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Jours ordinaires à la finca

Charles-Edouard de Suremain

Summary. Ordinary days on the finca

A large coffe plantation in Guatemala

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1This study of a large coffee plantation in Guatemala is approached from an ethnological viewpoint with frequent incursions into history and sociology. Indeed, the setting is propitious for the development of sociability whose originality is derived from a host of influences. The plantation is both a markedly compartmentalized micro-society with its own divisions and an institution influenced by the major economic, religious, cultural, political and social forces that characterize Guatemalan society as a whole.

2The first part (‘Guatemala from top to bottom’) is devoted to the main divisions in the country. The main features of society (Chapter 1: ‘Contemporary Guatemala’) are still marked by disparities in land ownership and the socioeconomic and symbolic inequality between the mestizos (ladinos) and the Indians. Stakeholders play an important role, and especially the oligarchy that includes the plantation owners (finqueros). The economic weight and social status of the coffee planters is an original feature of Guatemala. In spite of differences that prevent it from being an homogeneous group, the oligarchy displays considerable solidarity in combating those it refers to as ‘subversive’. Members of the oligarchy use this term to describe those who are against the establishment: guerrilla fighters, unions, progressive political parties, fundamentalist evangelists and some fractions of the Catholic church. These groups are analysed in part 5 at the end of the book (‘Violence and coffee’).

3Stress is laid in Chapter 2 on the importance of coffee planting in Guatemala (‘Guatemala the coffee-grower: the example of the Costa Cuca’). Coffee-growing is carried out under relatively homogeneous techno-economic conditions on the large plantations. In contrast, the social conditions of production vary from one region to another and even from one plantation to the next. The Costa Cuca, an extremely productive region, is thus characterized by different geographical, social and land ownership aspects. Although its configuration illustrates the bipolarization of the agrarian situation in Guatemala, it is neither an extreme case nor an example. Described as a ‘giant coffee tree’ by its inhabitants, the Costa Cuca is indeed an area of ‘medium-sized plantations’, each covering about 100 hectares. This feature has considerable effects on the power structure and sociability in the fincas.

4The second part (‘The aruptions of a large coffee plantation’) sets a coffee plantation in the broader historical context of Guatemalan society. While Chapter 3 (‘The finca in history’) relates the stages of the emergence of the estates and the agricultural and social changes, Chapter 4 (‘Perceptions of the finca’) provides a description of estates today. There is extensive coverage of the way in which the inhabitants of plantations perceive the different boundaries of their day-to-day life.

5Like most plantations on the Costa Cuca, Los Angeles finca covers about a hundred hectares. It has remained in the same family since the end of the last century in spite of successive legacies, various reforms and the instability of the coffee market. Today, the estate has 55 male workers referred to as ‘permanent’ because they live in small houses (ranchos) provided in exchange for their work in the coffee fields. Counting women, children and the ‘floating population’ that visits the ‘permanent’ workers, there are no fewer than 500 people in two villages or camps (rancherías) a few hundred metres apart. In addition to legal and obligatory social rights (social security cover, schooling, indemnities), the workers—still referred to as ‘heads of family’—benefit from a number of perquisites such as access to a river, a firewood ration, New-Year’s gifts, etc.

6The originality of Los Angeles finca lies in the fact that the inhabitants of the two camps did not arrive at the same time. They daim different socio-cultural and geographical origins. The inhabitants of the oldest camp identify themselves as ‘Natives of the Coast’ (Costeños) and the direct descendants of the first workers on the finca. In contrast, the inhabitants of the second camp are former temporary workers who lived in the highlands and who settled definitively on the finca in 1960 at the planter’s request. They call themselves ‘Inhabitants of San Juan’ (Juanatecos) and not ‘Indians’ (‘Indios’), as the Costeños refer to them in a very pejorative manner.

7The third part (‘In the shadow of coffee’), based on description and analysis of the modes of organization of the everyday work carried out following the coffee cropping calendar, explores the dynamics of the relations between the different groups of workers—with varied status and demographic importance—employed by the estate.

8Coffee is a delicate perennial plant and requires constant care by a large labour force. The organization of the work requires the forming of different teams of workers on the basis of more or less explicit criteria (Chapter 5: ‘Care of coffee: a panoply of tailor-made labour’). In a general manner, age, sex and socioeconomic status govern the distribution of labour among the men. However, the degree of technical skill with which the workers are credited is also an organization criterion. In addition, the planter considers that these aptitudes are not only the result of agricultural experience but stem from skills that are thought to be innate and related to social origin. Hierarchies of varying durability are thus created between the different working teams. The workers interiorize the reputations awarded to them and contribute to a considerable extent to sustaining the order in the plantation. The principle also operates in the teams of women and temporary workers.

9Several important persons are also part of the world of the finca. recruiting agents (contratistas) who are intermediaries providing labour for the fincas, doctors and healers, whose relations with patients are more or less closely supervised by the planter, and ‘spiders’ (arañas), a kind of spy paid by the finqueros to travel around the region in search of information about subversive people.

10The coffee-picking season (Chapter 6: ‘Coffee-picking’) illustrates the dynamics of relations on the estate. The teams of pickers position themselves in relation to the others and in relation to the planter by virtue of the reputations awarded to them. This is especially the case for the temporary teams of Indians from the highlands (cnadrillas) who stay on the plantation for a few months under precarious conditions. The cnadrillas are at the bottom of the socioeconomic and symbolic scale, lead a separate existence and are the subject of very varied representations.

11Study of work on coffee shows the importance of the socio-symbolic hierarchy in the plantation. The weighting of groups is on a scale going from the ‘most Indian’ to the ‘least Indian’, reflecting the cleavages in society as a whole. As each team forms a specific social and economic category, the unity of the estate is not apparent. Finally, the role and interests of the planter are complex. Although he cleverly maintains certain divisions, others are prior to his action and some are partially beyond his control.

12The fourth part (‘Rancberas chronicles’) shows that the identities of the inhabitants of fincas do not draw all their substance from labour relations but also involve the village and family sphere.

13A description of the different components of the home (furniture, garden and kitchen) and their extensions in the finca (river, forest and corn mill) is followed by analysis in Chapter 7 (‘The physical and social space of the rancho’) of the everyday lives of the rancheros. This stage covers study of residence, relations by marriage, forms of ritual family relationship and, more generally, the life cycle of the Costeños and the Juanatecos. Some aspects of social life such as forms of residence do not obey the relatively vague rules laid down by the planter because the inhabitants do all they can to protect their privacy and maintain social relations outside the limited framework of the finca. The choice of marriage partner and the marriage rules applied also show how the rancheros define themselves and differ front their neighbours. Whereas the Costeños affirm that they are autochthonous in the finca, the Juanatecos maintain relations with ‘brothers’ who still live in the highlands where they originally came from. The sense of compaternity relations also differs according to the camp. For the Costeños, a god-parent is chosen among the supervisory personnel on the estate—or the planter—with the explicit purpose of social improvement. In contrast, choice of god-parent by the Juanatecos is related to the integration of the individual in a network of relations that will possibly help him to find work but above all to find the ideal spouse.

14Chapter 8 (‘The days of rancheras') covers the daily activities of women in the household and its various extensions. The family and neighbourly relations described in the preceding chapter are shown in concrete terms here. In addition to conventional classic domestic tasks (preparation of meals, washing), some rancheras have individual activities for commercial purposes (soap manufacture, sewing, growing ornamental flowers). Other women produce food for consumption and sale within the camp. In both cases, these activities form the essential support for feminine identifies and the framework for conviviality that is not perceptible at first sight. Various leisure activities (ball games, beverages) enhance the lives of the working populations through their ludic and symbolic significance.

15A description of the everyday life of the inhabitants of the finca would not be complete without mention of the important days that break the monotony (Chapter 9:'The rancheros' big days’). The activities on these days combine leisure, economic and symbolic features. This is the case, for example, of the Sunday on which one goes to the market in the local town. In addition to its food function, it enables families to meet each other and go to the nearby cemetery—essential moments in social life. Gathering food and medicinal plants in what remains of the forest is also an occasion for the Juanatecos to tighten links between god-children and godparents. However, this activity is considered as cultural archaism by the Costeños, who pick weeds in the coffee fields. The two forms of gathering are interpreted as silent objection to the hegemony of men in general. The absence of social recognition suffered by women in the public sphere leads them to use practices that do not upset the System of the estate but contribute to questioning it for a limited period of time. Hunting is reserved for the men under close supervision by the planter. It nevertheless enhances the bonds between workers and underlines the relations between the domestic sphere and the natural world symbolised by the forest.

16In the eyes of the rancheros, All Saints Day, Christmas, Easter and the finca festival are important temporal and symbolic markers. The populations are theoretically Catholic but on these occasions it can be seen that different beliefs become attached to this old religious base. Thus, the Juanatecos practice rituals around a sacred tree within the plantation area. They also make pilgrimages in the country to attract the favours of the Catholic saints for specific objectives (fertility, healing). In spite of the religious conformism that they claim to have, the Costeños are not very orthodox either. Firstly, some are close to the new fundamentalist evangelical churches that are not approved by the planter. Then, at Easter they exhibit, venerate and destroy an effigy of the employer in a manner similar to the treatment reserved for a scapegoat in many societies. The Juanatecos participate in this ritual, which may mean that above their beliefs and social cleavages, the rancheros share common ritualized—and hence contained—hatred of their employer. However, important days are also marked by gifts and return gifts between families. Food is given among the Costeños and cooked dishes among the Juanatecos. These exchanges reveal networks of affinity and show the meaning that those involved award to sociability.

17All this shows that the situation of the two groups of rancheros at Los Angeles finca is the result of a continuous process of social recombining and not the initial characteristic. The uniformization of the ways of life—a phenomenon related to the order imposed by the plantation—finally stimulates the creation of identities within the framework of a dualist form of social organization. Far from being a pale reflection of the technical conditions of labour and of coffee production, this type of organization in turns fashions the functioning of the finca. And the planter is not the absolute master of the process. Although he wishes to channel oppositions in identity and profit from them, he does not always succeed and the rancheros ‘social life is relatively independent in relation to the finca. The planter’s power—inspired by paternalist authority—is pragmatic above all. In any case, it seems less totalitarian than that of his forebears.

18The sociological approach in the fifth part (‘Violence and coffee’) refines and completes certain aspects of the monographic and ethnographic study. The persons on the plantation belong to social groups related to each other at the scale of the region and the country. In addition, although it does not determine it directly, the socio-political climate in Guatemala influences the functioning of the fincas.

19Firstly, the finqueros in the region have strained relations with their various ‘rivais’ in the oligarchy, i.e. the other groups of planters, large coffee exporters and the military (Chapter 10: ‘War and peace on the Costa Cuca’).

20The marriages that have taken place this century in the family of the owner of Los Angeles finca are good examples of the divisions in the Guatemalan oligarchy. This is made up of strongly endogamous sub-groups whose status depends on their age, the origin of their name and their wealth. The conflicts, social distance and contempt between the sub-groups of the oligarchy are such that it seems illusory to discuss the latter in terms of ‘social class’. Nor is it a ‘pigmentocracy’. Far from forming a social group with rigid contours, it is more a conglomerate of families—often related—with a multitude of sometimes contradictory economic interests and claims with regard to identity. In this context, the unity of the oligarchy, including the finqueros group, is demonstrated mainly by the struggle against common enemies outside.

21The relations between the finqueros of the Costa Cuca and coffee exporters—most of whom are of German origin—are marked by much antagonism and ambiguity. On the one hand, the coffee market is non-competitive. A few large export houses share the trade and closely control the country’s banks. Whence interference by traders in the financial management and sometimes the supervision of the fincas. On the other, the relations between exporters and planters are strongly marked by clientelism. The special treatment afforded to some producers is in fact the result of complex alchemy in which socioeconomic origins, commercial fidelity, political options and social policies are mixed and appraised. Finally, recent purchases of land by the large exporters are seen by the planters as the desire to finally carry off the family heritage that serves as the ferment of their identity.

22The planters express their dislike of the army and politicians in a more indirect manner. They would like the members of the two groups to be at their service and not have the independence—especially economic independence—that they enjoy today. The conclusions put forward here conflict with the widespread idea that the army and politicians simply obey the orders of the oligarchy.

23The finqueros have special relations with the guerrillas. However, it must be specified that the guerrilla movement on the Costa Cuca is not based on the civilian population in order to develop—unlike the other rebel organizations in the country. The coffee plantation workers and the planters are thus not drawn into open warfare which, as in the highlands, takes the force of violent conflict between the army and the guerrillas, causing ruin and death among the civilian population. In addition, the claims of the guerrilla movement on the Costa Cuca do not incite the population to revolution. They concern the improvement of living and working conditions on the fincas and the respect by employers of the most elementary social laws. The ‘legalism’ of the movement finally favours compromise and, insofar as the planters follow, contributes to improving the everyday life of the rancheros. The planters experience the presence of the guerrilla movement as a constraint like the climate, the coffee market and relations with exporters. They thus attempt to integrate it in the ‘normal’ functioning of the estate rather than oppose it with violence.

24The planters perceive subversive action in terms of stereotypes. They consider that any sympathy for the unions and the new evangelical churches is reprehensible as it is a direct questioning of the established order. To discourage the population from following these pathways, the planters do not hesitate to pay off suspect workers. Such a reaction might be thought surprising insofar as the new churches, which are frequently of North American origin, are more favourable to the present authorities than to the revolution. But the plantation is a universe of continuous social change and phenomena sometimes have unexpected meanings. The finqueros say that if the rancheros follow these subversive groups, they would be distracted from their work, divided and blinded by the prospect of a better future. It would then be up to the trade unions, which are protected by the guerrillas, to unite the discontented workers once again and encourage them to engage in a merciless struggle with the masters of the land. It is with this obsession of protecting a ceaselessly questioned order that the Costa Cuca planters supervise their estates and try to contain the people who live there.

25In this context, the ‘village conscience’ of the coffee workers seems to win over ‘class conscience’, even if new forms of solidarity (described succinctly) induced by the trade unions and the new churches are beginning to emerge. The chapter closes with some considerations concerning ‘The weight of structures and stakeholders’ freedom'. The subject has strong theoretical connotations, but the study of social relations in the complex universe of the estate makes it possible to approach it in concrete terms.

26Following missions in 1992 and 1994, new information is provided on the situation of the finca (‘Conclusion: the finca revisited’).

27Insofar as the persons on the estate are now well known, stress is laid on the succession of events that contribute to a rapid change in daily life and the underlying socio-symbolic order. Thus, two ‘micro-company’ projects (manufacture of concrete blocks and carpentry)—one developed at the initiative of the workers and the other at that of the planter—have been through phases of growth and decline. The fall in the price of coffee (1989-1992) and the subsequent running up of debts by the finca to the large exporters interrupted a process that should have led to the gradual financial and social independence of the young people on the estate. Their future as coffee workers is increasingly threatened. Given the lack of opportunities offered by Guatemalan society, will they manage to survive outside the finca?

© IRD Éditions, 1996

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