Unique Indigenous Maya food system blends cropping techniques in Guatemala

  • Members of the Maya Ch’orti’ Indigenous communities in Guatemala practice a unique agroforestry system and an intercropping technique seen as one of the best methods in the world of maximizing the different intensities of sunlight and complementing soil fertility.
  • The communities’ traditional food system also includes home patio gardens, living fences and communal forest areas to cultivate and gather local plant species used in traditional medicine, woven handicrafts and edible food dye production.
  • The resilient food system is increasingly affected by climate change, out-migration, extractive industries and COVID-19 economic impacts driving up prices of household goods that families need to purchase.
  • This article is one of an eight-part series showcasing Indigenous food systems covered in the most comprehensive FAO report on the topic to date.

JOCOTÁN, Guatemala – Baudilio García walks up past alternating rows of trees and dried maize lining the hillside. Together with family members, he’s preparing to substitute the crops between the rows of trees.

“Everything that falls to the ground, the leaves and branches, is used as compost,” García says, standing along the rural road at the top of his plot of land in Barrio Nuevo, in Jocotán municipality in Chiquimula department, southeastern Guatemala.

Alley cropping, the practice of planting rows of crops between rows of trees, is often associated with modern tractor use. In the Indigenous Maya Ch’orti’ region of Guatemala, though, the practice is part of the traditional agroforestry food system. García’s parents and grandparents used the same method. “It is used by a lot of people here,” he tells Mongabay.

Alley cropping
Alley cropping that includes coffee trees near Barrio Nuevo, Jocotán, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

García had previously sown maize between the rows of madre de cacao trees (Gliricidia sepium), which are also used in the region to make fence posts and brooms. The maize has since been harvested, and García and his relatives have been pulling up the stalks and digging holes in preparation for planting the alleys.

“We are sowing coffee, bananas and some other plants,” García says. The family will sell these crops to generate income. Along the winding road, there are mixed plots of coffee and banana dotted with native trees left standing, patches of forest, maize, beans and squash in mixed plots, and other crops.

Indigenous food systems such as that of the Maya Ch’orti’ hold lessons for global food systems in desperate need of transformation, according to the Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, a network of Indigenous organizations, research centers and policymakers launched by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

This past June, it published a new scientific report that provides the most detailed and comprehensive account to date of the sustainable food systems of Indigenous peoples around the world. The Maya Ch’orti’ food system is one of eight analyzed in the report.

“We’re all in agreement that the commercial and global food systems we have in place are unsustainable and unresilient,” Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, chief of the FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit and co-coordinator of the Global-Hub, told Mongabay. “They are imposing a tremendous toll on the environment. They are great contributors to climate change.

“How come scientists and policymakers are not learning from Indigenous peoples to make global food systems sustainable and resilient?” he added.

An Indigneous woman and child
A woman and child walk down a trail in Chagüitón, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

According to Fernández de Larrinoa, the Maya Ch’orti’ food system was included because they still maintain the ancestral milpa system of mixed plots of maize, beans and squash. Distinct from the alley cropping system, it is seen as one of the best examples in the world of intercropping to maximize the different intensities of sunlight and complement soil fertility.

“What’s unique about the milpa is not that it only maintains the humidity of the soil better than other systems, in particular monocropping ones,” he said. “But, from an agronomic and ecosystemic perspective, it also combines the nitrogen fixation of the beans with three food items that provide proteins, carbohydrates and micronutrients.”

Diverse sustainable practices in action

The milpa is central to many Maya and other peoples’ food systems in Mesoamerica as it produces maize and beans, dietary staples throughout much of the region. In the Maya Ch’orti’ region of Guatemala, the FAO report notes that other key sources of food along with the milpa are home patio gardens, living fences, and communal forest areas.

The FAO case study in Guatemala focuses on six rural Maya Ch’orti’ communities in the contiguous municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán and Olopa. The selected communities are located in diverse ecosystems within the small region, from rainforest to thorn bush, and cover a range of altitudes, temperatures, and annual rainfall levels.

A field of beans
A field of beans grows on the maize stalks following the harvest in a milpa in Olopa, Chiquimula, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

Mercedes Pérez lives in the highest-altitude community, Agua Blanca, with her husband and other relatives, including great-grandchildren. Located in Olopa municipality, it sits at 1,550 meters (5,085 feet) above sea level, ideal for the cultivation of higher-quality coffee, which the family has planted around the patio garden surrounding the home.

Chickens and ducks sit and wander inside and around their roost behind the house, where Pérez has also planted aloe vera, verbena and other plants the family uses for their medicinal properties. Animals, medicinal plants and wild edibles are all integral parts of the Maya Ch’orti’ food system. Local women gather wild leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants from forest areas.

“It only springs up in the rainy season,” Pérez tells Mongabay, pointing to an epazote plant (Dysphania ambrodioides) at the edge of the patio, behind the kitchen. “It is good for [the elimination of] parasites.”

The Chagüitón community, located in a much lower and drier region than Agua Blanca, is also included in the FAO report. Community leader Alfredo Amador has a milpa but he has also been learning about and incorporating different techniques and species into the patio garden. Flowers that provide splashes of color and serve to attract pollinators line the walkway at the top edge of the sloping property. Rainwater capture tanks feed the gravity-drip irrigation systems further down.

Amador, his wife and their three children are among the local families who have worked with the FAO and other international organizations to increase sustainability, diversity, nutrition and income generation in agricultural practices.

Bright and energetic, Amador rattles off plant names, their uses, and various techniques as he takes Mongabay through his property. The family makes flour from diverse local plant species, including arrowleaf elephant ear (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). They grow a few ancestral bean varieties that have been cultivated for centuries.

Leaves, reeds and fibers from several local plants are used by artisans to make mats, rope and bags. Grubs that grow inside a recently fallen palm can be eaten a few months later. Low walls made of rock prevent erosion in one particularly steep section of land, and protect medicinal and edible plants.

“This is another completely new system. It is for the yield,” Amador says, pointing to the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) growing in a row of sacks loosely filled with soil and watered with drip irrigation. “What helps is that it is softer for the tuber to grow.”

Amador grabs a handful of pellets and tosses them into a nearby aquaculture pond for the tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), which quickly swarm toward the surface to feed. The fish are also fed with the leaves of sweet potato, cassava (Manihot esculenta) and tree spinach (Cnidoscolus aconitifoliostree).

tilapia pond
Alfredo Amador stands next to his tilapia pond. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

Locally known as chatate, tree spinach has many other names: chaya, spinach tree, and Mayan spinach. A hardy plant, it is native to Guatemala and Mexico, and commonly grown and consumed in the area. Studies have shown that its large leaves, cooked to eliminate toxins, are particularly high in protein, calcium and iron, and contain at least twice as many nutrients as other leafy green vegetables.

Amador’s family planted a large plot of tree spinach to eat, sell and make flour from the leaves, which can also be used as a vibrant green dye for drinks. Sales have been scarce in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis, but a beverage company bought a batch of tree spinach from the family to experiment with as a food dye.

Sustainable food system facing challenges

Part of what makes many Indigenous food systems resilient is that they are not static. Traditional elements of the Maya Ch’orti’ food system endure alongside other sustainable practices geared toward income-generating production for urban centers. However, the FAO report noted that some practices that were once widespread, such as hunting, fishing and gathering, have progressively faded away. Traditional hunting with blowguns and natural poisons has essentially disappeared.

Amador says he remembers wildlife being much more abundant a few decades ago, and thinks it has been edged out by community growth. “There was a lot of plant and animal diversity, but it has been somewhat decreasing,” he says, though birds are a constant in the patio garden area and he still sometimes sees opossums (Didelphis marsupialis) and other animals on the property.

Indigenous woman gathers firewood
Valentina García, 37-years-old from Jocotán, Chiquimula, gathers firewood in a field in the municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

There have been several more sudden and drastic shocks to the Maya Ch’orti’ food system in recent years, according to the FAO report. Over the past 20 years, communities have experienced the effects of climate change, with shifts in rainfall patterns, including an increase in instances of drought and substantial storms outside regular rainy seasons. In several years since 2010, shifts in climate conditions have resulted in partial and sometimes total losses of maize and bean crops in the Maya Ch’orti’ region.

Along with the effects of climate change, natural resource exploitation also threatens Maya Ch’orti’ lands and the food system. Nearly a decade ago, the government granted the Cantera Los Manantiales company an exploitation license for an antimony mine in Olopa without consulting the local Indigenous population, required under law. Maya Ch’orti’ communities, the local Nuevo Día organization and ancestral authorities from the traditional governance system began protesting the mine.

A study on mine impacts in another region in Guatemala revealed elevated levels of heavy metals in nearby and downstream river water and cited potential impacts on locally grown food. Ch’orti’ communities are particularly concerned about the pollution of the Jupilingo River, as streams that feed the river run right through the mine area.

“We are fighting for the lands to be protected,” says Carmelita Pérez, a traditional Ch’orti’ authority in the village of El Amatillo in Olopa. “We went to [Guatemala City] to denounce the mine in court.”

In November 2019, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the exploitation license and all related mining activity pending consultation with affected Indigenous communities. The country’s Constitutional Court has issued similar rulings in recent years, temporarily halting activity at major silver and nickel mines. The resulting government-led consultation process, though, consists of information and dialogue, without the possibility of respecting the community’s potential refusal to consent to mining.

Banana trees
Banana trees stand between tree cover in the village of Agua Blanca in the municipality of Olopa, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

“We do not want that dialogue round table anymore,” Pérez tells Mongabay. The mine has already impacted lands and communities enough, she says.

More than 20 local Maya Ch’orti’ community leaders and residents faced criminal charges related to their protest activities. Prominent mine opponent and village traditional authority Medardo Alonzo Lucero was killed in 2020, and another community leader and outspoken mine opponent was found dead in his home under suspicious circumstances two years earlier.

While communities in Olopa continue to organize against mining, shifting rainfall patterns, the pandemic and price hikes are all affecting Maya Ch’orti’ communities and their food system, says Pérez. The economic impacts of the pandemic mean people cannot afford to buy the baskets, hats and bags that Ch’orti’ women make with natural materials. At the same time, prices of many basic household goods that families need to buy have risen.

Families in the Maya Ch’orti’ region in Guatemala now have to purchase nearly half of what they consume in the home, according to the FAO report, but poverty rates in the region are the highest in Chiquimula department. Jocotán and Olopa are among the 20 municipalities in the country with the highest chronic malnutrition rates, affecting close to two-thirds of children, and migration out of the region is significant.

However, despite the complex challenges faced by Maya Ch’orti’ communities, the food system endures.

“What is clear is that if we look at the history of agriculture, if we go way back in time, we see that some of the food systems that today are still practiced by Indigenous peoples were practiced,” Fernández de Larrinoa said. “The importance of Indigenous peoples’ food systems is that they remind us of many things that we have forgotten.”

Indigenous crop bean
Alfredo Amador shows a local “ancestral bean” variety that he grows on his land. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.


Banner image: Alfredo Amador stands among the plants near his home in Chagüitón, Jocotán, Chiquimula, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Jeff Abbott.

Related reading: This article is the latest in a series about Indigenous food systems, see more here.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: From its ancient Indigenous roots to wide modern adoption, a discussion of the power and promise of agroforestry. Listen here:

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