Dos Caras de la Moneda

Don Villa with the first tree he planted on his farm, a eucalyptus in 1976
Don Villa with the first tree he planted on his farm, a eucalyptus in 1976

To be a jefe, to be a don, you have to run something. Sometimes it’s a store, sometimes it’s a plant, or sometimes its a field. To really run stuff, to be the end of the line ofdon jefes and deferment, you have to own what you run. (think about the difference between how we consider a store manager- “he tells us what to do but its not like he owns the place-” and a store owner who also manages the place; his/her verdict has an entirely different level of finality).

If you’re a jefe who owns an operation that takes place indoors, you have to own the ground the buildings rest on. A don or a jefe has to own land. The person with the land things grow on or the land things are processed on is the person in a position of power and decision making control. Landowning is almost as sexy as barismo.

But just like barismo is no small task, the allure of landowning is not all flash. As  many-acre cafetal and beneficio owning Don Chicho’s wife said, “you don’t make any money with this-” she pointed her index finger at various imaginary peones- “with just telling people  to do this or that.  it’s a lot of hard work. Very hard work. And we’ve had to make a whole lot of sacrifices to do that work. People think we’re lucky and don’t have to work because we have land. But we’ve had to make everything we have.”

The thing about owning land is that you have to keep owning it. You have to not drink or gamble it away. You have to not let people steal your crops or burn your barn. You have to deal with floods and droughts and plant plagues and wild animals. Even if you never plant or raise a thing you have to build fences and walk the perimeter to make sure people aren’t chopping down your trees, dumping trash in your rivers, burning your undergrowth, or building their own houses. And before all that you have to buy it in the first place.

I listen to employees grumble about how easy the owners have it, sitting in the shade with all their plata. I listen to landowners grumble about their employees, always arriving late and taking a long lunch.

The landowners have forgotten how much it just plain sucks to do the same physically draining task for hours on end in often disagreeable weather. The employees have never had the opportunity to understand that telling them to prune 5 hectares is neither the beginning or end of what the landowner does in the shade. They’re counting their playa to make sure they have enough to pay all those employees; they’re looking at calendars and maps to figure out just which 5 hectares need to be pruned, and when that needs to happen. They’re the ones who stay up at night when it doesn’t rain and risk their own plata to invest in new saws (which is why they yelled at the employees when they left them out the day it finally rained!) Their work is not repetitive or physically draining, but it also doesn’t stay contained within a fixed schedule. Meetings push into dinners, a fire at the factory means even more sleepless nights and missing your sisters birthday.

And because the landowners are so busy thinking about so many other things, they forget that when it’s raining out harvesting coffee is pretty miserable and when it’s sunny chappearing is just as bad. They forget how much physical comfort their employees have to suck up just to do their jobs.

There are times when the balance is skewed and one side is in fact doing more work than the other. The jefe is within reason when he docks pay from employees with adequate tools, ample time, and goegeous weather haphazardly prune half the trees and will cost him years of future harvest. And the employees are within reason when they demand pay and a half to harvest the hard to reach trees in the second week of near-freezing weather.

There are some things we all have to bear- be it compensating for others incompetence or stomaching minor discomfort- because it’s just part of the job. But there’s a threshold of respect we have to maintain how much we can ask and expect of other people, because what they’re doing isn’t east either.

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