Something That’s Important to us All

Hilary Johnson
MSW/SPADA
Community Health and Permaculture in Guatemala, Spring Break 2017

My experience traveling to Guatemala last spring was an experience I will never forget. One of my favorite parts of the trip was spending time at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute. The Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura – IMAP) is a non-profit organization based in Guatemala. It was founded in 2000 by a group of local people concerned by the serious environmental, social and cultural problems affecting the nation. They established an ecological education center to promote permaculture techniques, local biodiversity conservation, production of organic food, and a seed bank that strives to reconstruct the Mayan seed heritage.

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Image: View of Lake Atitlan

We learned about how permaculture aims to use patterns already found in nature to facilitate agriculture. I learned so much about how the importance of soil health, and the damage that single crops can have on a land. Soil needs to be replenished, and if a plot of land only grows one thing, that crop will gradually deplete all the nutrients and minerals that exist in the soil, eventually rendering the land infertile. By growing multiple kinds of fruits, vegetables, trees, plants and flowers, the soil and plants work in symbiosis to continually nurture each other.

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Image: A man standing in the middle of crops

 

Learning about this process also emphasized the importance of buying local, and how even in the US we impact communities far away. If we only buy coffee, fruit and vegetables for example from local Michigan markets, the demand on international farmers decreases, leaving them free to grow different crops that they can use for their own sustenance, or to sell in their own community. Right now, many farmers in Guatemala are suffering because they are dependent on profits from a single crop. If that crop fails, or does not yield much, they are left with few options. As well, the land they own becomes unhealthy and infertile over time. Permaculture teaches farmers old ways of growing that do much less harm, and allow for sustainability over many years. Many of the issues farmers face can be overcome with simple, inexpensive solutions. The key is to listen to what local people did before modern agriculture, and see how new techniques can complement traditional ways without sweeping them aside.

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Image: The study abroad group in front of Lake Atitlan

At IMAP, we also learned about Mayan culture. To me, learning about this traditional agricultural process allowed me to see clearly how all living things are connected. Essential to the idea of permaculture, is a connection to ancient and traditional ways of working with the land. Both permaculture and ancestral knowledge recognize the need for a harmonious coexistence with our environment in order to ensure our survival, and the survival of all other species on this planet. These lessons are not just relevant to the people we met in Guatemala, they are important for us all.

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