Hombres de maíz. Men of corn. More than just a description, it’s the basis of the Mayan belief system. Popol Vuh, the Mayan’s eight hundred year-old narrative of creation, teaches just that: humankind is created from corn.
One could say, then, that the Mayan people’s connection to this crop has some significantly deep roots. It’s why they still plant corn today, as their great-grandfathers did, and as they expect their great-grandchildren will. In the area around Poptun, in the El Petén region of Guatemala, the farming of corn continues, but the land is suffering for it.
I visited Guatemala at the end of January, and stayed for three nights at the beautiful Finca Ixobel, a 400-acre farm and hotel just outside of Poptun. Carole and Michael DeVine moved from the United States to start Ixobel in 1971, and it has been going strong ever since, providing home-cooked food and a place to stay to travelers from around the world. I spoke with Carole and some of her staff about that area’s farming and local food culture during my stay.
When the DeVines arrived in Guatemala 40 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of variety in the food that was grown and available around Poptun – field corn, black beans, some green beans and yellow squash, according to Carole. A plane would come twice a week from Guatemala City to bring additional fruit and vegetables, but even then there were limits to what was available.
Carole eventually persuaded the sellers in the Poptun market to bring in sweet corn, broccoli, peas, and more varieties of squash. Over the years, her order list grew longer. Some of these food items have caught on around Poptun, and others haven’t. Even now, when she orders green leaf lettuce from the sellers, she’s responsible to take the whole shipment because no one else will buy it at the market.
The Finca Ixobel maintains a small organic herb and vegetable garden and a number of different types of fruit trees, from which all of the output is utilized in their kitchen. This type of home garden isn’t the norm around Poptun, though. Only one thing has withstood the test of time in the farming practices of the Petén region, and that is corn. It is widely agreed amongst both local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as long-time residents like Carole and her staff, however, that with every tree that is cut down, the clock is ticking down on corn farming.
Corn is a crop that can only be planted once every seven years on the same land. The current practice in this region is clearcutting. When one corn crop is done, more trees are cut down to make way for the next planting, and fallow land is left largely unutilized. The problem is that there are only so many trees left that can be cleared, and for those that have been taken down already, there are grave concerns about the impact on the environment.
Herein lies the practical aspect of this problem. Another reason that the people in this region favor corn is because it is a crop that will provide them with income within four months of its planting. To convince a Mayan farmer to switch to the more environmentally sustainable crops of cacao or coffee, which only reach full harvest after four or five years, is a pretty tough sell. They’ve got short-term needs, such as putting food on the table for their families.
The benefit of cacao and coffee, however, is that it thrives in shade; hence there would be no need to cut down trees in order to plant it. But what could be done to help alleviate the loss of the short-term income for these families?
One option could be to use some of the land for home gardens, like Finca Ixobel. If families started to grow more of a variety of fruit and vegetables, not only could they eat them, they could sell them for some additional income.
A study done by the University of Delaware in 2008 showed that if a household used homegrown produce for its own consumption as well as for sale, it could potentially boost its income by up to 15 percent. While not an insignificant number, it wouldn’t completely replace the loss of income from corn, so additional solutions would need to be sought out.
The tools for home gardens are available. On a trip into central Poptun, I took an inventory of the kinds of seeds that were available for sale, and found cabbage, celery, onion, Swiss chard, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, radish, beets, chives, cilantro, plus seeds for a number of different types of squash and peppers. For fruit, there was watermelon and cantaloupe.
All of these items and more are available in their fully-grown form in the Poptun market, from which most residents currently buy. The market also has a selection of local herbs and vegetables – tomillo, pacaya, hierba mora, macal, yuca, and others. Still, I managed to find a couple of types of apples imported from Washington State, and most of the produce still comes from large-scale suppliers in Guatemala City.
Carole and her staff tried to pilot the option of growing black pepper within the local community, as it does best under the natural canopy of the trees, is of low weight when it comes to transporting the harvest, and commands a good market price. It also takes four or five years until first harvest. The idea didn’t stick. Nor did a handful of other projects that were implemented by international NGOs – they ran well until the NGO’s program staff left Guatemala, and then sputtered out.
Another thing that has changed the farming landscape, so to speak, has been the recent availability of land titles, according to Roberto Lediger, one of the Finca Ixobel team. With title in hand, small farmers are able to sell their land for the first time. Many have been approached by commercial farming operations and subsequently accepted their low six-figure offers for plots of between 100 and 200 acres. It brings immediate windfall to the family, but after a handful of years, the money is spent, and they no longer have an income-generating operation. The commercial farmers, on the other hand, continue to clear the land and farm corn.
The local environmental organization ProPetén is currently working on launching a new community sustainability project that will include Finca Ixobel as a participant. My hope is that as an organization with its sole focus on the Petén region, and a local headquarters, they will succeed where others have not been able. There is great opportunity to bring greater agrodiversity to the Poptun area if a transition plan that is suitable to local needs can be put into place.