Organic Greenhouse and Rediscovering Native Agriculture

Llanos del Pinal, Sector 13, Guatemala.  What began two and a half years ago as a series of health and nutrition cooking classes in sixteen of the Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano's (AMA) rural, indigenous women's circles has flourished into a organic farming pilot project with visions to grow into a vessel of self sufficiency and independent business enterprise for the women involved over the next five years. The AMA health and nutrition project commenced in response to shocking rates of malnutrition amongst children in the highlands of Guatemala. In these communities, 70% of the children were suffering from malnutrition, with climbing rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in all age groups.  Along with an influx of western food companies like Coca Cola, Frito-Lays, and McDonald's, instead of education about these new foods these communities received advertisements.  In addition, food hand outs by well-intentioned international charity organizations have forced local farmers out of business and broken local barter economies, replacing fresh fruits and vegetables, and longstanding knowledge about health, cooking, and organic agriculture with processed foods.

The women of these communities decided to take action. In their circles, they began to take classes about nutrition and healthy cooking from Mayra Izara, an indigenous 25-year-old women's circle organizer originally from San Juan Ostuncalco. They learned how to incorporate fruits and vegetables into their families' diets.  Each year, as part of service tourism projects, AMA sends medical students, nursing students, and health professionals into these communities to collect baseline health samples.  Measurements of height and weight, blood pressure rates, and blood glucose levels over the past two and half years have already shown improvements for these women, their families, and their communities.

While the classes alone have made improvements, these communities still lack access to the fresh vegetables they want in their families' diets. Since the 1950s, chemical fertilizer and pesticide companies have made organic farming a practice all but forgotten in a land where the Maya, the inventors of permaculture, cultivated crops organically for thousands of years.  As with the influx of western food, indigenous farmers received pesticides and fertilizers, but no education about how to use them.  They received the technique of mono-cropping for higher yields, but no education about how it depletes the soil quickly.

With the help of the Highlands Support Project (HSP), an umbrella organization based in the United States that supports grassroots development in indigenous communities throughout the Americas, AMA received funding for two agriculture professors from Arizona to help the women of Llano del Pinal replicated a successful permaculture program from an Apache reservation the professors were involved with. Many volunteers came to help build up the soil and erect a greenhouse, and the women planted lettuce and tomatoes, two companion crops that compliment each other when grown together. The women also cultivate using the three sisters technique, growing corn, beans, and squash together. These techniques were gleaned from the Apache project in Arizona, but utilizing companion crops is a rich part of their Mayan agricultural heritage. The women of the AMA women's circle made connections with Mercy Corps and local agronomists to educate themselves about successful organic gardening.  Presently, the women are taking agriculture and cultivation classes by a technician from Mercy Corps, and a local agrominist has joined the team to develop techniques for water catchment using condensation during the dry season. Water catchment is a big issue because presently the women have to walk and hour every day to get water for their garden.

The most important resource this garden has is the women who work it every day, and whose commitment and enthusiasm give it shape and purpose. They learn and garden together during women's circles, but they also have a chore list of greenhouse tasks for the women to work on individually. Along with vegetables the women are also cultivating community, cooperation, and accountability. Problem solving, communication, and the happiness of those involved sustains this garden.

Since January, Izara reports, the impact of the garden on the women's circle has been profound.  At first, it was challenging to get the women of the circle onboard the organic agriculture project because the concept was so foreign to them, it was too much work, and they were told that farming is men's work and their garden would never succeed.  Now, fourteen women are involved in the greenhouse every day.

"Women don't want to miss a single day in the greenhouse because they don't want to miss out on new opportunities to learn and new opportunities for knowledge," says Izara.

The collective vision is for each woman involved to take what she's learned from the greenhouse and use that knowledge to cultivate her own garden to sustain herself and her family. As far as the greenhouse is concerned, the women have plans to expand beyond its walls, diversify their crops, and produce enough food for the women to feed their families and sell the surplus. Organic hot sauce and spaghetti sauce are on the menu.

Izara is training to teach other women's circles to replicate their greenhouse and grow their own fresh, organic vegetables. She is learning from the technicians and practical experience, but AMA is also searching for funding for Izara to receive formal education. Additionally, a women's circle midwife received funding to plant a medicinal herb garden and is lending AMA her land for five years to cultivate this project.  She hopes to sell the herbs and preparations, as well as teach classes and workshops.  Both gardens are pilot projects with hopes of being replicated across many communities, and to rekindle self-sufficiency and traditional knowledge about health and wellness practices.

The AMA health and nutrition project focuses on the next generation. Learning healthy eating practices and passing this knowledge on to the next generation is how these women hope to heal their broken communities.  Today there are four generations involved in the Llano del Pinal greenhouse, learning more every day.  From this garden alone, 400 people will be affected.

The biggest challenges are issues of education and empowerment. Project facilitator Kirsten Gundersen explains that people are willing to donate money and materials to building projects because physical projects are tangible, but education is much harder to visualize and measure.

"You can build a greenhouse in three days," says Gundersen. "Teaching 20 women the knowledge they need to maintain a greenhouse is the hard part."

The women fear that their garden will not be able to remain 100% organic because they've been told eventually pests will come and the only way to effectively combat them is to use chemical pesticides. There is currently a technician teaching the women how to make their own organic fertilizers and pesticides, but the community remains skeptical. A strong foundation of education is necessary to build up enough confidence to break a sixty year trend of mono-cropping and chemical fumigation.

Currently, AMA is searching for funding for a teacher for health and nutrition classes, a community technician, and for someone to do market research on what kinds of crops the women should grow for their up and coming  business. The women also need training in making their products up to market standards, methods of canning, and how to label their products.

"It all starts with nutrition and organic education classes," says Gundersen. "It takes so much effort to garden when you can just buy chips and Coca Cola across the street. We need to teach them why organic food is important for themselves and future generations, and we need to teach them that they can do it."

By Rebecca Miner