By Caity Peterson, Researcher and Science Writer, Center for International Tropical Agriculture
A misty green landscape tucked away in the countryside near Chimaltenango, Guatemala, is home to Mayan ruins — and an ancient truth. Iximché, as the ruins are called, means “Tree of Corn” in the indigenous Kaqchikel language, which makes me think the ancients knew something about the relationship between trees and food.
Things have changed since Iximché’s glory days, however, and the spread of agriculture has meant the demise of forests. Swidden rotational crop farming is common in Guatemala, and Central American forests suffer even greater deforestation rates than the Amazon.
Since 1992, Anne Hallum of the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR) has been working to reverse this trend through the education and empowerment of Guatemalan communities in the implementation of agroforestry. In the communities where Anne has worked, trees and corn can once again be pronounced in the same breath, and be seen in the same landscape.
Set against the backdrop of a decades-long civil war, AIR Guatemala started with nothing more than the determination of this single woman. Since then it has grown to facilitate agroforestry projects in more than 140 communities in Central Guatemala, building almost 800 fuel-efficient brick stoves and planting almost 4 million trees.
When I joined Anne in Guatemala for an internship as a college sophomore, I saw for myself the great need for AIR’s work. Decades of soil degradation from clear-cutting, swidden farming, and agricultural chemical use had made soil erosion — and the accompanying landslides — an evident problem. As I rode in the back of a rattling pickup truck, flanked by steep, rocky slopes and accompanied by a box of 100 or so pine seedlings to be planted that day, I could see great scars in the mountains where farmers’ fields had simply sloughed away.
Landslides are a perennial danger for resource-poor farmers living in this area, causing great damage and loss of life every year. In the communities where AIR has worked, however, reforested hillsides are strengthened by the roots of thousands of trees. AIR’s agroforestry technicians take up residence in communities for a minimum of five years, after which leadership is handed over to local stakeholders.
AIR has grown from the work of one woman into the work of many. Indeed, the leadership of the Alliance has been borne largely on the shoulders of women farmers, who take charge of the tree nurseries, organize community meetings, and generate income for their families making soaps and shampoos from the fruits they harvest. In the process of renewing their fields, the women themselves have been empowered.
Once, after a long day of tree planting in Xetonox community, I sat resting on the hillside, hands and knees stained with dark earth, when one of the women I had been working with spoke: “We used to just stay in the house all day, but now the women have come together to take care of the trees. We have something to look forward to each day. The trees are nourishing our fields, which means they are nourishing our families. We will not cut them down again. You have come into our hearts here in Xetonox.”
Recently Anne has received global recognition for her work relieving poverty and deforestation in Guatemala. I personally recognize in her a professor, a friend, and an inspiration. She has restored the concept of Iximché, that vital link between trees and food, to the consciousness of the modern Guatemalan farmer — and she has empowered the women around her to do the same. To those women, and to me, she is a forest heroine.