Que quiere que haga con la basura? What do you want me to do with the trash? When I heard this question I was confused. The trash being referenced here was a pile of leaves we had just raked up from around the yard. My plan was to use the carbon-rich plant matter to start a compost pile. In my opinion, the pile of leaves was not trash, but an essential ingredient if we were going to make healthy, black soil. While the old adage one man’s trash is another mans treasure certainly applies here, I was more struck by their unfamiliarity with what I considered to be a fundamental principal of farming. You use the waste from last years crop as fertilizer for the next years. In that manner waste becomes food and nothing is lost. But when I asked some locals what they did to amend the soil, nice hard clay, they informed me that normally they sprayed on an artificial fertilizer. While I have no doubt this is effective in the short term, it doesn’t seem practical to forfeit long term soil quality for a practice that is going to require the continual use of costly chemicals. What really bothers me about this is that I’m sure the practice of composting is not new to the Petén, but that through decades of corporate influence, pedaling miracle growth technology, and concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands, the application has been lost. It’s a fundamental case of environmental injustice. The land, having been wrested from the hands of indigenous peoples, has been mistreated and is now being contaminated with artificial fertilizers. The same fertilizers that have been shown to run off of fields during storms and usually wind up polluting water sources. Furthermore, knowledge of how to work the land has been lost.
What we’ve started to do at our gardens in Purushila and Santa Ana is break down all of that unused organic waste. It’s not a quick process, nature doesn’t work on the same time scale as us, but hopefully it reintroduces the concept of using waste to grow more food. At the same time we’ve managed to save many leaves from a fiery fate. I spent a Saturday a few weeks ago digging through the dirt looking for worms to help speed up the decomposition process. With the help students, we now have compost piles started in both places and should start turning out high quality soil in another month or so. My hope is that families in the area will pick up the practice of composting so that they can begin their own gardens using the “technology” of their ancestors.