Guatemala: Mayan K’iché Environmental Sustainability As A Way Of Life

by: Posted on: May 07, 2013

By Louisa Reynolds, Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources
(February 2013) The forest, its wildlife, its trees and rivers have a sacred value for Mayan K’iché inhabitants of Totonicapán, a department located in Guatemala’s western highlands.

Timber logging in a 2-kilometer (3-mile) radius from water sources is strictly forbidden and if a family needs to fell a tree to obtain firewood, it must seek prior consent from indigenous community leaders and only the oldest trees can be felled. The penalty for infringing these rules depends on the size of the tree that was felled and ranges from planting five trees to paying fines ranging from 500-800 quetzales, about US$64-102.

In order to ensure forest regeneration, in May, every year, leaders distribute tree seedlings from a community greenhouse so that every member of the community can plant five trees in an area of their choice.

The community also observes strict rules regarding the use of water from six sources, located in the midst of the forest, which feed the Motagua and Salamá rivers. If a family wishes to build a house it must seek permission from the local water committee and wasting water on what is regarded as superfluous, such as washing cars and motorbikes, is forbidden. Added to this, one of the six water sources must be left intact to ensure that local wildlife can obtain drinking water.

Zero deforestation

It is thus small wonder that Totonicapán has the lowest deforestation rate in the entire country. According to research conducted by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, between 2006 and 2010, Guatemala’s average deforestation rate was 1 percent, compared to 0.04 percent in the department of Totonicapán.

“The people of Totonicapán don’t exploit the forest; we look after it. This is the legacy we inherited from our ancestors,” explained José Santos, president of Totonicapán’s 48 cantons.

Totonicapán’s unique form of community organization dates back to 1820, when Mayan leader Atanasio Tzul led a revolt against excessive tributes imposed by the colonial authorities, bought the Totonicapán forest from the Spanish crown and obtained communal land title deeds. To this day, the historic title deeds are kept in a chest located in Totonicapán’s community hall, under the watchful eye of two indigenous guards.

Since Tzul’s landmark revolt, Totonicapán has been divided into 48 self-governed cantones or alcaldías indígenas. The people of each canton elect committees in charge of various issues such as water, forest resources, public security, the maintenance of the local cemetery and family matters. The cantons are coordinated by a junta directiva or “board of directors” with a president who is elected on a yearly basis by the cantonal mayors. This president acts as a mediator in all sorts of conflicts ranging from domestic disputes to criminal cases and disputes between indigenous communities and utility companies.

Public service is not remunerated, it is compulsory, and everyone must take part in a committee at least three times during his or her lifetime. This form of self-government coexists side by side with the official political system, although tensions sometimes arise when mayors elected through the party system question the legitimacy of indigenous representatives.

The Mayan people and Buen Vivir

Mayan academic Pascual Pérez, of Kayb’alan Center, said that Totonicapán’s model of self-governance and its emphasis on environmental conservation is an example of how Guatemala’s indigenous people practice Buen Vivir or “good living,” which essentially means living in harmony with oneself, other members of the community, nature and one’s surroundings.

Pérez also cites traditional Mayan farming, which is 100 percent organic, as another example of good living. “Chemical fertilizer and pesticides were introduced around 60 years ago but we’ve realized that these substances impoverish the soil and lead to a loss of nutrients, resulting in poor harvests as more and more chemicals are needed,” he explained.

According to Pérez, Mayan farming uses compost and fertilizer made from organic material such as chopped reeds, and crops are balanced in terms of the nutrients that they require. For instance, beans and a pumpkin variety known as ayote are planted around corn crops, or milpas, as legumes fix nitrate in the soil and pumpkin plants generate shade and humidity. Indigenous farmers also reject monocultures and genetically modified crops.

Traditional Mayan agriculture is practiced in farms such as Ijat’z, located in the municipality of San Lucas Tolimán, in the department of Sololá, which produces organic coffee, runs a greenhouse with native plant varieties and specializes in vermiculture and other techniques for the production of organic fertilizer.
Many Mayan producers, said Pérez, have gone beyond subsistence farming and are exporting coffee and other products. Indigenous people, he explained, are not against the use of technology or the export-driven model per se as long as farming is organic and sustainable. “A solidarity economic model is based on agroecology and prioritizes protection of the community’s quality of life and farmers’ livelihood,” he said.

The Mayan belief in environmental sustainability underpins the Integral Rural Development Bill, which aims to improve food security by democratizing access to land. It was put forward in 2009 but remains stalled in Congress as large landowners, who own 70 percent of the country’s arable land, fear that it could lead to the transformation of the country’s semi-feudal land ownership model.

“We have scattered examples [of Buen Vivir], but we lack national strategies put forward as public policy. The problem is that public officials always act on behalf of large multinational corporations,” said Pérez.
Source: Latinamerica Press


Copyright, Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources. Reprinted with permission.

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