Guatemala

Seeding the future.

I’m feeling pretty global tonight, writing about a small town in Guatemala while I sit here in Atlanta, thinking that by the time you read this I’ll be in another small village in Haiti where Heifer International is planting more seeds of change.Speaking of seeds, here are a few kernels of truth. In our abundant American lives, we’re supremely divorced from the reality of where our food comes from, who grows it and how, and what would ever happen if we couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy gobs of whatever we want. But when you go to a developing country, you get enlightened pretty quickly.

Maize Negro (Ek Jal)

The thin veil between hunger and the food we need to survive is seeds .. pure and simple.

Isabel Lopez, the Patriarch

So it’s good to know that in the quiet little village of Quilinco outside Huehuetenango, three generations of the Lopez family have been working for years to preserve our food future. In 1999, Isabel Lopez began saving the seeds from the 150-year old criollo native corn his grandfather grew. Backed by FAO (a Norwegian company whose name nobody can pronounce), he and his son Juan (and now his son Jose) began a methodical campaign to preserve seeds that were endangered, rare, or deemed genetically worthy of preservation.

Isabel and Juan persuaded their fellow farmers to follow the trainings, and soon 100 farmers were working to plant, fertilize, harvest and preserve the seeds in a carefully scientific way – choosing the kernels of corn from cobs that have straight lines, 12 rows in diameter, and 25 kernels from the middle. Each group of seeds is kept in its own jar, labeled, cataloged and carefully protected in steel silo drums that are designed to outlast an emergencia, tormenta (hurricane) or earthquake.

Heifer's Guillermo & Carlos in the field (as always)

The field technicians of Heifer (like 20+ year veterans Carlos Hernandez & Guillermo Santizo) worked with the Lopez family to earn this contract and keep it active in Quilinco over the past decades. Why? Because The Seed Bank is a valuable source of income for the village farmers, but also because it is preserving these beautiful jewels of agricultural possibility:

Rare Sangre de Christo red corn.

Frijol Piloy Amarillo beans that are on the border of extinction.Valuable seeds from the bledo-blanco (amaranth) plant that is so packed with minerals, protein, and gluten-free Vitamin C, it’s accompanied astronauts into space.And in small jars, the seeds of countless flowers and plants that only grow in this region. When I first heard about the bank, I thought it might be kind of … boring. But I loved this project so much I couldn’t believe it! There I was in a small village in Western Guatemala, standing in a veritable Fort Knox of Seeds, supported by a bunch of distant Norwegians, surrounded by rare genetic caches of ancient seeds collected by three generations of Mayan farmers, that may hold the key to our bio-diverse agricultural future.

Juan Lopez & his seeds

Quel global amaizement!

Categories: Agriculture, Guatemala, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Re-Gifting, Heifer style.

As Heifer‘s Byron Lopez, Vivian Martinez and I pulled into the beautiful village of Quilinco near Huehuetenango*, Guatemala, I realized we were late. For once, it wasn’t my fault (blame breakfast and a whole bunch of bad potholes) but I was horrified to see 30 gorgeously-attired mothers & children and weather-beaten farmers in immaculate white hats patiently waiting for us in the beautiful turquoise central meeting place that was cheerfully festooned with flowers, hanging stalks of braided corn, and a pine-needle strewn floor.

Future farmer of Quilinco

This was my first HeiferPassing on the Gift” ceremony and I was late. Dang it!

Passing on the Gift is the most Cornerstone-y of the 12 Heifer Cornerstones – and the thing that truly sets Heifer apart from other “giveaway” charities. When a poor family receives a Heifer animal (any animal – be it chick, goat, sheep, cow, water buffalo or bee), the first female offspring of that animal must be passed on to another needy family. This not only builds community solidarity, it ensures that the gift keeps on giving to more and more families – while it engenders self-respect, dignity, and a sense of responsibility to others (Oh, that we had a little more of that in the USA!)

This community of Quilincohas had a relationship with Heifer since 1984 – and remarkably, the Passing On tradition is still being Passed On. From 80 original families, Heifer gifts are now benefiting over 500 families…with no direct supervision for 8 years (although Heifer still provides some veterinary support, new animals to improve the stock, and community counsel).

Jesus

Today, we were witnessing THREE Passing On gifts. First was the gift of two stallions (I was envisioning Black Beauty – but no, these were sheep) from 4-time Award-Winning Sheep Breeder Jesus Garcia.  These two males would be shared by four families in two neighboring towns and used to impregnate the local mares.

Heifer's Byron Lopez prepares to pass on Jesus's prize sheep.

The second gift was a valuable Italian female rabbit that was robust, fat and juicy and would likewise be used judiciously to improve the local stock, given by Paula to Isabel.

Vivian passes on Julia's gift to Isabel.

The third gift was a campesino-to-campesino gift of a goat that would hopefully have at least 5 babies, improve the local stock (the price of prize stock is 5 times that of the local sheep) and enrich the lives and diets of the receiving family.

22 days old and already looking good!

The speeches preceeding the gifts recalled decades of community efforts to encourage people to contribute funds (sounds like any civic association anyplace on the planet), work together, and find common goals and common ground. With Heifer’s encouragement, Quilinco’s Mayan Mujeres had pooled their money and begun micro-lending programs to enable other women to buy animals and pass their offspring on. Their history of “working together with solidarity – the way you taught us — and not by ourselves” as Alberta Garcia recalled, has served them well.

The land of Quilinco is steep, foreboding, and back-breaking to farm, but the people there are determined to grow their own food, feed their own children, and prosper. Heifer’s great gift has been to give them the small help they need to succeed in that endeavor.

Celso & his dad, Juan Artemio

** I’M OFF TO HAITI TOMORROW … BUT STILL HAVE A FEW MORE SCINTILLATING POSTS FROM GUATEMALA… STAY TUNED!!

My Guatemalan walkabout.

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

10 Small Reasons to Make Heifer your Valentine.

Flowers will die,

Chocolates can fatten,

But a gift to Heifer

Is never forgotten.

If you want to give your kids a fantastic Valentine — read this great article by Ellen Padnos about the art of giving children a Heifer gift.

Or..if you want to ask for (or give) your beloved something really special, just click here and pick a cow, pig, goat, rabbit, bees or water buffalo as a symbol of your undying affection!

You can even download one of my photos and make the card yourself – to remember the real children you’re helping when you give to Heifer. (These darling ones are from Guatemala.)

With lots of love & thanks,

Betty

Categories: Children, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Animal magnetism in Happy Valley.

After the dust and dryness of Ixcan, it was pure pleasure to arrive in Cunen, a verdant valley in El Quiche, Guatemala where Heifer International has had a project since 2006. (Not only because Cunen is beautiful, but also because it meant we could get out of the car we’d been bouncing around in for 4 hours).

The inimitable, devoted Maria Cruz.

The Cunen project is the work of 3 local organizations with Heifer, and there to greet us was Maria Cruz, a lovely 36-year old Mayan woman who has been the Heifer technician, animal-whisperer, and trainer in this area for 10 years. Although the Cunen project has been “weaned” and is on a maintenance schedule, Maria still travels here once a month by bus to check on the animals, answer questions, and visit the homes of Heifer’s beneficiaries – of which there are 36 in this town (and over 500 in the project). In fact, she is so devoted to her work that when she was temporarily laid off due to a cutback in Heifer donations, as a result of our economic downturn (hint, hint), she still took day and night calls about animal fevers and diarrhea from the four villages she works in. Apparently, having animals is about as time-consuming and worrying as having children (except they’re more grateful and don’t talk back).

Don Serbando

Don Manuel

In Cunen, even after the Heifer project has ended, the gift still keeps on giving. The cow above was received by Don Serbando Vasquez, director of the local association, and had a female baby that was passed on to Don Manuel Vasquez (whose 7 children grew up drinking its milk), and that female just gave birth to the cutie-pie new baby above. Cows live for 15-18 years and will have 5-7 offspring in their 13 years of fertility, so Cunen will see several more new generations of Heifer heifers—each of which will benefit a new family. As we walked from farm to farm, we jumped over creeks bubbling down from the surrounding mountains, bringing plentiful water to the fields that were everywhere springing to life with alfalfa, beans, snow peas, onions, oats, snap peas, corn, and napia grass. Lemon, orange, papaya, avocado and lime trees grew in orchards, and sheep and goats happily munched on forage crops in the tidy Heifer sheds Maria had taught the farmers to build.

Under-goat sheds' poop & urine collector -- how clever!

These sheds allow the farmers to efficiently collect the animals’ manure and urine – so they can make rich compost for their fields. Heifer trainings promote organic farming to liberate farmers from having to buy expensive, often dangerous chemicals and to protect the environment. Basic composting is enhanced with the help of some crazy California red worms that eat through the manure like Pac-Men, reproduce like rabbits, and are also passed along with the gift of an animal to a new family.

Speaking of rabbits, the Cunen families we visited also had plentiful pens of rabbits. These bunnies, like all the animals from Heifer, were bigger, better breeds that are chosen to improve the local stock, generation after generation. And because rabbits have 5-7 babies each litter and can have 7 pregnancies a year (yep, that’s 50 babies annually!) … that’s a lot of improvement really fast.

I'm fertile.. are you?

Andrea Canto-Camaha, Cunen farmer.

The people of Cunen were so likeable, friendly and eager to share their stories with us, it was hard to leave. Don Serbando gave us a parting speech, which he asked me to share with you:

We are very grateful to the Heifer donors. We know how much we have been helped and we don’t take it for granted. Because of the gifts you have given us, our children will grow up healthy and smart. We are living the Heifer dream.

It’s a dream that involves never-ending work and a boatload of struggle, but they have water. And animals. And hope.

It’s a happy valley.

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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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