Tz'utujil - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Highland Mayan economics has long been based on the swidden cultivation of maize. In the Tz'utujil area, other traditional crops include avocados, beans, chickpeas, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and chilies. Except in certain small garden plots ( tablones ) situated along the immediate lakeshore, the Tz'utujil utilize little irrigation. Depending on the community, garden-plot irrigation ranges from a primitive process in which hand-carried containers of water are dumped directly on the crops (Santiago) to the use of giant hoses and pumps submerged in the lake (San Pedro). Reflective of underlying social changes, these garden plots are increasingly being used to grow nontraditional cash crops. Similarly, many Tz'utujil have converted their maize fields (milpas) to the production of coffee destined for distant markets. Moreover, whereas until the mid-twentieth century maize fields were planted for three to ten years, depending on the elevation, and then left fallow for four to twenty years, population pressure has increasingly made fallow time an unaffordable luxury. Instead, local farmers have become dependent on costly chemical fertilization. Although that fertilization raises crop yields threefold (albeit at a cost to soil quality), because of population growth and loss of land to other crops, the Tz'utujil are now net importers of maize. Even more significant is that increasing landlessness has fueled the move away from farming altogether, fewer than half of the Tz'utujil still engage in agriculture as their primary occupation, many having turned to other traditional activities such as fishing or mercantilism. Others, however, have made the transition to nontraditional occupations such as teaching (particularly in San Pedro) or to tourism-related jobs (San Pedro and Santiago).

Industrial Arts. Concerning their textile-producing capacity, Aldous Huxley once referred to Santiago and San Pedro as being the "Manchester and Bradford" of the highlands. Although the Tz'utujil have traditionally woven fabrics for domestic use, increasingly their skills are being tapped for international fashion markets. Similarly, many Tz'utujil supplement their income by braiding "friendship bracelets" destined for boutiques in Europe and the United States. Other significant industrial arts include canoe making, rope making, and mat making.

Trade. The Tz'utujil, particularly those from Santiago, have long been renowned as traders. Older men from that town still recall the days when they would haul wares on their backs to distant markets in Antigua and Mazatenango. Increasingly, the economies of virtually all Tz'utujil communities are reliant on trade. Although no doubt reflecting the loss of agricultural viability, the Tz'utujil evolution toward mercantilism stems as well from infrastructural advances, including improved roads, regularly scheduled boat and bus transportation, and improved electronic communication. Most contemporary Tz'utujil merchants conduct virtually all of their trade outside of their respective communities. In other words, such comerciantes de fuera buy and sell commodities in distant communities. Importantly, despite the increasing reliance on such mercantilism, the available data on its economic viability are mixed.

Division of Labor. Many daily tasks in Tz'utujil life reveal a sexual division of labor. Typical female tasks include weaving on a backstrap loom, cooking, going to market, and caring for children. In contrast, male tasks include weaving on a treadle loom, farming, fishing, and cutting firewood. Whereas mercantilism outside of the community used to be an exclusively male occupation, some leading Tz'utujil merchants (particularly those dealing in textiles) are now female. There is also a division of labor based on community, with certain towns specializing in specific trades (e.g., rope making in San Juan).

Land Tenure. Since 1877, when it became legal in Guatemala to assign title to and sell communal land, most Tz'utujil land has been privatized. Since that time, huge amounts of land have been transferred to non-Tz'utujil owners, primarily in the form of coffee plantations ( fincas ) and increasingly as sites for the luxury weekend homes that line the shore between Santiago and San Lucas. While the sale of shoreline property has enriched those Tz'utujil fortunate enough to own such land, many more residents have been negatively impacted by the resulting explosive escalation of land prices.

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