How One Woman Gave Whole Communities Hope Through Preserving Heirloom Seeds
When Sarah Montgomery arrived in Rabinal, Guatemala, in 2000, the country was still recovering from a 36-year civil war that had ended just four years earlier, leaving villages decimated and farmlands scorched. As a recent college graduate, she had come to learn Spanish, but stayed to volunteer with a project helping war widows replant gardens. Yet the women told her: "We can't save these seeds we're given." She learned that many well-meaning international nonprofits handing out seeds were shortsighted: typically, their seeds were hybrids. Unlike heirlooms, hybrids don't produce seeds that can be saved and replanted. A Rabinal farmer, Cristóbal Osorio Sánchez, shared his alternative vision with Montgomery. He wanted to bring back native crops and sustainable cultivation practices, such as companion planting and terracing, from the indigenous Maya Achi farmers. Montgomery vowed to help however she could.
In 2003, Montgomery, Sánchez and a half-dozen Maya farmers founded an association called Qachuu Aloom, the Mayan name for Mother Earth. As word spread that they were looking for heirloom seeds, village elders uncovered ones they had buried in jars or hidden under roof tiles before fleeing their land. "One of the strategies the military used to create fear was burning people's gardens and fields," Montgomery explains, "so people lost that traditional cycle of saving seed every year." Qachuu Aloom began its work with 12 families to replant these native staples, such as amaranth, black beans and corn. Today, this Maya-run organization works with 500 families to grow food by way of farmer-to-farmer education. Qachuu Aloom has also built a facility to process amaranth into cereal bars, which it sells in Guatemala.
Montgomery, who now lives in New Mexico, also founded Garden's Edge, a nonprofit that (among other initiatives) sponsors exchange trips between Guatemalan and American farmers to build friendships, share farming know-how and swap seeds. Guatemalan farmers have planted gardens in refugee and indigenous communities from New Mexico to California. This year, some of these American gardens returned seeds to Qachuu Aloom (where Sánchez also still works), completing the circle. "Seeds have always been shared and traded," Montgomery concludes. "And communities have always deepened relationships around seed." To buy heirloom seeds that support Qachuu Aloom farmers, visit epicseeds.net.
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Seeds of Hope | EatingWell December 2019