The Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Community Organizations in San Juan La Laguna

by Erwin Colli Chayax, OG’s Hub Administrator in San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala. This article is also available in Spanish, here.

Guatemala is made up of 22 departments and 340 municipalities. There are 25 ethnic groups, of which 22 are of Mayan origin with the other three being Ladina, Xinca and Garífuna. For many reasons, a number of these communities have based their economies on the tourism sector either through the sale of artisan products or on cultural and community-based tourism. This is certainly true of San Juan La Laguna, Sololá, where locals are dedicated to the production and sale of woven textiles, coffee and cultural experiences for the tourists who normally visit the town daily.

The town of San Juan La Laguna is located in the southwest corner of Lake Atitlán and was founded in the year 1623 by residents of Santiago Atitlán. It is one of only four towns that continue to speak the T’zutujil language.

For many years, the residents of San Juan la Laguna have dedicated themselves to growing coffee and other agricultural stuffs as well as the production and sale of textile crafts. In recent years, the town has experienced considerable economic growth due in large part to the high influx of tourists who visit the town, frequent in the artisan markets and support local coffee sales.

Since March of this year, when the first case of coronavirus was detected in Guatemala, the government has taken different measures to reduce the contagion, including closing the international airport and borders. One of the results of these travel restrictions was the departure of almost all visitors who were in the country and the suspension of tourism for an indefinite period. In tourist towns, the effects began to be noticed soon after, reflected in the drop in sales of textile crafts and coffee. San Juan is no exception. After only a few days, COVID-19 began to be felt in the family economies of those who depend on the tourist trade for their survival.

Juana's textiles are the primary source of income for her family

Juana Mendoza is a woman weaver from San Juan, who has been affected by the current global pandemic. Juana learned from a very young age the art of making fabrics with her mother, and she runs a small textile craft shop with her children. Juana has been weaving for 32 years and is now teaching her daughter, Marly, the art of the backstrap loom. For the last six months Juana and her family have not sold a single product because their primary clients, the tourists who used to visit town every day, are gone. This has had a retroactive effect on Juana’s family economy, an effect that is reflected in the family diet. Traditionally, families in San Juan eat meat twice a week but since the pandemic began, many families, like Juana’s, have had to reduce their consumption of meat and other typical foods due to a lack of resources. Juana is still optimistic and continues to make her textile crafts but she is also aware that without tourists visiting and buying her products, her economic condition will continue to worsen. In the longer term, that will mean closing her small family textile craft shop and require her to look for other ways to generate income for her family.

Ixoq Ajkeem is a women’s association and artisanal textile shop which was founded 25 years ago and employs 40 female weavers. They work together to promote economic and intellectual capacity building for their membership and the community of San Juan. As a result of the pandemic, Ixoq Ajkeem is currently experiencing the most difficult period in the organization’s history. It’s members are unable to sell their naturally-dyed, hand-woven textiles, depriving their families of much of their livelihoods. Things have gotten so bad that the association recently had to take the radical step of closing their shop and suspending their operations. Members have had to look for alternative sources of income with many choosing to sell snacks in the street to support their families. What was once one of San Juan’s most popular corners, adorned in colourful clothes, is now dull and empty.

The women of Ixoq Ajkeem, a weaving cooperative in San Juan.

The Cooperativa Agrícola Integral La Voz was founded in 1979 and is dedicated to the production and export of 100% Organic coffee. With more than 600 members representing 167 San Juan families, almost every resident depends directly or indirectly on the cooperative. One could say that the cooperative is the figurative heart of the town, but the risks and restrictions associated with COVID-19 are slowly choking off the arteries to the community’s economy.

Local coffee shops that relied on foreign visitors, who were the main consumer base for local coffee, are closed representing a loss of about 20% of the cooperative’s annual sales.Local employees have also seen serious cuts to their monthly salaries, due to the closures.

Normally, La Voz exports 12 containers (there are about 21 tonnes in a container) of coffee a year but this year, in the context of the global pandemic, it has had problems selling its last batch. For next year’s harvest, which begins in November, there have already been two cancellations and the cooperative expects the decline in sales to continue. There is also a high probability that coffee prices will fall due to the reduced demand from coffee shops around the world, a surplus of coffee in international warehouses and too much production in other countries like Vietnam. As a consequence, it is likely that the members of the La Voz cooperative and the community as a whole will continue to suffer the effects of COVID-19 on the local coffee economy well into 2021.

In general, COVID-19 represents, not only a threat to the physical health of the residents of San Juan La Laguna, but to their social, cultural and economic life. It is affecting the ancient custom of weaving in families like Juana’s, which now runs an increasing risk of disappearing. It is affecting the social foundations of community associations like Ixoq Ajkeem, forcing their members to work independently in more precarious ways to survive. It is causing damage to traditional coffee farming, affecting present and future sales and impacting wages. Collectively, COVID-19 is threatening San Juan’s most vital organs. If somehow community tourism does not return in the next year, tourism-based economies in Guatemala could suffer a total collapse and the livelihoods, perhaps life itself, in towns like San Juan could be changed forever.

Members of La Voz Coffee Cooperative

Products made by the folks living in San Juan can be found and purchased on the OG Marketplace – check out the handmade jewellery, woven textiles and coffee grown by members of La Voz Coffee Cooperative!

For more updates from San Juan from Erwin at The Hub, you can follow them on Facebook.