Student - September 9, 2009

A bellyful of tortillas in rural Guatemala

She wants to help the agricultural world. That is what took Marlinde Koopmans, who grew up on a farm herself, to Guatemala. The Wageningen VHL student of Regional development and innovation went from village to village inquiring into the credit needs of coffee farmers.

'Guatemala is beautiful, and very green, as if it's always spring. But there are volcanos too; the land is unstable. The civil war that went on until 1996 wiped out the culture. Most of the rituals I had read about you don't see anywhere any more.'
23 languages
'I worked for Trias, a Belgian development organization. I researched the credit needs of coffee farmers for two local partners. The idea is to make it possible for a provider of micro credit and an organic coffee cooperative to bring their services in line with each other. I started my internship with a Spanish course. That is the main language, though there are 23 languages spoken there. I thought, 'OK, then we'll all be speaking broken Spanish'. But no, in the villages people really only spoke Qeqchi. I really neede my interpreter, and I observed a lot. I was very quiet for me.'
Everyone ran away
'On weekdays I was in the countryside. I slept in huts with bare sandy floors, and it was a bit like camping. I ate tortillas with beans and eggs every day. I drank coffee because there wasn't any drinking water. I got a bit of a tortilla belly. Most of the people are Indians, although that is virtually a dirty word. You see very few Westerners. When I arrived in the first village, everyone ran away. I an one metre 20 tall with blond curly hair. That was too much. Luckily my interpreter knew the people and after an hour they dared to come closer.'
Western thinking
'In the villages they mostly produce crops for the market, like coffee and cardamom. This make people dependant. If you ask why they don't produce anything else, they say things like: 'Nothing else grows here'. There are endless stalls all selling the same thing. Only once you have spent some time in a country like that do you realize how totally we have absorbed economic thinking. And yet there are similarities: the position of farmers is weak. You are crazy if you become a farmer. Food is too cheap. I think there's something wrong with the system. I would like to find out more about this. In an applied science course we mainly get practical knowledge. I'm going to do my minor at Wageningen University. I want to stand up for farmers, wherever they are in the world.' /Stijn van Gils