Transpiration cycle: Farmers association director sees economic potential in Belize

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Sure, the development programs he’s working on with Mayan farmers in Belize could be called innovative, said Clayton Brascoupé. The Mohawk/Algonquin director of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-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 Brascoupé, 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.”

Belize waterfall.
TNAFA and Mayans from the highland villages of San José Succotz, Barton Creek, and San Antonio are simply stepping back onto that ancient route. And, by helping sustain the cultures and environment of Belize, the visitors ensure their own wellbeing.

The collaboration began in 1994, when TNAFA, then a two-year-old offshoot of Native Seeds/Search, the Tucson seedbank, sent Brascoupé to Belize to attend a conference on indigenous partnerships sponsored by Apikan Indigenous Network, a Canadian non-governmental organization. Now an affiliate of Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, TNAFA sent instructors to Belize in succeeding years. They consulted on such issues as 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 (Quechua), a Bolivian agronomist with a degree in plant genetics, accompanied Brascoupé, as did his wife, Margaret Brascoupé (Tesuque Pueblo), who taught traditional food preparation, and their daughter, Phoye Tsay Brascoupé, who 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 José 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. Brascoupé 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 50 acres in Barton Creek into a traditional farm and teaching center. Maria Garcia, a San Antonio village leader who is planning a multi-use center comparable to the one in San José Succotz. A 500-acre tract of rainforest in San Antonio will used for sustainable agroforestry.

Getting the projects off the ground takes cash. “Something like $10,000 would put up a building,” said Brascoupé, “and $50,000 would staff it and get programs underway.” He hopes North American individuals or groups will donate funds through not-for-profit organizations, such as TNAFA.

During the most recent trip, TNAFA ran a four-day workshop in San Antonio that was similar to the ten-day course offered each summer in Santa Fe. Twenty Mayan students, 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 of Native products. San Antonio residents have a profound understanding of medicine, and even possess an herb that controls diabetes, according to Brascoupé. “There’s potential to make a medication for sale in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “We discussed the fact that it’s wise to process what you’re selling. These products are called value-added, because you make more money, even given the extra time and resources you expend.”

“Doing the processing yourself is especially important with food,” noted Margaret Brascoupé, “because indigenous methods add nutrition, while conventional methods remove it.”

The presence of young farmers among the students cheered the TNAFA teachers. The local Mayan communities have an intact or nearly intact agricultural heritage. Farm families comprise about eighty percent of San José 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 faced by indigenous people thoughout 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.”

In class, the students shared information and experiences. A farmer who had been persuaded by the government to try modern agriculture (which depends on pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and the like) revealed that he was spending prohibitively high sums on chemicals. Yet he obtained lower crop yields than his son, who had stuck with the old ways. “Every Latin American government pushes the new technology, because it creates financial dependence,” said Ballon. “Traditional agriculture doesn’t depend on anything.”

Students also began collecting local heirloom seeds. “Seeds are our brothers and sisters,” said Ballon. “They’re no different from us. We collect them in order to exchange them with other communities. We’ve done this since ancient times to ensure the seeds’ genetic diversity.”

Ecotourism intrigued everyone TNAFA visited. “They were surprised that North Americans would be willing to come down and work in their fields and forests,” Brascoupé 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 any development, including tourism, has to respect their lifeways.

All over the globe, people in traditional livelihoods are on the front lines of the fight to preserve what biological diversity we have left. Each community uses the age-old knowledge embedded in its unique culture to protect its share of the earth. The problem is universal; the solution is local. Said Brascoupé, “People have to honor farmers, period.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Clayton Brascoupé.

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