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 Marc
h 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 back.
||"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 (Solanum nigrescens).
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.
Synthetic fertilizers 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
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 use pesticides.
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 a machete.
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 azadon.
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 the seed.
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 there.
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 ritual.
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 ritual.
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 vegetable.
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.