Tapping history to rebuild the future

Robert Fox, Oxfam Canada's Executive Director, met with a group of women in Guatemala who are planting, processing and marketing amaranth with a view to improving their health and increasing their incomes. 

The hills around Solola, Guatemala are a marvel—a tribute to the gravity-defying hard work and history-defying resolve of the Kaqchikel-speaking people who live here. Intensely cultivated, the steep slopes are lush with corn that stands four metres tall and every manner of vegetable.

I've come this morning to meet a group of women who are planting, processing and marketing amaranth with a view to improving their health and increasing their incomes. 

Most Canadians won't know what amaranth is, though the gardeners among you may have an idea. It's a plant with a plume-like densely packed flower that produces plentiful seeds -- a bit like tiny sesame seeds -- that are highly nutritious. And for these women, it may represent a new future.

Carmen is a single mother with three young children. She shows me with pride her two plots of amaranth, with their purple, red and golden blooms that hang heavy with seed, far above her head. The yield from one plot will be kept to supplement her family's diet. The other she'll sell, using the money to buy clothes for her children -- one of her few cash expenditures.

She's getting ready to harvest in November, hoping for a much better yield this year than last when much of her crop was damaged by severe weather.

Once harvested, she lightly toasts the seeds and uses some like granola, sprinkled on fruit or yoghurt. Some is ground into flour and baked in breads and biscuits. And some is mixed with corn flour and sugar to make a hot drink. 

Rich in protein, vitamins and essential acids, amaranth is among the most nutritious foods you'll find anywhere. As a result, Carmen's children may be very small but they're much better fed than many in a country in which two-thirds of indigenous children under age 5 are chronically malnourished.

The women tell me the plant is quite hardy and, beyond weeding and staking, doesn't need a lot of care—or water. They produce their own seed and use natural fertilizers—mainly compost and worm castings—so production costs are low.

At this point sales are mainly local but there's a big demand if they could only get more land to increase production.

The extra income would be welcome. Most of the women weave as well as farm—beautiful, intricate patterns in vibrant colours. And some make teas, shampoos, scented candles and other products to supplement their meagre incomes.

Dominga, one of the founders of the group, tells us that while amaranth is new to Solola it's actually native to the region. She recalls with irony and sadness that she learned about amaranth from Mexicans during a trip to Japan to promote action on indigenous rights.  Digging further she learned it had been a vital part of the ancient Mayan diet—until its cultivation was banned by the Spanish.

With the other women, she celebrates this renewed link to her ancestors and prays it will help restore the community's health and well-being.

That malnutrition should stalk a people who work so hard and are such capable farmers is cruel and unjust.

With your help these women are tapping into their history to rebuild their future. Amaranth—and collective action—are critical ingredients in their recipe for change.


Robert Fox is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.

Oxlajuj is an association of Mayan women based in Solola, Guatemala. Oxlajuj works to promote women’s rights and increase their political and economic participation.