Returned Immigrants Cultivate New Life Back in Guatemala

by Julienne Gage

AGRICULTURE FOR BASIC NEEDS PROGRAM, Catholic Relief Services and Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Central America


Up north in the United States, farmer Don Manolo de León Ortíz worked in the fields, but as a migrant worker, he didn’t really learn to make the crops grow, nor did he have much sense of control or ownership of his life. Then again, he never felt he had much of that in his native Guatemala, which is why he chose to emigrate more than a decade ago amid a civil war and destitute poverty. But there comes a point where even the greatest risk taker tires of moving with the seasons from one farm to another or dodging immigration authorities and working without any guarantee of earning the pay that was promised. That point came to de León two years ago when he decided to return to Guatemala. That too was a risk, a leap of faith and of hope that he would be able to survive in a place he once considered unlivable.

“To have a sustainable life here –  it’s hard,” reflected de León in near fluent English. “It’s the weather, it’s the culture, it’s so many things, but since I’ve been in the United States,. I see the difference…I came back with an idea, which is I can work here, I have a life here,” he said.

Shortly after returning to his community of Tonalá near the Mexico border, de León met a promoter from the local chapter of the aid organization Cáritas San Marcos who, under the auspices of Catholic Relief Services, presented de León with an agricultural project that would allow him to take some calculated risks in small-scale farming.

De León was asked to lead what is known as a Local Agricultural Research Committee (CIAL). Under his direction, about 12 local farmers – most of them former migrant workers – would receive seeds and some basic gardening supplies to grow different varieties of their most important crops to see which ones thrive best under organic fertilizers and pesticides.

The CIAL is part of a region-wide project known as Agriculture for Basic Needs. Financed by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the goal of A4N is to help more than 15,000 poor Central American families broaden sustainable production of various food products and increase earnings through agriculture. A4N helps these benefiaries use their natural talents to develop important life skills such as innovation, sustainable agriculture, savings and loans, mareketing, and group organization and management.

“We began with a brainstorm of ideas about what we usually cultivated- potatoes, corn, beans, wheat. We decided on two of the most important crops and began diagnostic tests,” explained de León, standing in a field sprouting four varieties of broad beans and various types of potatoes.

“We’ve had a lot of losses because of disease,” explained de León.

Siempre Verde CIAL secretary Ubaldo Berduo stopped taking inventory of bean pods – the more beans in a pod, the better the product – to offer some additional insight.

“Why are we doing this? Because we don’t want to emigrate. We want to work here on our lands. Guatemala is beautiful. Guatemala is a green country, but unfortunately it’s a country of limited resources,” said Berduo, himself a recently returned immigrant. “We want to overcome that through the specialists. Today I want to share with these colleagues in my CIAL,” he continued.

For him, that means relaying the harsh realities of immigration alongside useful, handy gardening tips he’s learned working closely with A4N specialists in Siempre Verde’s greenhouse, bean garden, and livestock area.

He can show them, for example, how worms can turn straw and other organic waste into excellent potting soil for tomatoes, and how to suck out certain juices from that same soil to make organic pesticide. He can also help them see how a modest plastic greenhouse watered with a drip irrigation system can protect plants from this highland region’s near-freezing temperatures.

Keeping all the parts of the farm in check can be tiring and stressful, but there is a certain sense of security in knowing A4N is there for technical support. It’s certainly a safer feeling than going back to the life of the undocumented up north.

“First, we don’t have the money to go there, and second, our lives are endangered because there are so many problems with drug trafficking and kidnappings along Mexico’s borders,” Berduo said.

CIAL participant Octavio Díaz Morales couldn’t agree more.

“Emigrating has a lot of costs. You go because you don’t have the knowledge of how to cultivate beans or what variety could be cultivated here in our own land,” Díaz said.

And like immigration, finding a viable path to sustainability takes a lot of trial and error. Sometimes it lands you right back where you started, only a little wiser this time around.

Take, for example the Guatemalan variety broad bean. The ancestors of Siempre Verde survived on them for thousands of years. So this particular variety only has two beans per pod, compared to four or five among other varieties. “That’s okay because they’re big ones,” noted Berduo as he popped a few in his mouth for a taste test. “They’re really flavorful.”

That flavor has a lot to do with the nutrients they contain. They’re an excellent source of protein, fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium, and iron. Plus, they contain the levodopa chemical that converts to dopamine in the brain.

The trick, then, is to ensure whatever pests or diseases made worse by climate change don’t knock that great lineage out.

It’s hard to say whether Siempre Verde farmers are pro or anti-immigration in the way Americans understand it. They can’t change what’s done, they can only learn from it and move forward, which means appreciating the positives of every experience. One thing these former migrants saw up north was how large U.S. grocers measure the quality and quantity of the produce they buy. That information could prove to be priceless in a few more years.

“If the donors continue to assist us, then one day we’ll be able to transport these same beans to the American people who give us the money,” affirmed Berduo.

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