Tales from La Angostura, Guatemala, A Project in the Making – Chapter 2: From Nothin’ to Buyin’
If you read my last article (Inspiration and First Moves), you might know already that when I got motivated to do something with permaculture my financial situation wasn’t the best. To be precise, it was rather precarious. Nevertheless, as a dreamer that tries to see not the evidence that would discourage others, I kept on going, being sure that when the right piece of land appeared, the way to buy it would appear as well.
No money, no partner, no credit
I had no money, no partner, no credit and a negotiation half-way through with the Boca de la Angostura ranch in the Guatemalan Caribbean. It was, to be sure, the materialized expression of my dream. In a few words: The perfect spot. Maybe it was not quite perfect, since there were a few issues to resolve, but the land had everything I needed to start and execute my demonstration site using Bill Mollison’s books as a guide. Check out the aerial picture.
Happily, I was given possession of the land by the seller’s representative, so there were a few things I could do with it… but not too many.
I tried to delay the day when I would have to pay (or say that I didn’t have the money to), so I stalled everything waiting for a solution (I don’t know exactly where that solution would come from). Of course, I wasn’t swinging on a hammock with a beer on one hand and a good book on the other. I was trying every day to find a solution to my ordeal.
Foreign aid, a partner, government support — anything!
I had my eyes wide open, trying to find answers almost under the stones in the road.
A lead came to me through a friend. He told me that the German Embassy was giving off grants to aid in rural development. I contacted them. The official gave me an interview and I came away with a lot of papers to complete and a project to design.
The first thing I noticed was that the grant couldn’t be used to buy land, so applying for that part of the project was out of the question. On top of that, it had a limit of $25,000, so I could only present a small part of the whole idea. So I thought: biogas. I prepared a detailed project on biogas and presented it to the German official.
Both communities in the margins of the property — Nuevo San Marcos and Buenavista de Miramar, where around 700 people live — were going to be benefited by the project, since these people do not have much of a chance to make a living.
We worked hard to comply with all requirements, but at last, after four weeks of thrill and wait, the official sent me an E mail saying that my project was not approved.
So, I took this same project and knocked on the doors of fellow Rotarians (I was a member of the local Rotary Club), but none of them were interested either.
I read in the newspaper that there was a contest for developing countries in which locals could apply for a grant of $200,000 for projects in renewable energies. I took all my info and got the requirements to enter. I had to write another project with lots of details and information. I presented it, but sadly, after their evaluation, they also told me that my project was not the chosen one.
In the meantime, I asked for an interview with the chief officer of the national institute for tourism (INGUAT), in order to explain my project, the benefits it offered for the country in the long run because of permaculture. He granted me the interview, talked for a while and he was pleased with the project. He said that he could give me a hand, and told me he was going to do some things, consult with other professionals and then give me another interview to start moving.
As is too common in Guatemala, he was out of office before he could do anything. I was back to square one.
I thought that maybe the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Guatemala might be interested in a permaculture project since it generates its own energy, is sustainable, etc. So I made an appointment with the engineer in charge of renewable energies and policy making. We had a nice meeting, he was delighted with the idea but at the end of the interview he told me that the ministry had no money and that he didn’t know where to get any funding for the project.
Back to thinking. Searching again. Telling my story to everybody… trying to get somebody interested in the project and hoping to hear: "Fantastic, this is the kind of project I have always been looking for!!". But no….
I remembered that an uncle of mine works for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. He was, as always, so nice to me, but his line of work was a little too unrelated, so he couldn’t give me a direct hand — but he referred me to another area in the ministry, where a very polite engineer listened to me.
I was so happy when he told me that he was working with a special program from the countries of the first world that were donating funds to aid projects aimed for sustainable development, preferably in the rural areas. There was a quota of projects to be authorized per country, and he told me that there was great chance that we could get support for not just one, but a few of my ideas. So, I separated out my big project and made four small ones: biogas, solar food drying, biochar stoves and wind turbines. The officer told me that we had great chance to earn the grant. They had their meeting in Costa Rica, and while they were there, I was here chewing my nails. A day later he sent me an e-mail telling me that none of my projects were accepted, but that I could apply again in six months, when perhaps I could land something.
By this time, the seller of the property was already edgy. I had to go on beating around the bush and looking for a fast solution.
I thought about projects. The land is large, and there are many people in need of work in the area. I have some wood on the lot — maybe I could find something to do to raise the money before they kick me off.
Selling wood. I thought that if I sold some of the wood the lot has I could raise enough money to pay, since there are precious and exotic trees there. The first thing I needed was a permit, but the land wasn’t mine yet, therefore, I couldn’t ask for any permit.
Selling land. Speaking with my neighbors, some of them expressed the will to buy some land from me, and they could start to pay before getting their papers. I thought that maybe, if I sell a little of the land (smaller lots, higher price per square meter), I could come up with at least a part of the money and the rest could be settled through a mortgage.
Sadly, my neighbors were not able to get credit. They were ‘sub-prime’, bankers might say. If I was to sell anything to them, it was at my risk. There was a great chance that they would not pay, and if I didn’t deliver the documents in due time and hand over the land, I could be in great trouble. Therefore, selling land was not possible either.
Planting something. I spoke with the person in charge of non-traditional exports for Guatemala. When I told him about the project and the land, he was pleased to hear about it. He told me that I had a jewel in my hands, and that surely there were several ways to do something and make it real. There were a lot of fine planting projects I evaluated following his advice. The first was rambutan. In the states there is a great market for it. Being rare and expensive trees, and the need for fertilizers and little information about it made me think that maybe it was not the way.
Mangoes! I started to evaluate this project as well, but I discovered that in the area where the land is located there is a certain fly that destroys all mangoes. So, no mango.
Cacao. I came in contact with a company that buys premium cacao from Guatemala. A Danish company. They pay 25% over market price for high quality Guatemalan cacao, but, they wanted a 15-year exclusive contract and I had to buy the plants from them (at high prices). Later, I learnt that Godiva chocolate buys sometimes for five times market price for good quality cacao. As I have investigated, the quality of the cacao produced in Guatemala is one of the best in the world. It is super aromatic.
Maybe embarking on a 15-year contact was not the best way.
Timber plantation. I got information regarding all exotic trees that grow in the area and the actual price for their woods. It seemed a good idea, but I had to wait 25 years to collect… and my payment was going to be due in a few months (if I could delay it).
Small hotel. A nice friend of mine offered to participate in a small hotel project in the land. When I made all calculations for having a few rooms with amenities and restaurant, he got scared and took off.
Bringing tourists and developing the archaeological area. An archaeologist came with me to the land, and he said that there was a great potential on it, especially because the port where cruise ships make dock is only 40 minutes away by small boat. I spoke with tour operators and they were delighted with the idea. I just had to come up with $150,000 to uncover the Mayan ball court and a few small paths. So this project was also out of the question for the moment.
All these ideas were running around, and after the meetings I would get enthusiastic and go excitedly to my wife to describe all the possibilities to her — but I understand why she is tired of hearing great ideas and about fantastic meetings, because none of it has turned into reality.
The day came
For a few weeks, I had been planning a trip to the land in order to check on other ideas for how to raise the money. The day before the trip, the person in charge of the negotiation for my side called me and told me that they wanted to speak with me the next day. I told him that it was impossible since I had a trip already planned and that we could meet on Monday. He said it was impossible and that it was urgent that we met.
I asked why such a rush, and after a few evasive answers, he told me that they weren’t willing to sell the land to me anymore. I was devastated, but tried to calm down. I agreed to the meeting, and cancelled my trip.
The next day, I arrived at the meeting with my lawyer and a list of the investments I had already made.
They told me that the price we agreed on was too low, and that they weren’t willing to sell any more. I took from that that they had visited the land and saw all improvements I had made to it and thought that the price we agreed on was not enough after seeing how beautiful the land was.
I said that I was willing to pay whatever we had agreed on but if they backed out of the deal, I was going to sue them for damages.
When they evaluated their situation and my evidence, they decided to accept the negotiation, and so I had no more time. I had to come up with the money, or lose everything.
I called a friend that is the CEO of the biggest local bank and asked him if they could lend me the money to buy the land. He told me that they could, but I had to find someone that could serve a guarantor.
Hence, I made a few calls and got someone willing to sign. Having in mind that I tend to embark on big endeavors, my guarantor was not so happy, but finally signed.
The same day I received the funds went to pay with a certified check. Things went smoothly and the land is happily in my name now.
I added another debt to my account and have 45 months to pay off.
Now the owner, what then?
So, the land was bought and it was my property. The next thing I had to do was to do something with it! I went back to my old projects, but none seemed to be possible at the time. So I carried through with the ever-present image in my mind of creating a beautiful permaculture research site.
I had to employ a caretaker and very slowly we are making things better. We started to build a simple wooden house. Again, I found myself looking for what to do then.
It came to my mind the idea to bring WWOOFers to the site to speed things up. I started searching again for permaculture news and found the PRI’s website and forum and the new Worldwide Permaculture Network, and really, my mind was blown away. I was so happy to see that things had changed a lot since two years ago when I stopped investigating…. Things were great.
So I got my subscription to the site, I uploaded information about the project and wrote sharing a few things regarding the site and what it could offer.
I learnt that now there are certified Permaculture Design Courses, endorsed by the PRI and that one can become a teacher!! Also I found out that my project can become a project endorsed by the PRI. So, it was a one-stop shopping experience. On top of that I get to write about my experiences and talk about my passion… it is fantastic!
There are a few projects we have been working on at the site, and I will share them with you in subsequent articles, so you can get inspired to try your own or you can laugh a little remembering your own.