Solid Gold Soul.

Yeah, that's the road down there.

The day we left the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, Vivian and Byron, our Heifer hosts, drove us five hours to the veritable border of Mexico and the dry, dusty town of Ixcan. To describe the road to Ixcan as “bad” is to sugarcoat it, but since the scenery was beautiful and we were listening to Bebel Gilberto on Vivian’s i-pod, I figured my kidneys would eventually recover from the pummeling. Besides, I was psyched to be heading to site of the esteemed Golden Talent awards.

Ixcan’s own Jose Salvatore Toc had been chosen as the most visionary beneficiary of Heifer Internationals projects in the country– and the minute I saw him walk into the room the next morning, I could see why. Salvatore is charismatic and clearly a leader. Not only does he wear a hat exceedingly well, his gentle manner and kind eyes belie a ferociously strong will. At 62, he has 12 children, 18 grandchildren and has spent years trying to bring greater productivity to the exhausted piece of land he bought in 1990– and share that knowledge with other farmers. Year after year, he had planted corn, used chemical fertilizers, planted beans, and tried everything he could think of to make his land more fertile. Then he heard about the guama tree from Honduras, a fast-growing brushy tree that the people at EcoLogic, Heifer’s partner since 2010, were touting as a promising way to save forests, farm without chemicals, and produce more corn. Salvatore was hooked.

In the shade of the guama

In 2008, Salvatore received guama seeds from EcoLogic and planted the feisty trees right in the middle of his cornfield. His neighbors thought he was crazy, planting trees where corn should be. His wife Marta feared he was in for another big disappointment. But in just two years, the trees ‘ branches were ready to be cut (giving Salvatore valuable firewood), and the trees’ heavy leaves had dropped, providing 20 cm. of thick mulchy insulation that not only prevented weeds from growing, it also held water in Ixcan’s dry soil. And most important, Salvatore’s corn crop — growing unconventionally under a scrim of trees– was 40% more abundant, producing 3 ears per stalk instead of one or two.

Salvatore was so eager to share the news (and plentiful guama seed pods) with his fellow farmers, he cut a 1/4 mile path from the road to his field to encourage everyone to come see the results of his shade-grown maize. 385 farmers are now a part of the project, a nursery of 5,000 guama plants has been established, and 8 other communities are implementing this promising new method.  Salvatore is a tireless advocate for adopting new agroforestry techniques like the guama tree that lessen dependence on expensive chemicals and destroying forests– as well as any other farming advance that will allow him “not to have to work so hard.”

Despite his Golden Talent monetary award, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Salvatore still works three jobs: as a woodworker, a night security guard, and farming his fields, a 45-minute walk from town. And let’s not even talk about the work that his wife Marta does, keeping house for the 4 children remaining at home. Salvatore and his wife Marta have been married for 40 years, and since he was 20 and she 14, they have never spent a night apart (kind of like me and my husband – ha!). They say the hardest thing hasn’t been feeding their brood, it’s the expense of sending them to school. But somehow, despite lung and foot problems, Marta and Salvatore have educated each child – and somehow, she still lights up whenever Salvatore smiles at her.For 18 years, EcoLogic has been asking rural communities what they want and need in development projects, and supporting leaders like Salvatore who are so committed to improving life for themselves and others, they “treat their land like their own children.” Now, in partnership with Heifer, they’re helping Guatemalan communities work towards less deforestation, cleaner water, healthier soil, a better harvest… and a better life for beautiful, hard-working families.

To me, that’s solid gold.

Categories: Environment, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “Solid Gold Soul.

  1. Jo Prostko

    Betty, thank you for introducing us to more of our world’s most beautiful people…again!

  2. Ginger O'Neill

    Hi Betty,

    Once again, when all else fails, turn to nature to solve the problem via non-profits, NGOs to show us how to access the amazing abundance the earth provides through the un-moved Mover!

    As always thanks for sharing this wealth of information and true solid gold!



  3. Yes Betty, thanks for sharing Salvatore’s story. It is a shame that this is the sort of person that I want to read about it and admire, but the news seems to geared around so much gossip and garbage.

    I hope Salavatore and Marta enjoy many decades together–never missing a night.

  4. Wonderful story, and they look so happy; it must be that sense of accomplishment and loving relationship. Thanks for sharing!

  5. A name and a face and a story.. and what a beautiful story (I guess I’m not the only one who hasn’t heard of the guama tree.) and I love the photo of Salvatore and Marta – it looks as though they’re holding hands…

    • Oh, Rosie, I had never heard of the guama tree, either … which is always the most amazing part of this amazing journey! And isn’t it the sweetest photo of Salvatore and Marta?? The minute I was taking their photo, after telling me the story of their 40 years together and their children (they had 12, but only 11 lived — and it was so touching that they insisted upon the fact there were 12) … but he just leaned in towards her and was so sweet!!

  6. this is absolutely beautiful news! I pray that this catches on and thank you for sharing this with us.

  7. Truly solid gold! And the best kind. Lovely blog, lovely humans 🙂

  8. Wow what an amazing story! It is so great to see a project that is helping the environment and people. I love this post.

  9. A soul-stirring, inspiring story! Muchisimas gracias, Betty!

  10. Betty, you’ve brought Salvatore to life in such a beautiful way. Am reposting on Facebook!

    • Thanks, Renee … it really was so cool to see this grove of trees, growing up in the middle of the cornfield, and thinking how fascinating that something so counter-intuitive (shade) would prove to be so fortifying to the maize. And considering that is virtually all the people eat, it’s a hugely important advance!

  11. Betty! I love this story…agroforestry. He had to step out of his comfort and believe somebody who knew a little more and trust and now he can show others. Great. Less chemicals the better. We use so many chemicals on our own lawns in America and I watch the creeks behind my house and it disgusts me and I think there is a better way! Thanks. PS I love farming.

    • The impact of all the chemicals and pesticides on the environment is huge! Plus.. since cutting down forests for fresh soil and for firewood to cook their meals has devastated the tree cover in Guatemala (which leads to less rain, and to destructive erosion ) …it’s just so critically important to begin reforestation. These guama trees can provide tons of firewood — and that’s just one tiny benefit!!

  12. What a wonderful positive story. What a wonderful difference Heifer is making. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us …

  13. Pingback: Animal magnetism in Happy Valley. « Heifer 12 x 12

  14. Fito Steiner

    Hi Betty thanks for this wonderful story, I meet Salvador in november 2010 when we were ask by Ecologic Fund a long time friend and partner to help them to do some pruning training for guama parcels they establish in Guatemala. With the Inga expert in Honduras Faustino Reyes and Ecologic staff we went to two sites, one in Sarstum and Ixcan and I was impress by Salvador and his energy,ideas and enthusiasm with his inga plot. at that time of the visit I was working with Inga Foundation,created to promote the Inga Alley- Cropping Sysyem develop by Michael Hands from England, who has dedicated 25 years of his life to create this system using inga and working mainly in Honduras and now been spread by Ecologic in Central America, a movie featuring Mike Hands work is been release, congatulations to Salvador and Ecologic for spreading the solution to slash and Burn in the Tropics, Saludes de Honduras

  15. Hi Fito! So happy to hear that you are such a committed follower of Ecologic and the guama tree! I am eager to learn more about the Inga Alley-Cropping system & will follow through on Mike Hands’ work!

    • Fito Steiner

      Hi Betty Yes I am a true believer that Inga Alley Cropping is the solution to slash and burn in the tropics, after 14 years seen farmers, improve their production of corn and other
      crops and seen people like Faustino Reyes who is the 1 Honduran expert managing his 5 Has plot of inga alley cropping, plus lots of small plots in the north Coast of Hionduras, you have to believe, yes I am follower and friend of Ecologic work, and long time partner since 1997and they are the only organization spreading the Inga system outside of Honduras, check for more information. saludes de Honduras

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