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Chapter 8. The maize people in the Mesoamerican dry corridor Milpa food system of the Maya Ch’orti’ people in Chiquimula, Guatemala

Section 2 Sustainability of the Indigenous People’s food system


Adequacy of income opportunities

The main livelihood activities in the communities are agricultural work, handicrafts and wage labour. Different professions are found, such as labour jobs, making traditional construction (mud buildings and palm roofs), planting productive fences, midwives, teachers, nurses, priests, pastors, drivers, carpenters, blacksmiths, artisans and electricians. The Ch’orti’ communities have various skilled artisans who engage in woodworking, pottery, natural fibre crafts, shoemaking, handicrafts and construction.

Despite the myriad of professions that exist within the communities, there are generally not enough opportunities to provide adequate monetary incomes to households and this has forced many community members, primarily men, to migrate to find work. There is work during the sowing seasons and for crop management in the community or in nearby villages, but nearly everyone is doing the same activities, so the local labour market easily becomes saturated. The most regular and abundant employment is found in cutting and cleaning coffee, cutting sugar cane, and cleaning fields for planting. Yet, even with these jobs, most often men are still forced to migrate to earn enough money to meet their expenses. Community members migrate to neighbouring villages, regions or even greater distances to work as labourers on coffee, orange and sugar cane plantations during the summer months, over periods of four to six weeks.

Income is used mostly to purchase food items, agro-industrial products, medicine, processed foods and goods to maintain personal hygiene. The main source of calories in the food system, maize and beans, are also the greatest household expense as community members invest considerable amounts for inputs into the milpa each year. Overall, the communities queried estimated that local production covers about half of household needs whilst the remaining half is purchased or obtained through barter and trade. The majority of household food production is consumed (on average 95 percent) but about 5 percent of the harvest is reserved to either be sold to the market or used to barter and trade for other goods and services. Whilst these practices do not significantly contribute to incomes, they do provide some means by which to procure desired items or to buffer incomes during times of scarcity. Due to poor market connectivity, intermediary buyers and resellers tend to offer low purchase prices for goods from the communities and ask high prices for goods on sale to increase their profit margins as much as possible. Whilst markets provide a large variety of fresh produce, due to the price of traveling to the market and scarcity of monetary resources in the communities, only specific species are purchased and households are sometimes forced to purchase only low-quality foods or those that are beginning to spoil.

In villages there is a minimal capacity to buy and sell products for monetary currency, therefore commonly people engage in alternative economic exchanges of goods and services. In an economy with limited income, it is considered a good opportunity to work for a few weeks in exchange for a little bit more than 10 kg of beans or maize, as in the community of La Ceiba, where this is a common practice. Women acknowledged that these types of exchanges are less frequent amongst men, a fact that could be in part due to migration, but both men and women do participate in the informal economy. Amongst women, common trades include handicrafts or livestock for maize, beans or other foodstuffs, or alternatively services such as labour or midwifery for foodstuffs, animals or handicrafts. The midwives of Agua Blanca help deliver children in exchange for goods and accept whatever the family can give at the time, even if the payment is delayed until after the harvest.

Adequacy of diets

The traditional Ch’orti’ diet of maize and beans enriched by native herbs, fruits, seeds and occasionally meat is still the preferred diet. Women prepare several traditional dishes that normally include five or more food groups, for example a sauce made with chilis, tomatoes, squash and seeds served with legumes, native herbs, tortillas (unleavened flatbread prepared from nixtamalized maize), arroz (Oryza sativa, rice) and sometimes meat. A variety of dishes are consumed nearly every day, contributing to diet diversity. Foods are considered to have more life-sustaining energy if they have been harvested at different times in the Maya calendar, have been transported from one area to another by foot, or if they have been processed using ancestral recipes. In these areas, wild foods are considered more nutritious than domesticated or imported foods. They are valued for their taste and use in traditional dishes such as pinol (hot beverage based on corn flour similar to an atol), chuchitos (a small tamale; maize dough with a variety of fillings such as chipilin and frijoles steamed in a corn husk), and caldo (broth).

Local production and wild sourcing offer 10 distinct food groups. The communities do not produce dairy but it is available in the market and is seldomly consumed due to high prices and perishability. Vegetable oils are considered a necessary product in the household but remain cost prohibitive. When asked if all people could meet their dietary needs, community members acknowledged that not all households have that capacity. A household is considered food insecure when there is a lack of beans and maize. Food insecurity is experienced in connection with local climate events, especially during dry summer months of January to May. Whilst a diversity of foods is produced and sourced locally, a significant barrier to food security and diet quality is access to sufficient land to ensure adequate production. The challenge of migration also often makes the Ch’orti’ unable to labour in their familial plots.

In times of food shortage, neighbours support families to ensure that everyone has enough food. On a multi-household scale, neighbours identify action plans for the challenges they face together and agree upon decisions for development in the villages’ communities. If there is a harvest loss for one community member, the harvests from all neighbouring plots are shared and, if necessary, the community requests support from nearby communities or municipal authorities. It is also during periods of food shortage that local diets depend on native plants gathered in the local environment, such as leafy vegetables and roots. Community members feel that food security can be achieved within their current landscape and production systems by capitalizing on what are considered nutritious, medicinal and culturally acceptable foods. For example, Chagüitón with the Mancomunidad Ch’orti’ has been involved in the promotion of processed tree spinach flour to naturally enrich the nutritional content of prepared foods and there is an intention to expand these initiatives to reach more communities.

Changes in the provision of livelihoods and social well-being over time

From ancestral times, Jocotán has been the main square for sale and exchange of products, as it continues to be today. The market consistently offers fresh foods, staple foods and crafts sourced from surrounding villages but now also offers industrial products and processed products. The Ch’orti’ food system has been strongly affected by the rise of industrial production and export markets that have decreased income opportunities based on local value chains. The urban markets in the food system are flooded with industrial products sold at low prices. Women note that the substitution of products, such as natural fibres and handicrafts for synthetic fibres and industrially made plastics, as well as natural dyes for chemical dyes, has undercut the traditional market.

Soup with chaya.
© Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/Rose Robitaille.

Research in the Ch’orti’ region reveals that malnutrition has risen with the increasing frequency and severity of drought (FAO, 2016; OXFAM, 2012; Chicas, Vanegas and García, 2014). Shifts from the traditional milpa to a more homogenous and input-intensive model also underlie problems of food insecurity and diet quality. Previously this diverse production system of maize, beans and squash created the conditions for a rich understory with a variety of native herbs, wild tomatoes, chili, tubers and fruits. The milpa gradually transformed with the introduction of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides from a production system that promotes diversity to one that inhibits the growth of spontaneous and intercropped foods. At the same time, it is evident that the diversity of diets has decreased. For example, currently maize is consumed daily and bread is consumed occasionally. Historically, households would also eat sorghum, teosinte (Zea perennis (Hitchc.) Reeves & Mangelsd., Poaceae), and amaranth grain (Amaranthus spp.), amongst other foods. Decreasing quantity of food available in the milpa lays the burden of maintaining household subsistence on smaller production areas such as the patio, live fences and landscape. As another factor, community members noted that the role of meat in the diet has decreased over past decades with the loss of the hunting practice and declining availability of game animals. In addition, other traditional food sources have been eliminated from the diet such as edible molluscs from local aquaculture and reared insects such as the chapulin (Sphenarium purpurascens Charpentier, Pyrgomorphidae).


Land and soil

Soils in Jocotán, Camotán and Olopa are composed of clay, loamy-clay, and clay and stony silt, all of which are used for crop production. In the communities, soil typology is determined by colour, which varies between soft and hard yellow and black fertile soils. The yellow areas are considered to be sandy with the colour darkening depending on the percentage of clay. Land is considered good quality if it has black soil with little stone and sand, as it has been observed that these areas absorb and retain water. As a result of the need to expand cultivation to marginal soils and plots with steep slopes, the community now engages in some practices to protect ecosystem functions such as planting on contour lines, reforestation of mountain areas, sowing trees as functional fences and creating “dead barriers”. These “dead barriers” are made from branches and other dead plant materials that are collected and piled into mounded fences to capture fertile soil from the rains. To adapt to the various soils in the landscape, households make small plots to engage in trial and error sowings, which allows them to verify the performance of any crop before developing a larger area.

There are different approaches to soil management in each distinct production zone of the Ch’orti’ food system. Soil amendments are determined based on soil type and use different preparations of locally available materials and minerals that also help control pests and diseases. The patios and living fences are maintained by the female head of house, who applies natural fertilizers made from kitchen scraps, ashes and manure from their animals. The use of household ash and lime in the compost helps improve the soil potential of hydrogen (pH). Living fences in the landscape are planted strategically to stabilize soil, whilst also providing green materials for composting, such as madre de cacao leaves, palo de pito leaves, branches and others. The patios and living fences in the domicile do not require any inputs from outside of the household to maintain soil quality and the community considers the soils in these areas to be healthy and productive. All community members agreed that although soils in the milpa appear to be in good condition, production is only possible using synthetic fertilizers. Other local techniques to maintain soil quality include using crop rotations, interplanting of perennials, planting on contours, and fallow periods. To prepare for sowing crops, most households burn their plot and seldomly use other methods such as chop and drop or allowing herds of cattle or horses to eat the crop residues and fertilize the fields.

Labour and fuel energy

The main energy source in the food system is firewood for cooking. It is only in the municipal capitals and some peri-urban communities where households have access to propane gas as fuel for cooking. All of the communities that participated in this study have access to electricity and some communities in the region have participated in projects to develop household solar and wind units. Electricity is used primarily for religious services and celebrations, educational activities, refrigeration of foods in stores, and lighting homes. Electric mills are also used to grind nixtamalized maize into dough. Whilst only some individuals own motor vehicles (primarily all-wheel-drive pickup trucks and motorcycles), most if not all of the population uses fossil-fuel vehicles by paying for passage service. Vehicles are crucial for transferring supplies, such as fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, as well as transporting harvested products to the marketplace. In addition, tractors or other fossil-fuel-driven machines are used for field preparation, though they are seldom owned and instead rented, or the field preparation traded for other goods or services. Tractors are used primarily for planting vegetables for the market and the milpa.

The activities in the Ch’orti’ food system are labour intensive with few options or innovations for minimizing drudgery. Tasks are generally gender specific, with the men’s tasks being agricultural or outside of the household and women labouring primarily in the household. Younger boys help the men with traditional construction trades of the village. As they grow up, they participate in the milpa fields, and when they become older, they will migrate to look for work in the agricultural sector or as unskilled labour. Women spend the majority of their time making tortillas (unleavened flatbread), cooking and washing clothes with their daughters. Women are also responsible for collecting water for the household, which is carried out with both male and female children. All family members are responsible for collecting wood, though often women and children collect firewood as a result of the men migrating for work.

Traditional planting patterns make use of ecological functions to increase harvests and decrease labour demands, for example dry beans fix nitrogen to support the growth of maize, whilst the maize acts as a natural trellis for climbing beans and spiny dense squashes planted along the field perimeter serve as a natural pest barrier. Albeit, now it is more common that chemicals, in particular herbicides, are used as a strategy to save time and human labour. Those who use herbicides are able to work an area of land four times greater than those who weed with a machete. A few communities use mules or horses to support agricultural activities.

Because of the volume of their production, some communities have community mills or machinery that can be used to minimise drudgery, such as maize huskers, coffee pulpers, mincers for zacate (herbaceous material) and nixtamal mills, which are usually owned by individuals but are available for use by everyone in the community for maize or other payments. Processing fibres for handicrafts is another labour-intensive task. In the case of maguey handcrafts, special tools are angled to extract the fibres by scratching the plant pulp, which is a process that usually irritates the artisan’s skin. In Olopa, the Ch’orti’ communities of Tituque have innovated their ancient processes for producing maguey fibre and developed a low-technology bicycle-driven machine that reduces labour whilst still creating a high-quality product.


The Ch’orti’ consider water to be the key to food security. As most production sites are rain-fed, water availability is a major limiting factor in the agroecosystem. According to the Municipal Information System for Food Security and Nutrition (SIMSAN), the Ch’orti’ region, including its urban centres, has a 60 percent coverage of residential water. For domestic water consumption, many households depend on local water resources such as springs, wells and streams that are usually more available in the rainy winter months. In summer, some of these water sources disappear or diminish in quantity and quality, forcing inhabitants of the communities to travel several kilometres to find potable water. Communities that have better water availability are in the medium elevations of the landscape. When water sources dry up, people have to travel to other communities, which can take up to two hours every two days to transport 30 litres of water. When at the water collection site, household members will bathe and women will wash clothes.

The primary use of water is for food preparation, although if water were used to irrigate agricultural plots, it would hypothetically have a higher demand. Despite the reoccurring drought conditions faced by the communities, few houses engage in rainwater collection. In the rare cases when rainwater is collected, it is primarily used for cleaning, domesticated animals and, in some cases, as drinking water. Other homes recycle grey water from the kitchen or pila (sink usually situated in the patio) for the production of plants that require more water in the patio. Some traditional forms of passive water capture in the landscape can still be seen in the Ch’orti’ communities. Strategies include planting on terraces, constructing stone barriers, constructing ditches on hillsides, planting on contours, chopping and dropping residues from crops, digging pits in fields to increase water absorption, and maintaining agroforestry systems that increase soil humidity.

Due to the importance of water in the community, the need for organised management of resources has created the Water Committee, which acts as a branch of the COCODE. Members of the community come together to manage, purchase and distribute water resources to any household that is able to contribute. The cost of contributing can be as low as GTQ 3 (equivalent to USD 0.4) a month to help maintain water sources and ensure equitable distribution for all members.


In the patios and communal forests where medicinal plants and food are sourced, the Ch’orti’ interact efficiently with local resources. Residues from raising animals, ash from the kitchen, and lime are used to fertilize the patios. Some homes also engage in vermiculture or use leaves from the living fences as green fertilizers.

All non-biodegradable waste products are produced outside of the food system and are largely imported from urban centres to small shops or the municipal markets for purchase. All the chemicals used in the milpa come in plastic packaging and are difficult to dispose, as any residues cannot be treated as hazardous waste. In the urban centres of municipalities and surrounding peri-urban communities, a service transports the garbage generated in the homes to a municipal landfill. In rural communities, this service is not available and consequently it is the responsibility of each household to eliminate all organic and inorganic waste. Families collect some products, such as aluminum, iron, plastic bottles and copper, to sell. For non-recyclable items, many use an area around the house to deposit waste generated in the home and often this material is either burned or buried. Plastic bottles from soda industries, packages from herbicides, pesticides and other industrial rubbish are visible in the landscape of the communities. Some non-biodegradable products are commonly repurposed. For example, pet food bags are used to transport water, store items, transport agricultural products or handicrafts, or as planting bags. Local non-profit organizations such as the church-run Caritas and campesino organization Nueva Día try to motivate people in nearby communities to upcycle non-biodegradable waste products by using them to produce handicrafts but few have adopted these practices.

Changes in resource use efficiency over time

With advancements in technology, there have been changes in labour demands and energy efficiency in the Ch’orti’ food system. The Ch’orti’ ancestors used hand tools, such as machetes and hoes, to work the land and organic insecticides and/or traps for pest control. The current dominant form of agriculture in the milpa is more dependent on chemical inputs, which reduces labour demands. It also has been associated with degradation of soil quality and community members noted that if they are not using chemical inputs in the milpa they are unable to have a good harvest. In addition, farmers now have some access to machinery to work their fields, which has also reduced labour demands. However, as money is required to purchase the inputs and hire the machines, and income is most commonly earned via migrant labour, it is difficult to understand whether these advances have actually reduced the amount of labour necessary or just moved the work opportunities outside of their communities. Additional changes in energy use are primarily a result of the increased use of mechanized transport, lighting, electric food processors, irrigation and communal mills for maize. For example, before refrigeration it was common for pig or cow meats to be dried for preservation using a process of heavily salting the meat and hanging it in the sun. These advances all help reduce labour demands, but they are not universally accessible due to distance or monetary constraints, and they increase dependence on external inputs.

According to village residents, the use of water has become more efficient in recent years due to the scarcity of this resource throughout the year. This necessity has driven villages to generate efficiency strategies to reduce water waste. In villages that have domestic water, the community holds meetings for all members to ensure that water is appropriately used for housework and not for irrigation.

Community members shared that there has been little change in waste management compared to the past. However, they note that recycling is practised more often because waste that previously had no value now fetches a price for being recycled commercially. Due to technological advances, however, many more pollutants, such as agrochemicals, plastic bags and bottles, are entering the local waste stream and need to disposed of properly, a task the community is not well equipped to manage with traditional methods.


Crop and livestock biodiversity

In total, over 100 crop species are cultivated by the Ch’orti’ communities. Most of these are fruits and vegetables (approximately 80 percent) that are maintained in the patio. The species cultivated include some native to the Americas like maize, beans, avocado, nance (Byrsonima crassifolia), jocote (Spondias mombin, hog plum), custard-apple, guava, chayote, tree spinach, loroco, potatoes and cassava, as well as species that have been introduced to the Americas at different points of time since colonization by the Spanish, including mango (Mangifera indica), banana (Musa sp.), orange, lemon (Citrus limon), mandarins (Citrus reticulata), onions, brócoli (Brassica oleracea, broccoli) and remolacha (Beta vulgaris, beets). Some introduced species, such as sugar cane, have a long history of cultivation and culinary use in the region and are now considered traditional crops by the communities. The crops grown in the largest areas in the food system are maize and beans, as they are the most consumed in the households in the Ch’orti’ region. Households maintain varieties year after year, primarily for flavour and quality for culinary uses but also for short maturation periods and drought tolerance.

The communities are largely seed sovereign, growing and preserving seeds from the patio and milpa within the household and sharing or trading them within the community. Seeds are not received from institutions or research centres, rather, in the rare case they are needed, seeds are exchanged with neighbouring communities and more seldomly obtained in the market in Jocotán. The seeds available in the market are primarily native varieties including those of maize, perome (Vigna unguiculata, cowpea), chipilin, black nightshade, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), rice, and pumpkins or squash. The farmer selects the plants that comply with the features that his next crop wants to see. For example, because of the strong winds that affect the land in the village of Agua Blanca, farmers select plants with a combination of low plant height and high production. Whilst some varieties are also kept for their drought tolerance, such as early maize, culinary merit is still the main selection factor in preferred varieties. The selection of the bean seed is usually ranked first by flavour, second by cooking time, and finally by its level of production in the respective growing zone.

Amongst the animals found in the community, only turkeys were originally domesticated in the Americas, although traditional breeds of horses, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats and cattle are found in the Ch’orti’ region. A chicken breed has been introduced recently that is cross-bred with traditional breeds to be resilient to drought conditions. Municipal technical agents provide this breed of chicken to members in some communities, along with a regiment of vaccines. Animal breeds kept in the community are favoured for productivity, disease resistance and low resource demand. The maintenance of smaller animal species with less input and space requirements is common as the average family gives preference for cultivating maize and beans on available land.

Wild harvested plants and animals

The Ch’orti’ collect a number of wild resources from within the boundaries of their communities. Edible plants are gathered along the edges of walking paths and roadsides, although they are primarily harvested from household plots where spontaneous growth is managed and encouraged. Forested parcels called astilleros between villages and hamlets are considered communal and provide shared spaces where community members can find firewood, manage communal agricultural plots, and gather mushrooms and useful materials such as wood, clays, honey and other raw fibres. The few hunters in the region use modern traps, rifles and hunting dogs, whilst the few fishers use modern hooks.

Turkey with mixed poultry in the patio.
© Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/Gennifer Meldrum.

The astilleros are managed cooperatively by community laws and under the supervision of the COCODES. Action is being taken to address the issue of deforestation in the Ch’orti’ region to protect and enhance forest resources. The commercial harvest of wood is managed at the level of the central government and requires a forest exploitation license, which enforces a maximum sustained yield evaluated by technicians of the National Institute of Forests (INAB). At the municipal level, it is required that landowners possess a license to harvest any amount of wood and they risk spending time in jail for not complying with municipal law. The community enforces regulations for timber extraction and there are some communities where villagers are obligated to request permission from the communal COCODES authorities to cut trees. The COCODES can appeal to the national, civil or military police if these procedures are not followed. The collection of firewood is allowed but communities take care not to harvest more than what is needed. There are no actions to maintain and promote the population of tul, carrizo and maguey, which are becoming scarce and raising the price for artisan handicrafts.

Ecosystem conservation and protection

Some communities maintain communal conservation areas in the landscape, primarily for forests and water sources. In these areas, inhabitants work together for reforestation, removing refuse and protecting against natural disasters. Management is not frequent but routine. To reduce the risk of forest fires, the community will assemble local fire brigades and clean the forest floor of deadwood to be used as communal firewood. For the management of water sources, the community gathers once or twice a year to clean the surroundings and to plant trees that allow that resource to continue to be productive by reducing erosion and supporting water filtration. Living fences are also maintained to contribute to the firewood demands of the household, for erosion control, and to act as natural barriers. The community recognises that where green fences are maintained in the landscape, there are no issues with soil degradation or erosion. Other measures taken by villagers to protect water sources include making boxes from concrete or stones to seal the source from contamination from domesticated and non-domesticated animals, household soap, and/or agrochemical products. Some communities with communal lands have also entered the national Programa de incentivos forestales para poseedores de pequeñas extensiones de tierra de vocación forestal o agroforestal (PINPEP), which is a Guatemalan Payment for Ecosystem Services Programme incentive programme to help legally protect the area from extraction and to receive monetary incentives for maintaining forested areas.

Changes in the conservation and protection of resources over time

The Ch’orti’ have seen a loss of traditional practices, which has contributed to the disappearance of crop species and varieties from production fields. Historically, the milpa was designed to be a circular rather than square plot to maximize the edge space for useful spontaneous plants and to create opportunity for more diverse planting schemes. Now, the milpa is sown in furrows and chemical application inhibits the growth of traditional crops. Ancestral diversified plots still occur but in smaller proportion compared with more intensive and monoculture productions. Traditional varieties of grains such as maize and sorghum that depend less on fertilizers for their production are maintained but no longer in sizeable amounts and therefore are not highly available. Some custodian farmers continue to maintain rare native varieties that would otherwise be lost. Recently, the municipal commonwealth has been promoting drought-tolerant species to increase food security.

Historically the Ch’orti’ were actively hunting and gathering in their landscape but resources have become more scarce over time. Generally, forest cover in the Ch’orti’ region has been decreasing due to deforestation and the advance of the agricultural frontier throughout the national territory. Due to the absence of a proper management strategy, wild populations of plants and animals harvested in the landscape have decreased over time. For the practice of hunting, this has been particularly devastating as populations of species such as the conejo de monte (Sylvilagus brasiliensis L., Leporidae, tapeti), the tepezcuintle (Cuniculus paca, lowland paca), deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann, Cervidae), and armadillo decreased considerably. As a result, hunting is no longer considered a viable food source for households and is seldom practised. With the help of institutions such as the Copanch’orti’ Mancomunidad and PINPEP, communities have been organising to mitigate the impacts of this trend.


Governance of natural resources

There are different organised groups at various scales for consensus and participatory decision-making regarding natural resources in the communities. The main form of governance for small villages is the COCODE, a body recognised by the constitutional laws of Guatemala, which operates as an assembly of citizens with an executive committee, composed of a board of directors formed by a president, a vice president, a treasurer and a secretary. The COCODE is in charge of the management and the realization of specific works, as municipal activities require community consultation. The principle functions of the COCODE are to: (1) promote the economic, social and cultural development of the community; (2) promote the effective participation of the population in the identification and solution of their problems; (3) identify and inventory the needs of the community and determine the corresponding priorities for the formulation of programmes and projects; (4) propose to the municipal development council needs for the execution of programmes and projects, when these cannot be resolved by their respective community; (5) coordinate activities promoted or carried out by community groups to avoid duplication of efforts; and (6) manage the economic resources they require for their local development programmes and projects. Other community groups that relate to the food system include the Water Committee, which acts as a branch of the COCODE, and the Committee of Parents, which is charged with organising the local school feeding programmes, trainings for those serving food in the schools, and activities related to formal education. Those who have vocations that provide valuable services to the greater community such as religious leaders or teachers are perceived as authority figures and also play an important role in the resolution of conflicts and decision-making.

In rural villages, community members are in charge of ensuring the protection of the resources of their respective plots and any problem must be resolved with the local government. For many remote villages it is difficult to maintain contact with the municipality, therefore communities assign or appoint an auxiliary or community mayor to act as an ombudsman. Auxiliary mayors receive community complaints or requests and resolve them with higher levels of governance. The auxiliary mayor works directly with the mayor of the municipality and acts as the representative of the community. If the community is not large enough to have an auxiliary mayor, the entity that is responsible for management and community organization is the COCODE. Larger communities have a COCODE as well as an auxiliary mayor. The role of the COCODE and the auxiliary mayor are grounded in the traditional values of the communities and are an adaptation of the Maya ancestral system of governance to a modern style of governance.

Authorities of the community are part of an institutionalized system of voluntary service, without salary and permanence. Any member of the community can be elected as the highest authority of the COCODE, but they must be selected based on merit and their capacity to collaborate. Of the six communities studied, four communities were led by men and two COCODE were led by women. Auxiliary mayors serve for a period of two years with possibility of re-election. To participate in the Committee of Parents, one must be a parent of one or more children in the local school.

TABLE 8.8. Local institutions in Chagüitón image

At the national level, the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) is the institution charged with managing and protecting the species of flora and fauna and their habitats that are in danger of extinction. There is also INAB, which has a programme that provides economic incentives to support small and medium landowners to conserve their forested land and/or promotes the planting of new forests in an agroforestry or agroecological system. At the municipal level, organizations such as the Copan Ch’orti’ Mancomunidad support national programmes that allow farmers interested in these processes to participate. The Mancomunidad also participates in creating waste management plans at the urban and rural levels to minimise pollution and ensure protection of water sources, as well as supporting the diversification of plots to protect flora and fauna of economic interest in the region, and fire prevention plans. Other institutions in the Ch’orti’ region such as La Asociación Regional Campesina Ch’orti’ (ASORECH), la Asociación de Servicios y Desarrollo Socioeconómico de Chiquimula (ASEDECHI), and la Asociación para la Coordinación del Desarrollo Rural de San Juan Ermita (ACODERJE) have implemented projects that include the governance of natural resources, particularly the management of water resources and forested areas. Organizations such as Nueva Día, the Agrarian Platform and the Coordinator of Communities and Associations for the Integral Development of the Ch’orti’ People (COMUNDICH) have been in charge of promoting and protecting the rights of the Ch’orti’ community over their nature resources.

Under the management of the national initiative El Programa de Familiar para el Fortalacimiento de la Economia Campesina (PAFFEC), some communities participate in the Programa de Agricultura Familiar y Centros de Aprendizaje para el Desarrollo Rural (CADER) through which they receive help with sourcing seeds, capacity-building with technical agents and technical packages for the milpa. Funding is also received from outside of the community to develop locally managed institutions such as seed banks that are built with the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international partners, such as the Swedish Embassy in Chagüitón. The community takes ownership of the initiatives supported by outside research centres, governmental organizations or NGOs that organise capacity-building workshops to train community members to manage their local institutions. The aim of many of these initiatives is to increase the strength of the food system as a whole and provide greater means on a local scale to maintain food security. The authorities of the communities hold village meetings to determine if projects are acceptable to members of the community.

Changes in governance of natural resources over time

The mode of and need for governing natural resources has changed markedly over time in the Ch’orti’ territory. Community members recall that previously there was no need for the governance of natural resources because they were used respectfully and managed properly by those who depended on them. An example of this is the need for managing hunting and wild animal populations. From the Ch’orti’ point of view, animals are considered to be brothers; therefore, individuals would only hunt if it was necessary for household security. If one did hunt, they would only harvest what was necessary to meet their needs. Ceremony was also part of the process to ask the forest for permission and give thanks to the animal for its sustaining life energy. As a result of this cultural management, the communities maintained an abundance of wildlife resources and there was no need for controls through national, municipal and community initiatives. The exploitation of forested lands by outside entities and the lack of access to previous communally managed forests also contribute to the current need for management.


The Ch’orti’ food system is dynamic and complex. Below is a summarized assessment of 13 indicators of resilience. It is noted that for even the weakest indicators, there may be some aspects of community life or households that maintain practices that run counter to these trends.

1. Exposed to disturbance: The food system is regularly exposed to climatic events that have become increasingly more disruptive to the agricultural calendar. Due to the increase of strength and frequency of these events in the last 50 years, food system collapse has occurred in many villages, attracting the attention of the scientific community, which has focussed resources and energy into strengthening food security. In spite of climatic events that have devastated planting seasons and harvests, the Ch’orti’ have been using locally adapted resources such as animals that tolerate low water availability and crop varieties with short maturation periods to strengthen the resilience of their production system.

2. Globally autonomous and locally interdependent: The community is an interdependent system that promotes barter, trade, loans, and gifting of goods and services, which relies on the communication between local village networks. The food system enforces cooperation amongst community members to maintain food security by the collective lack of markets and income opportunities. The community safeguards traditional seeds and therefore, if necessary, the recovery of lost varieties and seeds is possible. Communities are now becoming more dependent on outside inputs for their primary production areas, which is a trend that could weaken an otherwise strong local system of trade.

3. Appropriately connected: Generally, the communities in the Ch’orti’ territory are becoming more connected to nearby villages and municipal capitals due to the expansion and quality of roads between communities, reducing travel times. However, due to the distances that different communities and hamlets have to travel, paired with the costs of transporting people and products to the market, the Ch’orti’ communities are not appropriately connected to each other or urban centres.

4. Socially self-organised: The Ch’orti’ have strong organization in local communities with high representation and participation, which helps to defend the territory against any outside threats. Villages and hamlets have achieved development through community consultations, consensus and collective decision-making. Participation of these meetings is not mandatory but rather open so that the people of the community who are dedicated to serving and have earned the respect of fellow community members can take part in non-permanent and non-paid leadership positions. Maya cosmology promotes being of service to others and the community, referred to in villages as “mística de servicio”, which is a key element in the Ch’orti’ governance providing services that are free, voluntary and permanent for the benefit of the community.

5. Reflective and shared learning: This indicator is constantly progressing and evolving with the experiences of the community. Patios are a living system where each year women will experiment with new crops, crop combinations and growing practices. Often beneficial plants are allowed to grow spontaneously or can be collected from other areas and replanted in the patio. As there is often no chemical application, the resilience of plants or planting combinations can be observed in light of weather conditions. Responsibilities to innovate are shared amongst women and they will gather to exchange findings or observations in the interest of optimizing production. Aquaculture techniques are both ancestral and innovative, being passed down by observing nature or other villagers. Neighbourhood meetings that are scheduled periodically to discuss political topics are also used as a space to discuss observations and the results of experiments carried out in their fields and patios. In these meetings, representatives who have participated in capacity-building workshops share the content of the trainings with their fellow community members and answer questions regarding these respective initiatives.

6. Honours legacy: The communities chosen for this study have strong cultural continuity and continue to demonstrate an ancestral way of life that is highly dependent on the landscape. The community has actively conserved several aspects of the ancestral food system by passing information from generation to generation through the active practice of these traditions. The traditional diet, rich in nutritional native plants, reveals the importance of honouring the legacy of ancestors in production practices. As there are no written manuals for any expertise to standardize the practices, artisans are free to maintain, modify or update the methods of production. During the armed conflict in Guatemala, there was a decrease in knowledge of ancestral practices in the region. The Ch’orti’ experienced the loss of knowledgeable individuals in part due to the recruitment by the military to act as patrols in other parts of Guatemala and the murder of intellectual leaders of the communities. They have effectively lost the local language, which is now only preserved in more isolated villages, and they use more industrial materials for house construction than previously, amongst other changes in their production systems, diets and livelihoods.

7. Builds human capital: The community transmits traditional knowledge through observation and practice with the conviction that learning should be a personal decision, though children are inevitably involved from a young age in the food system. As traditional practices become less marketable, there has been a loss of capacity-building of skilled artisans in the community. In addition, schooling that would prepare young adults for other professions is not available in some communities. Formalized schools for children in the local areas also do not honour the Ch’orti’ legacy, discouraging the use of the language and many traditional practices. In recent years, capacity-building workshops have been held by the municipal government and outside institutions to train leaders in the community in post-harvest processing, sustainable production and living techniques. Whilst there are some local practitioners in the communities, such as midwives, and medicines that are grown locally or collected in the landscape, community members must travel to urban centres to access most medical and dental services.

8. Coupled with local natural capital: Traditionally the food system was completely integrated with the local natural capital. Currently the live fences and patios of the house are maintained using traditional knowledge and practices. These production areas continue to promote the spontaneous growth of local plants for multiple purposes and provide products for use in food, construction, crafts, medicine or fuel. Unfortunately, the management of the communities’ natural resources has decreased over time with the advent of political borders and the privatizing of land. Outside production has created cheaper products outside of the traditional closed-loop system and has led to pollution in the landscape.

9. Ecologically self-regulated: Ecosystem functions from many aspects of the landscape and production systems help regulate degradation in the community. Traditional planting schemes of trees and perennials are still viable in current agricultural systems, including contour plantings for erosion control and water retention, as well as canopy cover for temperature regulation of the household and around water resources to improve quality and function of water resources. Conversely, the high-input milpa system no longer uses traditional methods and consequently is becoming less ecologically self-regulated.

10. Functional diversity: Overall, the Ch’orti’ production system supplies a high diversity of food groups with an average cultivation of eight food groups. The highest number of food groups is grown in the diverse patio production system and the lowest number (two to four food groups) is grown in the milpa. Taking into consideration the collection of wild edibles, the wild environment and other parts of the landscape, the system can provide nine food groups.

11. Optimally redundant: Multiple species are produced and sourced from wild areas within all nine food groups, including many species of fruits and vegetables. In the past, the Ch’orti’ food system had more redundancy. Traditionally the milpa, patio, living fences and the wild would have more overlapping food sources such as native herbs, animal-derived foods and fruits. The patio currently provides the greatest diversity of foods amongst the production areas and is an essential compliment to the milpa, where only two to three species are regularly cultivated and harvests are more susceptible to crop failure due to climate, pests, weeds or natural disasters. The patio has a smaller production of legumes and starches to protect against complete crop failure in the milpa. Traditionally wild areas provided more meat products but due to deforestation and resource extraction, hunting is no longer a strong food source for the household.

12. Spatial and temporal heterogeneity: Overall, some significant shifts in the landscape have led to less heterogeneity in the Ch’orti’ territory. Deforestation, the establishment of coffee plantations, and the increasing homogeneity of the milpa have contributed to a simpler land-use mosaic. The impacts of shifting more land into agricultural production and increased extraction has motivated efforts by the community and municipality to actively work to reforest land. In villages, heterogeneous landscapes are actively maintained using traditional planting patterns and land-use schemes.

13. Reasonably profitable: At present, the connection of the food system to the market is inadequate to support current household demands for income. Few reasonable opportunities exist to generate income in the food system within the communities and it is necessary to migrate to the cities to find work. The traditional trade-and-barter economy in Ch’orti’ communities has persisted since ancient times and helps compensate for the lack of local monetary resources. In this ancestral paradigm, the many goods and services offered are accessible because they are traded through a flexible economy of loans and exchanges between families. Yet the increase of household dependence on the market increases demand for monetary resources and challenges the traditional methods of exchange that have customarily sustained the communities.

“If we want to maintain our customs and traditions, we need to teach our children all our knowledge, so that the new generation does not lose the community values of customs and traditions and our language. If we do not teach them little by little, all the good of our times will be lost and forgotten.”

Reflections by community members during the thematic discussions