Progress: are we heading in the right direction?

January 30, 2023

Just last week, I made a trip to visit with one of my clients whose offices are based in Chimaltenango, a department located in Guatemala’s rural highlands with a demographic that is approximately 65% indigenous.

For me, Chimaltenango (the department capital that goes by the same name) has always marked the transition between the bubbles of progress and development that are Guatemala City and Antigua, and the rest of the country. A dirty, grungy portal that transports you from the fancy shopping malls and epically-instagramable cobblestones streets into the poverty-stricken reality that is much of rural Guatemala.

The Panamerican highway that runs through Chimlantenango

But on this visit – as my hosts were eager to show me – the portal itself had undergone its own transformation. Or perhaps transformation isn’t the right word. That implies there is a kind of homogeneity to the process – with all parts undergoing some sort of change. No, this was much more abrupt. Jarring even. Because now, perched alongside all of the mechanics shops, used car dealers and brothels (for which Chimaltenango is most famous) there is a shiny new shopping mall.

Paseo Andaria, Chimaltenango's new shopping plaza

I spent the night in a quaint little hotel. Once, it had been well-known as a peaceful nature retreat, tucked away within a deep green, fragrantly scented pine forest. Now, it reminded me of that dream where you look down and suddenly realize you’re naked, clutching onto whatever scraps of cover you can get your hands on. The forest is all but gone and the hotel hides amongst the few remaining trees, desperate to maintain the semblance of tranquil retreat while resolutely ignoring the new waste-to-energy incinerator and shopping mall that have moved in next door. I was scheduled to meet my clients for breakfast the following morning and since it was only about a mile away, I opted for an early morning walk. 

The initial part of my journey was much as I’d come to expect in rural Guatemala – farmers with hoes and machetes working in the fields and a few grey concrete block-and-laminar houses with the usual collection of mangy looking dogs announcing my arrival as I wandered down the dirt road. Then the fields abruptly gave way to a tall chain link fence and an overpowering smell, and I started to regret my decision for morning exercise as I realized I was now passing the incinerator. But it was fleeting. About 5 minutes on the dirt road gave way to bitumen. Shortly after a new footpath appeared out of nowhere and, turning away from two little children who were playing in the dirt on the side of the road, I realized I’d arrived. 

Chimaltenango's new incinerator power plant

As I turned into the car park, I was struck by the strangeness of it all and my mind cast back to the fiction books I would read as a kid about parallel universes and alternate realities. On my left side was the hustle and bustle of the town I knew – buses honking, ayudantes calling out the various destinations, and itinerant sellers hawking their wares. On my right, a quiet orderliness that felt otherworldly. Nice cars parked in neat rows. No loud noise. Nothing out of place. Then, I noticed another interesting detail. All of the signs (of which there were many, presumably to maintain all of this rigid regularity) were written in two languages. On top, the usual Spanish. Then underneath, albeit in a slightly smaller font, the equivalent in Quiché. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this in Guatemala, but something about the context in which I was experiencing it this time weighed heavily on me, leaving me with a deep sense of unease. 

When I was last visiting Australia, I was both heartened and deeply moved to see a number of television programs using indigenous Aboriginal place names (followed by the English names) whenever they discussed a certain town or region of Australia. Shortly after discovering this, I celebrated when a leading Australian newspaper decided to make history by printing a bilingual  Noongar-English front page to mark the start of National Reconciliation Week.

These may be small steps along the long road that we as Australians must travel towards reconciliation, but to me they still feel significant. And they are a long way from the Australia I grew up in where Aboriginal people were largely invisible, unless being discussed in the strange, one-sided colonizer narrative of Australian history that we were taught, or presented as some ongoing problem to be solved. These are the kinds of markers that give me hope that things are changing for the better.

So why was it, I wondered, that what could be argued was a similar mark of progress in Guatemala did not leave me with the same sense of hope?

Progress, a one way street?

Because I’m not convinced this change is a good one.

There is, one could argue, a case to be made for being seen. For having your existence acknowledged. Not so many years ago, it would’ve been almost impossible to imagine something like this because Guatemala’s indigenous population was so inconsequential to the much smaller minority that controlled the country. And now here I was, standing in a shopping mall that had so obviously been designed with this demographic in mind. 

So what was the source of my discomfort? It’s about being seen by whom, and for what purpose.

The lens through which one is seen is as important as the act itself. And this lens? This was the cold, calculating lens of capitalism. The bilingual signage? Not a sign of social or political progress, but a calculated marketing strategy. Where once we exploited you by commodifying your time into cheap labor, now we will exploit you by moulding you into a consumer. 

Two markers of progress that look very similar, but whose outcome and resultant impact feel very, very different.

One of the drivers for writing my recent book, The Weaver’s Way, was to lift up and celebrate indigenous Maya women and their role as biocultural stewards of Guatemala’s vibrant indigenous culture. In it, I talk about their weaving traditions and indigenous dress –  passed down in over 2,000 years of oral history through generations of women – and acknowledge that quiet but forceful resistance against the hegemonic forces first of colonization. 

But have they met their match, I wonder, in the forces of free market capitalism?

I think about my client – the Guatemalan chapter of the Indigenous Entrepreneur’s Network. They, too, have a vision of entrepreneurship, commerce and business for Guatemala’s indigenous people. But their work is underpinned by a set of Guiding Principles and the Mayan Popul Vuh (the ancient K’iche’ Book of Counsel). Is that enough to create a different path of progress? One that enables prosperity and dignity for both people and the Planet? Or is the current of capitalism as we know it in the 21st century just too strong?

To be honest, I don’t know. But I do hope. And I know, for now, where I’m putting my money.

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