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Home > The Antiochian > Winter 2012 > Features > Unearthing a Small Town's Future
 Winter 2012

These days, lessons in sustainability may
be nothing new. But what if the lessons
come from an unexpected invitation to visit an impoverished village in southwestern Guatemala?


My invitation came from Earl de Berge ’64 and Suzanne (Sonderegger ’65) de Berge. They run a non-profit/non-governmental organization (NGO) in Antigua, Guatemala, to help the indigenous and impoverished people of a tiny town called Chocolá move beyond subsistence and into sustainability.

I first learned about their organization, Seeds for the Future/Semillas para el Futuro, about this time last year, when I received an email from a mutual acquaintance who had forwarded the couple’s call for donations.

I learned from that email that Seeds had accomplished several things in two years’ time. They’ve hired an agronomist to act as program manager; created a partnership with the Riecken Foundation (co-founded by another Antiochian, Susan Riecken ’69) to develop library programs, including a reading one in which 75 children and families were involved; created ongoing leadership and democracy training program for emerging community leaders; and completed Phase 1 of a master plan to preserve Maya ruins and nineteenth-century German coffee production buildings.

Seeds has also helped thirty-five households to register for the Family Gardens program to promote food security and better nutrition. Additionally, they’ve planted up to 10,000 native trees for the Cacao Project that includes a growing cluster of coffee farmers interested in converting to crops, such as cacao, that generate better incomes.

Photo of Cabbage, lettuce, chile peppers and other vegetables and herbs grow in a community garden in Chocolá, Guatemala.

Cabbage, lettuce, chile peppers and other vegetables and herbs grow in a community garden in Chocolá, Guatemala.

Since cacao is the seed from which we get chocolate, how could I not be intrigued? I contacted Suzanne to find out more about the program.

“It’s fascinating, frustrating, challenging, maddening and rewarding,” she told me after an hour on Skype. “Why don’t you come out and see for yourself?”

The de Berge’s work in Chocolá, I learned, began some twenty-five years ago, during those moments when Suzanne and Earl first laid eyes on Guatemala and fell in love with the country and its people.

It was then that first seed was planted—the one that would bring them back year after year like a perennial. Thoughts of the country would splash through their minds like water on a plant, perking them up, feeding their every desire to return.Then something happened. They dug deeper. Literally.

In 2004 and 2005, Earl and Suzanne signed on with Earthwatch, an NGO that works on scientific projects in developing countries to “rub shoulders with archeologists.” They spent several weeks at a time on archeological digs in and around a village that sounds like it was named after the plant cultivated here thousands of years ago: Theobroma cacao. Cacao, for short.

Chocolá, it turns out, sits atop the ruins of an ancient Maya city-state and was likely a major cultivation site and trading center of the cacao tree. Earl and Suzanne, along with local volunteers, helped excavate ruins, pottery shards, and evidence that cacao farming did exist here once before, underneath land now named after the K’iché (a Maya language) word for welcome: chokla. “Chocolá” is how it was translated into the language of the Spanish colonizers.

Photo of Earl de Berge, Armando Astorga, Suzanne de Berge, Clelia Socorro Ixquitap Garcia.

Clockwise from bottom left: Earl de Berge, Armando Astorga, Suzanne de Berge, Clelia Socorro Ixquitap Garcia.

These discoveries are what brought Earl and Suzanne back: a potential for tourism income for the locals from the ruins and historic buildings in town; the possibility that the local farmers could cultivate authentic Maya cacao rather than coffee that doesn’t sell; and the human potential.

The people wanted more for themselves. More symbolic seeds were planted, and the couple sprouted roots as well, buying a home in Antigua.

Married now for more than forty-five years and working together at their market research firm in Phoenix for just about as long, the couple who would love to retire but who is far too emotionally vested in Seeds, invited me to visit and get a firsthand look at their nonprofit efforts—all of the work “premised on building community and respecting the Guatemalan people,” says one of their newest board members Nola D. Force of Santa Barbara, California.Nola got the grand tour last December. It’s January when I arrive for mine.

We bump, wind and dip the entire three hours on the mostly two-lane road to get there, passing over wobbly bridges with rocky rivers below, staring at acre upon acre of yellow sugar cane, green rubber trees and coffee fields on either side of us almost the entire way. Comfortable behind the wheel of his SUV, Earl whizzes past oversized trucks bursting with cut sugar cane stalks stuffed in beds that jut out on both sides.We see the smoke and get the occasional whiff from the refineries or the sweet scent from burning fields. Earl and Suzanne think it stinks. I think it smells like vanilla.

On the way, they describe the programs they’re helping to create, develop and grow: crop diversification, family gardens, the library.

When we finally pull into a dusty parking lot in the center of this tropical village, palm trees swaying in the wind as if on cue, the sun is shining brightly outside. It’s the dry season, and the air is only mildly humid. With us is Agop Kayayan, a former Brazil-based UNICEF director, now fundraising consultant, from Guatemala City. He tells me, “One sign of an NGO’s success is when the town gives back.” Here, there is evidence of that.Seeds has gotten support from the local farming cooperative, which has donated land for a community garden and space in one of the town’s Victorian-era buildings to house the library, which is where our tour begins.

As Earl and Suzanne head into a meeting with the farmers to update them on the Cacao program, I’m left in the room they call the town library to chat with the rest of the team. Only, they speak Spanish, and I don’t…much. So I mostly listen and observe. My eyes wander over to the walls where I start to scan the books on the shelves…children’s books, fairy tales, books about parenting—too many to fit neatly, all of them donated. The shelving looks like something you’d hastily pick up at Home Depot to put in your storage shed. And nothing’s computerized. The librarian, Clelia Garcia, had to learn the antiquated Dewey Decimal System in order to organize it. She’s taped a hand-made, hand-written poster on the wall to explain it, color-coded for those who can’t yet read.

I watch Clelia get up from our table and grab a few books off the shelves—all the same, sex education books translated into Spanish by an American publisher.She quietly hands them to the two young assistants who will go with us on the tours.They’ve been flirting with her at the table.

“Smart move,” Agop, the portly Lebanese leans in to me and whispers about Clelia’s obvious message to the handsome young men.

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand that language. Chocolá seems like a pretty normal place to me, I think to myself.

Normal. But not sustainable, and that’s why the de Berges are here.

Lucio Zapón stands up and demonstrates how the large cacao bean grows on the tree,

Lucio Zapón
stands up
and demonstrates
how the large
cacao bean
grows on the tree,
right off the trunk.

When I notice the conversation’s getting animated while we’re all flipping through the pages of the sex ed books, I ask the English-speaking Agop to translate for me. Before long, I’m laughing at their jokes, and we’re all talking about cacao.The seedpod, that is. Someone’s brought one in and set it on the table in front of us. It’s as large as two softballs. They tell me it contains as many as forty individual cacao seeds.

I can’t help but be drawn to their easy manner, big smiles, welcoming spirit. And then one of the young men, Lucio Zapón, stands up and demonstrates how the large cacao bean grows on the tree, right off the trunk.

I say, “Do it again. I want to take a picture.”

Everyone laughs, but he stares right at me, looks as serious as if I’ve asked him a pop quiz question, holds his left arm up in front of his body, his right hand brings the yellow seedpod with its stem the size of man’s thumb to the skin on his inner left arm, and he nods his head.

His friends call out: “Actor! Actor!”

The next thing I know, the other meeting’s over, everyone’s piling out of the library, and we’re all ushered over to the Community Garden in front of the other German buildings, so dilapidated you can tell they’ve been abandoned for many years. In one, if you’re not careful where you walk, I’m told, the floorboards will slip right out from under you. I make a mental note to stay out of that one.

I’m also told the corrugated metal roofs on top of the homes in town reverberate like cannon fire when it rains. So I’m glad it’s not rainy season, I think, as I consider who these people are and where they’ve come from, and how lucky they are to have Seeds and other NGOs helping them transform their natural resources into an effective livelihood.

From the days of Spanish Colonial rule to the turn of the twentieth century when the Germans came here to start their coffee farms (known as fincas here), to the brutal Civil War that killed thousands of indigenous men, the people who live here have been disenfranchised, used as slave labor up until a peace treaty was signed in 1996.

Living in the Pacific piedmont, a valley sandwiched between volcanic mountains and coastal plains, the majority of the 10,000 residents are descendents of the indigenous K’iché people. They speak both K’iché and Spanish, the language of their neighboring ladinos (Maya-Spanish mix).

“We’re talking about generations of people commanded to ‘do what you’re told,’” Suzanne says. “So even though they are very entrepreneurial and very hardworking, they are not problem-solvers.”

“They haven’t learned how to be, not enough practice,” Earl says.

“It was hard for us to understand that when we first arrived,” Suzanne says.

Poverty runs so rampant it’s not uncommon for families to subsist on incomes that would amount to just a few U.S. dollars a day.

Josue de León

Josue de León

But positive change is taking place.

Suzanne and Earl launched Seeds in 2006. They spent the first two years getting to know the people, spending time with them, helping them see what they had and how it could be used, and creating the climate of trust and confidence so they could work together to assess what was needed to accomplish goals the community decided on alone.

“Our ultimate goal is to teach them how to do it all for themselves. We don’t want to be here forever,” Suzanne says.“But we thought we’d be out of here by the end of 2012, the end of the Maya long calendar. We were overly enthusiastic and romantic about it. We were unrealistic.”

“It’s a long-term effort,” Earl agrees.

The work has not been easy.

The drive from Antigua to Chocolá takes three hours, and that’s during the dry season. If it rains, the roads flood, bridges collapse, and accidents happen, leaving the couple stranded for hours. Suzanne and Earl have yet to reach some of the elderly farmers who want to continue doing things the way they have always done them. And the residents of Chocolá do not all get along. In a community where the effects of a brutal past still linger and where ladrones (thieves) will use their machetes to snatch other people’s property, including crops that feed a family, trust is not a part of the landscape.

Subsisting in a country where education isn’t valued, where dropping out starts in first grade, and the requirement to attend school ends in sixth, the educational component needed to implement programs also has been difficult at times. For instance, women traditionally do not farm in the Maya culture. Yet, their smaller hands and gentle touch is better suited than the men’s larger size to handle the delicate grafting necessary to grow the cacao. But not all of the men can accept such a change.

“They’re not used to working together,” Earl says. In Chocolá, men have their place, and women have theirs, he explains. Seeds has shown them they can work together for the benefit of all, and include the children as well. The Family Gardens program is proof of that. Men, women and children participate, whoever is willing to shell out the weekly dues and attend the educational classes or meetings where they learn all aspects of gardening, from seed to sale.

Community garden rows Chocola, Guatemala

With thirty-five community members participating (the youngest is thirteen), together they’ve learned how to grow vegetables they’ve never grown here before, including cabbage, broccoli, and chile peppers for both home and commercial purposes. Not only have they learned how to germinate the seeds and build canopies to protect the vegetables from wind or rain, but they also learn leadership skills—a must in each of the Seeds programs. Members keep a schedule to ensure all the work is complete, and whatever is sold provides extra money for their families. The library now even offers a cookbook that illustrates what to cook with all of the new produce.Most recently, bank funding and support from a local university helped build a green house. Nearly complete, it will provide even greater opportunity and help make Seeds a model program for other rural communities to follow.

Suzanne says she wants to see several things continue to occur, including integration between the programs so they work off of each other, and that they can continue to provide the necessary technical training. One mistake she wants to avoid deals with follow up. They need to provide accompaniment. While they knew early on they had to provide training, Earl and Suzanne failed on follow-through. Some of the early family gardens failed because community members didn’t know what to do if a plant died.

“They’d get discouraged and give up,” Suzanne says. Now, there are resources and people available to answer any follow-up questions and concerns.

“Accompaniment fosters the self-confidence, builds the decision-making and problem-solving skills, and helps participants overcome adversity without becoming discouraged,” she says. With that, they’ll be able to teach each other what they’ve learned, she reasons, which will lead to the ultimate goal: a sustainable community.

If you’d like to help, or would like to learn more, visit

Suzanne will receive the Arthur Morgan Award during Reunion 2012.