Letter from Highland Guatemala
26 years later: How has farming changed
for one Mayan family?

Don Lotter returns to the Catu family after 26 years to find that much remains the same in the highland corn culture of Comelapa, Guatemala

By Don Lotter

Pictured above:
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 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 use pesticides.

A visit to the field to plant Chinese Peas, the major cash crop these days

Long-distance 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.

Greater religious 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.