In the Sierra de las Minas mountains of Guatemala, almost everyone sells both cardamom and coffee. Our in-country office is helping with the cardamom side of things—from warding off pests to connecting farmers to markets. Right now, most of the farmers don’t have transportation, so they have to walk—with the biggest bags of cardamom they can manage—as far as 8 kilometers, which might take about an hour and a half.
Farmers carry the bags on their backs using a mecapal, a sturdy piece of material that rests on the wearer’s forehead on one end and cradles the bottom of the sack on the other. Users have to have strong shoulder, back and—especially—neck muscles.
Everyone on the mountains, sometimes even kids, carry things that way. After what amounts to a lifetime of training, adults can carry some pretty hefty loads. One farmer I met, Elvira Pec Beb, told me she could carry 160 pounds on her head. Another farmer, Manuel Pop Caal, told me you could carry 175 pounds that way if you’re really good.
Fully aware the answer wouldn’t be flattering, I asked Pop how much he thought I could carry. After looking me up and down, he answered, with a good-natured smile: maybe 25 pounds.
Later that day, we saw a man using a mecapal to carry a large sack of corn uphill to his home. Our photographer, Dave Anderson, asked if he could give it a try. For a few minutes, he did an admirable job, although I could tell it was a struggle. And he also entertained the passers-by.
Since the opportunity had arisen, I had to give the mecapal a shot for research purposes. Immediately, I knew I had made a mistake. Every muscle near my spine, from head to waist, seized up, and I thought the 75-pound bag might force me into a backbend. I grabbed a hold of the mecapal with my arms, leaned forward as far as I could, took a few steps and decided that was more than enough research.
I think Pop was spot on—25 pounds is more my speed. Hats off to the farmers of the Sierra de las Minas, who are, in addition to the rest of their daily chores, carrying their body weight or more up and down the mountains. Although the physical labor is impressive, it can also cause health problems later in life. I’m hopeful that, as incomes rise during and after the life of the cardamom project, communities will be able to find other, less strenuous methods of transportation.
For more information on our work with cardamom farmers in the Guatemalan highlands, check out our feature article in the holiday edition of World Ark, which will be heading to mailboxes in October.