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Diversity determines destiny: Trócaire partners in Guatemala working to secure land and food supplies

Rose Hogan, Trócaire’s policy advisor on sustainable agriculture, reports from Guatemala on the global lessons that can be learned from local initiatives in ‘ecological agriculture’. 

I’ve just spent an educational and inspiring two weeks meeting with Trócaire partners in Guatemala and El Salvador, learning about their strategies for securing sustainable food supplies, reducing malnutrition and adapting to climate change for families and communities.

Rose Hogan and various Trocaire partners in Guatemala at ecological agriculture workshop

Six partner organisations who all work in the area of ecological agriculture came together for three days in Coban, Guatemala to share experiences and learn from each other.

Halwa and Martin, from Cobán, Guatemala, have been working with Trócaire’s partner Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Comunitario Indígena “Wakliiqo” (ADICI) for five years now. They have adopted a farming technique known as ‘a long-cycle succession forest farming’ which uses long-term tree crops such as cinnamon to develop a tall canopy under which several layers of plants are grown. Green leaf plants cover the soil while beans, pineapples, tomatoes, pumpkins, cacao and other plants all form layers at various heights taking advantage of light and nutrients and finding their own space within the new food forest architecture. 

It sounds chaotic but a natural order does emerge. After five years of using this technique Halwa and Martin now have 110 different plant species which either feed the family directly, or feed the soil, the chickens or the bees who in turn feed the farming couple and their two children. 

According to Halwa and Martin this highly complex permanent cropping system has helped them improve their nutrition through the consumption of a much greater diversity of foods than they would have traditionally consumed and it is also providing a small income that is helping to send their two teenage boys to secondary school. 

Over one hundred families in ADICI’s programme have seen positive changes. ADICI have trained them to monitor their own progress by comparing their food consumption and income with that of neighbouring families. The results show that those families who have adopted the multiple-cropping techniques are eating more often and a more diverse range of foods than their neighbours who have stuck to conventional, business as usual, farming systems, focused solely on growing corn and beans.

RED Kuchubal, another of Trócaire’s  partners in Guatemala, has been very successful in supporting small farmers’ access markets for their produce including coffee, chocolate, honey and various herbal medicines and balms. Some products have received international certification as organic and have even reached international markets.  

Generating a cash income is, however, only one part of the story for achieving sustainable livelihoods for Guatemala’s poor farmers and indigenous families.  Ensuring secure access to land is crucial to producing food for the family. 
Rural Guatemala has been scarred by centuries of conflict, dispossession and unequal access to land that has left the country with the legacy of one of the highest rates of malnutrition in Latin America. 

Malnutrition for children under five is at 43.4%. In rural and communities this rises to 60% and among the indigenous population an alarming 80% of children under five are malnourished.  Eighty-percent of the food consumed in Guatemala is produced by small farmers despite the fact that they only have access to 20% of the land. Whereas 80% of the land remains in the hands of 20% of the population, mostly families of the Guatemalan elite, that use the land to produce export and agro-industrial crops such as sugar cane, coffee, banana, rubber and palm oil.

Trócaire’s partners engage the rural families in land rights education and advocacy with government bodies to ensure land rights are respected. Partners also support families and communities to secure legal title over their lands to avoid future dispossessions. 

Land tenure security is now being threatened by land grabs for mining and hydroelectric mega-projects as well as massive palm oil and sugar cane plantations to produce biofuels. 

Many of the families and communities who suffered both losses of land and loved ones during the 36-year internal armed conflict are the same ones facing this new threat of dispossession.  

Thus organisations like ADICI take a holistic approach to food security by working to protect the rights of small farmers and indigenous communities to lands and resources. They support community peace processes while encourage families to adopt multiple cropping techniques that can provide food all-year-round.

ADICI is in this struggle for the long-haul because “even though projects are short, the processes of development are long.” 

They form part of a local, national, regional and international movement towards ‘food sovereignty’ which fights to retain the legal power over local varieties and species of plant with local communities. 

Partners have engaged politically to prevent international commerce from patenting their seeds and lobbying for local seeds to become recognised as local heritage, maintained by municipalities for their people’s benefit. 

In Guatemala food security is not just about growing enough food, or selling produce in high –value markets but also about taking strategic action to hold onto the agro-biodiversity which enables a diverse diet no matter what the climate brings. 

These local activities provide valuable models for the global actions needed on conversation, land rights and food security into the future. 

Learn more about Trócaire’s work in Guatemala

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