Promoting Sustainable Agriculture in Guatemala

6 minute read

I was awarded a Christianson Fellowship from the InterExchange Foundation in September of 2010 to explore sustainable agriculture in Guatemala. The grant has allowed me to continue working for Semilla Nueva, a grassroots organization promoting sustainable agriculture practices with small-scale rural farmers in Guatemala.

In the fall of 2010, I resumed work with small farming communities on the southern coast of Guatemala. This assistance came at a key time, bolstering my understanding of development work and supporting the growth of a grassroots organization in the process. I’ve continued to work with farmers with whom I had previously formed relationships, built upon solid programs with the organization, and experienced the profound diversity of an amazing country through a unique perspective.

Semilla Nueva is based out of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (also known by its Mayan name, Xela). Simple, inexpensive techniques – like no-till, agroforestry, and the use of green manures – will significantly increase corn farmers’ yields and reduce carbon emissions and toxic runoff. These practices utilize local resources and ecological principles to be resilient against soil erosion and the effects of extreme weather events.

Albelino holding freshly pulled peanuts #sustainableag #guatemala

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Unfortunately, assistance in these areas rarely reaches the most rural regions of Guatemala, where poor farmers rely largely on family tradition and the trials of experience. Semilla Nueva’s model fills the information gap by introducing novel methodologies to farmers and facilitating the participation, experimentation, and peer-to-peer exchange of successes, ideas, and education.

In the coastal departments of Retalhuleu and Suchitepequez, I am working with six rural farming communities. Each community is made up of around 250 to 300 (large) families. In these areas, my role has been to provide valuable sustainable agriculture assistance to dedicated groups of between six to ten local participants. We are working together to try out new practices on small (between a tenth to a half of an acre) parcels of their land, adapt these practices, and learn together and share the satisfaction of visible successes with interested community members. I have also been responsible for the small teams of foreign volunteers that come to help Semilla Nueva. It has been wonderful to help lead volunteers who are in similar places to where I was the year before. Watching people come from around the world to connect with and learn from Guatemalan farmers is a beautiful experience and wonderful to facilitate.

In total, we have been working directly with 52 farmers. While this number may seem small, each participant represents a huge potential as a local resource to entire communities. This factor was illustrated recently as we completed our first regional conference in La Maquina, which brought together the participants of all the small groups for a dia del campo (field day) with a local farmer who had been practicing no-till corn farming on his own accord for five years.

Farmers watched Don Noé with excitement, bursting with questions about his novel system. The living example of a sustainable practice provided by Don Noé represented an important step for many people, proving that lands can be rehabilitated without the sacrifice of harvest. What’s more, Don Noé was able to dispel fears of rampaging pests and weeds and give suggestions based on his own experience. By clearing up doubts and myths with the tool of his own example, Don Noé is liberating farmers. They are no longer held back from exploring no-till as an option to save money on labor and mechanization; they can begin the process of building soil fertility and organic material and gain job and food security through increased harvests.

When asked if he had experienced any negative factors by trying a new practice, Don Noé responded “La unica desventaja que pasó en 18 años fui yo. Aprendí la practica hace 18 años, pero esperaba a probar hasta 13 años después. Hay que probar, entonces.” (“The only disadvantage I’ve experienced in 18 years was myself. I learned the practice 18 years ago, but waited 13 years to begin trying it. So, one must try.”)

The participants nodded, repeating “Hay que probar” (We have to try). Thus, each person that came to the conference left with a new confidence in the practice, fortified from the experience of a fellow Guatemalan and inspired to try something new. What will happen, in the next few years, when each of these 52 people become experienced locals like Don Noé? The potential for growth is great.

Working with rural farmers in Guatemala has been a revealing and educational cultural experience. Living directly off the land, with reverence, these farmers represent true agrarians. In the face of climate change, land degradation, and the encroaching presence of large scale plantations, these farmers maintain unsurpassed dignity, honor, and kindness. I have been constantly surprised by the good sense, skill, and knowledge possessed by those I work with. I feel that their livelihoods represent a sentiment that has been lost in most of the developed world, as small-scale farmers are replaced by gargantuan and industrial production agribusiness.

To see from the perspective of a small rural producer in Guatemala has changed my concept of agriculture. Like many consumers in the U.S., I was disconnected from my food. I ate with no concept of the harvest and natural cycle, only the finished product. A shrink wrapped styrofoam package of chicken did not represent something that had once been a living, clucking being - only 500 grams of immediate sustenance. Working with rural farmers has helped to open my eyes to the slow natural cycle of production that is essential to consumption.

Through living with the farmers and seeing through their eyes, I have come to know the small family farm and the small farming community. There exists, in these families and communities, a deeper connection to the land and a profound respect and dependence upon the immeasurable gift that is given with each life and each harvest. What’s more, many of the families in the project areas are living descendants of the ancient Mayan culture. Displaced from their original homes in the highlands by the civil war, they have preserved the traditional languages, dress, and traditions passed down over the centuries.

It is like stepping into another world and another time, living this way. However, I am in full support of the lifestyle of these traditional rural farming communities, and I will do what I can to help them continue to live this way. In the face of a changing world and a global community, rural Guatemalan farmers retain the chance to live the way they want. They have the chance to rejuvenate their lands, use fertilizers and pesticides properly and safely, and contribute to global food security – all the while preserving their connection to the land and their cultural heritage. It has been a true blessing to be here.

Darren Y. By

Darren volunteered in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation