by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director
After a couple of hours of driving, the lowland cane fields gave way to rolling hills of more extensive monoculture in the form of rubber plantations that envelope the highway on all sides. After a few slight detours through bustling towns, we began a slow ascent back into the extraordinary coffee country that begins near the foot of Volcano Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range. With the change in topography and scenery came a surprise pit stop for lunch in the indigenous community of Quixayá, just south of San Lucas Tolimán.
As our group of 15 Work Tour guests exited the vans to stretch and take stock of the new surroundings we followed our guide, Ramiro Tzunun, towards the edge of the small town. From a strategic perch we took stock of our bearings – we now stood on the precipice of a cliff overlooking a lush river valley. Ramiro informed us that this was, in fact, a unique and special place – a collective and familial agriculture and aquaculture system divided into three unique zones: a valley floor and riverbank sector devoted primarily to watercress, tilapia and shellfish; a mid-level sector with flatter plots used primarily for impressive companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas; and, finally the higher reaches of the valley that marks the transition zone to the mountainous forest, primarily devoted to agroforestry and woodfuel.
In 2010, Hurricane Agatha swept through the river valley and caused widespread destruction to the community´s main economic lifeline, but since then there have been impressive rebuilding and development of terraced ponds designed for tilapia and watercress production. The community is mostly self-sufficient and autonomous, content to carve out a living from their special place on the earth. In fact, the community has received very little foreign NGO or state assistance, but guidance from the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture (IMAP) has been particularly important and Ramiro is one of their co-founders. He bases his approach to development on the farmer-to-farmer methodology as well as ancestral knowledge and the overall Mayan cosmovision.
Following our hike down the ridge and through the river valley, we stopped at a bucolic dining spot that also functions as a gathering place for workshops and educational events for the few groups that are fortunate enough to visit. Lunch consisted of the local tilapia and watercress, accompanied by broccoli, carrots, peppers, and potatoes – all harvested directly from the fertile valley. Many of our Work Tour guests were positively impacted and moved by the beauty and the special energy of this valley, a strong testament to the power of human potential when combined with solid permaculture design and Mayan cultural philosophy.
The permaculture and Mayan elements are a powerful part of IMAP´s mission, which is “to empower communities towards self-sustainability through permaculture education, Mayan ancestral knowledge and conservation of native seeds.” Upon the completion of our Quixayá visit we ventured up through more mountains heavily dotted with coffee production before arriving at the idyllic lakeside location of IMAP´s main center just outside of San Lucas Tolimán. Once settled in, our group received an informative introduction into the history and mission of the center and its work in surrounding communities along with a more holistic discussion on the Mayan cosmovision on agriculture, water, and ecosystems.
This single day was short compared to the more extensive time in our focus community, but the overall impact was deep and helped our group to understand alternate approaches to development and environmental management. Additionally, it provided crucial perspective on the indigenous approaches to agriculture and permaculture and their relationship to overall community development. The Mesoamerican Institute is conducting profoundly important work in Guatemala and our relationship with them is only in the preliminary stages, but we certainly look forward to continuing our collaboration in the future to continue the process of positive community development in Guatemala and Central America as a whole.