SANTA FE, N.M. – Sure, the development programs he’s working on with Mayan farmers in Belize could be called innovative, said Clayton Brascoupe. The Mohawk/Algonquin director of the Santa Fe-based Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA) has just returned home from a consulting trip to the rainforests of the former British colony, which shares borders with Mexico and Guatemala.
And yes, he is working hard to involve more North American indigenous people in pioneering organic farming, sustainable agroforestry, and ecotourism projects there.
But really, insisted Brascoupe, the flow of ideas and resources is a part of a natural spiraling pattern that is as old as the continents.
“Summer rains in the American Southwest originate in Central America,” he explained. “Winds pick up moisture as they cross the Caribbean from east to west. They then swing north through the mountains of Mexico into the United States, and circle down from the northwest to drop rain on Arizona and New Mexico. The water runs off into the Gulf of Mexico, and the cycle begins anew. Over the millennia, the seeds of corn and many other crops, as well as the traditional knowledge, followed the same path.”
TNAFA and Mayans from the highland villages of San Jose Succotz, Barton Creek, and San Antonio are simply stepping back onto that ancient route. And, by helping sustain the people and environment of Belize, the visitors ensure their own well-being.
The collaboration began in 1994, when TNAFA, then a two-year-old off-shoot of Native Seeds/Search, the Tucson seedbank, sent Brascoupe to Belize to attend a conference on indigenous partnerships sponsored by Apikan Indigenous Network, a Canadian organization.
Now an affiliate of Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, TNAFA sent instructors to Belize in succeeding years. They consulted on setting up a pottery cooperative, designing a ceramic water filter, and protecting traditional resources from corporations eager to patent local plants and animals, along with the medicines, cosmetics, insecticides, and other items derived from them.
On this latest trip, Emigdio Ballon, a Quechua agronomist with a degree in plant genetics, accompanied Brascoupe, as did his Tesuque wife, Margaret Brascoupe, who taught traditional food preparation. The Brascoupe’s daughter, Phoye Tsay, explored possibilities for youth programs. They found it easy to navigate multilingual Belize, where English and Spanish are spoken, in addition to Mayan, Creole, and other languages.
Sponsors for the trip included the Collective Heritage Institute, the Prajana Foundation, TIDES Foundation, Tewa Women United, and the Tesuque Pueblo Education Department.
One of TNAFA’s partners in Belize is Xunantunich Organization for Women’s Development, in San Jose Succotz. The group is setting up a training center, where local people and visitors will learn sustainable agriculture, traditional medicine, Mayan language, ceramics, and other arts. Lodging, restaurants, and tours to ancient Mayan pyramid cities are also planned.
Brascoupe agrees with increasing numbers of development experts worldwide, who find that empowering women is critical. “Women focus on whole-community development,” he said. “They work to meet their children’s needs, which means the effects last into the future. That complements TNAFA’s aim, which is youth education.”
Other partners in Belize include Bernadette Balan, who will make land in Barton Creek into a traditional farm and teaching center, and Maria Mesh Garcia, chairperson of San Antonio’s Itzamna Society, a community group The village has just struck a deal with the federal government to co-manage a mountainous 13,000-acre tract called Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park.
“We’ll set aside land for farming and sustainable agroforestry,” said Garcia. “We’ll also have courses, youth exchange programs, hiking, and camping. But first, we need to improve roads and other infrastructure.”
Getting the projects off the ground takes cash. “Something like $10,000 would put up a building,” said Brascoupe, “and $50,000 would get programs underway.” He hopes North American individuals or groups will donate funds through not-for-profit organizations, such as TNAFA.
During the recent trip, TNAFA ran a four-day workshop in San Antonio that was similar to its 10-day summer course in Santa Fe. Twenty-three Mayans, ranging from teenagers to elders, studied traditional methods of increasing soil fertility and controlling pests, among other topics, reported Ballon.
The course also covered the marketing. Local residents have a profound understanding of medicine, and even possess an herb that controls diabetes, according to Brascoupe. “They could make a medication for sale in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “We talked about processing what you sell. These products are called value-added, because in the end you make more money.”
“Processing food yourself is especially important, because indigenous methods add nutrition, while conventional methods remove it,” noted Margaret Brascoupe.
“We’ll need to figure this out, though,” added Garcia. “With our traditional medicines, for example, we drink the teas or apply the ointments right after making them. Preserving them for later use has never been an issue.”
The presence of young farmers in the class cheered the TNAFA teachers. Farm families comprise about 80 percent of San Jose Succotz and nearly all of San Antonio. This is despite economic and social pressure to leave their homelands for jobs that generate cash: an accelerating trend throughout the hemisphere.
“Like Native people all over the Americas, those in Belize have suffered the abuse of their government. They continue to fight for land and water rights,” said Ballon. “We want to give them hope.”
Class members shared their expertise. A farmer who had been persuaded by the government to try modern agriculture (which depends on pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and the like) described spending prohibitively high sums on chemicals. Yet he obtained lower crop yields than his son, who had stuck with the old ways.
“All Latin American governments push the new technology, because it creates financial dependence,” said Ballon. “Traditional agriculture doesn’t depend on anything.”
Students also collected seeds. “Seeds are our brothers and sisters,” explained Ballon. “They’re no different from us. We collect them, then exchange them with other communities. We’ve done this since ancient times to ensure the seeds’ genetic diversity.”
“The TNAFA workshop was so successful that we formed a group to take these ideas to neighboring villages,” reported Garcia.
Ecotourism intrigued everyone TNAFA visited. “They were surprised that North Americans would come down and work in their fields and forests,” Brascoupe said. “I explained that people realize we can’t just look at the beautiful places we visit, we have to work together to protect them.”
The villagers are proceeding cautiously, though, believing that development has to heed their values. “Some say they’re doing ecotourism, but they’re climbing all over our sacred sites and breaking things,” said Garcia. “We want to do it in a way that is educational and respects the places where our ancestors worshipped.”
Belize’s Mayan farmers – and other traditional people worldwide – are on the front lines of the fight to preserve what’s left of the earth’s cultural and biological diversity. The problem is universal, but the solutions are local. Our future is in their hands.
Said Brascoupe, “People have to honor farmers, period.”
To contact the Traditional Native American Farmers Association about its Belize projects or its Santa Fe permaculture course, which takes place July 21 – August 1, call (505) 983-2172 or write to P.O. Box 31267, Santa Fe, N.M. 87594-1267. For information on Belize, go to www.belize.com; for more on San Antonio’s national park go to www.epnp.org.