If you turn off the main road from the city of Cobán and drive down a dirt road, you will come across a magical green kingdom. Tall bushes of coffee and cardamom grow on the pine-topped hills that recede into the distance.
But it is a cursed kingdom. The coffee and cardamom bushes in this village in Alta Verapaz, a department in central Guatemala, are dying from disease. Coffee rust disease – roya in Spanish – is killing the coffee and attacking cardamom.
“The disease began last year and all my plants are sick,” says Rolando Rax, who grows both crops on the region’s steep slopes. “I think it’s climate change, and the plants do not have enough shade because we cut down too many trees and didn’t replant them. But it will take 10-20 years to grow new ones.”
Pausing as we squelch along narrow, muddy paths, Rax tugs at a coffee branch to show what the disease looks like. The leaf is mottled yellow and brown instead of bearing its customary glossy green sheen.
Whether or not climate change is the culprit, the village’s 124 families – members of the Q’eqchi’ indigenous group – also face the problem of falling cardamom prices. Last week cardamom growers formed a roadblock as senior officials arrived to try to defuse the situation.
As the crisis bites, it is beginning to dawn on some that while coffee and cardamom can bring benefits in good years, there are risks involved in basing exports around limited crop cultivation. Guatemala’s best coffee beans are shipped abroad, while Guatemalans drink insipid watery coffee. The country’s cardamom, meanwhile, is exported mostly to the Middle East.
Neither are native to Guatemala. Coffee was introduced to the country by the Spanish; cardamom arrived courtesy of Germans after the first world war. While Guatemala focuses on agricultural exports, many residents suffer from malnutrition. Despite its highly fertile land, the country has one of the world’s highest child stunting rates (48%).
A diseased coffee leaf in Raxnam village
Rax and his family discuss the problem in the kitchen over a special meal of chicken soup, with carrots and a swede-like vegetable, accompanied by corn tortillas. They talk about whether to spend money on a disinfectant to tackle the disease, but Maria Quib, Rax’s mother, wonders whether it makes sense to invest in this area while coffee and cardamom prices are so low. Some have already started using the disinfectant.
Mario Tiul Cucal, director of the grandly named academy and cultural centre, in reality a brick building full of typewriters and computers that lies idle due to a lack electricity and modems, started using the disinfectant in May. He says it is working, but it is expensive, and only 10% of the community are using it.
As for the Rax family, Quib believes it was, perhaps, unwise to rely exclusively on limited crops. “We’ve been fooled into depending on one of two crops,” she says.
Rax and his family are lucky in one sense: they are not in debt. They were given the land by the former German owner of the finca, or plantation, when he retired. His grandparents had worked on the finca and, along with others, were offered either cash or land as compensation for working for years for a pittance. Like all the other workers, they chose the latter.
A few hours away, in the town of Rabinal, Maria Saturnina Ojom, from the Maya Achi indigenous people, follows a different agricultural path. Her family grow their own food – maize, onions, amaranth (a leaf vegetable), radishes and coriander – and sell any surplus. They seem to be doing well. Their house, reached by a bumpy dirt road that has turned muddy from a steady drizzle, has whitewashed walls and red tiles, and includes a large room where corn is stacked high, ready to be turned into tortilla in the coming months. Their field runs down a slope, with a mountain in the distance.
As turkeys and chickens scuttle about their feet, Ojom and her son sit shelling pumpkin seeds to make a bit of extra money. She says life is much better now than when they used to live in Guatemala City, the capital, where her husband earned about 800 quetzales (£63) a month working in a factory, which was not enough to send the children to school.
Now the family have their own home, live off their produce and earn a bit more than 800 quetzales a month from selling excess produce. Ojom belongs to the Asociación Qachuu Aloom, or Mother Earth Association, which advocates food sovereignty – a concept introduced more than 20 years ago by the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina.
Farmer Maria Saturnina Ojom with her son near Rabinal village
Unlike food security – defined as ensuring people have enough to eat – food sovereignty focuses on power and control of land, water and seeds. Ojom has not heard of food sovereignty, but that is what she is practising. She uses a third of her seeds to produce food for the family, a third to sell and trade, and saves the remainder for the next season. She is adamant about not using chemicals because she fears they lead to illness.
“Food is your medicine: if you eat well, you don’t get sick,” she says. “There are no illnesses in our house. People who use chemicals in their crops get sick – they have stomach problems, many of their kids are overweight.”
Magdalena Alvarado, the head of Qachuu Aloom in Rabinal, emphasises the importance of using traditional seeds. The association advises Ojom and other members how best to store seeds – big jars in a cool, dark place – buys their seeds, and acts as a seed bank and retailer.
“Before our network, people were buying hybrid seeds from big landowners, full of chemicals,” she says. “They are contaminated. They may produce big carrots, but they are not good for your health. And they rot sooner.”
Food sovereignty, as advocated by Alvarado, may seem quixotic in an era of industrial-scale agriculture. It is questionable whether small-scalefarming can feed the growing cities of the developing world. But in a report published last month by the UN trade and development body, Unctad, experts argued that food sovereignty was a viable alternative to industrial, monoculture agriculture, which they said had failed to provide enough affordable food where it is needed while causing “mounting and unsustainable” environmental damage.
The report called for the reform of agricultural trade rules to give countries more opportunity to promote policies that encourage local and regional food systems. Neither Ojom nor Quib have read the study, but Ojom’s type of farming – focusing on organic food for family consumption, with a bit of trade on the side – is proving a safer option than growing coffee and cardamom for export.
Ojom’s 16-year-old son says he found it very tiring to work in the field. He has taken a year off to help the family farm but wants to return to Guatemala City to become a police officer. Farming is a tough life, no matter how it is done.
Source: The Guardian
Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras
Gustavo López Ospina
Pieter Jan Brouwer
Assistant: Emilia Romero
SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer.