CCFC’s agroecology program helps Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers from remote, mountain villages that border the cloud forest in Guatemala’s central highlands. Agroecology, as the name implies, is the science that combines agronomy and ecology. In a completely natural ecosystem, everything hums along in the balance that nature is famous for maintaining. Conventional agriculture is disruptive and has the potential of knocking things out of the natural equilibrium. Agroecology seeks to bring agriculture into balance with nature. The idea is that agriculture takes place within the context of an ecosystem. Or better, the farmer is a kind of co-creator of an agro-ecosystem. CCFC works with these local farmers exploring how even modest agroecology techniques and principles can improve production and profits.
Francisco Coc in 2005, one of Tara Cahill’s early agroecology students.
Agroecology means better nutrition, better incomes and a better environment, photo by Tara Cahill, 2004
CCFC Agroecology Specifics
On the ground CCFC is actively teaching, promoting and encouraging agroecology in all of its programs. This takes the form of some specific activities and topics of teaching.
Reviving Traditional and Heirloom Crops
Teaching and promoting specific techniques:
* soil conservation techniques
* integrated pest management and companion planting
* garden to table (nutrition)
* discouraging agricultural burning
Value Adding and Income Generation.
Agroecology as Habitat Enhancement (migratory birds)
CCFC’s Max Noack teaching heirloom crops.
Why Agroecology? The question has come up: if CCFC is all about protecting cloud forests, why Agroecology?
Here’s why. Cloud forests are disappearing because subsistence level farming and slash and burn agriculture, at an extremely local level, are converting forested steep mountain sides into corn fields and cow pastures. Every year, farmers plant large areas in corn. The soil of previous years fields are degraded and exhausted. So the farmer moves up, higher on the mountain in search of fertile soil. The best soils are those of the forest floor. But cutting down the forest, burning and planting corn quickly degrades and exhausts these virgin soils. So farmers again seek new and fertile soil. This is called swidden agriculture or fire-fallow. And it works fine with very low population density and lots of virgin forest. Some indigenous people groups of the Amazon basin practiced this form of agriculture for centuries in a sustainable way.
Today, population density is hundreds of times higher and slash and burn agriculture is being practiced higher on the mountains than ever before in history.
Ian Pope and his colleagues put it this way:
“The preservation of the region’s cloud forests hinges on enhancing production of staple crops through agricultural intensification while maintaining soil fertility through implementation of soil conservation measures.”1
In other words, after having carried out their research they concluded that for the cloud forest to survive something must be done to improve existing agricultural practices. The unhappy reality is that population growth, dependency on expensive chemical fertilizers, and the strangling grip of poverty have changed the equation for the Q’eqchi’ Maya peasant farmer. Traditional agricultural practices need to be reevaluated based on the current ecological situation. Many traditional practices and especially traditional values need to be kept and treasured. Other practices simply need to be tweaked. Some practices, such as slash and burn, should be left behind altogether or moved into the symbolic realm.
The cloud forests of the central highlands are being lost because of agricultural incursions. (photo below) Slash and burn deprives the soil of organic material and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Worse yet, the fire burns the micro organic material that is in the top layer of the soil, turning it into ash, thus leaving the soil poorer and less fertile than before.
The practice of slash and burn nearly guarantees that the farmer will need to find a new patch of land every couple of years.
Agroecology discourages slash and burn mono-cropping by promoting alternatives that are at once more profitable, more nutritious, and more ecologically friendly.
Today, CCFC promotes agroecology techniques and Q’eqchi’ Maya heirloom crops in all of its programs: WALC, Kids & Birds, Reforestation and even Artful Eyes.
Addressing the problems
Antiquated and obsolete agricultural practices are the direct cause of the deforestation in CCFC’s focus area. Substandard subsistence agriculture exacerbates poverty, causes malnutrition and negatively impacts the environment.
Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers from outback communities tend to be subsistence farmers. They eat what they grow and they grow what they eat. Their farming is labor intensive, steep mountain sides, cultivating corn with a heavy hoe. All the work is done by hand, machete, planting stick, hoe, harvest by hand. Their farming is not profitable. Its is a lot of hard work and has very little if any pay off. The vast majority, probably very nearly 100% of the farmers within CCFC focus area live in poverty even though they work very hard.
Another problem that exists today in Q’eqchi’ Maya agriculture is that most farmers grow corn and black beans as a virtual crop monopoly. Children and youth grown up eating corn, and for some meals, only corn. A youth might eat as much as two or even three pounds of corn in a day. A popular drink, Kaj, is made of ground roasted corn with lots of sugar. It is not unusual for a full meal to consist of tortillas, salt, (chili maybe) and Kaj for the beverage. Or a meal might consist of tortillas, beans, salt and coffee. In any case, nearly all of the children growing up in these outback villages that border the cloud forest are in some way or another nutrient deficient and malnourished, not for lack of calories mind you. Even very poor families manage to find the money to buy pounds of sugar every week.
A third problem is that given current population growth and growing population density, Q’eqchi’ Maya agriculture can no longer afford to practice slash and burn. With the rising prices of chemical fertilizers, it can no longer afford to be ever more dependent on agro-chemical companies. With the advance of agricultural incursions now nearly obliterating the forests, even on the steepest mountain sides, Q’eqchi’ Maya agriculture can no longer live off the soil fertility of lands newly converted from forest to field.
CCFC’s agroecology program seeks to address these problems by promoting a more profitable agriculture to help farmers out of poverty. CCFC’s agroecology program encourages farmers to diversify their crops and grow nutritious crops that meet the nutritional needs of their families. CCFC’s agroecology program encourages farmers to conserve and protect their soils and to not cut down more forest.
The program has a strong focus on how heirloom traditional Q’eqchi’ Maya crops and companion planting can improve current agricultural practices: economically, nutritionally, and environmentally. Nearly all of the farmers assisted by CCFC’s agroecology program live in either poverty or extreme poverty. CCFC’s agroecology program helps farmers be more profitable, helps families feed themselves more healthfully, and works with farmers to establish agroecosystems that benefit everything else. To understand how CCFC’s agroecology program can help farming families, remember three key words: profitability, nutrition, ecology.
Companion planting is no new idea for the Q’eqchi’ Maya. For centuries the Maya have cultivated their corn fields, companion planting the corn with heirloom beans and squash. This is still a valuable practice but one that is waning in its usage due to agro-chemicals (herbicides similar to round up that kill everything put the corn). Today, planting corn with heirloom beans such as lol or nun can be the difference between losing money on a crop and making money. The heirloom beans make the difference. (photo Ricardo Ical in his cornfield with squash plant.
Many Q’eqchi’ Maya heirloom crops have been nearly extirpated from highland Q’eqchi’ agriculture, with the exception of corn and black beans which have dominated to the point of virtually monopolizing subsistence agriculture today. This has dire consequences for the environment and for nutrition.
Fortunately, heirloom crops are, all around, better suited to the local climates and soils, more nutritious, easier to grow and propagate, and potentially more profitable in the marketplace. CCFC’s agroecology program promotes Q’eqchi’ heirloom crops. CCFC seeks to recover lost knowledge of these plants and promote their inclusion in new agricultural production landscapes.
Photos of CCFC’s agroecology work
Max Noack teaching heirloom crops during WALC.
For the last several years, CCFC’s Max Noack, a local authority in Q’eqchi’ Maya traditional and heirloom crops has taught about these plants during the WALC program.
WALC peer instructors take over for Max the next year.
Kids & Birds students watch as Elvira Ac Macz demonstrates taro propagation.
Students learn about new and alternative crops by having them for lunch.
The menu: Monday morning students learn about dark leafy greens and how to propagate them. While doing this they also harvest and deliver to the kitchen. Monday lunch: dark leafy greens. The menu is coordinated with the curriculum so that students’ hands on agroecology learning is reinforced with enjoying the good food.
Kale a healthy harvest.
WALC students harvest sweet potatoes, an all time favorite.
WALC students enjoying the garden.
Kids & Birds students learning agroecology.
Fruit trees make a huge difference for subsistence farmers along the edge of the cloud forest. These fruit trees were first introduced to these villages by EcoQuetzal more than 20 years ago. CCFC is building on a great idea. Continuing to promote fruit tree husbandry as well as offering farms a better market for their fruit.
Deciduous fruit is not a labor intensive crop. Once established, a farmer can husband 33 plum / peach trees for a year in just six work days.
Thanks to a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund with Cornell Lab of Ornithology, CCFC was able to provide two grafted fruit trees to each Kids & Birds student in 2015. CCFC interns and volunteer taught students tree planting techniques and fruit tree husbandry. In some cases CCFC interns and volunteer accompanied the students back to their homes to witness the tree planting.
Kids & Birds students learning about fruit trees.
Fruit trees walking home to get planted
“Start small, think big” that’s a statement that works well both for planting fruit trees and for education. It’s not just the tree that gets planted. It’s the ideas, the dreams, the vision.
Maria Elena of Chicacnab, San Juan Chamelco takes her tree up the steep muddy road to her home in the clouds. Plum trees grow great in Chicacnab and Maria Elena is eager to get her tree planted.
Peaches improve both family nutrition as well as family income.
In 2010 a CCFC service learning group from a high school in Chambersburg, PA visited the village of Sanimtaca. The visiting school planted a small orchard of a variety of fruit trees for the village primary school. Here’s a little photo of one of the trees they planted with a student from that school holding her plastic cup (a regular feature of snack time).
Here’s that same tree (far right) in July 2016.
Fruit trees, the gift that keeps on giving.