Mucking around in Las Pilas

DSC03277Bright and early Saturday morning, Colin and Jack met Curt in the lobby of our hotel to go machete shopping. You heard me: machetes. I’m told there will be no special requirements to get them through customs in our checked bags, but I have to do a little research to be sure.

From Reu, we set out for the campos again, this time to visit the fields of Gerardo and Carolina in Las Pilas. Last spring they planted two acres of test crops of two different varieties of corn, and today we were going to divide into two teams, harvest specific plots of corn, and compare the samples to see which produced the bigger yield. The results were interesting: a test hybrid that Semilla Nueva introduced last year produced less than the variety this community had been cultivating.

DSC03319The rainstorm of the previous evening had soaked the fields and Curt warned us that we would ruin our shoes and that sandals would be worthless, so most of us opted to leave our shoes in the truck. The mud was thick and fun to mush around in. Our harvest took only a few minutes, which was fortunate because even first thing in the morning the heat and humidity were getting pretty intense.

After our experiment, we went to Eva’s home where her family and Semilla Nueva staffers made us chaya lemonade, and learned a little more about their lives.

The Chaya (chia) plant, also known as “tree spinach” contains a number of nutrients and grows wild here. Semilla Nueva staff have been working on introducing new nutrients into the traditional Guatemalan diet. Ann Barkett, Semilla Nueva’s Food Security Coordinator and Pigeon pea extensionist, works primarily with the women in the communities to help them find ways to integrate a more diverse mixture of vegetables and protein into traditional dishes. The lemonade we drank was delicious, although it could be disconcerting that it was also as green as wheat grass juice.

Eva (in the blue) and her family share their story with us as we drink our chia lemonade
Eva (in the blue) and her family share their story with us as we drink our chia lemonade

The community we visited today was formed by 150 families that were former refugees placed there when a hurricane wiped out their communities in 2001. The land was taken as another effort of land reform after the civil war of the 1990s, but was largely barren, formerly farmed for cotton until the soil had few nutrients. The families formed a communal group and planted trees, gardens and corn. The communication they shared was the reason they were able to cultivate a variety of corn that produced a higher yield than expected. They are now working with Semilla Nueva, experimenting with no till, no slash and burn agriculture, green manures and pigeon pea.

Here our journey with Semilla Nueva was mostly over. After lunch in Reu, we divided into two groups. One would return for sightseeing in Antigua or flights home, another would visit Lake Atitlan. Colin expressed some concern about the group splitting up, and Jack said he was eager to go on another Rotary trip sometime soon.

harvesting corn in Las Pilas
harvesting corn in Las Pilas

Our intention on bringing them on this trip was for them to experience a different way of life. Along the way, they also saw first hand how a young, energetic group of people can recognize a problem, address a way to fix that problem, experiment with multiple solutions, fail multiple times, and in the end have a great impact. I guess an additional takeaway was the friendships they formed with a group of people focus on service and learning, and the pursuit of adventure. I’m really proud of them for their perseverance and open-mindedness and look forward to hearing about how they process what they’ve seen in the coming months.

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  1. Again and again, thank you for chronicling your family\’s time in Guatemala. It is so wonderful to see Colin and Jack having such a good time and to learn more about my son\’s work. What wonderful parents you are.