28 August 2023

Agroecology schools offer support for farmers in Guatemala


A crossroad between tradition and modern science, agroecology is spreading among farmers in Guatemala through a training program. This preserves ancient practices and protects soil health

by Matteo Cavallito


Agroecology is a solution to overcome poverty and food insecurity. But also as a strategy for soil conservation, seed protection and the preservation of traditional practices. These are the key aspects emerging from the project launched long ago by the Asociación de Forestería Comunitaria Utz Che’ (“good tree” in the ancient Mayan language kʼicheʼ) an organization based in Escuintla, Guatemala. The story has been reported by the U.S.-based NGO Mongabay.

The problem of monocultures

“The expansion of large-scale agriculture has transformed Guatemala’s ancestral lands into intensive monoculture plantations, leading to the destruction of forests and traditional practices,” Mongabay writes. Moreover, “use of harmful chemical fertilizers, including glyphosate, which is prohibited in many countries, has destroyed some livelihoods and resulted in serious health and environmental damage.”

In response to all this, the association launched a practice called “campesino a campesino” (farmer to farmer) with the goal of recovering Guatemala’s ancient agricultural traditions. In this way, agroecology schools enable local communities to address the problems of modern rural development by sharing experiences, knowledge and resources with other farmers.

Agroecology between science and tradition

According to Miguel Altieri, Chilean agronomist and entomologist, professor at the University of California Berkeley and recognized as the father of this discipline, agroecology essentially represents a meeting point between traditional knowledge and modern science. As well as a “holistic discipline,” based on the correlation between the health of soil, agriculture and humans.

Eighty percent of the soil cultivated on a global scale, the lecturer said while speaking at the 2020 edition of Terra Madre Slow Food, hosts monocultures of soybeans, corn and wheat. This mass production is subject to climate and pathogen risks and requires the use of 2.3 million tons of pesticides each year. Which, he explained, would adversely affect soils as well as people.

The schools

Opened back in 2006, the agroecology schools are organized in a network of more than 40 indigenous and local communities and farmers’ associations. Spread across several departments-home to a population of about 200,000 people. Almost all of whom are indigenous-they each welcome 30 to 35 farmers and rural women of all ages.

The main goal, the NGO continues, is to help farmers identify problems and opportunities, propose possible solutions, and receive technical support that can be shared with other farmers.

In short, they exchange knowledge and experiment with solutions. In addition to learning techniques for selecting and protecting native seeds, planting and managing crops, conserving soil, and harvesting rainwater for irrigation or animals.

The project’s impacts

Utz Che’ program, Mongabay explains, has reportedly involved about 33 thousand families so far by helping to protect 74 thousand hectares of forest in Guatemala “by fighting fires, monitoring illegal logging and practicing reforestation.”

According to Claudia Irene Calderón, an expert in agroecology and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, quoted by the American NGO, the recovery and enhancement of traditional agricultural practices is “essential to diversify fields and diets and to enhance planetary health.” Recognizing their value is also “instrumental to strengthen the social fabric of Indigenous and small-scale farmers.”