The Sustainability Revolution

nuevo horizonte, guatemala — Nothing particularly remarkable strikes a visitor stepping off the bus and into the small village of Nuevo Horizonte in northern Guatemala. Clustered along a flat stretch of highway slicing through cleared rainforest, it appears to be a typical collection of cinder-block houses and dirt streets frequented by children and chickens — at first.

But soon, even an obtuse observer such as myself, strolling past the tightly clustered houses surrounded by fruit trees and flowers, notices something is missing. The streets are nearly devoid of trash as well as the advertising so ubiquitous throughout Latin America. Nor are there any cars other than a small pickup parked in the plaza. There are no police here. Even the dogs look healthy and content, a quality that seems to pervade the human population as well. Little more than a grassy field, the plaza hosts a community center where a lively meeting is taking place, a youth center where a teenager is giving a haircut to a younger boy, and a plain cinder-block church. Nearby a large mural depicts four women guerrilla leaders.

In 1954, a U.S.-initiated coup that overthrew the elected president of Guatemala served as the catalyst to a thirty-six-year civil war that pitted a succession of military dictatorships against leftist political organizations. The Guatemalan government’s response to community organizing was to label the opposition as “Communist” and send in the army. During the 1980s, the government began targeting the rural Mayan people, burning fields, razing entire villages, massacring men, women, and children, and assassinating priests. After years of suffering political oppression, economic injustice, and racial violence, many of the Mayan farmers organized an armed resistance movement using the jungles as a base. Finally, in 1996, the peace accords between the rebels and the government ended the war and provided an opportunity for the revolutionaries to continue their efforts, but without their guns.

Tono Figuero, a quiet, serious man in his late forties, introduces me to this cooperative community founded ten years ago. Hundreds of displaced refugees and former guerrillas came together and found an old ranch that had been cleared and burned. Arriving with nothing but the rags on their backs, they began to forge a community based upon their revolutionary principles of social equality and communal land ownership. Viewing machismo as a form of oppression, women had assumed positions of leadership in the resistance; one of those women guerrillas is now president of the co-op.

While each family owns their house and farm plot, the co-op retains ownership of pasturelands, the forest, the lake, and plantations of pine, pineapple, and lime trees. The co-op provides free day care, primary and secondary education, adult vocational training, and operates a pharmacy and clinic, charging as little as twelve cents per visit. Nuevo Horizonte also maintains two pickups and a minivan for anyone’s use.

The co-op’s explicit economic goal is to provide alternatives to the Central American Free Trade Agreement and demonstrate how communities can be less vulnerable to the negative effects of globalization. To this end, the co-op provides low-interest microfinancing. To encourage collective enterprises, the loans’ interest rates drop with every partner who joins. The community now boasts a welding shop and two corn mills, and maintains its own seed bank to counter efforts by corporations to control crop production.

The residents of Nuevo Horizonte seem particularly proud of their efforts to preserve a small, 250-acre chunk of intact rainforest. When the ex-guerrillas arrived ten years ago, they quickly recognized this remnant for both its ecological value in preventing siltation of the local lake, as well as its historical and cultural significance. Flashing a grin, Juan, a villager in his seventies, leads us into the forest. Every few hundred yards he stops and points out an edible palm, fruit, or nut tree. “Es historico,” he insists, because it provided food during “la epoca guerrilla.” One palm yields cooking oil, and another tree produces nuts that can be roasted and ground into flour. The jungle served as the guerrillas’ home for many years, providing food, shelter, and safety, and it is doing so again.

The revolution of Nuevo Horizonte is no longer being fought with guns, but with education, sustainability, and the integrity of the natural and human community. “The fight is not over,” Tono says.

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via {encode=”” title=”e-mail”}. Submissions become property of Orion.


  1. I wonder if outsiders can invest in the microfinancing?

    (The link to the co-op’s web site isn’t working for me.)

  2. I think it’s ridiculous that the western governments and the IMF and World Bank keep wasting billions of dollars to try and make the Third World into instant modern capitalist economies when we should be creating self-sustaining cultures like this.

  3. I was actually thinking of trying the whole self-sustaining thing myself. a few things i have considered to help with things like energy costs are like earthen houses to save on heat/AC, solar generators/windmills/etc. for energy production, and i have also been experimenting on small scale on how to catch rainwater and redistribute it through vertically planted crops to save on the use of a pump or anything, but that one is proving tricky. any other suggestions?

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