Combating Dependency with the Sustainable Agriculture Program
November in the Highlands means corn harvest. Rooftops are painted in hues of yellow, white, black and red—a vibrant display of the four different native corn varieties that have existed here for generations. Existing at the center of Maya culture, this crop has sustained its people since the beginning of time—literally—the beginning of time: a Maya creation story explains how the first humans created were made of corn. As corn has existed with its people for so many years, it has adapted well to the land; it grows well, year after year, providing sustenance over multiple generations. Indigenous peoples have been saving seeds, allowing for a sustainable food source.
However, a rapidly globalized threat to this tradition of seed saving is manifesting through the appearance of biotech giants, such as Monsanto. In 2005, Guatemala signed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the terms of that pact, Guatemala is bound to abide by the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties agreement ( or “Monsanto law”), which, according to Cer Ixim—a Gutemalan collective dedicated to human rights investigation—“promotes privatization and seed monopolization, which is a danger to food sovereignty, especially for indigenous peoples.” The law was never up for discussion among the general population and on September 5, 2014, Guatemalan lawmakers voted in favor of repealing Monsanto Law. Although a triumphant feat, an uncertain and unfinished battle still lies ahead.
The foundation of AMA and HSP’s work is to combat dependency and promote resiliency. We collaborate with communities to focus on solutions to problems, rather than dwelling on the issues themselves. Out of the need to address indigenous food sovereignty was born the Sustainable Agriculture Program.
Joe and Kim Costion—organic agriculture experts and professors—traveled to Guatemala to share their knowledge and enormous hearts during the implementation of a three-week intensive sustainable agriculture curriculum. During this time, Joe and Kim, along with AMA’s technical staff, traveled between two Highland communities—Espumpuja and Llanos del Pinal—alternating between educational lectures and hands-on practice. The topics of focus were carefully selected as a result of the needs of the women—what they wished to learn—as well as in response to the current political environment concerning Monsanto Law.
The first order of business was to tend to the damaged soil. Highland soil leans on the acidic side and years of chemical applications have left the soil damaged with little to nourish its crops with. Joe and Kim brought with them Soil Secrets, a line of all-natural, organic products that replicate the biochemical process required for a healthy soil. Kim, who has a beautiful talent for relating complex scientific processes in simpler terms, explains, “Michael Melendrez, Soil Secrets founder, studied Mother Nature’s natural process and replicated that. Think about the forest and the vast amount of trees and life that grow there without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Mother Nature knows what to do to sustain life. Soil Secrets uses what nature has already shown us what works.” The Soil Secrets products applied included TerraPro, to restore humus to the soil, Protein Crumblies, to nourish the soil so that it could in turn nourish its seeds, and Mycorrhizae, to assist roots in effectively absorbing nutrients. An almost immediate example of Soil Secrets effectiveness was shown when only two weeks after we planted garlic, its roots grew from nothing to two-inches in length! This was even more exciting because the garlic was a new crop that Kim and Joe brought from their home—garlic that they had begun growing over thirty years ago and continue to save the seed each year.
Seed-saving was another extremely important—if not the most important—topic of discussion. As noted earlier, we focus on solutions to problems. The threat of Monsanto and other seed giants is very real and very frightening. However, seed saving knowledge is something indigenous peoples have practiced forever, used to feed and sustain multiple generations. During a discussion about the different types of seeds—heirloom, hybrid and GMO—Makaria, an Espumpuja participant, shared,“this corn has been in my family for longer than I even know. We do not need to buy new seed every year, we just save some seed and plant it the next season.” Kim’s face was instantly taken over by the most hopeful smile; seed saving is already knowledge that the women have, it is something that they have been doing their whole lives. It is natural and sustainable.
One comment that really stuck with me was Kim’s response to growing agitation over Monsanto and other seed giant companies. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, hopeless and angry at the magnitude of Monsanto’s involvement. “Above all else, you have to leave people with hope,” said Kim. “These companies want you to feel overcome with hopelessness, because that is how they win. But seed saving is fun, growing your own food is fun. You must fill people with hope and focus on what they can do, so we can keep moving forward instead of getting left behind.”
The Sustainable Agriculture Program was implemented as a tool to combat seed dependency, teach women other organic agriculture techniques (companion planting, grey-water irrigation system, lasagna bed technique) and provide the opportunity to take advantage of the organic market in Quetzaltenango. This was just the first step in a process of transformation. Moving forward, we hope to have a space where we can distribute Soil Secrets to local farmers and provide technical training and workshops. The road to resiliency is a bumpy one, but we’re used to “chicken buses” so we’re not falling off anytime soon.