Final Thoughts From Chiapas
By Katherine Zavala, Thousand Currents Regional Director, Latin America
Today I had my last site visit of my trip and for that I had to travel one-hour south to Comitan. Comitan is where the organization Educación por la Paz (Education for Peace) more often called EduPaz was founded ten years ago, focusing primarily on supporting Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas. Now EduPaz has evolved to an organization that focuses mainly on 2 areas: health and economic development though microcredit.
EduPaz’s health program is focused on mental health as they felt that the issue of addressing people’s traumas after having lived through a conflict was missing in many indigenous communities. Maria Elena, the director of EduPaz’s health program, studied Gestalt therapy when she was in Argentina years ago and now has shared her knowledge with other community members to provide a space for families who need more psychological support.
Jose, an indigenous man who comes from a community that speaks Tojolabal, manages the economic development program. He is the son of indigenous farmers who used to work on a large finca back in the day. He told me how when he used to be a young boy of 8 years old that he would talk Tojolabal with all the other children on the finca and that his father would discourage him from doing so and told him he should only speak Castilla (Spanish). So he did and he lost most of his Tojolabal until he was in his 20s and when he began interacting with Tojolabal-speakers outside of the finca and gained it all back. Now, as director of the microcredit project in EduPaz, he speaks Tojoloba all the time.
EduPaz has a more personalized way in managing its microcredit program than many other non-profit organizations. Before a group of community members can receive microcredit, EduPaz will have a dialog with them 3 times to make sure everyone understands the conditions and why these conditions exist. All members of the group have to become responsible for the group members to pay back their loans. A board of directors is selected and then Jose, with the support of Javier, EduPaz’s executive director, will check one by one all the microcredit proposals and budgets to ensure that the proposed income-generating project will be guaranteed a positive result.
EduPaz will also assist the groups by providing financial administration training to each group. But they do not organize workshops and then ask people to come. Instead, they go to each of the groups they work with, one by one, and give each group the necessary training to build everyone’s capacity to administer their loans.
Before, EduPaz used to offer many workshops such as training in agroecology and seminars on NAFTA and the World Bank but they discovered that not many would attend and people were just not interested. They decided to stop offering the workshops and focus on giving more personal attention to each group.
EduPaz’s office includes a collective store on the first floor where group members involved in the microcredit program can sell their products. The store is focused on offering products that are both organically made and qualify as fair trade. The main product they sell is organic coffee as EduPaz has given a microcredit to organic coffee collectives.
EduPaz has only three staff members and all of them are constantly traveling, mostly to the communities in the Zona Selva and Fronteriza, that border with Guatemala. In spite of the small staff they seem to be covering lots of neglected areas and the advantage of having a Tojolabal native on staff makes a lot of difference.