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  • Lessons in Resilience from the Maya-Achí
  • Nathan Einbinder

In the united states, the covid−19 outbreak revealed the frailty of our social systems and institutions, along with the inequalities on which our so-called prosperity rests. The economy, whose strength is intimately tied to our (excessive) consumption, global trade, and the casino called Wall Street, fell into a state of collapse. With astonishing speed, millions of jobs and livelihoods disappeared. For many, it was their first time confronting the possibility of not being able to attain basic goods—notably food—for lack of financial resources, supply chain issues, or potential new restrictions. The uncertainty ignited fear and panic, along with serious questions over our path to modernity and the risks and deep vulnerabilities it has created.

As an agroecologist, I am drawn to stories of resilience, particularly among individuals and communities whose survival has depended on their ingeniousness and perseverance. I recall the life histories of men and women like Cristóbal Osorio, an Indigenous Maya-Achí farmer who, at twenty-four years old, was violently displaced from his home along the Chixoy River in Guatemala and forced to live in hiding for two years, avoiding military ambushes and surviving off wild plants, bark, and insects. I contemplate the way he, like so many other survivors from the massacres that devastated the Achí community, retained the seeds from their ancestral crops— corn, beans, and squash—with the resolve to plant them once again, sustaining traditions that include commitment to Mother Earth (what they call Qachuu Aloom) as well as their own self-determination.

Throughout the Maya territories of Guatemala are similar stories of survival and cultural and community resilience against a backdrop of domination, systemic poverty, and exclusion (Lovell, 1988; McAllister & Nelson, 2013). According to Achí leader Julian Vasquez, the Covid-19 outbreak, while taken seriously, represents just one more “thing” they must deal with and overcome. “Before the coronavirus, there was dengue, and cholera,” Vasquez told me in one of our many conversations. “There were hurricanes and droughts. . . .” (personal communication, 2020). To that one could easily add repression [End Page 264] and violence, along with the impact of external development projects that usurp lands and continue processes of colonization (Suazo, 2009).

Not unlike the situation in the U.S., the economic fallout presents additional challenges. “I had work that I was depending on,” said Vasquez. “But due to the quarantine, that was no longer possible.” (At the time of writing there was a strict curfew from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., along with other rules limiting free movement and gathering.) He told me that instead he put his efforts into this year’s milpa!the Indigenous Mesoamerican farming system that brings the heritage crops mentioned above together into a symbiotic agroecosystem.

“We may not have work,” he told me. “But food, yes.”

And quality food it is. Part of the local agroecological movement, Vasquez works with other community members to recover sustainable farming practices and native crop varieties; plants noted for their high level of nutrition, along with spiritual and cultural value. “Everywhere families are harvesting and celebrating,” he said, noting that he, too, increased how much he sowed over last year, while experimenting with new soil and water conservation techniques that would help prevent losses if another drought were to occur (see Oxfam, 2019, concerning the devastating impacts of the 2019 drought).

There are some clear reasons why an increase in traditional family farming in the Achí region—and elsewhere, I argue—is beneficial. First, it improves local food security at the family and community level, which may be essential in the event of lost income and disruption in supply chains. Because many Achí communities are extremely rural, a loss of even meager salaries obtained through day labor, along with restrictions on public transportation, inhibited their ability to get to the market in the municipal capital of Rabinal. Having food locally available is necessary for self-sufficiency at the village level. Second, increasing the production and consumption of culturally and ecologically appropriate foods that comprise the traditional Mesoamerican diet may help combat malnutrition and other diet-related health problems (e.g. diabetes), many of...