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'Seeds Are Life'

Guatemalan permaculture expert touring the Maritimes

by Jackie McVicar

Gregorio Ajcot creates a permaculture design with participants at a workshop at IMAP. (Photo courtesy of IMAP)
Gregorio Ajcot creates a permaculture design with participants at a workshop at IMAP. (Photo courtesy of IMAP)

This is part of our Just Us! Just Journalism! series of articles dealing with issues of food security, sustainable farming, fair trade and cooperatives in the Maritimes. We thank Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op for helping to make this piece possible.

“Working the land is the natural way of living,” says Gregorio Ajcot proudly. Ajcot, an Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel man from San Lucas Toliman, a town of 15,000 nestled amongst volcanoes near Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, will be in the Maritimes from March 11-23 on a speaking tour to promote a better way of life for people, plants and the planet.

His connection to the Maritimes began in 2007 when a young woman from Antigonish was an intern through Breaking the Silence (a network of Maritime activists who do human rights and other solidarity work in Guatemala) at the organization where he worked. “We worked on the Healthy Families Project together and that’s where I learned about the (BTS) network,” says Ajcot.

In a community whose economy is dependent on coffee – the crop takes up 80 per cent of the fields around San Lucas Toliman -  many young people grow up to be intimately involved in its production process. But although Ajcot has spent hours picking coffee cherries that would ultimately be sold to intermediaries for miserable prices, he was also taught the importance of diversity and seed saving by his parents as a young boy. “I grew up in the culture ... my education was in the countryside,” Ajcot says.

In 1996, Ajcot learned about permaculture through a course given by an Australian man who was in Guatemala at the time. There he learned that three key tools to permaculture were ancestral knowledge, knowledge coming from nature and modern knowledge, regardless of the kind of life system being designed.

Four years later, IMAP — the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute — was created.   

Today, IMAP offers workshops to neighbouring communities about medicinal plants, vegetable and fruit gardens and use of tropical plants and flowers, all using permaculture design principles. According to IMAP, “Permaculture (permanent agriculture/culture) is the design of self-sufficient human environments – a system that is ecologically healthy and balanced and economically viable, that provides long term food security and sovereignty.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the planet has lost 75 per cent of its original plant genetic diversity. “This is a staggering loss,” laments Stephanie Hughes, Regional Seed Program Coordinator for the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN), “and it’s happened in part because our global food system is input-sensitive, monoculture-dominated and export-orientated.”

Hughes, who met Ajcot while volunteering at IMAP, says that “conventional agriculture has favoured varieties of seeds that are imported, difficult to adapt to local conditions, and that need to be re-purchased year after year, turning farming into an extremely costly livelihood.” In contrast to conventional farming practices in Guatemala and Canada, IMAP works to promote cultural and biological diversity. The organization promotes sustainable food systems at the community and family level while focusing on food sovereignty and environmental stewardship.

But “sustainable” is a relative term. Even Monsanto, one of the world’s largest hybrid and genetically modified seed producers, describes itself as a sustainable agriculture company.  Monsanto’s “Round-Up Ready” seeds — corn, soya bean or otherwise — have increased in popularity for large-scale grain farmers in Canada and around the world who use the product with larger machines and fewer hands. 

The notion of “seed-saving,” a principal idea of IMAP, is contradictory to Monsanto’s vision of farming; the company’s seeds are patented and the intellectual property rights to sow and harvest the seeds remain in its hands. Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that 75-year-old Indiana soya bean farmer Hugh Bowman didn’t have the right to replant seeds – Monsanto patented seeds – to be used for future production.

In Guatemala, where seeds have been saved for centuries, Monsanto is a force to be contended with. Though Indigenous Maya, and other peasant farmers have saved seeds from generation to generation, picking out the strongest seeds and saving them to be replanted year after year, current President Otto Perez Molina cozied up to company officials during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, according to a recent government press release. 

“During the meeting with Hugh Grant, President of Monsanto, he (Perez Molina) spoke of a project together with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture to produce improved seeds to promote small national producers, as well as lab research related to inputs that increase agricultural production,” the release reads.

Back in San Lucas Toliman, Ajcot worries about these kinds of partnership and the impacts they have on small producers. Instead, he works hard to promote heritage seeds, community and school gardens and biological diversity. When a plague hits the local coffee crop, as it did this year, it becomes an opportunity.

“People are more open to talk about diversity now. They see the work we are doing and why it’s important,” Ajcot says. On his own plot of land, Ajcot cultivates 25 plant species and 36 varieties of fruit trees, medicinal plants, and bushes. He also has a family garden, in which together with his children and partner he works to produce an almost perpetual harvest.

Though coffee production is seen as important at a national level, plagues are sure to keep happening, threatening to leave peasant farmers without an income. And, because so much land is now used to cultivate coffee, instead of producing food for family and community consumption, peasants are left even more vulnerable when plagues hit.

“Coffee isn’t food. It’s for export and the intermediaries are the ones making the money. And every day, our land is worse off with it. It will not end our cycle of poverty,” says Ajcot. No income and no food mean that more and more people will be eating less in a country that has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world.

Many Guatemalans are concerned about food production and having enough to eat. Prices of basic grains like corn and beans, staples of the Guatemalan diet, are predicted to go up by mid-March 2013 due to a severe drought that is predicted given low rain falls in 2012. IMAP’s water-saving permaculture design methods are attractive, and seed saving is vital.

“Without seeds, there is no food,” repeats Ajcot, the phrase that is now IMAP’s mantra. Hughes  agrees: “There is a growing global movement for seed sovereignty.  Increasingly, seed is being recognized as the starting point for food security.” Since her placement with IMAP in 2010-2011, she has been making the links between what she learned on site in Guatemala with her work in food security in the Maritimes. “What IMAP is doing in Guatemala, with their seed bank, is empowering the local community to preserve and grow the seeds ...The more diverse and robust their local seed supply, the stronger their food security. Pioneering individuals and organizations in Canada have been doing the same work here.”

Hughes notes that there are many challenges that make seed saving in Canada a viable endeavour, though it is a tradition that goes back generations. “More and more people in the Maritimes are showing an interest in re-learning the skills and sharing their seeds.” During his trip to the Maritimes, Ajcot will meet with local farmers, many of whom are saving their seeds from year to year to share experiences and ideas. He also hopes to reach out to others who don’t have seed saving on their radar. “This trip is about talking about our work and raising the consciousness in people who are disconnected to help them see what is happening.”

And back at home, Ajcot says he will continue to work the land, using the knowledge from nature, ancestors and modern sources. “Food sovereignty begins with seeds,” he says.

In Guatemala or Canada, the important and sacred tradition of saving and replanting them has never seemed more important than today.

Jackie McVicar is co-coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Solidarity Network. Gregorio Ajcot will be visiting the Maritimes from March 11 until March 23. He will make stops in Fredericton, Sackville, Tatamagouche, Truro, Antigonish and PEI during his trip to the region. www.breakingthesilenceblog.com for more information.

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