Traditional Q'eqchi' agriculture is physical and spiritual. Working in the earth is contact with the creator-god. The Q'eqchi', whether Mayanists, Catholics or Evangelicals, are aware of the spirituality of working and the spirituality of land. Clearing and burning, planting and cultivating, harvesting and storing, are all ritual, all religion. In traditional Maya belief everything in the cosmos has a counterpart. The universe is composed of complementary dualities. Equilibrium is of paramount importance. With each practice, the traditional Q'eqchi' approach is to seek balance, equilibrium and harmony between people and nature, female and male, feminine and masculine, hot and cold, the individual and the community, work and rest, day and night.
Activities are timed with seasons, rains and the phases of the moon. Traditions of offerings, asking permission, and gratitude, exemplify the attitude of respect and recognize the Qaawa' Tzuul Taq'a (mountain-valley god) as owner of all. For example: asking permission of the mountain valley god to plant the corn field as an annual ritual in which all the adult men of the community take part.
Of course, Q'eqchi' agriculture is not all love and light. Balance and equilibrium get thrown out the window. Modern poverty, population explosion and arrogence have created another reality. The harsh reality of the destruction of the forest loss must be attributed to the dark side of Q'eqchi' agriculture.
Q'eqchi' agriculture is subsistence agriculture. Production provides the needs of the local population, not of external markets. In the past, traditional Q'eqchi' agriculture consisted of an integrated polyculture of k'al, alk'al, kiche' and xsutam li rochoch; of cultivating, collecting and hunting wild foods from the cultivated lands and forests. Today, both cultivated and wild plants are still part of the diet of the Q'eqchi' people. In remote communities, especially communities bordering the cloud forest, hunting still constitutes a small percentage of Q'eqchi' subsistence. Q'eqchi' food security depends on both k'al, and alk'al and on Qaawa' Tzuul Taq'a.
Q'eqchi' agriculture today still bears the wounds from the time when the plantation (called finca or hacienda in Spanish) dominated Q'eqchi' society. From the 1850s to 1940s it was common for plantation owners to forbid the cultivation for private consumption of other crops besides beans and corn. This rule made it easy for the owner to identify which crops belonged to him and which crops belonged to the peasants of his plantation. This rule also greatly restricted the customary Q'eqchi' diet.
The following paragraphs describe traditional Q'eqchi' agriculture as it was understood and practiced. Many of these practices are falling out of use due to a variety of factors. The purpose of this page is simply to recapitulate some of traditional practices.
The k'al is the heart and life of the Q'eqchi' people. The k'al not only produces food for daily sustenance, but also fortifies the connection between the people, their environment, and the cosmos. Each step in working the k'al is ritual.
Although the main crops of the k'al are the basic grains: corn and beans, the traditional k'al is a mixed integrated polyculture that produces much more than corn. The Q'eqchi' grow more than ten distinct varieties of corn, ranging in color from white, yellow, red, black and mixed. Each corn has its specific maturation, harvest time and use. They grow black beans alone in the k'al in the winter and beneath the shade of the corn in the summer. Other beans cultivated in the k'al include climbing black beans, large colored beans (lol, nun), small wild red bean and more than six other varieties. Other crops cultivated in the k'al include; squash, pumpkins, chilicayote, guisquil, chili, cassava, sweet potato, malanga, bananas, and sugarcane. Useful wild plants that grow naturally in the milpa include, amaranth, nightshade, and dahlia, as well as recognized wild animal forages. Trees cultivated within the traditional k'al, such as avocado and citrus, contribute diversity to the diet and to the ecosystem.
The diverse harvests from the k'al complement each other. For Q'eqchi' subsistence farmer a balanced diet comes from this diversity. For the land, a diverse k'al means a healthier agroecosystem. Without traditional crop diversity, vitamins and nutrients essential to the human diet are missing. Without this diversity, ecological balance and habitat are absent from the landscape. Generally, families cultivate 15 to 50 cuerdas (1 cuerda = 25 o 30 square rods) of k'al annually. Specific ritualistic tasks are followed: measuring and clearing (b'isok ut k'alek), burning (k'atok), planting (awk), cultivating (aq'iink), harvest (q'olok) and collection (sik'ok). Six days before planting, the day of planting and six days after planting, couples practice sexual abstainance, respecting the ritual of planting. They prepare the k'al in March and April, during the dry season, planting in April and May and harvesting in September and October. In the winter, from November to January they plant a smaller area of the k'al in black beans and root crops such as cassava, potato, sweet potato, and malanga. This annual rotation of beans and corn helps provide nitrogen for the corn and other crops.
The alk'al: The alk'al is the k'al at rest after harvest. The alk'al produces a variety of food and forest crops. After the corn is harvested, the Q'eqchi's traditionally planted fruit trees and other perennial crops in the alk'al, other species sprouted naturally. Alk'al crops include, medicinal herbs, bananas, plantains, coffee, pigeon pea, citrus, orange, tangerine, lemon, guava, cocoa, achiote, pacaya palm, arrayan, allspice, soursop, pineapple, cassava, malanga, sweet potato, sugar cane, maguey, vanilla, guisquil, chili, tobacco and more.
The alk'al provides a diversity of fruits, vegetables, tubers, herbs that complement the diet derived from the k'al and forest. It also provides wood from a variety of trees for firewood, posts, poles, and construction material. The alk'al hosts a higher diversity of wildlife, hunted by the Q'eqchi's, than the forest. When the population density was lower, the fallow alk'al could rest for 8 to 10 years, but as land has become scarce, many alk'al only rest 1-2 years, in many areas, not at all. Each family tends from 50-200 cuerdas of alk'al, an average of 100 cuerdas, but less and less as land becomes scarce.
The kiche': The kiche'is the forest from which the Q'eqchi' harvest wood for fire and construction, fiber for baskets, wax for candles, bamboo, mushrooms, fruits, herbs. In the forest they hunt wild animals. From the streams of the forests the Q'eqchi' gather snails, crabs and fresh water clams, to be eaten in caldo.
The xsutam li rochoch: The xsutam li rochoch, more than a yard or a garden, signifies the environment surrounding the house. Q'eqchi' houses are dispersed across the land, as most favor living close to their k'al. In the fertile area around each house, where organic wastes are concentrated, Q'eqchi's tend a variety of annual and perennial crops. The house is encircled by a pleasant orchard garden of plants like: mox (leaves for wrapping tamales), sedges (for sleeping mats), maguey (for rope, hammocks and bags), avocado, bananas, coyooj, chili, chilitepe, tree tomatoes, achiote, pacaya palm, coffee, cilantro, samaat, fruit trees and medicinal herbs. Cane corrals are used to protect small gardens of herbs and greens from foraging livestock.
The xul: Xul means animal. Q'eqchi's depended on hunting and collecting animals from forests, steams and rivers. Domestic animals, of the Q'eqchi', live in and around the house. Domestic fowl may have a small corral in which to sleep, but are loose to forage in the day. The nests of brooding fowl are kept in the house. Pigs and cows are staked in the alk'al. Livestock of a Q'eqchi' family include wild bees, 10-30 chickens, 2-10 turkeys, 1-2 pigs, 2-3 dogs. Few raise ducks; few have 1-2 beef cows. Domestic animals forage on plants and insects around the house and eat corn and food scraps. The tenamit: Tenamit means the people, society. Q'eqchi' agriculture occupies such a vast part of Q'eqchi' life that extends into social aspects: family and community. Groups of friends take turns planting each other's k'al and communities harvest together as well. Before a k'al is planted, prayers are offered, in community. Normally, the same men that plant the field will first join together to pray. Work of the k'al, alk'al and xsutam li rochoch is shared between men, women and children, each having their specific tasks. Everyone helps in mutual relationships.
Traditional Q'eqchi' agriculture was able to provide sustenance to small populations with access to large areas of land, using resources of mountains, forests, alk'al and k'al. However, the Q'eqchi' of today are facing new challenges, which require investigation and experimentation. The problems facing Q'eqchi' communities today are not greater than the depth and richness of wisdom and tradition in their agricultural practices, if alternatives are developed along the trajectory of agroecology.