In 2010, I spent four weeks in San Lucas Tolimán, Lake Atitlan working on the Ijtaz community project. I wanted to experience the regenerative capacity of permaculture. Here’s an article I wrote for Geoff Lawton’s global permaculture website. – Kevin
The Ijatz cooperative is possibly the best demonstration of the transformative power of permaculture in Guatemala. The site, in San Lucas Toliman near Lake Atitlan, was purchased at low cost since the parish council considered the land to be of low value. Previously, it was a swampy bog inundated with refuse and flood water from the surrounding hills.
In classic permaculture style, within the problem lay the seeds of the solution. The deforestation due to conventional agriculture in these surrounding hills had caused soil erosion and during the rainy season much of this rich volcanic black top soil was washed downstream. This annual bounty is now redirected through the Ijatz site using a sequence of channels and sink holes, which in turn pacifies the water flow enabling the nutrient rich humus to be captured and stored on site. The earthworks design have been moulded to create slopes, edges and contours essential for increased growing opportunity.
During the dry season any rainfall that was captured in the sequence of ponds, has absorbed into the landscape and is responsible for raising the local water table. This increased capacity is now the source for the hundreds of trees and plants. While the flora perpetually contributes biomass to improve soil quality and fertility, a micro climate suitable for growing has developed in what is essentially a few acres on the edge of town. Prior to the establishment of the Ijatz project, over one hundred homes were annually flooded in the immediate vicinity. Currently, the site can receive flood water to the depth of more than a metre during the wet season. A perfect demonstration of a multifunctional permaculture design element, the banana circle has solved this problem. Acting as a hydraulic pump, that most excellent of pioneer species, the banana simply sucks up and holds this water. The spaces between the rubbery concentric rings of a banana tree are simply saturated in water. The centre of the circle becomes a compost heap for any site prunings while the worms of the vermicomposting stations make short shrift of sections of banana trunk harvested after collecting the bananas. The composted output is sold locally and provides a useful income stream for the coop. Of course, let us not forget nature’s own delicious potassium stick – the banana itself! All this and the local community benefits from dry homes throughout the rainy season too. This in turn satisfies one of the cornerstone ethics of permaculture: people care – positively affecting the local community.
The project is only thirteen years in the making and boasts a diverse range of trees and plants that exploit every level of the canopy. Timber is harvested and the bamboo stands are about 6m tall. There are a number of guava, grapefruit, lime and lemon fruit trees. A vine layer producing a vegetable called güisquil (sechium edule) when boiled is similar in texture and taste to a tender swede or turnip. There are several other local tropical plants that contribute roots or leaves for the kitchen table. The annually deposited soil is then built up to form raised beds for growing vegetables. My four week stint centred around reinstating the vegetable and herb beds preparing them for fresh seedlings, including lettuce, coriander, frijoles (beans), parsley, celery and radish. This soil food web is teaming with life and I encountered countless worms, spiders and other small creatures. Thankfully, the nesting cobra we stumbled across only wrapped itself around Pancho’s arm (the head gardener). No harm done – sadly only true for Pancho!
The core focus of the Ijatz cooperative is coffee production. On the final day of my visit, the ladies of the cooperative harvested fifty kilos of coffee beans ready for processing. However, they collectively own several plots of land on the slopes of the now extinct Volcán Tolimán. Through the cooperative, the workers have generated a stable income which has funded educational programmes about topics ranging from child care and healthy nutrition. They also have discussions to understand where their high value product sits in the global open market. I was invited to describe the drinking habits of Europeans. My talk was graciously received even though my Spanish was woefully short of adequate.
If you are interested in volunteering your time and energy to the assist the Ijatz project and you have a command of Spanish language you can contact them directly at asociacionIjatz@gmail.com otherwise I can advise you. Volunteer opportunities exist throughout the year.