Seeds for the Future fights malnourishment in a Mayan community by teaching people how to grow their own food.
Seeds of the Future and its U.S. affiliates, Southern Maya Project for Archaeology and Community, and Amigos de Chocolá, are working with the community to reinvigorate the village economy.
Know what it takes to teach an indigenous community in Guatemala how to grow a vegetable garden? Seeds.
That’s Seeds for the Future, founded by a couple from Phoenix, Ariz., to help a small rural community in southwestern Guatemala learn sustainable living practices.
Earl de Berge and his wife, Suzanne, had planned to retire in Antigua, Guatemala, a popular ex-patriot community. Instead, inspired by an eye-opening archaeological dig, they decided to help the people of a Mayan community, Chocolá, feed families and fight malnutrition—a common problem within indigenous Mayan communities.
It might be common for non-profits to come to the rescue of third-world communities, but they aren’t always effective. Seeds for the Future (Semillas para el Futuro in Spanish) is different.
“There are hundreds, no, thousands of failed projects in Guatemala that failed because helping people develop self-confidence was simply ignored or undervalued,” Earl says, explaining that non-government organizations (NGOs) jumpstart programs but leave before the local folks can press on alone.
“The biggest barrier to the program success lies in the harsh reality that the rural poor are severely undereducated, deeply nervous about trying ‘new’ things, and taught not to challenge the status quo,” he continues. “Building a sense of ‘can do’ and entrepreneurial spirit is critical.”
Seeds does that.
A new kind of garden club
Josué de León, 13, is one of the youngest family members involved in Family Gardens, a program Seeds started in Chocolá that maintains a steady participation of 30 to 35 families. Eventually, the program’s members won’t need Seeds’ help to continue.
Josué is a field assistant in Family Gardens. “The most important thing about the family gardens is that the people are producing their own food, improving their diets,” he says. “They can sell some [vegetables] and spend less.”
A typical diet in this Mayan community consists mostly of beans, tortillas, and maybe some chicken in a soup on weekends. Unless there is money to buy vegetables, they are not consumed here. That’s why the Seeds Family Gardens program is so important.
With Seeds’ guidance, these families have built a community garden, greenhouse and drip irrigation garden for commercial use, and individual gardens for personal use – to earn extra money and to improve nutrition. They’re growing a multitude of plants and vegetables, including beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, chile peppers, mango, papaya, radishes, tomatoes, Mayan herbs and more.
To join, members pay modest dues for supplies and attend weekly educational meetings. In turn, they learn everything they need to know about gardening, including how to germinate the seeds and how to build canopies to protect the plants from heavy rains that thrash the ground during the hot, humid summers. They also gain leadership skills and additional assistance as needed.
“We’re not about just one thing,” Suzanne explains. Seeds for the Future offers educational opportunities at the library it helped acquire and staffs. It teaches crop diversification to farmers in Chocolá. And the garden program provides food security so the people have enough to eat that’s nutritionally sound. Josué, in fact, helps promote adding a protein element – rabbits and poultry – for free fertilizer and additional food.
And, Seeds brings the people that essential entrepreneurial spirit.
As one mother explains, “My daughters are in charge of representing the family in attendance of the meetings [of the association], and this has given them more confidence as women and has helped them in their relationships with other people and to be more independent. The project has awakened their interest in studying, in being better every day, and above all, in helping our family progress. With the training in gardening and diet, they have better opportunities to advance.”
The back story
The de Berges, who also own and operate a marketing research firm, Behavior Research Center, in Phoenix, Ariz., first learned about Chocolá while on a volunteer service project with Earth Watch in 2004. They traveled to Guatemala to search for ancient Mayan ruins. Chocolá, it turns out, was built on top of a community that once served as a center for cacao production and trade. Working alongside K’iché (one group of indigenous Mayan ancestors), peasant farmers and other Spanish-speaking people who live there, the de Berges (who speak Spanish) learned the Mayan people no longer farm cacao in Chocolá.
Farming cacao and other native plants, herbs and vegetables had become a lost art, thanks to years of oppression, beginning with Spanish colonists and including the Guatemalan government. The Maya were further displaced by a decades-long civil war that ended in 1996. So to survive, the men farm an inferior coffee bean on small plots of land, producing a small amount of poor quality beans. When the de Berges returned the next year to dig again, they saw opportunity to help.
The learning curve
The couple decided they could help Chocolá return to its roots and once again grow the more popular and promising cacao bean trees. After all, it would be more marketable – and profitable – to sell beans that would make “authentic Mayan chocolate.”
But first there was a challenge to overcome: the Chocolá community didn’t trust Seeds’ goodwill. To gain it, Seeds helped the farmers repair a tractor needed to haul coffee to market. It took several months, but Seeds found a repairman and paid for the parts. The farmers paid for the labor and learned a lesson in teamwork. A cacao demonstration farm followed. Two years ago, Seeds began the Family Gardens program in order to provide the short-term successes needed to attract more participation. It worked.
Now when Chocolá members needed to take out a loan to buy supplies for the commercial garden, they pay it back with money earned from vegetable sales. Their self-confidence is growing right along with the celery, cabbage and herbs.
Ongoing training helps create that can-do spirit, and even families with little land are learning to grow a garden. Juan José Vásquez, one of the younger members, grows his garden in cast-off tires and plastic or wooden containers.
“We see tires thrown away everywhere, and in Chocolá there are many in garbage dumps,” Juan José says. “But with the help of [Seeds], we now know that we can use these to plant – something that we never imagined – and convert them into gardens for the family. A tire is sufficient to grow various types of plants for the house.”
One of the most committed and active members, Doña Miriam Reyes, is also one who has no land. The association granted her space in the commercial garden for her vegetables. She learned quickly how to grow seedlings from the seeds and now helps teach others as well.
“This is beautiful because we are always in an environment of friendship and camaraderie, and we help one another,” Doña Miriam says. “It is an important part of the growth of our association,” she says.
Suzanne adds, “While these people can be happy with what they’ve got, they now see they can have more.”
What began as classroom and field instruction, where participants just watched and listened to teachers, has turned into an active exchange of ideas.
“It’s exactly the outcome we hope for — where people transform from students to teachers to leaders,” Earl says.
How to Help
Inspired? With limited ability and knowledge in fundraising, Seeds for the Future could use your help in the following ways:
- Financial Support: Dependable cash donations help pay for teaching teams and purchase materials and tools needed for the family gardens.
- Materials & Supplies: The organization also accepts tools, greenhouse supplies and materials, hoses, drip irrigation supplies, grow bags and organic fertilizer, to name a few items on the wish list.
- Scholarship Funds: Even the most promising young leaders in the community rarely complete a high school education or attend college. Scholarships and stipends for work-study programs within the association would provide new opportunities for growth.
- Volunteers: People with agricultural or library skills are needed, and Spanish language speakers are preferred.
Visit www.semillasfuturo.org to learn more.
To contact the author, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.