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GUATEMALA
The long battle to preserve ancestral farming practices
Louisa Reynolds
9/6/2013
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Agroecology, fair trade, responsible consumption and the protection of native seeds are some of the practices that Mayan farmers have rescued from their ancestors.

Mayan farmers of the Cuchumatanes mountain range in northwestern Guatemala know that organic farming requires hard work, patience and dedication but is the only road to sustainable development.

In 2006, these farmers decided to abandon intensive agriculture, which involves the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer, as they realized that it boosted crop yields in the short term with seemingly little effort but polluted water sources and depleted the soil in the long term. They then founded the Association for the Sustainable Development of the Huista Commonwealth (ADSOSMHU).

The mancomunidad, or commonwealth, is an association of municipalities that share the same history and culture and work together to implement common policies and build infrastructure projects for the benefit of all members.
 
Mancomunidades were officially recognized by the Guatemalan government when the Municipal Code was approved in 2002.

Mancomunidad Huista is one of Guatemala’s oldest commonwealth associations and groups together seven municipalities located in the department of Huehuetenango: Santa Ana Huista, San Antonio Huista, Concepción Huista, Nentón, San Miguel Acatán, Unión Cantinil, Jacaltenango and La Democracia.

With financial support from Spanish NGO Paisaje, Ecología y Género, ADSOSMHU built a demonstration center where farmers can purchase native seeds to grow corn, beans, vegetables such as mushrooms and pumpkins, and medicinal plants such as aloe. They also learn how to care for aquarium fish and how to produce compost made from decomposing leaves and soil, worm compost, and a foliar fertilizer made from fermented leaves, water and cow’s milk.  

Organic fertilizer
Producing organic fertilizer is a lengthy process as composting can take up to six months, worm compost takes between one and two a half months, and foliar fertilizer, the quickest method, can take up to a month.

“When the Green Revolution began in the 1950s and 1960s, farmers began to use agrochemicals as we were led to believe that agrochemicals were the solution to our problems. Using chemical pesticides, farmers can clear 0.03 acres in one day as opposed to 0.005 acres in five days using ancestral farming techniques,” explains Rubén López Herrera, coordinator of ADSOSMHU.

“In the beginning, [agroecology] requires a lot of effort, patience and dedication. That’s why women have been most receptive to the idea. We only obtained results after two or three years but from that point onwards we obtained higher crop yields than we had achieved when we used agrochemicals, the soil recovered its nutrients and our products have a different color, taste and texture,” he adds. ADSOSMHU’s members consume most of what they produce and any surplus is sold in local markets.

López emphasizes that agroecology is nothing new as it has been practiced by Mayan farmers since pre-Columbian times, an assertion that has been proven by academic research.

For instance, Professor of Agroecology Stephen Gliessman, of the University of California, has written a number of articles in which he explains how the ancient Mayans were early practitioners of ecological engineering. As they lacked the technology to reach groundwater they built drainage canals to redirect and reuse rainwater and convert seasonal swamplands, known today as bajos, into large agricultural fields. They also used agricultural terraces, water reservoirs, raised fields and planted urban gardens. 

ADSOSMHU is one of the 60 campesino groups that belongs to the National Network for the Defense of Food Security and Food Sovereignty in Guatemala (REDSSAG), a national organization founded in 2004 that seeks to promote agroecology, fair trade, responsible consumption and the protection of Mesoamerica’s native seeds.

In 2011, ADSOSMHU received the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources’ (MARN) Chajil Uwachulew (Defender of Nature) Award for its efforts to preserve native seeds. However, López says that other than this symbolic award, ADSOSMHU has never received any government support.

“There are many things that need to be done. We’d like to carry out an in-depth investigation that will allow us to recuperate native corn and bean seeds and we’d also like to receive support from agricultural technicians so that we can improve our crops but they (the government) are very bureaucratic,” López explains.

REDSSAG’s coordinator, Ronnie Palacios cites successful projects in Brazil, Venezuela and other South American countries as evidence that agroecology works and says that this model could help Guatemala to reduce its dependency on corn and wheat imports, stimulate self-sufficiency and employment in rural areas and reduce the surge of impoverished farmers who migrate to urban areas or to the United States in search of better living conditions. However, Palacios says that so far, the government has shown little or no interest in supporting Mayan agroecological practices.

“It’s necessary to prioritize subsistence farmers and farmers living below subsistence levels and develop mechanisms to exchange information and carry out scientific investigations. Unfortunately there’s been no support. We’ve sought help from the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (ICTA) but they’ve refused to initiate an investigation project. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) has a family orchard program and we’ve proposed that it should include agroecological production but  they rejected it (the proposal),” he says.

Palacios says that “economic interests” could explain the government’s reluctance to stop handing out chemical fertilizer and help farmers to revive the agroecological model of the ancient Mayans, a remark that makes sense given that Disagro and other major agrochemical producers have been  key campaign donors over the past few years.

The Campesino a Campesino Movement
Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, an US nonprofit organization whose main goal is to forge food sovereignty for human rights and sustainable livelihoods, explains that during the 1970s, Mayan farmers who had become heavily indebted in order to purchase Green Revolution technology were forced to migrate to coffee, sugar and banana plantations where they earned miserable wages and had to sell their labor in order to repay their loans.

A farmer in the department of Chimaltenango (35 miles west of Guatemala City) began to experiment with organic farming techniques and realized that he could increase his yield by up to 400 percent. Other farmers sought to follow his lead and began to rescue ancestral Mayan practices that were then passed on from one farmer to another. Farmers who taught other farmers were known as promotores campesinos, or campesino promoter, and this chain of learning by example marked the beginning of a movement known as Campesino a Campesino, which rapidly spread across Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

“Farmers established cooperatives to sell their produce and stopped going to the coast to work on the plantations. In the 1970s and 1980s they were so successful that they started to buy land from the plantation owners who began to call them communists and called in the army, so they fled to Mexico and began te El Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación (MAGA) tiene un programa de agricultura familiar y hemos propuesto que incluyen la agroecología pero no lo han aceptado”.aching the peasants there,” says Holt-Giménez.

The Campesino a Campesino movement has dwindled as a result of the bloody civil wars that tore Central America apart during the Cold War era, although local NGOs such as ADSOSMHU are seeking to revive it and give it a new impetus.

According to “Measuring farmers’ agroecological resistance after Hurricane Mitch in Central America,” a study conducted in 2000 by World Neighbors, international development organization that works with extremely poor communities who are struggling to survive, today, less than 0.5 percent of the region’s four million smallholders practice agroecology.

The sustainable practices most commonly used include intensive in-row tillage, the use of compost, vermiculture and animal manure, as well as integrated pest management strategies that include the use of traps, organic pesticides and repellents, and beneficial insects.

The farmers themselves, led by Holt-Giménez, carried out the research and found that agroecological plots on sustainable farms had more topsoil, higher field moisture, and more vegetation, which meant that after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, they had a 49 percent lower incidence of landslides and averaged 47 percent less rill erosion and 69 percent less gully erosion than conventional plots.

“It was crop diversification and agroforestry what made the system so resilient and allowed it to withstand climate change. However, governments don’t support peasant agriculture and this has only gotten worse because of the free trade agreements designed to drive farmers off the land and open up Latin America to foreign investment. Governments need to start practicing food sovereignty and go back to policies that worked in the past to achieve self-sufficiency,” says Holt-Giménez.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Agroecology, an ancient indigenous peasant practice, helps resist climate change. (Photo: Louisa Reynolds)
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