Qachuu Aloom

Take a look into the lives of the present day Mayan people and their rich agricultural roots.

| Summer 2014

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.

Rural Roots

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. 

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