Field Report: Seeds of Hope

Emilio Travieso, SJ, is a DPhil student in the Oxford Department of International Development working under Dr. Laura Rival.  He does research in partnership with grassroots organizations that are building sustainable, healthy, and just food systems. Below is the first in a series of reports from the field where Emilio will explain his work and its place in the larger Jesuit mission. 

Seeds of Hope

Previously, I was reporting from Chiapas, in southern Mexico, where I was doing fieldwork with an amazing coffee cooperative called Yomol A’tel.  This month, I’ve crossed the border to start a new phase of my fieldwork in Guatemala.  Pachitulul, a small village on the border of Lake Atitlán, is home to the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (known as IMAP, by its initials in Spanish).  The spectacular beauty of the place, coupled with the social and economic marginalization of its inhabitants, makes a fitting atmosphere for the hope that IMAP brings to it.

Local indigenous people, of Mayan Kaqchikel ethnicity, founded IMAP some sixteen years ago.  Their goal is to recover their ancestral knowledge, in which ecologically sound food production is an essential part of the Mayan worldview and culture.  This knowledge is endangered by unfair policies, which privilege large farms that use unsustainable methods to produce cash crops, rather than giving families a chance to produce their own food.

Recovering traditional farming practices here is not only important from the local point of view, but also urgent in terms of food security for all of humanity.  This region is one of the planet’s “hot spots” for biodiversity (especially for varieties of maize, which is one of the world’s top three staple grains).  The more we lose biodiversity, the more vulnerable we become to climate change and other factors, such as new crop diseases, that can affect certain species or varieties in unpredictable ways.  Biodiversity guarantees resilience, as well as healthier ecosystems.

Permaculture, a particular form of agroecology that has gained popularity over the last few decades, is a way to combine that ancestral knowledge with modern techniques, creatively adapting them to the local context and using local resources.  Crucially, permaculture also integrates design principles to make optimal use of space.  This is important because of the unjust land distribution that is at the root of Guatemala’s poverty and violence.

On its two acres of land, IMAP has built an impressive educational centre, where permaculture is incarnate in everything from its vegetable gardens to its building materials, and especially in the interconnections between every aspect of the place.  The idea is to create a system in which the waste from one process becomes a nutrient or input of another, thereby eliminating pollution even as it maximizes production.  This centre is the headquarters of a programme that extends to schools and grassroots organizations all over the country, bringing them – through living witness – the good news of ecological living and food sovereignty. 

IMAP also offers a formal Permaculture Design Certificate in both Spanish and English; the course, while rooted in the Mayan worldview, attracts students from around the world.  Volunteers also come to learn about permaculture through the day-to-day operations of the place.  Many of these volunteers go on to establish their own permaculture practices on other continents.  While they are here, they enrich both IMAP and each other with their own knowledge and experience. 

Besides its work in education and food production, IMAP also protects biodiversity through its seed bank programme.  The bank makes native seeds, which are increasingly hard to find elsewhere, available to farmers all over the country.  Rather than storing the seeds for a long time, IMAP works with local farmers who replant them.  This reproductive cycle is the only way to both increase and renew the vitality of true “seed capital.”  Another advantage over simply storing the seeds is that replanting them fosters further crossbreeding, so that varieties continue to evolve as they have for millennia.  Needless to say, this practice is also a form of political resistance against the influence of companies like Monsanto, whose “improved” seeds not only reduce biodiversity, but also endanger food sovereignty by claiming to “own” a source of life.

All of this is comes together in IMAP’s latest project, the promotion of amaranth and chia production.  These two native crops were once staples of the Mayan diet.  However, the Spanish conquistadores, noticing that the seeds were important in native religious rituals, suppressed and all but eliminated their production.  Now, scientists have rediscovered their nutritional value and health benefits, and demand has grown for amaranth and chia around the world.  In the cradle of these species, though, there is not enough supply, because farmers had long abandoned their cultivation.

IMAP is helping local farmers to restart production, by providing them with the initial seeds along with technical accompaniment, and by ensuring that some of the harvest is kept for replanting.  IMAP’s promotion of amaranth and chia is at once an act of cultural revival, a contribution to healthy nutrition, and an income-generating alternative for local farmers.  At the same time, it gives an opening to work with these farmers to strengthen the ecological sustainability of their methods, and it contributes to local biodiversity.