Bioversity international

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

Section 3 Conclusions and future projections

The six Ch’orti’ villages profiled in this study are indigenous and campesinos who have engaged in subsistence agriculture in the mountainous regions of Jocotán, Camotán and Olopa since before colonial times. The study shows that the Ch’orti’ produce a large number of foods from their production systems and gathering of wild foods in the communal areas. Some households continue to supplement their diets with hunting or fishing but to a lesser extent due to loss of natural resource capital. Communities gain income primarily by working with local materials as artisans and as labourers. High-quality goods from villages are sold to the municipal market at relatively low prices and at the time they are resold, they become cost-prohibitive for the average household. To cope, communities engage in alternative trade and barter networks that provide the opportunity to source goods and services without monetary currency.


This study revealed a rich variety of sustainable aspects of the Ch’orti’ food system as well as the many challenges that it faces. Whilst there are sustainable elements of the Ch’orti’ food system, overall communities are not able to meet their needs with local production.

The patio and live fences are diversified production areas managed by women that demonstrate many sustainable practices. These production areas act as in situ conservation sites where diversity and seeds are protected in each household. The majority of the species found in the patios and live fences are nutritious, including dark green leafy vegetables, Vitamin-A-rich fruits and vegetables, and other vegetables, which provide the family with important nutrients. The soil fertility and plant health in these zones are maintained by recycling household waste, such as kitchen scraps, ash, leaves from the live fences, and manure from household animals. As water is scare in this region, the strategic location of these diverse plots around the household also allows women to make use of grey water for irrigation and small aquaculture systems.

The Ch’orti’ have a cultural legacy coupled with natural resource capital, specializing in diversified and stacked planting schemes to benefit from multi-use plants. Native and criollo varieties are the dominant crops of the Ch’orti’ region. Year after year each family saves their seeds along with the knowledge of cultivation, harvest, preparation and use of local species, particularly of maize, beans and squash. To ensure a diverse temporal availability of species, the communities grow in various harvest zones, encouraging continuous harvests that provide nutrition throughout the year. Food production in Ch’orti’ patios and fences play a strategic role in nutrition security and increase resilience, especially during periods of stresses. An additional benefit of this diversity is local access to other products such as medicines, firewood, and materials for crafts and construction available in the production landscape. The vegetation canopy levels of the patios and living fences are often planted strategically to serve multiple purposes such as providing fuel, moderating temperature and climate impacts such as providing a canopy shade layer and erosion control, having a mix of microclimates varying from full shade to full sun, medicine, and to support any artisan activities. The use of off-farm inputs is very low in these areas, which are managed by hand with machetes. Other sustainable techniques still observed in some households in milpas and reforested plots include crop rotations, interplanting of perennials and annuals, planting on contours, and allowing for fallow periods.

Communal plots and roadside areas supplement the household food supply with wild plants such as spontaneous herbs and mushrooms, as well as providing firewood, medicinal plants, and materials for crafts such as clays. These areas are maintained collectively and provide goods to households in need. Some communities also have communal land for milpa plots and forested areas in the community that are managed by the COCODE. Community assemblies take place once or twice a month and help maintain strong ties between members of the community, providing a space to share field observations and innovations and resolve conflicts. These local mechanisms are also used to manage natural resources, particularly water, communal forested areas, and mixed use of communal lands. These communal areas provide a form of equality and safe access for households that have limited land or other resources.

Goods produced by the community are plant-based materials found in the landscape or hand-processed minerals like clay, stone and limestone, which are non-toxic and biodegradable. Waste generated inside the system is easy to manage and often has positive reapplications in the landscape, such as the use of household waste in patios as fertilizers. As a consequence, without assistance, non-biodegradable waste is largely managed by methods familiar to the community such as burning or is freely disposed of in the landscape. Low-cost industrial non-biodegradable goods are becoming more prevalent in the community, undercutting the market for Ch’orti’ products like tul and carrizo bags and baskets from regional artisans. Innovation and assistance should accompany this shift of waste management for products that have different life cycles and do not pollute the environment. As milpa production has become more input intensive, it is also generating a large source of non-biodegradable waste in the communities.

The complexity of the community value system is an aspect of the Ch’orti’ food system that connects communities to their natural resources. The cosmology of the Maya is shared throughout Mesoamerica, including the Ch’orti’, and is a basis for understanding daily life and attitudes. Though the milpa has become an area with practices that are largely unsustainable, its importance is grounded in a creation myth of the Maya, which states that humanity was created from maize. This crop has evolved under the stewardship of households that have in turn been sustained by this food; therefore, it becomes a priority of the household, regardless of additional labour or costs, to maintain production. Foods are also valued by the embedded energy that is perceived by the community, in a metaphysical sense. For example, 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. Maya cosmogony also promotes being of service to others and the community. This altruistic concept, referred to in villages as “mística de servicio”, is a key element in the Ch’orti’ governance, providing services that are free, voluntary and permanent for the benefit of the community. This value is instilled in children from a young age, creating strong bonds between individuals and leadership based on community service. The “mística de servicio” focusses largely not on the individual strength of households but on the community as a whole.


Communities place their hope for the future in the hands of the next generations. Parents believe in the power of the youth to continue and improve current conditions if they engage in traditional practices. Under the guidance of local authorities, future generations are thought to have the ability to bring increased food quality and production, greater crop diversity and seed resources, as well as the return of traditional hunting and fishing.

When asked to predict what the food system would look like in 20 years’ time, community members were optimistic that current trends would continue. They envisioned a food system where the same traditional foods are consumed but with all of the production coming from the community without the need to import products from outside the system. In the future, communities predict being able to meet 100 percent of their dietary needs through local production and the collection of wild foods, hunting and fishing without the need to rely on urban markets. Community members envision local markets and plazas where they can trade freely with one another and access high-quality food products. It is predicted that the dominant land use will continue to be agriculture but they hope cultivation expands with the improved access and availability of seeds for different vegetable and other crop varieties to build their production diversity. It is not desired that community activities are contingent on outside sources such as NGOs but rather that they are able to fund, sustain and maintain ownership of their own initiatives.

To meet the predicted challenges of climate change, diversifying production can supplement losses of maize and beans with other traditional foods that have been lost over time. It is expected that within 20 years the community will continue to produce the foods that are currently harvested in addition to the increased production of crops that used to have a robust local use but have been lost, such as malanga, sweet potato or sugar cane. The use of traditional crops and animals will increase only if traditional knowledge continues to be transmitted from parents to children. Community members note that a failure of the youth to improve livelihoods with the traditional ways in the next 20 years will lead to more malnutrition, sicker children and less food sources to support the family.

The perspectives for a brighter future rest with young generations and their active engagement in building communities with better livelihoods and enough resources to have a buen vivir. In this vision of a largely non-competitive, community-oriented society, a buen vivir is when all households are able to meet their basic needs with local food production, adequate local income opportunities and adequate housing. On a community level, buen vivir also means having access to a vibrant community life with entertainment, communal space, cultural ceremonies and time to meet as a whole, in addition to adequate services such as health care and local education.


As descendants of the Maya of Copan, the Ch’orti’ have evolved under a participatory and inclusive ancestral model of community development based on respect for life in all its forms and natural resources. The Ch’orti’ produce a large number of species on multiple production sites, have closed-loop systems of biodegradable household waste cycling, and maintain a profound knowledge of multi-use plant species in their communities. Socially, strong values based in community well-being, trust, respect for natural resources and alternative trade networks have helped provide safety nets in times of scarcity. Concluding remarks will combine comments from participants as well as observations and insights from the field, forming recommendations for potential pathways forward and needs for the future.

Inclusive self-organization bolsters sustainability of the system using ancestral principles, where decisions are made through community consultation and voluntary leaders who are elected based on merit and focus on the collective welfare. This system has managed to govern a union of several villages to protect and manage communal forests, rivers and other natural resources. The food system is partially autonomous, using the ancestral practices of production and knowledge of sourcing food throughout the landscape. Traditions such as the barter and exchange of goods and services, the production of handicrafts, and preparation of ancestral dishes generate an interactive economy that strengthens the trust between community members.

The Ch’orti’ are also facing many challenges. Climate change in particular contributes to the breakdown of traditional ways with increasing instances of crop loss as a result of extreme weather, pests and diseases, as well as the disruption of traditional phenology. Communities have also observed the transition of the milpa system from an ecologically self-regulating design with multiple yields to a low-diversity model with high off-farm inputs. Using herbicides has reduced the number of species found in the milpa that play key roles in traditional intercropping schemes for household nutrition. In addition to these challenges, communities often suffer from a lack of services such as schooling and health care.

The Ch’orti’ develop intelligence by learning through observation, trial and error until they master their craft to become the teachers for the next generations. This system instills personal development into traditional crafts and promotes constant innovation to allow traditional knowledge to become a living system, open to learning, evolving and adapting over time. Yet it also limits the continuity of traditional practices as there are no available manuals or records to protect the many skilled professions represented in the communities. Paired with inadequate opportunities to receive reasonable incomes for the production of traditional goods, this has resulted in the gradual loss of traditional skills. In addition, communities only have elementary-level education. To receive higher levels of education, children must leave their villages and attend school in the urban centres. Youth miss the opportunity to engage in village activities, disrupting the passing of knowledge, and are instead immersed in a culture that does not support the local language or culture.


Despite current challenges, community members envision a future in which they have achieved local self-sufficiency. When asked how communities could reach their goals, the concept of an elder’s school, proposed by a midwife elder, was unanimously considered the strongest suggestion. Communities need to develop new forms of transmitting knowledge to the next generations on which they place their hopes for the future. As community gatherings are already common, developing a time when elders and children can meet to share knowledge is feasible with current resources. Developing practicums or apprenticeships with elders or local artisans that can become part of urban schools’ curriculums has the potential to increase knowledge transmission, document local traditions and elevate the perception of local arts.

The communities in this study have an abundance of fresh products, particularly fruits, that are produced with what could be considered an agroecological approach. It was noted that during the high season, the Jocotán market was flooded with such goods, too many for vendors to be able to sell for a reasonable income. Connecting communities to other markets could enhance incomes and funnel high-quality products into other municipal, national or international markets. It is possible that a labeling scheme or assistance with certification in ecological, biological or agroecological farming could provide greater market opportunities. In addition, developing methods of local post-harvest processing, conservation and storage could help to provide local food security or diversify offerings at the Jocotán market with value-added products. The concept of local food banks that house, store and distribute surplus goods from the community could provide an infrastructure that is beyond the normal capacity of households.

To encourage temporal diversity in the food systems approach of the Ch’orti’, it is also recommended that communities work with the village COCODES at different altitudes and growing zones to develop a collaboration within communal lands. Providing access to plots at different altitudes can help to build harvest security in the case of local crop failure, whilst strengthening trade networks and knowledge sharing between communities. In light of the erratic weather conditions due to climate change, it would be valuable to expand the use of water capture to take advantage of the winter rains to help sustain households during periods of drought.

This rapid profile provides a glimpse into a complex and dynamic system that varies across Ch’orti’ territory. Additional research and characterizing of varietal diversity kept in households, efficacy of local phenology, and the development of alternative natural fertilizers and pest deterrents for the milpa to ease the dependence on outside inputs is needed. A characterisation of the sustainable practices of the Ch’orti’ patios and live fences could be expanded upon within the context of research regarding Maya home garden design. Promoting best practices and facilitating knowledge exchange with other Maya groups can build overall resilience and sustainability, particularly in the dry corridor.

“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