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Planting the Seed of Change: Mentalities Towards Sustainability and Environmentalism in Rural Guatemala

As planting season rapidly approaches, a lot of preparations are being made for upcoming projects. Semilla Nueva is currently working with small groups led by experienced and enthusiastic local farmers (promotores) to share information about alternative ways of cultivating the land. The role of the organization is to inspire and support the people with proven technologies, while the promotor serves as a local example and resource for assistance and information. The first step this year is to introduce a type of conservation agriculture called cero labranza (no-till). This practice preserves the life in the soil and protects it from erosion. The main goal is to give farmers the technical assistance they need to try small tests, where they don’t till the land or burn crop residues, teaching them the value of a new practice through their own participation. Cero labranza has been proven to increase the resilience of agricultural lands to extreme weather and land degradation, protecting the soil from baking in the sun, wind and rain erosion, droughts and flooding.

Burning of crop residue and tilling the soil has been an agricultural tradition passed down in families for decades in many places around the world. It is a practice and a mentality that cannot change over night. This is why Semilla Nueva is working with long-term incentives through the campesino a campesino, farmer to farmer, model. Inspired local leaders, called promotores, connect the organization to other farmers and bridge valuable information to the community. The idea is that the informed local network will serve as a lasting resource, educating the community in locally appropriate and tested sustainable ways of farming.

Above: An example of a zero-till system. A healthy new crop of corn grows with the stalks remaining from the previous harvest. Image credit: CIMMYT

Above: A test showing the differences between zero-till (left) and conventional slash and burn (right) methods for growing maize. Image credit: CIMMYT

There seems to be an awareness of the harms traditional ways of agriculture brings. Last week the Semilla Nueva team attended a follow-up meeting for the bio-fertilizer conference we attended in the end of last year, where the environmental concerns of burning residue was brought up. The group leader asked the question: “How would you like to go out working in the field at mid-day without a shirt on?” which was received with laughter, at the ridiculousness of such a suggestion. The metaphor communicated the idea of understanding and empathy for the soil. Farmers truly are concerned by the current state of the soil, which directly affects their job security, access to food, and family health.

Juan Carlos Aguíerre is a trained agronomist who lives and farms near La Maquina, in southern Guatemala. He believes in the importance of giving children an education in ecology. He wants to give them a better understanding of the relation between humans, animals and the environment, how it is all interconnected and that one activity will affect the whole system. For example, how the unwarranted killing of a native black bird has led to the rise of rampant pest that destroys the corn leaves. Everyone we talked to seemed to agree that we all have a responsibility to take care of the environment and the land that has been given to us. “We want to have something to pass off to our children, to ensure the future of our family,” he says.

There is also a sense of resentment towards the destructive practices of nearby, large scale plantations. Local communities recognize that the division of resources is not equal, and there is a culture of exploitation surrounding large-scale production. For example, many farmers rent their land to sugarcane companies, drawn to the economic incentive. The companies cultivate it in environmentally harmful ways for about a decade, returning the land spent and impossible to cultivate. People are, however, not only upset about the economical and social exploitation this industry brings but they are also concerned about the environmental harms. People everywhere talk about how the smoke from burning the sugarcane fields is bad for health and destroys the environment.

Still, the majority of farmers in Guatemala burn crop residues and continue tilling their land. What I think is missing here is not interest, will, or respect for the environment. What is missing is access to information and new knowledge. That is why organizations like Semilla Nueva are important. I believe that poco a poco, little by little, we, together with the farmers, will be able to introduce alternative methods in rural communities, trying and adapting them to the local culture and environment, and actively changing the way of living and cultivating to become more sustainable, environmentally as well as socio-economically.

~Emelie Petersson

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