The Mayas of Guatemala have a special day in their calendar to honor the seed. This day—“Qanil”—represents abundance, the four cardinal directions, the four colors of humans, and the four colors of corn. Seeds, especially corn seeds, are a deep part of the Maya culture. Legend says that the first Maya people were molded out of corn masa (dough) and sent to live in the four directions.
Guatemala is the center of origin of many of the food crops we know and love today. Crops like corn, beans, squash, cacao, chile, tomato, avocado, amaranth, and many others originated in Guatemala. Sadly, over the years, thousands of varieties have completely disappeared.
Crops are honored in special ceremonies, blessings, and dances throughout the year, and are an important part of the rich Guatemalan culture. People with whom I’ve worked have taught me that when we lose a unique seed variety, we lose a ceremony, we lose a story, and we lose a part of history.
The reason these seeds are disappearing is complex, but the fight to save them began in 12 small gardens. Thirteen years ago, I went to Guatemala to start a garden project with widows from Guatemala’s civil war. A decade earlier, corn plots and gardens had been burned by the Guatemalan military. Whole villages had been destroyed and families were torn apart. Agricultural development projects moved in to help, but their model of introducing high-input agriculture dependent on chemicals, fertilizers, and expensive hybrid seeds were rarely adopted with success in the rural villages.
We began asking the rural women we were working with why they didn’t continue to plant their gardens once an aid project left. “It’s the seeds,” they said. These projects hand out hybrid seeds from the United States or Europe for the women to plant. In the first years, farmers tried to save seeds from these hybrids as they had done for generations, not understanding that you can’t save seed from a hybrid. After the war, forced relocations of entire villages, and the introduction of “modern agriculture” accelerated the loss of native seeds. Now it often requires a trip to the feed store to buy expensive seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers to plant a garden in Guatemala. Most Guatemalan families can’t afford to do that.
Thus began our journey to find old seed varieties and reintroduce them in the villages where we work. We started with a few handfuls of seeds collected from elders who were still hanging on to them, packed away in dusty jars or stored between roof tiles. These seeds were planted in 12 small home gardens. Each family left a portion of their vegetables to go to seed, and ate or sold the rest. After the first year’s harvest, each family saved enough to re-plant their garden and sold the excess back to the project. We had no idea what to do with these seeds, but knew they were precious. We stored them in empty glass juice bottles, and homemade paper envelopes. The next year a few more families wanted to join, and we happily opened the jars and shared seed with them.
The women started to comment that their neighbors were criticizing them. “They are making fun of us for hauling cow manure and old leaves to make compost. They think our gardens look messy.” But the people stayed motivated because they saw they were breaking their dependency on the stores or aid projects, and they were making a little money on the side.
Families also started planting local native varieties like Macuy, Chipilin, and Amaranth that had fallen out of use, and selling those to our office as well.
The Garden's Edge
We now have over 400 seed growers and have brought back many of the varieties that had almost completely disappeared from the area. Farmers can now plant their garden year-after-year without relying on foreign aid. We have been able to buy farmers extra seed at our Guatemala office and re-sell it to some of the very aid organizations that were once part of the problem. Families use the extra money generated by their seeds to buy clothes and other household necessities and to send their children to school.
In 2012, Richard Bernard, a seed expert who works for the Pueblo of Pojoaque in New Mexico and who is also involved with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, came to Guatemala to visit our gardens. He said the gardens rivaled many of the seed gardens he had sourced seeds from in India and China. He helped us create an inventory, better records on our computer, and contracts for our growers.
Our project is known as The Garden’s Edge, and in Guatemala, the “Qachuu Aloom” Mother Earth Association. Our board of directors and staff in Guatemala are all local Maya farmers whose dream is to preserve the agricultural traditions of their ancestors. Along with seed saving, we offer tours of Guatemala, microloans for women, and scholarships for Maya girls.
Twelve years later, I realize our journey to help preserve these ancient crops has just begun. Our goal in the coming years is to start a small seed company in Guatemala, where many of the crops we know and love originated. Run by the villagers in Guatemala, it will preserve these ancient crops for the future of humankind. Our seeds are available in Guatemala, and soon in the United States through Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.
For more information on The Garden’s Edge visit: www.GardensEdge.org. Look for our booth at the 2014 Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California!
Sarah Montgomery is the Executive director of The Garden's Edge, based in Albuquerque, N.M. She has worked for more than 10 years with Mayan families in Guatemala to develop a locally owned native seed business. It is currently the only project in Guatemala offering native seed for sale on a large scale. She also organizes cultural exchanges between the Maya farmers and farmers in New Mexico to teach seed saving and to keep the culture of farming alive. Along with her husband and two children, she operates her own market garden and CSA.