Sustainable [R]evolution

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Permaculture in Mayan communities: “just what I learned from my grandmother”

Rabinal, Guatemala: a report back from the Achi Maya ‘Qachuu Aloom’- Mother Earth project

by Juliana Birnbaum Fox, Sustainable [R]evolution project correspondant, with photos by Louis Fox

High in the mountains just 33 miles– but a 5 hour drive– north of  Guatemala City, the small town of Rabinal is dusty in the dry season.  Most people would assume that all of Guatemala was colonized by the Spanish.  The Achi Maya of Rabinal, however, managed to successfully resist the conquistadors until Guatemala achieved independence.  The Achi lived self-sufficiently in the region for centuries, yet the pressures of economic globalization and the violent political throes of the Guatemalan nation-state have forced change and assimilation.

The amaranth plant was sacred to the Maya for its life-sustaining properties, used in ceremony and a major part of the diet.  During the Spanish conquest, amaranth was banned and fields of it burned– those caught growing it could be punished by losing their hand, or even by death.  As a result, the grain nearly became extinct, excepting remote areas.  Among the Achi Maya, the cultivation of amaranth for cereal and flour was virtually lost over the past century as lifestyles “modernized” and more food was bought from the store.   In the early 1980s, Rabinal was targeted by the Guatemalan military in their policy of genocide against the indigenous Maya population.  The community endured some of the worst massacres of the civil war, leaving behind a shattered population without access to basic resources such as clean drinking water and medical care.

A local association called Qachuu Aloom (Mother Earth) has successfully brought organic amaranth cultivation back to the Achi, through a program of building alliances, seed saving, and a network of social entrepreneurs.  The project offers courses in permaculture, a seed library, and microloans to local initiatives.  Families “borrow” seeds and cultivate them with assistance from more experienced growers.  They can then keep some of the food they grow for their families, return the “borrowed” seeds, and sell the association the rest, which are packaged for market and help to fund the group’s programs.

The women’s circle within Qachuu Aloom was inspired by a community from the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala.  The women from a town called San José Poaquil had found a strong variety of amaranth growing in the garden of an elder woman, planted it, saved the seeds, and created a collective that became very successful selling amaranth all over the country. They were invited to come to Rabinal and teach the local women of Qachuu Aloom.

“I think we were so successful with that program because the women came and shared their stories—often stories of the violence that many of them experienced.  They all cried together, and also shared their success,” said Sarah Montgomery, co-founder of Qachuu Aloom.  Coming out of the war, when people were targeted and even murdered for organizing, there was a lot of fear and mistrust in the community that greatly affected the project.  “At the beginning, the women would hardly talk, and now some of them are out there speaking in front of large groups, presenting about our association. What made it work was that we were organizing with leaders who were from the community and trusted.”

The Garden’s Edge, a New Mexico, USA-based organization run by Montgomery and other social and environmental activists, has helped to fund the Guatemalan association, arrange cultural exchanges between Pueblo and Maya leaders, and establish permaculture projects.  Montgomery founded Qachuu Aloom with Cristobal Osorio Sanchez, a local farmer who lost members of his family in a the notorious Rio Negro massacres.  The violence claimed up to 5000 lives over a period of two years in relation to protests over a hydroelectric dam project.  A total of 38 communities were forcibly relocated close to Rabinal, and Cristobal, given a plot of degraded land, initiated a three year agricultural experiment.  He used organic compost to restore the soil of half the plot, while applying chemical fertilizers to the other half.

From his personal experience, Cristobal concluded that organic corn cultivation was actually more productive, as well as being gentler on the planet.

“We used to work the land using chemicals, but thank god we were brought information about the negative health and environmental effects of using them,” said Juana Raxcaco, an organizer with the project.  “We started this practice of seed saving, packaging and selling, and have seen great results.  We used to buy very expensive chemicals and our production was so expensive that we didn’t even make any money.  Now we are cultivating without having to buy anything, as we get seeds from the association, and we are making a profit from selling them back and are also growing healthy foods for our families, without contamination.  In this small village the movement has been growing and we now have 15 families with gardens—we started with two. We also have a women’s group where we continue learning.  We consume what we grow, and also save the seeds for ourselves and to sell.” 

“It’s a quiet revolution,” Montgomery observed.  “People are defending their own seeds from aid organizations wanting to bring in GMO seeds.  It’s about changing people’s minds.”

Program director Edson Xiloj came from Chichecastenango, another part of Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya.  He studied conventional agriculture at university before coming to Qachuu Aloom as an intern and realizing that he wanted to work with permaculture.

“Permaculture is about living in harmony with nature, not managing it,” Xiloj observed. “So it was a big change from my studies—most of the people I studied with are working for large agriculture corporations.  The principles of permaculture are like the principles of the pueblo.  Young people from traditional cultures sometimes think it doesn’t work anymore, but now the economic crisis is pushing people to look for alternatives in the way they are producing food.  Even more conventional development organizations are looking for alternatives.  Permaculture is not just agriculture, but a way of living—people are changing out of necessity.”

Qachuu Aloom is also a force for healthy, local eating, swimming against the stream of fast-food franchises pouring into the region.  At group lunches, traditional foods are usually served in an effort to re-value indigenous foods and re-educate people about their preparation.  When Xiloj asked his grandmother why people used to live so long, she told him it was from eating the indigenous “weeds”—like amaranth.

“Our grandparents planted what they needed most often right beside the house, using the “zone” system that permaculture formalized,” Xiloj said.

“We often hear people say, when they learn permaculture techniques, this is just what I learned from my grandmother,” Montgomery added.

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We're dedicated to the preservation of the genetic diversity in our food chain through the distribution and growing of open-pollinated seeds and educating about the life affirming art of seed saving.

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