Planting Hope

The agriculture education programs of Semilla Nueva are fighting poverty in Guatemala and reducing the need for migration north

The U.S.-Mexico border is an omen for tragedy. But, sadly, to many people living south of these lands, this hell monster also marks the anticipated arrival for a new life in this country.

Every year, millions of undocumented migrants from all corners of Latin America make their way to these foreign lands. For those who make it across, there aren't many "welcome to your adoptive home" parties. Instead, migrants are greeted by a rusted 18-foot-tall fence, Border Patrol agents with semi-automatic weapons, and cruel indifference for the circumstances that pushed some of them north.

A load of cash has been—and continues to be—spent on antidotes to rid the U.S. of undocumented immigration. Solutions, such as the militarization of the border and SB 1070, Arizona's "Show me your papers" law, reflect a lack of empathy for what's causing migrants to flee their native countries.

Latin America has an ongoing history of political corruption and social and economic oppression of the poor. This extreme poverty and lack of opportunities are two of the main reasons for migration. Disturbingly, there are as many "experts" who think of it as an urban legend as there are people who understand the correlation. So far, many of the proposals for immigration reform are far from humane, short-term. They don't attack the problem from its roots. But for some time now, organizations have been emerging on both sides of the border that aim to inform people about the detrimental living conditions that fuel immigration as well as to propose friendlier and longer-term responses to the issue.

Semilla Nueva, or New Seed, is a nonprofit organization based in Guatemala. Members teach local farmers sustainable agriculture techniques. Through a variety of methods, the organization hopes to attack poverty and malnutrition among farmers to prevent them from leaving their homes to embark on a dangerous journey to the U.S. Every penny received from grants and donations has been used to bring the farmers tools and services that the Guatemalan government cannot or will not provide.

"We want to help the Guatemalan society and economy advance, to the point that (farmers) feel there are good enough jobs and opportunities in their country," says Curt Bowen, one of the founders and the executive director of Semilla Nueva. "They shouldn't feel the need to emigrate. Instead, they should say, 'There are exciting, new opportunities happening here, and I get to be a part of them.'"

This year's United Nations Human Development Index had 51 percent of the Guatemalan population living in poverty, with the vast majority living in rural areas. At the very bottom of the index are corn and bean farmers, truly the poorest of the poor. The little income they receive goes right back into funding expensive and damaging agricultural techniques. Semilla Nueva is determined to change the way these people farm.

"These farmers are in the vicious cycle of poverty," says Kristin Lacy, the chief financial officer and also coordinator of monitoring and evaluation for Semilla Nueva. "The way they are farming, and the way they are operating in their livelihood is actually sucking them further into poverty. We focus on technologies and techniques that are small and simple, but whose changes can have huge results in terms of environmental benefits, as well as economic benefits for the farmers."

Semilla Nueva began when Bowen, an Idaho native with a passion for sustainable development and economics, was exposed to the beauties and curses of Central America while working on a couple of college projects. During one of his visits, Bowen met Trinidad Recinos, a Guatemalan farmer who is now one of Semilla Nueva's field technicians. They came from different cultures, but grew up in similar surroundings: Both were born at organic farms.

It wasn't long before the pair decided to start an organic fertilizer company. However, the idea died when they realized they could probably sell only to rich finqueros, the farm and hacienda owners, and not be of much help to poorer farmers. Through many conversations during a road trip in Guatemala, the pair figured out a strategy and began to work on a different project.

"We didn't want to go in and 'adopt' villages, and do everything for them," Bowen says. "We wanted to figure out a scalable solution, something long term. We wanted to learn about (what was) preventing farmers from developing, and attack it with everything we could."

Semilla Nueva was officially established in 2010. Its home is the city of Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, about four hours from Guatemala City. Semilla Nueva works directly with 10 different villages. But the knowledge and tools it provides has reached about 90 villages thanks to the programs it has helped enforce through the government. The road has been challenging, but Bowen and others say the results have been positive.

Guatemalan farmers had been accustomed to gathering the remains after crops had been harvested, piling them in the middle of their fields, and burning them with gasoline. They had no idea the remains could be used to help regenerate the soil and instead relied on commercial fertilizers to maintain crop yields.

"The constant burning plus the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides have really sucked out the natural nutrients from the soils in Guatemala," says Lacy, who has a master's degree in development practices, with a focus on environmental sustainability, from the University of Colorado. "Many of the soils here are in really bad shape, especially along the coasts, which is where we work."

Semilla Nueva has implemented no-till, no-burn agricultural practices among the farmers it has reached out to. It basically means that farmers don't burn or plow their fields between harvests. Instead, all of the leftovers from the harvested corn, sesame or beans stay on top of the land, providing organic material that protects the soil during droughts or floods. The material also infuses the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and other effective natural fertilizers. The result is that crops are healthier and farmers are no longer spending every single quetzal on gasoline, plow rentals and expensive and sometimes toxic commercial fertilizers.

Other Latin countries, such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, have gone through no-till revolutions. Our Mexican neighbors have been pushing the method among farmers, and it has played a part in the significant decrease in undocumented migrants coming to the U.S. Although many Mexican farmers still try to enter the U.S., the number is decreasing every year while the number of Central American farmers heading north is increasing.

"I have seen organizations similar to Semilla Nueva in communities from southern Mexico to northern Mexico, where migration is a huge problem," says Margi Ault-Duell, education director and delegations leader of BorderLinks, a Tucson nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness of the issues that fuel undocumented immigration. "They self-empower the people with long-term changes to their economy, using no-till and other sustainable agricultural methods. They give them the opportunity to make a living and support their families, so that they don't have to emigrate if they don't want to."

Semilla Nueva also introduced Guatemalan farmers to the pigeon pea. The highly nutritious bean is small enough to grow between rows of other crops. Farmers don't have to spend much money on it, and they don't have to jeopardize their corn or sesame yields. Bowen says the result is an extra crop that campesinos are able to eat, sell and also use to protect their soil. For the thousands of families who grow corn in Guatemala, it can be a solution to malnourishment and poverty.

The Semilla Nueva team has taken a gentle approach in trying to change agricultural habits. Members try to avoid projecting a know-it-all attitude. Instead, they suggest that farmers try the new methods on a small portion of their land. It's up to the farmers to decide whether to keep using them or revert to the methods they have always followed. Those who choose to continue the new methods are encouraged to talk about their results with fellow farmers who still hesitate to change.

Campesino a Campesino, or Farmer to Farmer, is a methodology created in Guatemala. It has been adopted by Semilla Nueva as one of the main strategies to spread the word about the work they're doing.

"If you want to be able to help farmers develop, you can't focus on a top-down hierarchical approach," Bowen says. "We come in with the suggestions, but if a farmer tells other farmers about the benefits, then they are more likely to try the suggestions and stick with them."

Twice a year, the organization brings farmers together at conferences to talk about what they have learned. They are encouraged to invite their neighbors, friends and families to come to their land and see the results for themselves. It's a humble way of teaching, and has fueled Semilla Nueva's success.

So why did it take an agency from outside the country to introduce Guatemalan farmers to no-till and the pigeon pea?

Guatemala lacks what is known in the U.S. as an agricultural extension service, a government agency that helps teach farmers more productive techniques. Money that should go toward helping farmers ends up in corrupt programs. For instance, fertilizer is given away to buy farmers' votes for certain candidates during local and national elections.

"We are doing what a government program is supposed to do," Bowen says. "This extension infrastructure does not exist in Guatemala. This is a country that is behind by years in terms of adopting new agricultural technologies. The underlining problem isn't how farmers are farming. This is a grave symptom of the nonfunctional relationship between farmers and the government."

Bowen says farmers lack information about the kinds of agricultural services the government should be providing, so they had never demanded them. It took a collaboration of foreigners and natives to figure out what was obstructing agricultural advancement and economic development.

Semilla Nueva found the root of the problem inside the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, or MAGA, as it is known in Guatemala.

Semilla Nueva learned from farmers that MAGA would send staff members out to fields to teach farmers how to farm. But perhaps only two out of a group of 30 staffers would have actual farming experience. The rest would be kids fresh out of college who had no idea how to grown corn. It was clear that MAGA's priority did not rest in the development of rural farmers, but in the enrichment of agricultural corporations.

Bowen and other Semilla Nueva members hope to eventually work themselves out of a job in Guatemala. But to do so, they have to ensure that those who are supposed to be looking out for the farmers' well-being know what to do. Semilla Nueva knew that meant fixing some of the cracks within MAGA.

Semilla Nueva recently took over training a portion of MAGA's staff. Members teach staffers about the benefits of no-till and other methods they've introduced to farmers, and show them the process in the field. The organization has also participated in numerous conferences with MAGA and other government agencies to show how much their methods can help farmers—and their country—grow economically.

"Our long-term goal is to see local and national governments use at least 5 or 10 percent of their budget to promote agricultural extension," Bowen says. "We want them to have the initiative of promoting a good program that positively affects people's lives."

During our interview, Bowen reflected on one of the first campesinos Semilla Nueva worked with. The farmer had plans to leave for the U.S. because he couldn't make any money growing corn. He had heard, as many in Guatemala do, that he could make more working one month in the U.S. than he could working a year in Guatemala. But after working with Semilla Nueva, he decided to postpone his trip. He had begun to experience what it was like to be able to support himself and his family.

"There is a big message that is lost in the U.S.," Lacy says. "And it is that most of these people don't want to be there. They want to be with their families in their land. But because of a system that is cracked, they feel like they have no other option but to leave."

Every day, more farmers are touched by Semilla Nueva and begin to realize that they don't need to abandon their homes. It's a domino effect that Semilla Nueva hopes will continue to spread through Guatemala and the rest of Latin America. Still, there is much more work to be done. Bowen says it will take a few years to see dramatic changes in Guatemala, and at least 10 years for him to work himself out of a job there.

"If the U.S. spent a portion of the billions it's spent on border control helping Latin countries the way we're helping Guatemala, they would have a way better solution in their hands," Bowen says. "It won't fix the problem immediately, but it is a longer-term, more humane solution to undocumented migration than sniper towers and hostile walls along the border."

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