Q’eqchi’ Maya Agriculture

Highland Q’eqchi’ agriculture is a combination of subsistence agriculture and the vestiges of a gathering tradition. Agricultural production provides the needs of the family, not of external markets. Historically, traditional Q’eqchi’ agriculture consisted of an integrated polyculture of milpa (k’al), guamil (alk’al), forest (kiche’) and household forest-garden landscapes (xsutam li rochoch). It was a mix of cultivating, collecting and hunting. A family’s food came from cultivated lands, abandoned agricultural lands and pristine forests. Today, both cultivated and wild plants are still part of the diet of the Q’eqchi’ people. In remote communities, especially communities bordering the cloud forest, hunting still constitutes a small percentage of Q’eqchi’ subsistence. However, without question, the mainstay of Q’eqchi’ agriculture was, and is, the corn field.


Highland Q’eqchi’ agriculture is traditional but this does not mean that it is static and changeless. Agricultural practices have changed significantly since the advent of agricultural chemicals. Today, the corn field is more of a solid monocrop than it was 30 years ago when it was a polyculture of edible weeds, banana plants, and traditional companion crops. Companion crops in the highlands included heirloom beans (e.g. Lol and Nun) and a wide variety of squash and pumpkins. Today the polycultural nature of the milpa (or corn field) is declining to the point of soon being lost altogether.

Highland Q’eqchi’ corn cultivation practices are inadequate even for subsistence (not-for-profit farming). Corn’s monopolization of both Q’eqchi’ agriculture and the Q’eqchi’ diet has not proved profitable to the family’s economy nor has it proven beneficial to the family’s nutrition.

girl with corn in hand

Q’eqchi’ agriculture today still bears the wounds from the time when the plantation (called finca or hacienda in Spanish) dominated Q’eqchi’ society. From the 1880s to 1940s it was common for plantation owners to forbid the cultivation for private consumption of other crops besides corn and beans. This rule made it easy for the owner to identify which crops belonged to him and which crops belonged to the peasants of his plantation. This rule also greatly restricted the customary Q’eqchi’ diet.

Iximak shelling corn

On the other hand there are many beautiful and worthy things about traditional Q’eqchi’ agriculture. From ancient times to today, the highland Q’eqchi’ see agriculture as both physical and spiritual. Working in the earth is contact with God the creator. A planter is a kind of co-creator, making life appear from the soil. The typical Q’eqchi’ farmer, whether Mayanist, Catholic or Evangelical, is aware of the spirituality of working the land and the spirituality of the earth. Clearing and burning, planting and cultivating, harvesting and storing, are all ritual, all part of religion and rite.

In traditional Maya belief, everything in the cosmos has a counterpart. The universe is composed of complementary dualities. In ancient times these complementary dualities were even a part of the writing system. The proto-maya word for “complete” or “whole” (TZ’AK) was represented with a very wide variety of glyphs, each representing binary relationships or complementary opposition. Here are a few: day / night, earth / sky, unripe / ripe, female / male, sun / moon. Coupled these stood for the word “complete.” Some dualities might seem to us non-intuitive: food / water, cloud / rain, star / moon but all of these glyph combinations stood for the same thing, “complete” or “whole.” To this day, the Q’eqchi’ language favors doublets in their prayers and poetry.

The one complementary duality that has stood the test of time is tzuul taq’a (mountain-valley). Tzuul taq’a literally means mountain valley but can also refer to landscape. Tzuul taq’a is also the ancestral word for God. In all these senses the complementary opposition of tzuul taq’a stands for “complete” or “whole.”

Activities are timed with seasons, rains and the phases of the moon. Traditions of offerings, asking permission, and “feeding”, exemplify the attitude of respect and recognize the Qaawa’ Tzuul Taq’a (mountain-valley god) as owner of all. For example: asking permission of the mountain valley god to plant the corn field as an annual ritual in which all the adult men of the community take part.

Of course, today Q’eqchi’ agriculture is not all love and light. Balance and equilibrium get thrown out the window. Modern poverty, population explosion and the agro-chemical industry have created another reality.