In a remote community near the Mexican border in Western Guatemala, I met Pascual and his family on their farm. Just as their parents did before them, Pascual and his wife have worked all of their lives growing coffee. They used conventional agricultural practices and struggled to grow strong, healthy plants in the steep terrain of their farm.
Pascual’s family have found it difficult to make enough money from the farm to send all of their children to school. With climate change, their struggles have only worsened. Now they experience either too little water, and they fail to grow crops, or too much, when strong winter weather causes flooding and landslides.
However, things began to change for their family three years ago, when Pascual’s was introduced to Trócaire’s local partner organisation Red Kuchub’al. This is a network of farmers and producers who meet to share knowledge so they can commercialise their produce. They also promote environmentally friendly approaches, such as agro-ecological practices.
Pascual was able to increase his knowledge, through training and resources, to incorporate agro-ecology into his land. Today, his farm stands out from other farms in the area for the diversity of its crops, its self-sustainability and its creative solutions to climate change.
A sustainable and eco-friendly approach to farming
“Before, the rainwater would flow and pour into our house”, Pascual says. This was before he built terraces to make the best use of the land on the steep hill above his house.
Now with their terraces, his family can store more water in the soil to be used by crops, minimize soil erosion and create a more resilient environment in an area with steep terrains, intermittent rainfall and periods of drought.
“We no longer have to buy any chemicals” Pascual told me when he proudly showed me his healthy coffee plants. He has learned how to prepare organic fertiliser, which he obtains from his goats and sheep. He also separates the animals’ urine and mixes it with water to give his plants a boost of essential nutrients (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous).
By collecting and converting animal manure into organic fertiliser, Pascual creates a cycle of nutrients in his land, where external inputs such as chemical fertilisers are unnecessary.
Good for the environment, good for tackling poverty
Shifting to an agro-ecological approach to farming isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also made a huge difference to Pascual’s family’s income.
They have been able to diversify the crops they grow. Before they depended on coffee, but now they also have fruit trees, bananas and medicinal plants. So the family have more options to get by if there is difficult weather, or changes in the market means the price of coffee drops.
Now all of their children go to school. Some of them have even moved to the city to get a better education – an opportunity that he tells me that neither he nor his wife had.
In the future, Pascual wants to commercialise his coffee, to get it certified as organic, and to continue working with Red Kuchub’al so that he can learn new approaches, explore different techniques and make his farm more sustainable and independent.
Pascual now understands that everything he does in his land has long-term impacts for his family and his community. As well as the improvements to his farm, Pascual has created tree nurseries and has started planting trees next to his land and in other areas of his community. “This is for my children” he says about his efforts to reforest and protect the environment.
On the way to independence and sustainability
For farmers like Pascual, choosing agroecology over other agricultural approaches is not an easy decision. It requires an investment of patience, time, effort and faith that their hard work will have long-lasting effects. That it will benefit their community, their environment and the livelihoods of future generations.
In Guatemala, people living in rural areas – especially in indigenous communities – face many challenges that are aggravated by climate change, natural disasters, structural oppression and a long history of conflict and loss.
Farmers living in these conditions of poverty and scarcity are often hesitant to become independent and reimagine their approach to food production, especially when government programs are more likely to promote conventional agricultural practices.
Conventional practices rely on monocultures – farming just a single crop – and often involve dependence on external inputs such as patented seeds, industrial fertilisers and pesticides. These deprive farmers of their independence in favour of big agri-businesses. They also have long-term impacts on their land, depleting the soil of its nutrients and making it more and more difficult to grow food every year.
Therefore, opting for agro-ecology means taking a stance against the system and choosing biodiversity and soil health over dependence on commercial products.
With Trócaire’s support, many farmers in Central America and around the world have access to tools to become more independent, resilient and sustainable. Like Pascual, they share their work with pride and look forward to a brighter future for generations to come.
Alejandra Guillot Ontanon is an EU Aid volunteer working with Trócaire as part of the REACH initiative, co-funded by the European Union.