Permaculture and food safety in Guatemala

Women from San Lucas' outskirts start a community garden. Photo Alessandra Nahra

(written originally in Portuguese and published here: http://herbivora.com.br/permacultura-e-seguranca-alimentar-na-guatemala/)

When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, Maya peoples cultivated and worshiped maíz (corn) and amaranth. According to what is told, amaranth was a powerful plant, a wholesome food item that guaranteed livelihood, strength and fitness. The Spanish soon marginalized amaranth, associating all the many sacred rituals involving this potent plant with the “Devil”. “It was a strategy to remove these peoples’ livelihoods, to take away what actually supported their living — and leave them only with what could be used for labor force,” said Roni Lac, director of IMAP — Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura (Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute). The result is that, in the 21st century, the largest part of Guatemala’s population not only does not eat amaranth, but also does not know what amaranth is. Nowadays, says Roni, “you can barely find native food” in communities of the Atitlan Lake region — IMAP is located in this lake’s southern border.

As a means to intervene in this historical context, IMAP has among its programs a feeding sovereignty initiative named “Native Nutrition”. The project, funded by the Embassy of Japan in Guatemala and mediated by the IADB — Inter American Development Bank, has four components:

  • The promotion of native plants, training small farmers to produce the crops and providing follow up;
  • The purchase of the production and further processing, to add value to the product;
  • Making this type of food available for accessible prices in local market;
  • Teaching the nutritious properties of these plants and how to use them when preparing meals.

Thus, IMAP works with small farmers and families from San Lucas Toliman region, an area with a population of about 40,000 people. The project focuses on amaranth and chia, and the production is being purchased and processed by IMAP. The products will soon be available for sale in shops of the region. “There is an international demand for these products, but those people do not need them, the local population does,” says Roni.

Low-income indigenous peoples of San Lucas region — most of them part of the Kaqchikel Maya people — suffer with what it is called “double nutritious load”: there is a large incidence of obese mothers with undernourished babies. This happens due to the lack of fresh and nutritious food. “If you go to a grocery store at the outskirts of San Lucas , for example, you can only find industrialised products,” says Dulce Valle, IMAP’s nutritionist responsible for the project. Small producers cultivate mostly coffee, which is sold for very low prices to be processed and then exported. Also, the majority of the few families that cultivate vegetables and fruits will rather sell them to be able to buy industrialized food to consume.

“People want to drink Coca-Cola and eat snacks for status. It means they have money. They see adds on TV and want to buy these things,” said Dulce. The labor of planting and harvesting is undervalued, the same way local food is. Guatemalan version of fast food — a chain of fried chicken restaurants — is arriving even at the most remote areas. “Local culture is discriminated by the dominating culture. Our work is not only with crops: it is necessary to do a cultural revalidation. We don’t have to teach them how to plant, but work on the appreciation of what they have,” said Roni.

The project works with 150 farmers and 600 women of the area, teaching them about nutrition and the preparation of healthy food, and supporting the creation of community gardens. IMAP participates of the implementation of the gardens, provides the seeds and follows-up with the farmers.

Low-income women receive assistance to grow and prepare food. Some of these women can't even write. Photo Alessandra Nahra

Permaculture with social engagement

Every IMAP project is based on sharing permaculture knowledge, tools and results with local populations. In fact, this was Roni’s goal even before engaging with permaculture. Son of farmers of Maya Kaqchikel people, he grew up with his grandparents at Atitlan Lake region. He had the opportunity to go to college, where he studied anthropology. Since the beginning, his goal was to apply his knowledge and not to remain in the academic environment. “I wanted to work with the rescue of traditional, ancestral knowledge and put that into practice in the current context.”

A milpa (the consortium of corn, beans and pumpkin) on Lake Atitlan's shore. Photo Alessandra Nahra

Through his research on sustainable agricultural methods he learned about permaculture and was supported by PAL — a permaculture network in Latin America that provided training and support. “Permaculture helps us to show the methods to local people; it also helps us to explain our culture to outsiders.” According to Roni, many permaculture techniques are based on systems adopted by the Maya peoples — such as the chinampas and the milpa (or “las tres hermanas”, the consortium of corn, beans and pumpkin). “In the book Permaculture One, Bill Mollison gives the examples of two community gardens, one in Honduras and another in Guatemala. Permaculture is based on traditional systems of all the original peoples of the world.”

IMAP’s first permaculture project is the community in which the institute is located, Patchitulul. “We noticed a great opportunity to apply permaculture in practice here. It was a small and marginalized community. Houses were precarious, there was no electricity, water or sanitation: there were no jobs, income was very low, many people didn’t even have a birth certificate.” Roni bought the area in the southern margin of Lake Atitlan, started to lease the land to the local population and to train small farmers, who later became the producers of the seeds IMAP purchases to feed another program, which has the goal of rescuing, promoting and improving native and creole seeds. “There is a correlation between knowledge and culture loss and the loss of seeds.” IMAP’s seed bank sells, buys, provides seed credits and distributes them to community projects such as school gardens. “The best method to store the seeds is in the field, planted. However, we also commercialize them to add economic value. It is a way of valuing them.”

Today, after 18 years, Patchitulul community is not yet how Roni imagined. But it is way better than before. “People have electricity, decent housing, bathrooms, jobs. And they conquered those things themselves. We only created opportunities and opened markets.” In addition to the seed bank, they encouraged the community to develop a craft market and a food catering service that provides service to events and permaculture classes in the institute. “Another reason for IMAP to be here is to open access to the lake, which has been privatized over the years.” High standard houses from Guatemalan elite massively occupy the south border of Atitlan Lake. “Before, the community depended directly on the lake,” says Roni.

Patchitulul farmer shows his corn. Photo Alessandra Nahra

IMAP’s work in Guatemala is noble, commendable — and difficult. The country exposes Latin America’s problems very evidently, problems originated when colonization happened and that practically remain the same. “The land and the wealth are concentrated in few hands. The system has been the same ever since Guatemala was a colony. We are still under a feudal system here.” Roni is talking about Guatemala, but he could be talking about practically any country in Latin America — that since the arrival of the Spanish has become the barn that enriched European metropolises at the expense of men’s blood and sweat, and earth’s fertility and biodiversity.

Escrevo, planto, estudo, viajo. Falo com bichos, abraço árvores, e vice-versa.