At an elevation of nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, Comitancillo, a province in northwestern Guatemala, was a formidable place to farm. Maya-Mam communities had lived on these barren slopes in northwestern Guatemala for nearly 500 years. The Mam were one of 24 indigenous cultures in Guatemala, a country where although nearly 50 percent of the population were indigenous people, the country had never elected an indigenous president. The mestizo elite owned politics and power in Guatemala. Marginalized to the mountains in the northwest, the Mam survived on growing food and grazing livestock.
Looking down the mountainside, I witnessed how the Mam adapted to live on their mountain fortress: They’d carved steps into the mountainside, thousands of terraces that cascaded down to the bottom of the valley. I was awestruck by such architecture. Milpa was a Spanish word that summed up the three crops that had sustained the Mam for centuries: maize, beans, and squash. Planting all three crops together formed a sacrosanct principle of Mam farming.
The air was thin and cold. “Our seeds are hardy and meant for these mountains. The seeds people try to sell us don’t do well in Comitancillo. They grow and the wind breaks them,” Rosa told me.
Years of living on the mountains had also ground Rosa into a hardy woman. The 50-year-old woman barely reached 5 feet. She wore a striking turquoise blue huipil, a traditional blouse, embroidered with magenta flowers. She parted her long black hair in the middle and braided it down her back in a single rope. Rosa was a widow. Her husband had died 12 years earlier after falling from the rickety scaffolding on a construction site and quickly dying of his injuries. He’d been working as a migrant laborer in Xela, a city situated in one of the valley flats.
Rosa didn’t learn of her husband’s death until five days after it happened. His body came home in a crudely constructed casket, and she buried him behind their home, marking his grave with a small wooden cross. A green plastic rosary dangled from the cross and shook in the cold wind that whipped over the mountain and stung my cheeks.
Alone on the mountainside, she raised five grandchildren. She lived in a two-room house made of mud bricks. The façade was rounded and smoothed with mud and mortar, and white-washed with a mixture of lime, ash, and water. Her recent maize harvest hung on a rope from below a roof made of iron sheets. The maize colored her home with spectacular shades: eggplant purple, indigo blue, crimson red, orange like a dusky sun.
“I grow food for survival,” she said plainly. Rosa didn’t sell her food in the market, and even if she did sell, the return for small-scale farmers in Guatemala was marginal. It was the sad absurdity of being an indigenous farmer growing ancient maize: They grew their staple food, preserved for hundreds of years on these hostile slopes, sold it for mere cents, and bought back the imported GMO varieties for 300 percent more than the regular price. The market laws that promoted subsidizing and dumping imported grains from the U.S. Midwest in Guatemala punished poor, indigenous farmers. How could they compete with the mechanics and productivity of multinational farming operations? Even so, Rosa loved to farm. When she planted maize, she remembered brighter days and memories of the past with her husband. He was a good man, she said, and also a farmer. Together they gave birth—“dar a la luz” she said in Spanish, which meant “give light”—to six children.
While she was born in Comitancillo, Rosa didn’t grow up on the land. She spent most of her childhood working on coffee fincas, plantations along the humid coastlines in western Guatemala. The government forced Mam and Maya farmers in the northwestern highlands to abandon their milpa fields and travel to the plantations to work as laborers. Rosa’s family were amongst those relocated farmers. The practice traced back to the policies of the Spanish colonial regime in the 18th century. Not until 1947 did all forms of forced labor become illegal, with the foundation for basic workers’ rights in Guatemala. But the Mam population was so poor and downtrodden that many farmers continued to seek low-wage employment on the coastal plantations, including members of Rosa’s family. Over 100 years of forced labor had disrupted the Mam’s agricultural productivity. It had severed the flow of knowledge from Rosa’s mother and father to their daughter.
But Rosa didn’t want to talk about how the past had imprisoned her parents on the plantations. Rosa wanted to talk about the present moment, and about what was under her feet. She wanted to talk about what every woman in Comitancillo wanted to talk about. She wanted to talk about the owners of the mine who had blasted open the mountainsides and whose destruction of the mountain was creeping closer to her land and livelihood every day. She wanted to talk about how the mines had already changed everything for the Mam.
Like many women I’d come to meet, Rosa deeply feared the loss of her farmland, terrified that the Goldcorp Corporation, a Canadian-owned and registered mining company, would come knocking on her door and issue an order, legitimized by the Guatemalan government. “You have no other option; you have to sell your land. You must go,” they would threaten her. With force, they could remove her from the land; they could take the land out from under her feet. “When I think about my land and the little I have …” her voice trailed off. “If the company takes it, what am I going to do? Where will I go?”
Mam women in Comitancillo waited anxiously for that sudden knock on the door, for the government’s orders, armed with weaponry and authority, to leave their ancestral lands. Fear grew in the fields. Uncertainty of what was to come hung in the cold mountain air. Women knew that, while they planted the milpa on the surface of the Earth, it was what lay beneath that mattered. The mountain was a body filled with veins of gold and silver.
With recent extreme weather and reduced crop productivity, the women also worried that the mines were drying up the mountainside. While Goldcorp’s mines in Comitancillo consumed an enormous quantity of groundwater, upwards of 250,000 liters of water an hour, they weren’t paying a cent to the Guatemalan government.
And then there was the pollution—the cyanide used in gold mining that Physicians for Human Rights also believed was connected to violent rashes and respiratory effects in children in villages downstream of Goldcorp’s mining activities.
In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, acting on behalf of Mam communities in San Marcos, demanded that Goldcorp and the Guatemalan government respond to the issues of the overconsumption and contamination of water by providing nearby communities with sufficient, safe drinking water. But both Goldcorp and the government denied reports of poor health among the Mam and the mine’s environmental impact on the land. They ignored the commission’s order.
Amelia drew no boundaries between her home and the land that fed her. The balance of her work as a farmer in the fields and a caretaker in the home ebbed and flowed as the sun and moon tug at the sea. I sat outside Amelia’s home in Tuixcajchis, a village located less than 10 kilometers away from the Goldcorp Corporation’s newest silver mine in Chocoyos. The sounds of dynamite shattering rock echoed too closely to home for Amelia. The mine was on her doorstep.
Amelia moved about the land with the rhythm of a honeybee. She scattered maize for the birds and removed the sun-and-starch-stiffened laundry from the clothing line. She emerged from the kitchen holding a red washing basin full of large, oval, tangerine, and purple frijoles and spread them on a wooden table to dry in the sun.
I watched young chickens scurry in and out of the kitchen, hunting for fallen maize kernels. A gargantuan male turkey made a regal show of promenading across the patio, opening his black and white feathers like a fan, making a dramatic whooshing sound. The white and red and purple milpa harvest hung under the roof awning to dry. She had piled up the season’s harvest of ayote, a watermelon-sized indigenous squash, beside the kitchen. At my feet, month-old puppies somersaulted about in happy play and a pied-colored pup tugged at my shoelace.
Amelia was dressed in a navy blue skirt and red embroidered blouse with a black belt, the traditional colors of the Mam. The 35-year-old woman had grown up under starkly different circumstances than some of the older women I interviewed. Her parents allowed her to walk two kilometers every morning to take classes in the single-roomed school. Amelia never graduated past primary school, but she knew how to read and write and speak fluently in Spanish, an anomaly in the isolated highlands where government services lagged behind, resulting in the lowest literacy rates in Guatemala, particularly amongst older women.
A farmer takes a break from her work to embrace her young daughters. Maya-Mam women play important roles in food cultivation and preparation along with raising children and caring for the elderly. Photo by KJ Dakin.
In the fight against the mine, Amelia used language as a weapon. Her words were bullets to fire back at the company, who communicated their every move in Spanish. They facilitated community meetings in Spanish. They prattled off news and updates on the radio in Spanish. Amelia’s efforts to understand, interpret, and defend the Mam doubled as her mind searched for words to translate cultural meaning. The sound of Spanish came from the tip of the tongue, whereas Mam grew from the back of the throat. Often, she struggled to find the right word, the bullet that would penetrate. Spanish lacked the diversity of the Mam’s lexicon for understanding the intricacies of land. But Amelia’s literacy gave her power in her community. She was the president of the Tuixcajchis Women’s Association, a group of 30 women who met weekly to discuss their issues at home and on the farms. They hosted agricultural training workshops to help women diversify crops and apply new techniques to prevent drought and erosion. And, with the new silver mine at Chocoyos only a short distance away, they were actively organizing and collaborating with other women’s groups in San Marcos to protest against the mine.
The radio crackled and blared a Mexican ranchera song. The singer’s voice whined of lost love and failed crops. When the song cut out, the radio DJ’s voice began speaking in a fast current of Mam. I couldn’t understand, but I saw how Amelia react to his words. Her body bristled and she clucked her tongue in disapproval.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He’s talking about a new program that’s supposed to help women living on less than a dollar a day. The government is promising to give allowances and seeds to women—as if that’s going to really help,” Amelia said. Her voice was bitter, sharp as a machete.
She had grown weary of the government’s tactics intended to sway the Mam into surrender. Government officials journeyed eight hours from Guatemala City to host rallies and deliver boisterous speeches in Comitancillo. They paraded through the surrounding Mam villages, handing out sacks of GMO maize seeds with empty promises of building schools and health facilities bouncing off their tongues. Many women planted the maize seed, hopeful. But the cold mountain winds in Comitancillo were too much for seeds that were modified to do well within specific conditions and applications. Women couldn’t afford the expensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that the GMO maize required. Usually, the maize stunted, bent, and broke in half. Women watched their entire fields collapse and felt the strain on their family’s food stores, their savings, their means of survival. Yet these ill-suited government solutions, these cheap gifts, at best, continued in Comitancillo.
“They’re trying to buy our support for the mine,” said Amelia. Only a few months earlier, Amelia received visitors, two mestizo men, who worked for the mining company. They wanted to talk with Amelia and her husband about the benefits the Chocoyos mine would bring to Tuixcajchis and other nearby villages. “New schools,” they said. “New health centers and pharmacies,” they promised. “Jobs,” they added enthusiastically, nodding at Amelia’s husband. She asked them to leave.
“We’ll never work for the mine,” she said defiantly. “The majority of men at the mine aren’t Mam, they’re mestizo men from Xela. Thee engineers are all from la Ciudad, the capital city. The Mam aren’t working in positions of leadership—they only do the physical labor. It’s dangerous, and the pay is very low.”
In defiance, Amelia strove to make her land as productive as possible. She refused to be bought out by the government. She wanted her daughters to inherit the land and grow older knowing, deeply, what it meant to be a Mam woman. She was teaching them to feel, see, taste, and understand the satisfaction of being a farmer, how to eke from the Earth different shades of cultural sustenance—the ancient maize of a thousand colors, the tangerine and purple fava beans, the seeds of ayote, the foraged herbs like epazote.
Amelia showed me around the farm. Though it was only an acre of land, every inch of the place was under cultivation. She collected pig manure, vegetable waste, and dried maize stalks in giant heaps where she turned it weekly as the material transformed into black organic soil. “It’s a solution to the productivity problem we’re facing today,” she said confidently.
In a rectangular garden with a fence made from sticks, Amelia let the vegetable crops go to seed. She collected a handful of thin seeds from a kale crop and tucked them into the tiny cloth purse she wore around her neck on a string. She pointed to her medicinal plants and counted off the number of illnesses they’d treat: stomach flu, menstrual cramps, sore throat and colds, skin infections, and minor cuts and wounds. In order to reach the pharmacy in town, women had to walk three hours down the winding dirt road and three hours back up. “We’re resurrecting the knowledge of our Mam ancestors to treat what we can, to tend to our health in the ways that we can,” she explained.
Before I left Tuixcajchis, I accompanied Amelia to one of her meetings with the Tuixcajchis Women’s Association. We reached the meeting on foot, walking a kilometer along the mountain on well-trodden footpaths that cut through the empty fields. The dried maize stalks fluttered in a slight wind. A few sunken squash had been left behind. They deflated into the Earth, slowly rotting and returning to the soil where they had started as seeds.
“Let us plant trees and grow old on our land. Let us live in peace.”
The trail led into a tightly knit forest of pine and cypress trees. The pine needles stung my nostrils, the smell provoking memories of my childhood in northern Alberta. I felt a strange sense of protection offered by the trees. I felt comforted by the familiarity of the smell.
We reached a small clearing where a group of 20 women had gathered on the hard-packed earth. The topography of their skin revealed their age or their youthfulness: the older skin full of the lines of tributaries, the young skin dry and tight as desert. Some of the women bounced babies on their laps and others wore colorful slings that held sleeping babes on their backs. Toddlers waddled about and older children played a game of tag while the women talked and laughed together. They greeted us, one by one, with a gentle touch to the forehead, the Mam’s traditional greeting.
Women gathered beneath these trees every week to visit with one another, to speak in Mam, to give voice to the experiences of farming, of protecting the land, of being women. Beneath the large, protective branches of the trees, the women kept a nursery for tree seedlings. Beneath the trees, women planted the seeds of pine, cypress, and avocado in tiny black biodegradable bags of soil. They watched the seedlings over weeks, from germination to seedling. I estimated around a thousand seedlings, maybe more. When the rains returned each woman would go home with the seedlings and plant the trees on her land, acts of reforesting the barren mountains. Trees would bring back and hold the rain, they said. They’d provide food, forage, and fuel to keep the Mam alive on the arid slopes.
“The streams that flowed here before are dying. Our harvests were once plentiful, but today there’s only desert,” explained an elderly woman holding a moon-faced baby on her lap. “We don’t want our children and grandchildren to inherit this reality.”
Only 10 days earlier, she and other women of the Tuixcajchis Women’s Association marched ten kilometers, joining hundreds of women from surrounding villages, to protest against the silver mine at Chocoyos. They linked arms and chanted “¡Déjanos en paz! Déjanos en paz! Leave us in peace! Leave us in peace!” The Guatemalan military stood between the women and the road that led to the mine, armed with AK-47s. After five hours, a mestizo employee spoke with protest organizers and agreed to sign a letter that stated Goldcorp would cease all mining activities within two days, but nearly two weeks had passed and they could still hear the blasting of rock in the distance. They realized later that the agreement had been a hoax, a move to placate the women’s anger and demands that Goldcorp never had any intention of honoring. Undeterred, Amelia and the women were continuing to organize and strategize against the mine. It had been 10 long years of fighting, but even a decade wouldn’t age or persuade the women to put down their stones, or to keep Amelia’s tongue in her mouth, to silence her words in a language that wasn’t her own.
“Let us plant trees and grow old on our land. Let us live in peace,” said the old woman. “You tell that to the world.”
This edited excerpt is from the book Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism and the Fight to Feed the World by Trina Moyles with photographs by KJ Dakin, copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of University of Regina Press.
Trina Moyles is an award-winning freelance writer, journalist, and author with a passion for telling stories about social justice and environmental issues. She is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essay Herd Memory won a National Magazine Award in June 2020 in the Personal Journalism category. Discover more of her work at trinamoyles.com.