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Guatemalan co-op offers economic opportunity

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NEBAJ, Guatemala -- Line by line, the blanket slowly takes shape as the
loom meticulously weaves the colored fabrics. Taking up the center of the
darkened living room, this cultural emblem permits the family a sliver of
financial stability.

While squatting on the floor, Cecilla Perez Chavez sifts through the web of
threads that has become her biggest project. Chavez anticipates it will
take about six months to complete this blanket in her spare time between
her other domestic responsibilities as a mother and wife. Once finished,
she'll entrust her work to the cooperative, of which she's a member, which
will sell this product on her behalf.

Ideally, the price tag of $100 will attract a buyer.

For six years, Mayan women in Nebaj (population 50,000) have joined in an
effort to promote their skills as artisans and weavers to form an
all-female co-op. The Asociacion de Mujeres Mayas Ixiles por la Paz (the
Association of Mayan Ixil Women for Peace) has succeeded in providing a
venue where women can earn additional income using the skills they already
have, such as weaving and gardening.

In this remote and mountainous area of central Guatemala, where there are
no factories or large industries to sustain the economy, any extra money is
greatly needed. Chavez's husband earns 20 quetzals a day (about $3) as a
campesino, or farm laborer, and another couple of bucks a week in
independent farming for a total of about $60 per month.

The additional $15 Chavez earns through the association has become a
significant supplement to the household income.

"The Mayas don't know how to write and don't know how to speak with a good
pronunciation," Chavez said about the particular difficulties the local
Native population faces. "We don't have work, studies or much money."

(Writer's note: Of those interviewed for the story, their Spanish was
spoken with clarity and fluidity.)

Approximately half of Guatemala is indigenous, with a higher percentage in
the rural areas. Even if Mayas do make up the majority of the population in
Nebaj, they consistently remain at the bottom of the economic tables
because so many of them live as subsistence farmers.

Adding to the problem is the post-war recovery that continues to plague
this region. Following the country's 35-year civil war that ended in 1996,
many women are widows who have been forced to raise their children as
single parents (without government assistance or social welfares) because,
proportionately, the Mayans suffered more losses than non-Natives.

For so many years, the concept of Mayans working collectively incurred the
wrath of the military, police or other authoritarian figures: that's why it
was difficult to establish a public co-operative, especially for women
only. Association President Virginia Cedillo has had to overcome a lot of
mistrust in the area to establish this venture.

"The women still have the fear of organizing because in the war it wasn't
permitted to have meetings. For that reason, we invited every woman to
organize this group," Castillo, whose group counts about 50 members, said.

In addition to a greenhouse where many vegetables including tomatoes,
carrots and onions are grown, the co-op operates a stall that provides the
group with its greatest exposure. Located in the new Centro Cultural Ixil y
Mercado de Artesanias (Ixil Cultural Center and Artisans' Market) that
opened this past June in the heart of Nebaj, the association's roughly
75-square-foot booth is crammed with a variety of handmade products.

Every transaction is etched into the ledger book with the price and the
person's name. The co-op takes 10 percent to pay for the rent, while the
remainder goes to the artist.

Treasurer Marta Cobo Raymundo estimates that between the farming and the
handiwork, about $600 is grossed monthly. If this appears to be a small
amount for everybody's efforts, Raymundo believes otherwise.

"It's not a sacrifice to give our time to our work and the textiles because
it's unique work in Guatemala," she said. "Other departments make textiles
in studios, but our work is purely by hand."

Most of the sales in the artisans' market are to backpacking tourists and
those visitors who are working in non-government relief agencies. A
problem, though, is that many of the stalls tend to have similar products,
making distinguishing one from another difficult.

Also, it's unlikely any of these women can make a full-time go of their
artistry or gardening. Most of the members, who often have several
children, are required to piece together other sources to eke out a meager
living.

However, even if the monetary rewards aren't immediate, this cooperative
has given its members hope for better times to come.

"Many women, working with their children, hope to see their children grow
up and be able to leave to find new opportunities to survive," said
Cedillo.