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Reflections from a Volunteer

Jesse Phillips here, checking in from a small farm in Washington State. I volunteered with Semilla Nueva for five months during the summer and fall of 2009, helping in a small way to connect farmers to farmers and begin developing the organization’s grounding goals and volunteer program. At the time there were four of us–three Americans just out of college and one experienced Guatemalan agronomist–working full or part-time in Guatemala to make contacts and get a sense of possible projects to improve the health of soils and farmer livelihoods. To an extent, our goal was to offer farmers the reigns of their own ecological farming projects, projects with a low start-up cost that nevertheless wouldn’t fit into the money-making rationale of a sustainable business.

At first it was touch and go. I remember when we celebrated the purchase of our first car so we wouldn’t have to ride chicken buses to meet with farmers every week; and I remember when our dedicated U.S.-based fund raising team of four or five young activists submitted our first grant application, and when they launched our very own website (check out the new version!). When I left Semilla Nueva in December of 2009, we had begun to iron out a 501c3 constitution and board of directors, get on our fund raising groove, and plan our first strong partnership with another Guatemalan non-profit organization that already worked in many communities. Now the team is hard at work on other new and exciting things that I can only imagine.

Through the course of all the financial challenges, all the times our tired bodies fell out of the truck after long road trips, the setbacks in the field and the dead-end research leads–through all of this it was the quality and determination of the people with whom I worked that sustained me. It was also their sturdy certainty throughout the whole thing that, if there was to be success in returning vitality to Guatemalan soils, farmers must be the primary actors. Above all, we decided we would not proceed unless the farmer himself was undertaking the step through his own motives, and carrying it out in his own way. If Semilla Nueva were ever to become a crutch that any farmer leaned on to do things, instead of a resource for doing that which he considers to be necessary and right, with or without us, we knew would this would be the ultimate failure of our organization. Though I am not in the fray, on-site in Guatemala, this is still a stance I firmly believe.

Perhaps the greatest thing I learned while working with Semilla Nueva was the importance of being in the field, with the farmer, seeing what he sees and feeling the soil he feels. Then, finally, the pressures he experiences–to buy destructive chemicals to lay on his land in order to raise a crop, make money for more fertilizer, and support a family–finally these pressures become at least palpable to the visitor. More, they become the necessary starting place for relating as human beings before anyone is willing to talk agricultural alternatives and ecological concepts. The unfortunate reality is that the Guatemalan farmer must risk all that he has in order to prevent the loss of all that he has. Risk trying something new and willingly become a revolutionary to reverse the decline of his soils and the escalation of his chemical bills. This gamble has as much to do with the solvency of the soil as the solvency of the farmer’s budget, but before he can begin to change the composition of his soil, the risk he knows he is taking demands that he look at the composition of his mind, and work through his fears and his beliefs. For this reason “implementing agroecological methods in the field” is not as straightforward as it sounds. Nothing could have prepared me for the difficulty of the mental transformation that each farmer must embattle within himself; so I could not have predicted, and still can not predict, how many visits are necessary before any particular farmer is convinced that Semilla Nueva is not just another of the many technicians and organizations that have come promising help and disappeared soon after.

The kind of work Semilla Nueva does is slow-moving, but it is desperately needed for the same reasons it is slow. If chemically intensive agriculture were not entrenched, its illusions would not be so hard to uncover; and if it were not so entrenched in the minds of campesinos as well as in the literal fields of the Guatemalan campo, it would not be in the position it is in now to make money from their ultimate disintegration, the complete loss of soil vitality and the hope that this vitality engenders in human beings. This is the center, I realize, of the semilla that Semilla Nueva hopes to offer: the seeds of health to soils and hope to the communities that depend on them. With help from contributors, Semilla Nueva will be able to play a part in transforming an entire agricultural system: from one that profits by destroying soils into one that saves money by conserving them.

To Trini, Curt, Brook, Fletcher, and anyone else lucky enough to be helping out: keep at it.
-Jesse Phillips

A recent Whitman University Graduate, Jesse helped build Semilla Nueva through the first months on the ground in Guatemala.

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