Getting ready for planting. Last year's corn
stubble being hoed with azadones in preparation for corn
planting in six weeks. A shorter variety of corn, less
prone to wind knock-down, was developed by a local farmer.
Panahachel, Guatemala, Posted
March 28, 2003: In June of 1977, I sat in
the back of a pickup with six American students as we bumped
and rolled up one of the many dirt tracks of San Juan Comalapa,
a Kakchikel Maya town in the highlands of Guatemala. Freshly
graduated from the agronomy program at the University of California
Davis, I was there with the group at the request of a local
farmer cooperative to help rebuild their society after a devastating
earthquake killed nearly a third of their population in 1976.
As each of the students was dropped off at their host's house,
I realized that I probably had been saved for last and least
since I had previously lived and traveled in Latin America.
Sure enough, when we got to my host's house, it was obvious
that this family was quite a bit poorer and less well equipped
than the hosts of the other students. Instead of a bed in
a room, my bed was three boards laid across some boxes in
an open area off from the open fire kitchen. There was no
privacy and it was drafty - Comalapa lies at 7,500 feet and
is very cool.
I resolved to stay a couple of days and then find a place
of my own. That night we sat in a circle in the firelight,
trying to get some conversation going. There were long silences.
Slowly, with the help of ten year-old Felina, the spark of
the family, we began the simplest of conversations -- where,
what, how, when stuff. It was the beginning of a love affair
that, 26 years later, is still strong. Within two days I knew
I couldn't leave this family just to have my privacy. I ended
up staying a total of eight months.
My fears that U.S.
hybrids would have usurped local varieties
in this cradle of corn were unfounded
Twenty-six years later, in March of 2003, I walked up the
same former dirt track, now cobbled with brick. My dad, traveling
with me for a few weeks and having visited the family several
times over the years, had arranged a visit and was bringing
"a guest". When we saw each other from a distance,
I saw hands go up to cheeks (the women) and hats (the men).
I choked back tears, but as we hugged, I couldn't hold tears
||"I was pleased to hear that their
corn, long the pillar of Mayan culture, was still all
of local varieties that they have cultivated for generations.
I had had fears about the Comalapa farmers being manipulated
into using high yield hybrid corn, or even buying American
corn in this area that is a center of origin and diversity
for corn. "
The Catú family in 1977 were Lucas and Sabina, their
two boys and three girls, and old Aunt Lipa. The oldest boy
already had started bingeing on the mean local moonshine and
has since died of alcohol consumption, a serious problem with
the Maya. There are now 14 children between the Catú
son and three daughters. I was stunned to see Aunt Lipa, now
88 years old and hunched over, shuffling up to me to give
me a hug!
My dad and I were fed three colors of tortillas, black beans,
fava beans, chayote (Sechium edule), chilacayote (Cucurbita
ficifolia), eggs, toasted and ground squash seeds, chicken
tamales, and plenty of greens, mainly wild mustard and quilete
I was pleased to hear that their corn, long the pillar of
Mayan culture, was still all of local varieties that they
have cultivated for generations. I had had fears about the
Comalapa farmers being manipulated into using high yield hybrid
corn, or even buying American corn in this area that is a
center of origin and diversity for corn. My fears were more
than allayed and I now realize that outside corn is unlikely
to make inroads in highland Guatemala. These people are exquisitely
sensitive to the taste, texture, and cooking qualities of
their corn, and even people who have jobs till their half
an acre of milpa for family consumption.
ARE being used, and many say
they are eroding the taste of the corn
Nevertheless, there have been some changes in the highland
corn culture. Even back in 1977 the women would tell me that
ever since synthetic nitrogen fertilizers had been introduced
in the 1960's, the corn was not as tasty. The milk-stage corn
was not as sweet and the drink they made from it, atole, needed
sugar added. Tortillas no longer have "el sabor de la
tierra", the taste of the earth, some say.
I carefully verified this with a group of older widows on
the shores of Lake Atitlan, most of them in their 70's, allowing
them to volunteer the information. They also maintain that,
in addition to the erosion of taste, since synthetic fertilizers
came along, the "masa", tortilla dough, doesn't
last as long - it now begins to turn sour after one day instead
of two or three.
There is a sociological basis for the common use of synthetic
fertilizers. The highland Mayans have for generations lived
predominantly in dense nucleated settlements for protection,
and walk, often several hours, to their fields, generally
scattered in three or four directions from the household.
Most farmers here lack beasts of burden. While all of the
Mayan farmers that I have talked to use manures and composts
as much as possible, the distance to their fields, often up
and down steep trails, plus corn’s high nitrogen needs,
makes the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers a sensible
choice, given that knowledge and training in the intensified
use of legume crops is largely lacking.
The old slash and burn system, when farmers would regenerate
the soil by allowing it to revert to "monte" or
forest, was quite sustainable when practiced under certain
threshold population levels. Those population levels have
been superceded, and so a new, more sophisticated approach
is needed for maintenance of soil vitality and fertility,
involving careful design of legume and agroforestry crops
into the crop system without unduly sacrificing food or cash
crop seasons .
Every Mayan farmer I talked to was eager to know more when
I told them that there are ways of maintaining and building
soil fertility using legume crops and trees. They simply lack
the extension system to help them learn and try new methods.
New, locally developed
varieties of corn increase yields
The other major change that I saw in the corn culture, a
much more recent one, is the local development of lines of
short statured corn via selection within the local gene pool.
In the 1970's the corn in Comalapa was the traditional 12-15
foot tall type. The enormous canes were used after harvest
for everthing from house-building to fuel. However, wind knockdown
was a serious problem, possibly exacerbated by the introduction
of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and certainly made worse
by the loss of forest which used border fields on at least
one side and which served to mitigate wind.
The short-statured corn was developed by a local farmer who
selected from local corn and released lines which farmers
have widely adopted. Both the men and women of the Catú
family say that taste of the corn has not been compromised.
The local development of new corn lines is exciting news.
Local crop varietal selection and development is a concept
that is more talked about than done in agricultural development.
The Catús and most Comalapa farmers must rent land,
as an acre of land costs the equivalent of at least twelve
years annual income, $8,000. Do the math for your own situation
and ask yourself if you could possibly buy land for agriculture
in such a situation. Threading its way into the land tenure
problem is a serious pest, a soil-borne larval stage insect
known as the gallina ciega (Phyllophaga spp.), which feeds
on and destroys the root systems of any and all crops they
try and grow, according to the Catús. The Catús
know well that a rotation into a grass or simple fallow solves
the gallina ciega problem. However, as renters they can’t
afford to take the land out of production for one or two years
in five, as would be needed. So they suffer losses and occasionally
A visit to the field to plant Chinese
Peas, the major cash crop these days
farming: Augustin Catu on his way to one
of his four quarter-acre rented plots, an hour's
walk from home. He carries a mesh bag slung over
his head, an azadon (a large hoe-like tool), and
I accompanied the oldest Catú son, Augustin, to one
of his four quarter acre plots one day, an hour walk away.
It is toward the end of the dry season and sunny, cool, and
windy, and we traversed a steep canyon to get there. Augustin
packs a large bag of bean seed for planting, lunch of tortillas,
beans, fruit, and water in a string bag slung over his head,
plus a machete and a large hoe-like instrument known as an
When we arrived at his field I didn’t recognize it
even though we had worked it together numerous times in the
70’s, because the forest that formerly had bounded the
field on one or two sides was gone and we were surrounded
by other cultivated fields. Three young men in baseball caps
are working the field with azadones when we arrived, part
of a work-share agreement. Baseball caps are the current younger
generation’s headwear, a change from the Stetson’s
of the ‘70s and the smaller fedoras of the 50’s
and 60’s. The traditional white pants, sandals, and
checkered wool waist cloth have also long passed in Comalapa.
Women’s clothing such as the extraordinarily colorful
home-woven blouses known as huipiles, however, have remained
much the same, changing in more subtle ways.
Today we are planting a relay crop of bush beans in between
rows of four inch tall Chinese Peas. The peas are the Comalapans’
major cash crop these days. In the 1960’s and 70’s
it was potatoes. Potatoes however, succumbed to disease, probably
late blight, even though fungicides were regularly sprayed.
For Chinese Peas, intermediary buyers come into town, offer
the farmers about 25 cents a pound, and give them contacts
on how to grow the crop, mostly agrichemical salesmen.
Although this crop can be grown organically, and the farmers
would prefer doing so, the extension support system is simply
not there for them. The fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers
will take 40% of their gross of $330 earned from the 1000
lb. harvest on the quarter acre. Weed control, a labor friendly
task, is always by azadon. The beans will not need any sprays.
We put 25 lbs. of 10-50 within the bean rows before sowing
freedom in recent years makes
talk of Mayan religion possible now
The soil is beautiful, dark volcanic loam, high in organic
matter. While hoeing, we found pot shards from previous Mayan
settlements. The men told me stories of finding vases and
carved stones and selling them. Augustin later showed me four
foot high Maya stone carvings, moved to the local town square
from near where we were working that day, which made it obvious
that there had been ancient, possibly classical Mayan settlements
We talk further about Mayan religion, a subject that was
simply not broachable 25 years ago, despite my repeated tries.
Freedom of religion has clearly made progress, and Augustin
tells me that there are now several Mayan priests in Comalapa,
and a rock outcrop that has been resurrected as a site for
One of the apparently more benign rituals that ordinary people,
most of them Catholic, seem to feel free to practice, is pon,
the blessing of land that is being brought into use from forest.
In pon, the deity of that particular piece of land is propitiated
via incense and pig meat. The Catholic Church still officially
forbids the practice. Evangelistic churches, which have made
astonishing inroads into Mayan culture , strictly forbid Mayan
Nearby, men work last year’s corn stalks into the soil
with azadones. In those plots, corn will be planted in May,
when the rains start. Our field had had the corn stubble burned,
which is only done for the November planting of winter cash
crops such as Chinese Peas. Hoeing in or burning of corn stubble
is done only after stripping all of the leaves and storing
them for animal feed.
In the small fields
near Comalapa, mix crops
and animals work in harmony with humans
Stripping of lower corn leaves for animal feed is also done
around the grain-filling stage. Interestingly, agronomists
have found that the lower leaves of corn at that stage contribute
very little to grain yield. Corn will be planted with climbing
beans and scattered squash plants that spread over 15-20 feet
and cover any open ground. At least a dozen useful plants
will be left unweeded during the two to three weedings with
azadon. One of these plans, quilete, is my favorite green
Three times a week Augustin leads one of his two young bulls
out to where he works his fields and tethers them to graze
in common areas. Other days he will cut a load of forage to
take home for them. He also keeps a farrowing sow and several
of her progeny in a compound near the house. All household
food waste goes to the pigs. The livestock are sold to buyers
who come from Guatemala City.
After we finish work, the three young men ride off on bicycles,
something no farmers did 25 years ago. It appears now that
as many as half ride bicycles to their fields. It is an adaptation
to the long distances from home to field, made easier by improved
roads and cheap mountain bike clones.
On the morning that I leave every one of the 14 kids comes
to me to say goodbye and give me a hug. During the three days
amidst them I heard nary a fight nor even a whine. As I wait
on the colorful “chicken bus” in the town square,
two of the Catú teenage girls who missed me at breakfast
come down to say goodbye. I realize what special family the
Catús are and that I am blessed with their friendship.
Coming next from Don Lotter:
Growing coffee sustainably, both economically and environmentally:
Don visits coffee plantations and small scall growers
in Guatemala to see how they're dealing with the recent crash
in coffee prices.