On a trip to Guatemala, a friend introduced me to a unique outdoor classroom, a learning lab of sorts, for those interested in sustainable agriculture.  It’s located on the shores of Lake Atitlan, a beautiful volcanic lake in the central highlands.

IMAP https://imapermaculture.org/ is short for the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute and was founded by local people to showcase the ancestral knowledge of food production in the area, which is known for its rich diversity of seeds and plants.  Since the lake is situated between the tropical lowlands and the cloud forests, it is an area filled with exotic plants.

Rony Lec is one of the founders of IMAP, which started over 20 years ago.  He explained that much diversity in plants and seeds has been lost to monoculture farming practices.  IMAP is hoping to stem the loss by educating local farmers of the value of the biodiversity which is unique to this lakeshore region.

Lec explained that Meso America had  5,000 varieties of corn at one time but today they have less than half of that.  “That’s because your gene pool becomes poor and the strength of life is diversity, without biodiversity, there is no life.”  As the region loses biodiversity, they lose the key to growing sustainable crops on small plots and family farms.

Image of wheat
Photo Credit: The Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura – IMAP)

Meso America is still considered a mega center for biodiversity.  Lec points to a map on the wall showing all the mega centers of diversity. “Meso America is only one percent of the surface of the planet, but we have 14 percent of the biodiversity in the world.”

IMAP is a two-acre compound on an undeveloped shore of Lake Atitlan, one of the last natural areas that hasn’t been developed as vacation homes for wealthy families of Guatemala and visitors from other parts of the world. Along the shoreland, local farmers plant native vegetables in small patches.  Surprisingly, the seeds can be more valuable than the plants and vegetables they produce.

A short walk uphill is an outdoor learning lab, lush with gardens where visitors and students learn sustainable practices like building an herb spiral or planting a tree farm.  Inside the IMAP office, there is a small room with sparse furniture and plenty of shelves.  The room does double duty as a small market where local farmers and producers showcase a variety of products, all rich in nutritional value and some qualifying as ancient superfoods. Networks or cooperatives of 70 nearby farmers, many of the women, produce the products on display in the market.

IMAP promotes the production of superfoods that have grown naturally in the region for centuries.  One of these is known as Amaranth which is rich in nutrition and easily digested.  It can be eaten as a raw seed or ground down into flour or meal.  Lec said, “So you have a cereal and if you grind this cereal you have flour which you can use as a nutritional supplement or you can mix it with chocolate in a traditional drink.”

Next to the office is the heart of the compound where a wooden shed serves as the seed bank or the “seed house”, as Lec calls it.  Inside the seed house, metal cans are stacked on shelves and labeled with a wide array of seeds from locally grown plants.

The seed bank is like a micro-economy.  Local farmers buy seeds on credit and return two to three times the amount of seeds in repayment.  So, people can get access to seeds for free or at very low cost.  “That’s our currency here. We exchange it with other seeds and can trade it for other products as well, or we can give it as a loan and in credit, and then they return it when they make their harvest,” explained Lec.

Seed bank with native seeds from IMAP. Photo credit: IMAP

IMAP has been working to commercialize some of its core products by creating standards around labeling.  The idea is to make native foods accessible to the people who live here.  At the same time, they promote local farming cooperatives that produce these superfoods.

The seed bank has been replicated in at least five other locations in Guatemala, as a way to promote food sovereignty on a national scale.  Lec said, “Each family and each farmer used to have their own seed bank of sorts as they grew plants and crops for both produce and seeds.  As farming became commercialized, farmers here began to rely on big seed companies and stopped banking their own seeds each season.”  IMAP hopes to reverse that trend and promote biodiversity at the same time.

The last stop on our tour of IMAP was an outdoor learning lab protected from the heat with large shady trees and plants.  The area looks overgrown but is really designed as a vertical garden.  At the heart of permaculture is efficiency and reduction of waste in a closed-loop system. Everything serves a purpose, including weeds which hold moisture in the ground for the benefit of other plants.

“Here you can see this little example of what we do, it’s called an herb spiral,”  Lec explained,  “By designing this spiral like this, we can achieve many things. If you uncoil this spiral, you will see your surface for planting will be very long.  So, you’re maximizing the use of space, by using your aerial space, instead of just horizontal.”

In addition to maximizing the use of space, the spiral is planted from bottom to top based on the amount of water different plants use.  “The upper part of the spiral is dry and wet on the bottom.  You are creating microclimates, little special niches that would not be obtained in a linear way,” said Lec.  “So, that means that you can put more diversity in a smaller space – in one of these herb spirals you can plant up to 32 medicinal plants and culinary herbs.”

Another concept taking hold is tree farms, which is planting crops that grow vertically rather than horizontally.  A corn tree is an example.  According to Lec, one corn tree will produce the same amount of food as two acres of corn. “Once that tree is established, you don’t have to do anything and it can last for a hundred years.  We call it the food forest and some people call it agroforestry systems.”

I asked how the programs at IMAP are funded.  Lec said the seed program is self-sustaining through sales, credits and trades with local farmers.  Other programs, on the educational side of IMAP, rely on tuition and donations.  They are always open to new ideas and partnerships with folks near and far.

Recently, IMAP was invited to support a growing family garden project in San Juan La Laguna, a village on the far side of the lake.  When the pandemic stopped the flow of food to the small village, another program, called Ecolibri https://www.ecolibri.org/, encouraged families there to begin growing their own vegetables in small plots next to their homes.  As travel bans are lifted, IMAP will teach sustainable practices to these families to help them get the most out of family and community gardens.

Special thanks to Josh Zenner of Josh Zenner Productions who recorded the interview with Rony Lec at IMAP.  https://joshzennerproductions.com/

Bill Griffith practices real estate and municipal law and is the host of Finding the Future, a podcast that explores innovation in land use and sustainability. Listen here for the interview with Rony Lec of IMAP.  If you have a story about innovation in land use and sustainability, please reach out to Bill.