By RICHARD SITLER
EL PINAL, Guatemala — Corn is an important cash crop in Midwest states such as Iowa and Indiana. In other places, it is more than a cash crop – Guatemalans, especially the indigenous Mayans, revere what they call maize.
Corn is grown mainly for human consumption. It is rarely used as animal feed. If corn is spilled on the floor, Guatemalans take pains to quickly sweep up the grain, making sure they recover every kernel. Corn is too valuable to be grown for purposes such as making ethanol or exporting.
According to Peace Corps volunteer Richard Lee Johnson, who works on sustainable agriculture projects, everyone grows corn in Guatemala, even though there are other crops that they could grow instead that would be more profitable.
“Corn is like an insurance policy,” explained Johnson, who lives and works in the Central Highlands rural community of El Pinal.
In Guatemala, he said, corn is a reliable crop. If everything else goes bad, people will always have corn to eat. Most goes into the Guatemalan staple: Tortillas. Guatemalans eat corn tortillas with almost every meal.
Johnson’s work includes issues of food security and helping people realize a steady, reliable and adequate supply of food. According to Johnson, the basic diet of most Guatemalans is beans, tortillas, eggs, homemade cheese and native herbs that grow wild.
He reported this diet does not always provide enough nourishment, especially to children. He said half of children younger than five suffer from malnutrition.
“There is a level of chronic malnutrition that is unacceptable among children in Guatemala,” he reported.
Farming is the work of the majority of Guatemalans. Peace Corps volunteer Aron Rosenthal said 70 percent of employment in Guatemala is agriculture-related. As far as the country’s gross national product, tourism ranks first, followed by coffee growing. The top two only benefits a small percentage of Guatemalans.
Though large numbers of Guatemalans are involved in agriculture, often it is not profitable. Most who farm in Guatemala do so only to feed their own families. If they have anything left over, they will take it to market. Farms do not generate much revenue for these people.
Guatemala, a country of natural beauty, is the second poorest in the western hemisphere; only Haiti is more destitute. Johnson said the challenges in Guatemala are lack of knowledge and lack of ability to improve their agriculture production output and, in turn, improve nourishment for the young.
He pointed out a need for a small amount of capital to obtain seeds. Distributing seed is one of the projects in which Johnson is involved.
He said communication and motivation are also issues. Tradition runs deep in the Mayan communities, and it is hard to get them to realize what a good diet means – especially when all they have ever known is tortillas and beans. Although Johnson recognizes that it can be a sticky issue to try to introduce new foods into Guatemalan diets to improve nutrition, he said people don’t realize their children are malnourished.
Despite the challenges and the tendency for locals to stick to the status quo, Johnson has seen results. He listed three agricultural initiatives that are combating the issues that face so many in this poor Central American country.
The first is family gardens. Johnson, who is from Pullman, Wash., said backyard gardens can supplement family diets. Basic vegetables – including carrots, cabbage, radishes, Swiss chard, spinach, squash and cucumber – are being introduced to provide a more varied diet and to even create extra income.
The second is goats. According to Johnson, goats are a real benefit, providing protein through milk.
Goats are easier to care for than cows and do not take as much space or feed. The goats provide an economy of scale and the proteins and supplemental fats that are needed in the Guatemalan diet.
The third prong is to improve food security in Guatemalan chickens. They are encouraging the raising of chickens primarily for the production of eggs. Eggs provide vitamins and essential fat to the diets, and Guatemalans usually pay out-of-pocket for eggs from the market, when they could easily raise their own, saving that money for other needs.
All three of these have in common that they are encouraging self-reliance. The issue of food security and the ability for a population of a country to produce enough food to feed its population is a crucial one – not just for Guatemala, but everywhere.
“It has been a privilege to work in the Peace Corps and serve the communities and people,” stated Johnson, who studied International Affairs at University of Washington in Seattle.
He said he “has learned a tremendous amount about agriculture, although I have an agricultural background.”
Johnson, who is one year into his two-year commitment to the Peace Corps, grew up in an agricultural area where wheat is the primary crop. His father is an agronomist.
In the United States, he said, Americans don’t have to think much about the food supply. It has been eye-opening for him to live and work in a place where one really has to go out and “work to feed yourself and your family.” It has made him appreciate farmers even more than he already did.
In Guatemala, Johnson concluded, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”