Chopping and cooking palm fiber in Guatemala
Five years ago, a severe drought brought hardship and hunger to the people of Jocotán, a small village in rural Guatemala.
Today, the villagers turn to this once-parched land as a creative source for income and job opportunities, thanks in part to the volunteer program sponsored by the College of Business Administration’s John Ogonowski Farmer-to-Farmer (FTF) program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Most recently, FTF, in partnership with Winrock International, sent fiber artist and weaver Mary Burks to help the villagers expand the products they produce from locally grown vegetal fibers, including zibaque, reed grass, hemp, and bamboo.
“The project focused on using local knowledge and abilities to recover the value of native plants while helping build alliances between the people of Jocotán and the rest of the world.”
—Carmen Algeciras (MIB ’03, BA ’01), FTF program director
Eulalio Martinez Ramirez holding a finished piece of paper
“The project focused on using local knowledge and abilities to recover the value of native plants while helping build alliances between the people of Jocotán and the rest of the world,” said Carmen Algeciras (MIB ’03, BA ’01), FTF program director. “We recruited Burks, who seemed to posses not only the right skill set but also the right creative sprit to help the villagers move beyond basketry to create and market other organic, fiber-based products.”
Project exemplifies what it means to be flexible and creative.
Nefdaly Diaz Martinez recycling the daily paper for new paper
Prior to her arrival in Jocotán, Burks worked closely with Keij de los Bosques, the host organization and business incubator that supports cooperatives and micro-businesses in Guatemala. Once there, she collaborated with the Asociación Artesanal Ajpatnar Chortí, a Guatemalan cooperative with 323 members dedicated to rural development that fosters sustainable economic growth.
Andres Hernandez Lopez
Her assignment entailed implementing at least one new, improved production technique that would lead to the development of a vegetal fiber product line.
“I came to the project as a generalist and found I had to think quickly on my feet to guide specific decisions that would enable the villagers to diversify their creative product set,” Burks said. “We ultimately decided to pursue experimentation around making paper by hand using easily available natural fibers.”
She worked closely with four members of the village cooperative who are now teaching others in their community to apply papermaking techniques.
“I came away with . . . a desire to not let the opportunity for this community slip away.”
—Mary Burks, fiber artist, weaver, and FTF volunteer
Domingo Lopez Geronimo creating with a new basket technique
“I can best describe my experience as joyful and novel,” Burks said. “I entered into a true collegial relationship with the Mayan men from Jocotán. We challenged each other to do the best we could, and I believe we developed a real sense of trust. I came away with a wealth of new knowledge about natural plant fibers for handmade paper—and a desire to not let the opportunity for this community slip away.”
Already, the cooperative has identified niche markets for its handmade decorative papers, including holiday cards and a project for a local financial institution that expressed interest in using rustic envelopes for clients’ portfolios.
An artist’s words speak volumes about the work’s true nature.
Women from the village of Pinalto, Guatemala to whom Alvarez taught a new basket technique
Of course, Burks’ assignment had practical goals, as she was there to help create a new small business based on vegetal fiber that could generate ongoing income for the craftspeople of Jocotán.
A nurturing spirit also helped inspire creative and commercial success in a way that Burks’ own poetic words best express:
Fiber is a very accessible medium.
It is all around us.
Fiber especially engulfs women.
We wash it.
We sweep it,
We sew it,
We wear it,
We stand on it.
And now the people of Jocotán rely on it to help their community not just survive but thrive.