Pedal Power in Guatemala

The road into Tajumulco plummets, twisting across the shoulder of the volcano. We're at roughly 3000m above sea level, and the sun is intense. We follow creases in the valley, dip into pockets of lush green, then lean out over 1000m precipices overlooking cloud-draped villages. Guatemala is a volcanic country, always shuddering and belching ash. The soil is awesomely rich, add to this the variety of climates in the country and you have a grower's delight. Everything grows vigorously here, especially in the coastal lowlands. Thus it is no great surprise that the economy is and has always been based on agricultural exports (coffee, sugar, fruits and veg) grown on the prime agricultural land of an astonishingly rich country. The Ladino finca owners have long considered the indigenous Mayans as cheap labour best worked hard, paid little and crushed if they complain, or organize. Further, the US-trained Guatemalan military has a long history of psychopathic brutality against its people. This is good for profits and keeps North America in cheap food. Bizarrely, the present government was elected despite being comprised of a high number truly scary right wing nutbars responsible for past regimes of terror. During the election they promised to get tough on property crime. Since being elected the incidence of bank robberies involving munitions of military origin, lawyer shootings and NGO-office computer burglaries has climbed rapidly.

PEDAL and Our Community Bikes became involved in this mad country in 1998 through another Canadian NGO that conveyed to us a request from a Mayan NGO for a pedal driven grain mill capable of processing locally grown feed mixes. As bike mechanics we couldn't very well refuse such a reasonable request. CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and numerous kind souls provide us with funds to develop pedal powered devices in cooperation with Mayan organisations. Typically our partner organisations (5 of them) maintain links with numerous rural community groups comprised mostly of Mayan women. Through our partners we learn of projects that could benefit from pedal powered technology. We then provide the devices, and our partners ideally provide ongoing project support to their groups.

We produce and distribute our machines from our base in San Andres Itzapa, near Chimaltenango, a large dusty industrial town on the Pan-American Highway. We use recycled bicycles from Canada and the States, steel, wood, old tires, cement, old car parts and rope to make contraptions that produce broad grins from most who see them. Fortunately they also work. Pedal power fills an intermediate technology gap between hand power and electric/diesel power. For most agricultural needs, hand power is extremely labour intensive, and for Mayan campesinos diesel/electric power is prohibitively expensive. Given that an average cyclist generates between 1/8 and º hp (about 5 times hand power), we are able to adapt a wide array of devices that require 1 hp or less to pedal drive. Like bicycles, our machines are also easily maintained with limited bike tools, and most parts are readily available and standardized.

We seem to drive forever, our ears popping as the truck drops through dust wallows and deep ruts. Last week one of two buses serving this region lost their brakes on this road, the driver saved his passengers by ramming the bus into a boulder. Finally, our brakes burning, but still working, and chased by a fine billowing dust, we drop into the lap of the valley, into Tajumulco. Market day is ending, the people are bundling their unsold goods and hoisting them into old multi-coloured Mercedes trucks to catch rides up and down the valley. We find Maynor, an enthusiastic local agricultural promoter, and together we head further down the valley, passing clusters of adobe homes and Mam campesinos returning from their fields.

In the first 2 years of the project we trucked used bikes and parts, from Our Community Bikes in Vancouver, overland through the US, Mexico and into Guatemala. This is an interesting trip to make once in a life. Crossing Mexico is an education in corruption, economic inequity and environmental devastation. Further, as a transmigrante carrying goods to Central America, you are required to paste a fluorescent poster on your windshield that seems to be understood by all Mexican authorities to say, 'Stop me and steal from me what you want, I'm yours.' Be especially afraid of the anti-narcotraficantes, they wear all black, and they're especially corrupt. Once you make it to the Guatemalan border you can expect intense chaos and several hours harassment by men with guns. We found that getting really angry and flapping one's arms vigorously actually helps in severe cases of bureaucratic gridlock.

We pull into Toquian Chico, a small village tucked deep in a folded valley far below Volcan Tajumulco, which vaults 2400m above us. We have come here to check on a prototype machine delivered two weeks ago. Dusk is moving up the valley, the cool air drops from the mountains, pushing warm air up. Low clouds rise from their valley nooks, flap like sheets in the wind, and then dissipate in the alpine light. The mountain tops glow orange and mauve. Surrounding crops spread up the valley sides, some fields so steep you need never bend to the soil. Most fields are cluttered with dry corn stalks, some fields are still moist enough to grow crops of carrots, cabbage, beets, cauliflower or tomatoes. In Maya Kakchiquel and Mam country where we work, agricultural production is limited by steep slopes, high altitudes and extreme population pressures on a fragile environment. Consequently Mayans try to make most efficient use of their resources, working hard just to feed and house their families. Despite often extreme material hardship, the people we work with are mostly patient and good-humoured about life. They are really keen to have control of their lives economically, culturally and ecologically. By way of our work we contribute to a vision of a sustainable, self-sufficient agricultural economy sought by our partner organisations.

Between two adobe homes small boys and girls dash through the dust after an orange plastic ball, a local drunk kicks an uncertain foot out, stumbles and misses the ball. The kids laugh hysterically. A group of men and women stand engrossed around the bici-despulpador (pedal coffee depulper) watching the hopper level drop, and the grating drum spin. One man pours small amounts of water over the fruit in the hopper, keeping the drum from clogging. The machine is driven by a grinning man pedaling a chopped Huffy bicycle attached backwards to one side of the machine.

Last year we connected one of our local partners, FIDESMA, with Pedals for Progress, a New Jersey-based NGO that sends container loads of used bikes around the world to many developing country NGO's. By way of this bike supply we no longer need to drive 7500km. scrunched in a small truck for 10 days. The container loads that arrive here inevitably contain large bikes, that no Mayan is likely to ride, and cerotes (Guat Spanish for 'piece of shit'). We take great satisfaction in chopping and welding these Huffy and Schwinn cerotes into pedal drives for agricultural machines. The good bikes are sold to raise funds for our partner, and pay part of the shipping of the next container.

Fruit pulp spatters onto the pile below the machine. The rider's feet are getting wet with the spray from the drum, but he's still grinning. Coffee beans tumble down the shute into a bucket. From the bucket the beans are transferred to a drying screen, where they'll sit in the sun for several days until dry. This community group previously sold their coffee fruit to buyers paying approx. $20/100lbs. If they were unable to sell their coffee within days after picking it would ferment and be worthless, a simple fact that gives the buyer tremendous price fixing leverage. Their dried, depulped coffee will earn $60-$80/100lbs. Even accounting for moisture-weight loss the farmers can still earn 2-3 times more for their coffee.

Some group members from Toquian Chico saw a PEDAL corn sheller at Maynor's house up the valley in Tajumulco. This other machine removes dry corn from the cob without breaking the kernels, thus reducing crop loss during storage (it's also the coolest machine to watch in action). Reports on the capacity of the machine range from 500-3000lbs/day. They asked if PEDAL would be able to help them out with a coffee depulper. Our coordinator heard the request from Maynor. We responded by purchasing a hand-cranked despulpador, and giving it to Carlos, our builder, to adapt to pedal drive. In response to requests from campesino groups we make pedal driven grain mills, corn shellers, water pumps, power generators, roof-tile makers, bike trailers and now, coffee depulpers. We are also investigating the potential for a pedal drive composter so farmers can break down their old corn stalks for rapid composting rather than burning them.

As a prototype machine we are providing this coffee depulper free to try out. The group will find its weaknesses, tell us, and we will modify the next machine. While the coffee passes through the machine they tell us that the derailleur broke off, and that they would prefer it if the chain were locked into one gear. They also fear the mounting system for the cogset on the side of the machine won't last. After some discussion we agree to bring larger bolts next time we come out, and we shorten the chain so it stays in one gear. Once we are satisfied with the quality of the machine we'll sell them for a subsidized price to community groups who work together, and for full price to individuals. One of the women invites us in for coffee, but we have to refuse as the light is failing and the drive back up to Tajumulco is dangerous enough in the light. She's disappointed but understands. The air is getting cold fast as we climb in the truck and head back up the valley.

Back in Tajumulco Maynor invites us into his house to see the results of his bici-desgranador (pedal corn sheller). Stacked to the roof in one room are some 20 100lb sacks of corn he and his son filled from the machine. He tells us his son, about 10 years old, shells as much corn with this machine as a full-grown man, without breaking a sweat. He plans to use the corn as a base for an organic pig feed mix. With the machine he also figures he can earn extra cash by renting it to his neighbors. He invites us to his table for a coffee; sweet, weak and comforting as always. We hope to include Maynor as a member of a new board of directors for PEDAL Guatemala, to be incorporated here by April 2001. Over the past year we have slowly been transferring responsibility for project coordination and implementation to our local partners. As no one organisation has the capacity to manage the whole project we developed a provisional board comprised of members of our partner organisations to manage the project. This step resulted at first in friction and jealousy over project ownership, but has since become a fruitful union as the different individuals are learning from the other's experiences. Our hope is to see PEDAL become a self-sustaining operation run by Guatemalans, and working in cooperation with development organisations from here and away. We have built a large network of enthusiastic contacts throughout the country, including linkages with the US Peace Corps who maintain 200 volunteers in the country. It's dark out now. We bid Maynor una buenas noches, and step back into the crisp night air. It smells of wood and corn stalk fires, and the stars seem closer. The future for pedal power looks good from here in Tajumulco.


Originally published in Momentum Magazine #1, April 2001.

For more information on the Maya Bike project check out the Pedal Power website.

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