Erwin Paul Dieseldorff by Bob Makransky, email@example.com
Erwin Paul Dieseldorff was something of a renaissance man for the Alta Verapaz. Born in Hamburg on June 10, 1868, he emigrated to Guatemala at the age of twenty to join his uncle and cousin, who had established themselves as merchants and coffee planters some years before.
Shortly after his arrival he volunteered to accompany a German cartographer who was mapping out the Verapaz, and while traipsing around its mountains and valleys he acquired an intimate knowledge of the lay of the land. The two Germans also explored caves and excavated Mayan burial sites, which sparked in Dieseldorff a lifelong interest in archaeology and ethnology.
Seeking to learn the coffee business, he apprenticed himself to a German coffee finca near Retalhuleu. But he lasted only a few months; he was itching to start on his own and he returned to CobĂˇn to purchase his own finca. For the next three years he lived on the finca in more or less the same fashion as his Kâ€™ekchi workers â€“ in a thatched hut, subsisting on corn and beans. He quickly became fluent in the Kâ€™ekchi language and in understanding the Kâ€™ekchi worldview. He began to make notes on the folklore, customs and language of the Kâ€™ekchis and on their use of medicinal plants.
His hard work and dedication paid off and he slowly expanded, buying other coffee fincas, acquiring the machinery to process his product, breeding the draft animals necessary to transport it, and planting food crops needed to feed his workers. By the 1920â€™s he was the largest landowner and coffee producer in Alta Verapaz and he had achieved complete vertical integration of every phase of coffee production and marketing. In addition to his own production, he bought and marketed the coffee of other growers who did not have the facilities to process their own coffee, and in this way he became the dominant figure in the coffee industry of Alta Verapaz.
With his cousin W.A. Dieseldorff he became the prime mover in the construction of the Ferrocarril Verapaz railroad, which ran from Tucuru to Panzos on the Polochic River, and also of the cart road from Coban to Tucuru. Both of these projects were heroic undertakings â€“ hewn through malarial swamps and blasted out of sheer mountainsides, where each seasonâ€™s work was often wiped out by the next seasonâ€™s rains.
Albeit a shrewd businessman, Dieseldorff was regarded as being scrupulously honest and incorruptible. While quick to spot new opportunities or to press an advantage, his chief reliance was on the high quality of his product. The climate of Alta Verapaz is ideally suited to the production of gourmet coffee, and Dieseldorff took great pains (as his descendants continue to do to this day) to produce one of the finest coffees in Guatemala. His coffee was in constant high demand even when the price of grade coffee was low, and Dieseldorff was thus able to insulate himself to some extent against the vagaries of this volatile market.
In addition to his business ventures (which came to include the largest department store in CobĂˇn), Dieseldorff was equally devoted to his intellectual pursuits. His excavations on his own and neighboring fincas yielded a number of polychrome vessels whose hieroglyphics he studied for many years, comparing them to features found in Mayan codices. As his interest in Mayan studies grew, he collected everything he could find that had been published on the subject of Mayan art, culture, and religion, and he journeyed to the major Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemala and Honduras to inspect them first hand. He published numerous papers on archaeology in scholarly journals, culminating in his three-volume Kunst und Religion de MayavĂ¶lker (Berlin 1926). In the later 20â€™s and 30â€™s he began analyzing the Mayan and Aztecan calendar systems, working out his own calculations and unorthodox theories, which he published in archaeological journals in Germany, Guatemala, and the United States. He came to be a respected researcher in Mayanist circles and his own extensive collection of Mayan artifacts now resides in the Museo Archaeologico Nacional in Guatemala City.
Dieseldorffâ€™s interest in medicinal plants began when he was still living in a thatched hut on his first finca. There were no doctors nearby, so to treat his own illnesses and those of his workers he began studying standard medical textbooks and also seeking out local Mayan curers for their information and advice. He experimented with medicinal plants on himself and soon became a much sought-after healer. He was particularly interested in the properties of the mesbe plant (escobilla) which he found relieved the symptoms of bronchitis, from which he had suffered for many years.
He discovered a way of extracting the active principle of this herb and invented an inhalant for administering it. Experimenting with willing patients, he found that mesbe alleviated the symptoms of tuberculosis. On a trip to Germany he enlisted the support of medical specialists who tested the drug and reported that it was indeed very effective against many of the common forms of tuberculosis. Using his own funds, Dieseldorff established the Mesbe Institute in Berlin in 1912 to research and publicize the new drug. However during World War I his doctors were called to fight and the Institute came to an end. In spite of a pause during the World War, Dieseldorffâ€™s work â€“ particularly his treatise on Las Plantas Medicinales del Departamento de Alta Verapaz (1940) â€“ made him an early pioneer in what is today the science of ethnobotany. The invention of antibiotic drugs to fight tuberculosis came into vogue after World War I; however, the emergence of strains of tuberculosis resistant to all antibiotics in recent years has made mesbe a solution whose time â€“ in the early 21st century â€“ may finally have come.
Dieseldorff was caught in Germany when World War I broke out and was unable to return to Guatemala until 1919. On his return he found his business in disarray. The Guatemalan government had expropriated his fincas and his subordinates, in his absence, had already begun to divide his assets amongst themselves. He quickly seized command, discharged his disloyal employees, and after much wrangling resumed ownership of his fincas. But he had learned a valuable lesson. As the storm clouds of World War II began to gather, he shifted his business contacts little-by-little from Hamburg to New York and he cultivated the staff of the American embassy.
When Hitler came to power Dieseldorff â€“ unlike most of the Germans in Guatemala â€“ distanced himself from the German government and became an outspoken opponent of the regime among the Verapaz Germans, even announcing that he had Jewish blood (his great-grandfather had been Jewish). This took considerable courage because the CobĂˇn Germans had an active Nazi party and proudly flew the swastika flag above the German club in CobĂˇn.
Dieseldorff was vindicated when the war came, since he and his son were the only German finqueros who were not expelled and had property expropriated by the government. This was due not only to his friends in the American embassy, but also to the protests of the Guatemalan finqueros, who stated forcefully to their government that Dieseldorff was the linchpin of the coffee business in Alta Verapaz, and to expel him would throw the entire industry into chaos.
In the late 1930â€™s Dieseldorffâ€™s health declined markedly. He had already turned his coffee business over to his son Willi and in 1940 he traveled to the U.S. in great pain to obtain medical treatment. Suffering from hypertrophic arthritis of the spine with no hope of cure, and faced with the certainty of being crippled and bedridden for the rest of his life, he committed suicide in New York City on November 3, 1940. His ashes were returned to Guatemala and interred on his favorite spot â€“ the top of a steep hill above finca Chajcar in San Pedro Carcha. Dieseldorff said, â€śMoney is only worthwhile when it is used to realize a dream.â€ť
45-minute coffee tours of Erwin Paul Dieseldorffâ€™s Finca Santa Margarita in downtown CobĂˇn with Spanish / English guides are available Monday thru Friday from 8 am to 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm to 5 pm; Saturdays from 8 to noon. Address: 3a Calle 4-12 Zona 2, CobĂˇn. Tel: 7951-3067.