By Tracy L. Barnett
San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala – Rony Lec is roasting coffee beans on a clay comal when I arrive, stirring patiently as the smoke rises. He grew the coffee out back, and every step of the process, like many of his processes, is his own.
We’re seated at his kitchen table now, in the home he designed and built, sharing a cup of the freshest coffee I’ve ever tasted. A soft-spoken Kakchiquel Maya with a loose ponytail and a gentle voice, Rony takes a sip of the fragrant brew and settles in to tell me his story.
The light filters in pleasantly from above through a skylight, an artfully placed series of bamboo tubes and the brown, green and white glass cylinders high above us that are set into the adobe walls. Later I learn, to my surprise, that these colorful cylinders are discarded bottles.
A tree trunk with its gracefully gnarled limbs emerges somewhere from the wrought-iron staircase; a lamp woven from bamboo hangs above us. The stone wall and arched door of the sauna in the background, the lush greenery of the garden out back and the savory aroma of home-grown and home-cooked food complete the picture of natural harmony.
I am at home with a permaculturist. Permaculture, for the uninitiated, is a design system that incorporates everything from agriculture to architecture to community and organizational development into an elegant system that works in harmony with nature. How permaculture came to this tiny village amid the volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlan is a story as winding as the canals Rony designed to slow down the torrential floodwaters here.
Rony was one of the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans whose lives were blown apart by the 36-year civil war. He was just a boy when his father was killed by the army.
“My family was always involved in community development and organizing, and that was the reality in those days; anyone who was working with the community was perceived as a threat.” His family, in fear for their lives, fled to the United States with the help of the Catholic diocese of New Ulm, Minn., which has a strong presence in this village.
Rony studied at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, earning a degree in cultural anthropology, but always with the idea of coming back home and applying it in a way that would make a difference for his people.
“I never wanted to gain knowledge just to put it in a book on a shelf,” he said. “For me, knowledge has to go beyond theory, it’s something you must put into practice.”
Returning home in 1994, when the conflict had calmed and negotiations were underway, he looked around for a project that could apply what he’d learned about his roots in the Mayan tradition, a tradition interwoven with the rhythms of nature.
“My idea was how to reconstruct and rescue the traditional, ancestral knowledge, and of course much of that had to do with agriculture, because that’s the base of our culture.”
On his own he read far and wide about alternative agricultural practices, and he began to dig into the ancient traditions of his own people. He found his first project on a piece of flood-prone land near the lake, owned by the Catholic Diocese. The land was compacted from many years of cattle grazing, and it flooded, along with the surrounding homes, every rainy season.
Rony asked for the land to try out the ancient system known in ancient Nahuatl as chinampas. The chinampa system is most famously illustrated by the design of ancient Mexico City, which was built by diverting the waters of a swampy lake into canals. Xochimilco, a historic neighborhood in the south of Mexico City, is the last vestige of the old chinampa system.
Here in the Guatemalan highlands, the Kakchiquel Maya had the same concept with a different name, but it fell out of use many years ago with the advent of modern agriculture.
Rony organized a group of subsistence farmers to help him analyze the situation and reclaim the land so that they could farm it, and they spent weeks digging the ditches that would slow down and channelize the rushing waters. But come rainy season, it didn’t work; the canals were clogged with sediment, and the project was swamped.
“Of course, in the anthropology books they tell you about the chinampas, but they don’t tell you how to build them,” he recalls with a laugh.
That’s when he was invited to a conference in the States on traditional agricultural practices, and he decided to make the trip with a dual purpose: to visit the Santa Fe-based center of Permacultura America Latina.
It was there at the “permaculture mansion” of one of the PAL board members that Rony began to realize the potential of permaculture to transform living systems. He explained his plan to PAL founder Ali Sharif, who took a look and quickly diagnosed the problem. The canals he had made were linear and angular – not like anything you’d find in nature. The trick to designing systems that work well is in mimicking nature, Sharif explained, working with nature instead of against it.
The trip was a breakthrough for him, and he ended up making another trip to Australia to study with the legendary Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the permaculture system.
Soon after his trip to Australia, he was joined by Rebecca Cutter, an artist, designer and educator from New York, who had heard about Rony’s group, then called Ija’tz, the Kakchiquel word for seeds. All she knew about the project was that it combined design and organic agriculture in some innovative ways. She came down to volunteer and ended up staying.
The new chinampa design was by all accounts a success. Rebecca took me on a tour and I was able to see the lush forest they had created on this urban tract of about 60 by 150 meters, where there once was only barren, compacted ground. It was raining, so I saw the canal system at work.
“What this does is slow the water down,” Rebecca explained. “Fast water is destructive.”
Runoff from surrounding hillsides carries tons of soil, silt, sand and other debris with it, which formerly ended up in the houses of the people who were flooded each year. Now the water as well as the soil it carries is retained on the land, and at the end of each rainy season when the canals dry up, the farmers empty them of that season’s load of rich soil, sand and silt, piling it up on the sides. In this way, mounds of rich, fertile soil a meter high or more has been built along the meandering canals.
A profusion of tropical plant life, much of it edible, sprouts from those hills. Rebecca shows me the house where they once lived on the site, and a “banana circle,” a permaculture technique involving a circle of banana palms used to treat greywater.
IxChel, Rebecca and Rony’s curly-haired, bright and energetic daughter, accompanies us on the tour, running off to gather wild strawberries and yellow flowers to share with us.
The growers collective who made up Ija’tz eventually decided to focus their energy around the production and commercialization of organic coffee. Rony and Rebecca supported their decision but wanted to continue promoting Permaculture with a focus on the protection of genetic diversity both locally and throughout Mesoamerica. So in 2000, Rony and Rebecca founded the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute, or IMAP, and the two associations continue to collaborate and support each other.
In the decade since its founding, the group has organized local growers to produce seeds and vegetables organically and has helped to create fair trade markets and seed exchanges with farmers and organizations working locally and throughout Guatemala; set up a center that has adapted the permaculture system to a subtropical and indigenous setting; where they’ve taught hundreds of students, both local and international; and responded to the disaster created by Hurricane Stan with low-tech water treatment systems, soil conservation practices, community gardens and other appropriate-technology approaches to disaster relief.
Perhaps their biggest success has been the establishment of a seed bank, housing seeds from thousands of native plants and disseminating them among local growers to keep them in circulation. The seed bank is a concept that has been growing in response to an increased homogenization of agriculture, with corporate growers pressuring local varieties out of existence.
Now, however, it’s time for us to go, and the rain is growing stronger. My tour of IMAP and the seed bank will have to wait for another day.
Please follow Tracy on her trip through Central and South America by going to her website http://www.theesperanzaproject.org/.