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Native Seeds

We are now [I started writing this a week ago; we’re actually in Lanquín now] in a town called Rabinal in the department of Baja Verapaz, where we stay at and work with an organization called Qachuu Aloom, which is Maya Achi and means “Mother Earth.” In the morning, we met with Don Esteban who founded the place in the late 1990s and who began the day by telling us the story and purpose of the place: Recovering and saving native seeds and teaching surrounding communities ancestral ways of growing food.

One of the foci of our program is “food sovereignty,” which, in simple terms, means being independent by growing your own food. Qachuu Aloom is not the first place we visit that tries to reconnect people with the earth, and one of the major points of discussions with the group in the last couple of weeks has been: Can we actually feed the world’s population by “going back” to traditional ways of farming, and wouldn’t that mean that we have to regress to a lower level of civilization, giving up achievements our comfortable lives depend on?

In this post, I would like to argue that this question is somewhat beyond the point.

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Don Esteban does not only tell the story of Qachuu Aloom, but also that of his family and his community in the village of Río Negro, about a day’s walk from Rabinal. And one of my roles as an instructor is that of an interpreter.

So I translate:

“There were five massacres in Rio Negro in 1982.”

“The history of Rio Negro is very sad.”

“The army came at three in the morning of March 13th, 1982, and surrounded Río Negro. My father had livestock on the other side of the river, and we got up really early that morning, at two o’clock, to tend to our cows. That is why I survived.”

“The army and the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PACs)* came to every house and gathered the women and children in the school building. Then they marched them up to a mountain called Pak’oxóm and massacred them.”

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*“Self-Defense Patrols”; paramilitary units, forcibly recruited by the Guatemalan army during the height of the civil war in the early 80s among the rural, overwhelmingly indigenous population. Their purpose was, officially, to allow the countryside to defend itself against subversion and intrusion from the guerilla; in reality it forced one village to fight against the next and enlisted them in the government’s scorched earth campaign, killing their neighbors by the tens of thousands. People did not have a choice: If they refused to fight, they were labeled as guerrilleros, a death sentence. So, in other words: This tactic made one part of the indigenous population a tool in the army’s genocide campaign against the other part – or, rather: the same part of the population.

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“We went to Pak’oxóm the next day, and they were all lying there, the women and children, and they were all naked.”

“My mother had tried to flee, and she had run for about 30 or 40 meters when a bullet hit her in the back [Don Esteban points to his back just below the neck]. There she lay, half covered by a palm leave.”

“These poor women and children…”

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I’m having a hard time translating this and I feel like an idiot for it, because here sits this man who saw all this, who lived through this, who has been living with all these memories for almost 40 years, and I have trouble translating

To be sure, Don Esteban is having a hard time, too: In his hands he holds the agenda for our visit, and he rolls it up, unrolls it, folds it, unfolds it, moves it around… It’s obvious that he is struggling. I think “What are we doing, why do we make this man tell this story?” And I try to stay focused.

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I am a historian by training, so I am used to sorting through information and forming it into a narrative, but it’s tough with this story. I know the background – from the early days of colonialism to the shameless corruption of the current government – and I have heard the testimony of Don Martín, another survivor of the Rio Negro massacres. But these things – the brutality of them, but also the resilience of the survivors – all of it, really – are just so unfathomable that the mind refuses categorization and filtering. Mine does, anyway. It’s somehow simultaneously too real and too surreal.

I am also German, and when I was 17 or 18, the age of my students now, I went to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald with my class. We were guided by a former inmate (something not possible anymore today because that generation has now almost completely vanished). I think of that day in Buchenwald frequently, but especially today.

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Don Esteban’s narrative isn’t always coherent; sometimes he jumps from one point of the story to another, sometimes he just falls silent for a second in the middle of a sentence and you can see his mind going back to darker times.

The history of this war is unclear in many aspects, and you will hear very different accounts depending on who you ask (genocide denial is very common, especially in the more affluent, whiter echelons of society).

So forgive me if this post is fragmented, too.

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And I translate:

“When we resettled to Rabinal they knew we were from Río Negro. So I was tortured in the army encampment that was just across the highway by the football fields [Don Esteban points southward; the football fields are maybe 250 meters from where we are].”

“They had my arms tied behind my back and my feet in shackles and they tortured me.”

“There were twelve of us.”

“We were like that for 12 days, without food or water.”

“They wanted to exterminated us, but we survived and we have fought ever since, and we will keep fighting.”

“When they build the dam, they promised us houses and cars and land and a better life.”

“They wanted to exterminate us because we resisted the dam.”

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In the late 70s, the Guatemalan government decided to dam the Chixoy river to generate energy for Guatemala City. Río Negro and 32 other villages were located on the banks of that river, and the communities cultivated its floodplains and fished in its waters. The vast majority of these people were farmers, but not saying yes to a project that would take away their livelihoods by flooding their land, houses, ceremonial centers, cemeteries made them enemies of the state – indigenous people, in times of genocide…

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The dam was built and the communities vanished, after over 2700 years of continuously inhabiting the Chixoy river basin. 2700 years.

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We take a break and then head to the show garden Qachuu Aloom maintains across the street to teach community members. The garden has parcels for vegetables and others for medicinal plants, and a nursery. Don Esteban explains that here they are recovering ancestral knowledge of cultivation and healing. Back at Qachuu Aloom he shows us the seed bank, which holds the seeds of all the plants the “abuelos” (literally “grandfathers,” but often used in the sense of “the ancestors”) grew in the Milpa. The Milpa system is at the core of the ancient ways of cultivation and sometimes translated as the “Three Sisters,” consisting of corn, beans, and pumpkin. This translation is, however, misleading because the Milpa system includes (or included) more than 50 plants that all complement each other by producing nutrients, providing shade, and protecting from plagues. This also means that they grow without needing too much human interference – or work, in other words. 50 nutritional and medicinal plants – that makes for a very diverse and healthy diet.

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After lunch, based like all meals here almost exclusively on ingredients harvested from the garden, we head into town to visit the Museum for Historical Memory. It has three rooms.

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We stand in the first room and I translate what the guide says:

“In this room, called the ‘room of dignification,’ we see the photos of the people that died in the massacres. It is estimated that a total of 5000 people were killed in the municipality of Rabinal [to which Río Negro belongs]. The photos were recovered from municipal files and sometimes from the identification cards of people, which is why we can see stamps on them, like in this one. On this column we printed the names of 400 children who never had a picture taken of them. They killed all these people because they said they were guerilla fighters. Now you explain to me how a 4-days-old child can be a guerilla fighter.”

And that is all there is in this room: hundreds of photos of dead men and women on all four walls, and in the center a column with the names of 400 dead children and babies.

Don Esteban walks around the room and points out some people:

“This is my mother.”

“This is my brother.”

“This is another brother of mine.”

This is not a cemetery, mind you, it’s a museum. Imagine standing in a museum looking at your mother’s and brothers’ pictures because they were slaughtered in senseless violence. And then go on and imagine that you knew all the people left and right of your relatives’ photos because you grew up with them in a tightly knit community.

I don’t know how Don Esteban is so collected and how he keeps telling his story and how he continues to bring groups of strangers to this museum. But astonishingly, every survivor I have met deals with this trauma the same way, at least in terms of telling the story and insisting that it is important to tell it, to let people – Guatemalans and foreigners alike – know what happened here.

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The second room is dedicated to the exhumation and identification processes that took place in the 90s. In meticulous work that could take up to five years, forensics specialists unearthed the remains from many, many clandestine mass graves, reassembled the bones into (more or less) complete skeletons, determined the cause of death, analyzed their clothing to determine what village or area they were from (the Mayans wear intricately designed traditional dresses – or used to, anyway – that vary considerably from village to village and from region to region) and finally took DNA samples from survivors to compare them with what was left of their relatives. After this, the remains were interred for a second time on a proper cemetery and with the proper ceremonies.

Don Esteban says that this was a very said, but also a very happy day: Being confronted with it all again, but also knowing that his family and community members would find peace at last.

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The third room is dedicated to the Maya Achi culture. As in so many conflicts, the army aimed at destroying the knowledge and culture of the people to dissociate them from who they are. And in Guatemala, they were somewhat successful at this: less and less people learn their abuelos’ language because their parents think it is a disadvantage – and it is in this deeply racist state. With the language, much of the rest of the culture disappears little by little. The army also focused on destroying sacred sites and sought out Mayan priests, or aj’ijs, as primary targets of their killings. They chose altars and ancient Mayan ruins as execution sites. They burned the fields and destroyed people’s pots and grinding stones. – After all this, many were scared to be identified as indigenous and changed their dress, began going to evangelical churches, and started to speak Spanish.

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The next day Don Esteban takes us to the land of another project called Asociación de Campesinos del 13 de Marzo, or “Farmers’ Association of March 13th.” This organization has been around since the late 80s. They fought for the state’s recognition of the massacres – finally granted in 2014 – and for reparations – still pending for most survivors – and are now teaching Achi youth traditional agriculture and other cultural practices of their abuelos. These kids are largely neglected by the government and have little perspective in life, so many choose to migrate to Guatemala City or the US where their future is more than uncertain. By teaching them these practices Don Esteban and his compañeros hope to integrate them into and save what is left of their traditional social fabric.

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Now, why do I think that the question of whether or not permaculture can feed the world is irrelevant, at least in this case? – It’s because Don Esteban and about 2 billion other people still live as subsistence farmers. That’s more than a quarter of the world’s population, and almost all of them live in the Global South. We from the Global North have interfered with their way of life for hundreds of years and forced them, through colonial practices, to become part of a global economy that is based on their exploitation and expropriation. Massacres like the one in Río Negro are a direct result of colonialism – it’s the descendants of the former colonial elites that still run most of the Latin American countries. They have used brute force over and over again to preserve their privileges and to continuously subdue indigenous populations. Subsistence farming, or food sovereignty, is a problem for them: It means that people cannot be exploited as cheap workers on monoculture plantations or in sweat shops. It means that they are not dependent on them. Therefore, producing their own food is an act of rebellion.

In the case of Don Esteban, it means to be independent from the state that killed his family and intentionally destroyed his culture. Teaching other Achi to grow food the ancestral way is an attempt to free them, too. Needless to say, Qachuu Aloom does not receive support from state agencies, and they don’t want any.

The state calls them backwards, we tend to call their way of life backwards. But who are we to judge, we who have benefited and continue to benefit from the destruction of cultures and habitats for so long? Is that moving forward?

Esteban and those around him chose to live the way their people always did, and otherwise want to be left alone. I don’t think they’re asking too much.

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The photo shows Pak’oxóm, the site of the massacre of March 13th, 1982. The pine tree in the center background (you can only see the lower part of the trunk) has a particularly gruesome history: The soldiers grabbed the children by their feet and banged their heads against the trunk until they were dead.

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I asked Don Esteban if he would pose for a photo for this yak, and he initially said yes. He then asked me if it would be published and, when I said yes, politely declined. I decided to also change his name. But you should go visit and meet him – he is a truly inspiring human being!