Permaculture in Guatemala

Cacao growing in the village of Semenzana in Eastern Guatemala. This cacao plant was surrounded by coffee, a mandarin orange tree, bananas, mangoes, squash and malanga. The pod will ripen to brown in a couple months and be ready to pick.

For the first two weeks of January, I was fortunate to be hired by Guatemala Village Health (GVH) to help them develop an up and coming permaculture demonstration site, which will be an expansion of their current programs.

Since 2010, Guatemala Village Health has worked with targeted rural villages throughout eastern Guatemala to help families move towards a healthier life through programs in health, education and economic development. The villages that GVH serves are rural, with a predominantly Mayan indigenous population. They usually have limited access to consistent basic services such as local markets, health-care, electricity, and public transportation.

GVH is now expanding its impact by building a permaculture demonstration site and sustainable training center. Its goal is to address the root causes of many of the health issues that they encounter, which are very often connected to poor nutrition and poor sanitation.

In addition to the more traditional healthcare training, the site will provide nutrition, horticulture and permaculture training for villagers seeking to improve their standard of living through better designed houses (casas mejoradas), waste treatment systems (e.g. composting toilets and greywater), and permaculture gardens. The permaculture gardens will showcase a variety of culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables, food that would provide the much needed macro and micro nutrients that GVH has seen lacking in many villagers’ diets.

My time living and working in Guatemala in the early 2000s, in the human rights field, very much informed my later interest in permaculture and local food (see more about that here). Going back to Guatemala, in a different capacity, after so many years away, was a great opportunity.

However, it’s tricky to work on permaculture projects in a different country. I cringe at the notion that we, as Westerners from the developed world, somehow have something to teach those who have lived and worked on the land for decades, if not centuries. That is the challenge of permaculture and any sort of development work; broadening and deepening your understanding of the site as well as the culture and the context that you are in.

Do I have a role to play in this project? Perhaps, but not without a strong sense of the resources and knowledge that already exist, the cultural and historical context of the site and the country, and a significant dose of humility.

This initial visit involved seeing the land GVH will develop for the demonstration site, touring three great permaculture sites in the country, in addition to assessing the current situation in the villages with regards to food cultivation.

Forty foot heirloom avocado tree at the site, with me for scale.

Our trip began with an initial assessment of what will be the permaculture demonstration site. Sloped and at 6500 ft above sea level, the 1.5 acre piece of land is quite challenging but with a lot of potential. With a warm and temperate climate, the site has an existing house as well as a 40 foot heirloom avocado tree, 15 foot poinsettia shrubs, a handful of orange trees and other herbaceous perennials. In addition, it receives 53 inches of rainfall from May to October. Large scale pea cultivation is common in the surrounding area and the soils are typically fertile. Surveying to create a topographic map is currently underway which will go a long way towards helping with the design.

After spending a couple days at the site, we ventured off with the founder of GVH and two of the GVH Guatemalan staff, Vladimir and Samuel, to tour other permaculture projects in the country.

Production beds at Caoba Farms. You can see the outdoor restaurant in the distance, where the umbrellas are located.

Our first stop was Caoba Farms in Antigua, Guatemala. Caoba is a fascinating and thriving example of a permaculture farm and income-generating business. This farm is connected to an outdoor restaurant. Patrons sit among fruit trees with rows of lettuce greens and herbs growing 20 feet away. Most of the produce is sourced from that farm or a partner farm only a few miles away.

On Saturdays, they hold a farmers market with locally produced goods. Though I absolutely love the Bozeman Winter Farmer’s Market, I have to say that being able to buy local cacao and coffee is pretty great! 

Rony Lec of IMAP shows us the amaranth they have growing at their farm. Amaranth is native to Mesoamerica and a highly nutritious plant and seed.

Our next stop was the Mesomerican Institute of Permaculture (IMAP), located on the beautiful Lake Atitlan. Founded by Ronaldo Eleazar Lec, who is Mayan indigenous, the institute promotes permaculture techniques, local biodiversity conservation, production of organic food, and houses a seed bank that strives to reconstruct the Mayan seed heritage. They are instrumental in organizing the upcoming 6th Continental Seed Freedom Summit that will take place in Guatemala this Spring. The purpose of this project is to ensure food and seed sovereignty by increasing the availability, exchange, production and use of native seeds in Guatemala and the Americas. IMAP was an incredible site with great examples of kitchen gardens, greywater capture, composting toilets, and community involvement.

Our last site was Atitlan Organics, an inspiring permaculture farm with a focus on the production and distribution of diverse local products from salad greens to eggs, honey, goat cheese, and coffee. With only 2.2 acres, they have managed to create a diversified production farm with intensive vegetable cultivation, goat and chicken animal systems as well as a food forest with integrated wetlands.

The tours of the permaculture sites gave me a good idea of what could be possible for the GVH site. Though climate can vary quite significantly due to the altitude, the milder climate, proximity to the equator, and abundant rainfall during certain parts of year help widen the possibility of what can be grown. On these tours we saw some of the usual recognizable plants that are grown in our climate but added dozens of potential plants to the repertoire including mangos, avocados, bananas, cacao, coffee, malanga (a root vegetable native to South America), chia, sweet potato and chaya (aka as tree spinach, it’s a large, fast-growing leafy perennial shrub ). Just to name a few. It was great to see examples of food forests in these milder climates. 

For the second half of the trip, we headed to eastern Guatemala, to visit some of the villages that might benefit from such a project.

The journey to eastern Guatemala is a slow descent from Guatemala City into the tropics. Along the way, I was reminded that the same effects of globalization that first got me involved in permaculture are even more prevalent today. We passed at least a half dozen large Chiquita banana trucks belching diesel fumes as they traveled up to the capital. As we neared the city of El Estor, we caught glimpses of a banana plantation that likely supplied some of those trucks. It went on forever, as far as the eye could see. I have never seen such a vast and unbroken expanse of an export crop monoculture. Rubber and palm oil plantations were visible too, rows and rows of one kind of plant with no diversity in sight. In the 28 mile stretch between Rio Dulce and El Estor, our Guatemalan friends informed us that all of that land, on both sides of the highway, was owned by just seven landowners.

The level of injustice in terms of land ownership in Guatemala is mind-boggling, but it is an injustice that fuels an export economy that allows you and me to buy bananas and avocados at our grocery store. It is this injustice that pushed me towards permaculture so many years ago, and motivated me to grow my own food. It is why I try to rely as little as I can on a global economy that destroys our soils, monocrops our landscapes, and concentrates wealth into the hands of very few. 

​After visiting four of the villages where GVH works, it’s no surprise that we don’t have much to teach the Guatemalans. It’s all just a matter of access to resources and information. Accustomed to growing in a temperate climate, a common mistake we make is to assume that because there are no visible vegetable gardens, people are growing very little in their yards in the tropics or subtropics. And yet, a little more investigation will reveal that many people in these villages have some version of a mini tropical food forest in their yards. This often involves mandarin, lime, banana, papaya, malanga, pineapple and coffee plants along with huisquil, a native squash plant. This is in addition to their staple crops of corn and beans that they cultivate on a tract of land nearby. Still others grow cardamom or pineapples to sell at the market. Like most gardeners, they struggle with disease and fertility problems as well as animals (e.g. chickens and pigs) destroying their crops. Basically, similar issues that you and I have in the garden but without access to books, google, or local gardeners to help them out!

There are certainly additional strategies and techniques that could be used in these villages in terms of building better fertility in the food forest systems and capturing water so it is not as erosive on the landscape. But the foundation is there, it’s simply a question of access to more knowledge and more plants – plants that boost both fertility (e.g. pigeon pea, ice cream bean, comfrey) and nutrition (e.g. moringa, chia, sweet potato, and amaranth).

After visiting one house, perched on the side of a hill, overlooking an incredible lush green landscape, with banana and papaya trees gently blowing in the wind, I was again reminded of the tragic reality of what we define as ‘progress’. The life in these villages is one I aspire to, connected with the land, without cell phones or computers, with no traffic because there are barely any cars. I am not trying to romanticize poverty, don’t get me wrong. Better nutrition, better built houses, clean water and access to education and healthcare are absolutely needed and should be everyone’s right. But I think it further reinforced for me the fallacy of our Western culture and the detrimental effect it has had on other countries and cultures. To climb from the tranquil villages of these isolated tropical regions into the traffic, pollution and violence of Guatemala City is jarring. To go from the simplicity of cornfields and tropical food forests to the strip malls of the city with big box stores encouraging the rising Guatemalan middle class to consume stuff they don’t need is not progress and development in my eyes. 

Progress for me is clean water, healthy soils, nutritious food, and access to land and education in the global south.  It’s reducing our consumption in the global north and it’s more and more people growing their own food across the world.

Guatemala is a country of extreme contrasts, contrasts between the haves and have nots, between the upper class Guatemalans who live in their gated communities and the rural populations who don’t have clean water or enough to eat, between the breathtaking beauty of the landscape and its people and the ugliness of a 36-year civil war that would lay waste to the rich culture of the Mayan people.

In permaculture, we talk about everything being connected; our vegetable gardens don’t operate in isolation from the rest of our yard, from that tree or hedge or pond. Yet permaculture is also about being connected to the rest of this planet, to the people who live in other countries, who often grow the food we eat, who sew the clothes we wear, or mine the minerals that built this computer on which I type. With the climate changing and ‘natural disasters’ seeming more prevalent, it is undeniable that this living and breathing planet is connected and responds to everything we do, to the daily choices we make, to the way we grow our food. When you plant seeds in the ground this season or buy from our local farmers, know that you are defining a new type of progress that is long overdue.

I look forward to my ongoing involvement in this project and stay tuned for more updates as this site progresses over the next few years! Scroll through the pictures below to take more of a tour. If you have any thoughts or questions about the project, I’d love it if you shared them in the comments below!

Heirloom avocado tree at the future permaculture site.
The existing house under construction. Poinsettia in the foreground.
40 foot avocado tree with me for scale.
Gabriel of Caoba farms gives us a tour.
Lime trees and banana plants.
Production beds at Caoba Farms.
The beautiful and breathtaking Lago de Atitlan.
Small production beds at Atitlan Organics.
Shad Qudsi of Atitlan Organics explains his deep bedding chicken system to us.
Coffee drying in the sun.
Cacao trees, like coffee, grow as understory plants in humid food forest systems.
A mini tropical food forest in the village of Semenzana. Cacao, coffee, bananas, mandarin oranges, squash and malanga.
I happened to notice this nice greywater system that wasn’t at a permaculture site but at the guest house where we were staying in Eastern Guatemala. The laundry water ran through a bed planted with some sort of leguminous understory and ornamental trees.

The moringa tree.
Volcan Pacaya erupting in the distance near Antigua, Guatemala.
The farmers market hosted by Caoba Farms every Saturday. Local goods include cacao, coffee, vegetables, salsas, fermented foods and more!
Delicious Guatemalan meals made with local ingredients.
Enjoying a local papaya, banana and coconut smoothie at the restaurant at Caoba Farms.
Sitting amongst the trees at Caoba Farms.
Beautiful amaranth growing at IMAP.
Diverse production gardens at IMAP.
The seed bank at IMAP.
Ronaldo Lec explaining how the Mayan, lunar and corn planting calendar are connected.