February 22, 2011 - Today felt like we truly started our AALP International Study Tour. We woke up in Antigua, the original capital of Guatemala, which is surrounded by three active volcanoes. We even saw some smoke from one of them from the roof of our hotel.
We did not know what to expect from our visit at CasaSito, a non-governmental organization working with children in rural Guatemala. Our host Amanda, an MBA student at Yale University, demonstrated lots of zest about the work her NGO is able to accomplish with limited resources. With the help of a 73 year old director (Prof Nick), who still teaches swimming to kids, they receive the majority of their funding from Canada, Germany and Switzerland. This is used to build schools, pay for teachers and provide scholarships to students. This particular project is called Plan Infinito, which means never-ending project. They also provide micro-credit to such group as a women’s textile cooperative in Santiago Zamoro. We were shown how to prepare the textile for various garments. Our lunch was made by these women, all for 7$ - it felt like a 20$ lunch! It was so humbling to be fed what they would likely consider a weekend dinner. In the end, we were happy to provide them with some school supplies that we had brought with us and to hear the story of Hilda’s daughter, who was the first person in the community to ever graduate from high school. The supplies will help these women with one of their objectives, which is to raise money for their families and then will give the rest to support local projects. AALP Class 13 purchased a queen size quilt that will be donated to the Dream Auction in 2012.
Our second stop involved a visit to a coffee farm that had received micro-credit money from ‘As Green as it Gets’. This funding allowed them to triple their previous $2,000 annual revenue of three years ago. The farm feeds two families of 9 children each. We were served one of the best coffees ever, from freshly harvested beans, roasted and ground right in front of our eyes, and then finally added to boiling water. What a coffee!
One needs to be cautious about Fair Trade marketing. One of our host, Franklin Voorhes, explained that the farmer actually needs to pay $2,000 to sell his products to fair trade organizations, but does not get any more money for those same products. This is another example of Green marketing. As Green as it Gets help farmers get a better price for their product by allowing them to buy some equipment that further process the raw harvest and sell everything at a better value. Don’t hesitate to visit them at www.asgreenasitgets.org
February 23, 2011 - Nothing feels more like home than visiting your own Embassy. A very small group of Canadian and local representatives look after Canada’s interests in Guatemala, without the presence of a formal ambassador at the moment. Sebastian, the acting ambassador, his colleagues, and the representative from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) provided a variety of contrasting comments on the outlook of the country and of the hope and the positive changes that have and are happening. Once again we have seen the contrasts between this meeting and the feelings that were expressed by the coffee farmers and at the cooperative we visited the day before
Some unexpected spare time allowed us the opportunity to see the two scale map (including full elevation to scale) of Guatemala. This was a very graphic example of the scale of the country, and its various terrains.
After another tremendous meal we visited the Bank of Antigua, which was purchased by Scotia Bank in 2008. Their focus is on being an “entry” level bank which means that they focus on low income individuals, financing typically emergency items and small businesses (less than Q500,000 in sales) cash flow needs; all of this was summed up as “micro credit”. They offer an enticing 8% interest on deposits, but charge extortion rates like 35-40% interest on loans. Apparently, they are quite astute as they boast over 62,000 clients. Jose, the CEO, was peppered by questions from the group. He felt quite comfortable having worked in Toronto from 2007 – 2009. It was impressive to see the low loss provisions that the bank operates with even though all loans are done without so much as a personal guarantee. This was felt to be a strong indication of the dedication of the country to pull itself up by the bootstraps.
We were all excited by our tour guides late afternoon surprise of a stop at the world renowned Zacapa Rum distribution office. The class sampled the 5-time world champion rum, and eagerly purchased some of this exceptional spirit that can only be purchased in Guatemala. AALP Class 13 even purchased a 1 litre bottle which will be offered for sale at the AALP Dream Auction, being held in February 2012.
Andre Roy, Phil Emmott, John Borland - AALP Class 13