fund, which finances startup costs for innovative market solutions to poverty.

Growing for large commercial markets is a new concept for most indigenous farmers, including those in Sechaj. Rural Alta Verapaz is populated largely by poor, undereducated Mayans shunned by the country's dominant political and economic interests. Most are subsistence farmers who only dabble in cash crops such as coffee or cardamom.

"Before we just grew beans and corns for our own tables," says Valeriano. "But Mercy Corps gave us the training and the seeds to grow pineapples, and will help us commercialize it."

Pineapple cultivation requires constant attention over many months. The plants absorb nutrients from their spiny leaves rather than the soil, so weeds — which sprout quickly in Guatemala's lush soil — must be cut back frequently.

Valeriano says he spends 15 days each month clearing the land, and two days a month fertilizing the fruit.

His crop won't be ready until next spring; the first fruits require 18 months to mature, while subsequent plantings need only 12 months before harvest. When ripe, the pineapples will be picked and shipped to Guatemala City, where they'll be juiced or sliced and readied for supermarket shelves.

Valeriano hopes to use the profits to help put the youngest of his nine children through school. His 11-member family squeezes into a two-room home that lacks water, electricity and a floor; a couple of dogs and some chickens roam outside.

"In these rural areas, 90 percent of families can't put their kids through school — there aren't sufficient resources," says the agricultural association's president, José María Ical. "Our hope with these pineapples is to educate our kids."