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My Experience of Permaculture in Guatemala

The Ijatz cooperative is possibly the best demonstration of the transformative power of permaculture in Guatemala. The site, in San Lucas Toliman near Lake Atitlan, was purchased at low cost since the parish council considered the land to be of low value. Previously, it was a swampy bog inundated with refuse and flood water from the surrounding hills.

In classic permaculture style, within the problem lay the seeds of the solution. The deforestation due to conventional agriculture in these surrounding hills has caused soil erosion and during the rainy season much of this rich volcanic black top soil is washed downstream. This annual bounty has been redirected through the Ijatz site using a sequence of channels and sink holes, which in turn slows the water flow enabling the nutrient rich humus to be captured and stored on site. The earth has been moulded to create slopes, edges and contours essential for increased growing opportunity.

During the dry season any rainfall is held in the pond sequence, maintaining the local water table which is the source for the hundreds of trees and plants. While the flora perpetually contributes biomass to improve soil fertility, a micro climate suitable for growing has developed in what is essentially a few acres on the edge of town. Prior to the establishment of the Ijatz project, over one hundred homes were annually flooded in the immediate vicinity. Currently, the site can receive flood water to the depth of more than a metre during the wet season. A perfect demonstration of a multifunctional permaculture design element, the banana circle has provided the solution. Acting as a pump, that most excellent of pioneer species, the banana simply sucks up and holds this water. The spaces between the rubbery concentric rings of a banana tree are simply saturated in water. The centre of the circle becomes a compost heap for any site prunings while the worms of the vermicomposting stations make short shrift of sections of banana trunk. The composted output is another useful income stream for the coop. Of course, let us not forget nature’s own delicious potassium stick – the banana itself! All this and the local community benefits from dry homes throughout the rainy season too. This in turn satisfies one of the cornerstone ethics of permaculture: people care – positively affecting the local community.

Banana circle

The project is only thirteen years in the making and boasts a diverse range of trees and plants that reach every level of the canopy. Timber is harvested and the bamboo stands are about 6m tall. There are a number of guava, grapefruit, lime and lemon fruit trees. A vine layer producing a vegetable called güisquil (sechium edule) when boiled is similar in texture and taste to a tender swede or turnip. There are several other local tropical plants that contribute roots or leaves to the kitchen table. The annually deposited soil is then built up to form raised beds for growing vegetables. My three week stint centred around reinstating the vegetable and herb beds preparing them for fresh seedlings, including lettuce, coriander, frijoles (beans), parsley, celery and radish. This soil food web is teaming with life and I encountered countless worms, spiders and other small creatures. Thankfully, the nesting cobra we stumbled across only wrapped itself around Pancho’s arm (the head gardener). No harm done – sadly only true for Pancho!

The core focus of the Ijatz cooperative is coffee production. On the final day of my visit, the ladies of the cooperative harvested fifty kilos of coffee beans ready for processing. However, they collectively own several plots of land on the slopes of the now extinct Volcán Tolimán. Through the cooperative, the workers have generated a stable income which has funded educational programmes on child care and nutrition. They also have discussions to understand where their high value product sits in the open market. I was invited to describe the drinking habits of Europeans. My talk was graciously received even though my Spanish is woefully short of adequate.

If you are interested in volunteering your time and energy to the assist the Ijatz project and you have a command of Spanish language you can contact them directly at asociacionIjatz (at) otherwise I can advise you. Volunteer opportunities exist throughout the year.

Read my follow up article about how Ijatz manages its core business – coffee, using permaculture principles. You can follow my blog at as I travel Central America gaining permaculture experience working towards my Diploma in Applied Permaculture from the Permaculture Association Britain.


  1. So wonderful to read about I’jatz after I visited it often in 2009 while volunteering at nearby Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura (IMAP). The I’jatz food forest blew me away, the channels that snake through the block are a fantastic way to deal with a flood prone area while reaping so many rewards. You should post a photo of the channels, if you have one (I don’t).
    The versatile güisquil is known as choko, at least in Australia. After nearly a year in San Lucas Toliman, I have a new found respect for the vegetable, also great eaten with cheese between two slices of it, then battered and fried.

  2. Heyy kev, great work, lovely article!
    Keep them coming, we love to hear how things are done at community projects around the world.

  3. Awesome this project! I’d love to visit it once if possible well…
    I live in colombia are you planning to visit our country at least once?
    It would be wonderful!

  4. Thanks for the support everyone. Qüisquil (pronounced whisk-eel) is known as chocho throughout the rest of central America. Here in Belize, I’ve eaten it raw in a green salad marinaded in pineapple vinager – delicious. I agree Sarah, Ronaldo Lec has produced an effective earthworks solution here but it’s difficult to capture susinctly in photographs at ground level. However, I do have a couple of pictures that I could send you, but there is a lot of green on green, as this urban plot is a mini jungle! What is your em address? Much to my regret, I ran out of time and didn’t make it to IMAP.

  5. Hola Daniel,

    Sadly, I won’t be able to squeeze a visit to your beautiful country on this trip. I’m about to start a permaculture intership with Andrew Jones at BioSana in Baja, Mexico in March. But, watch out for more news then. Good luck in your permaculture adventure.

  6. THis is just Awesome Kevin, I am going to share this article with it the guys form Ijatz it is really interesting.

    Stay in touch.

    Gerson Morales

  7. Hola kevin. I did my PDC in Oregon three years ago and work a lot with Brighton Permaculture trust. I am also working on an MSc at CAT in North Wales.
    Very interested in the project as I am a retired Social worker and farm manager.I want to spend winters in warmer climate due to health in a Spanish speaking country and you have confirmed what everybody else has said that Guatemala is a good country to start. I have been doing conversational spanish and need to move on. Can you advise re contacts as I would want to work as a volunteer on a permaculture project to get my Spanish usable beyond Coma esta y habla espananol pocino. vale.

  8. Hi Kevin
    Enjoy your internship. If you’ve got some photos of I’jatz, It’d be great to send them to me sarahgorman79(at) Yeah, Ronaldo has done some fantastic work and keeps on doing it. I recently did my PDC with Geoff Lawton who had photos of when he visited when the food forest was just being established: an amazing difference.
    Thanks for the guisquil salad idea!

  9. Me parece sumamente fascinante este proyecto de permacultura. Vivo en el sur de la Florida, cerquita de los Everglades, con sus pantanos, manglares, y pinales. Estuve ya por un tiempo pensando ejecutar un diseño de permacultura, mas aun no tengo terreno propio.

    [This permaculture project seems highly fascinating. I live in South Florida, very close to the Everglades, with its swamps, mangroves, and pinelands. I’ve been thinking for a while already about executing a permaculture design, but I yet do not have my own property.]

    Someone here called for a Spanish-speaking poster -.-

  10. HI Les,
    Interesting, I declined my MSc place at CAT to kick start my permaculture adventure! Post me your em address and I’ll give you some ideas and contacts for permaculture and Spanish lessons (let me know if you want to learn Salsa too). Central America has a plethora of interesting projects to work on. Last summer I gave a presentation about permaculture at CAT for the members conference. Look forward to hearing from you.

  11. Hi Sarah, I’ll pop you an link to a google album shortly. Yes, it was Geoff who introduced me to Ronaldo, who in turn helped me make the Ijatz experience come together. Oh yes, I can spell vinegar, honest!

  12. Hi Arian, I guess you have some interesting challenges in the Everglades. Am I correct in saying acacias introduced from Oz are a threat the ecosystem balance where you are? I’m in the process of producing a Spanish version of this article for my friends in Guatemala. Good luck with your permaculture adventure.

  13. Hi Kevin. Well, as you’ve mentioned the Casuarina trees do present a problem since they’ve established themselves rather nicely and the Fish & Wildlife Commission has had to spend millions of USD yearly to eradicate them. Casuarinas absorb lots of water and so were introduced early in the 20th century to facilitate drainage of wetland. Now they are a real headache for those endeavoring to preserve the ecological balance of the Everglades, which is highly dependent on water. Melaleuca quinquenervia is even worse in this regard. As well, both of them seem to tolerate saltwater spray well since Casuarinas can be found near the beaches as well. Melaleuca is probably less so, since I often find them more inland.

    Although we are about 250 Km north of the Tropic of Cancer here, we have a climate that allows us to cultivate tropical fruits & veggies almost year round. Thus, we are subject to a wet and a dry season typical of the Tropics. So far we’ve had enough rain this dry season to keep us out of drought ^^ in addition to periodic cold snaps (- -)

    You can say that all that extra water is insurance during times of drought, which do sometimes occur here. In some years we have restrictions on residential water use, especially when wet season rains are not as frequent as usual.

    In addition, some of the more invasive exotics produce lots of dry leaf matter, thus altering the fire patterns of the area and heightening the risk of wildfire. Ideally, a fire burns through the pinelands of SoFla to kill off undergrowth and so preserve the pine stands. After burning for a day or two, a rainstorm comes along and douses it.

    Permaculture around the Everglades and in SE Florida would be quite a challenge. The landscape has been greatly altered in many places and the amount of original wetland has been reduced greatly over the past few decades. Demand for agricultural and residential land has been a factor in that. Also, the land is almost table flat in many places, so the placement of swales and other topographical features should be carefully planned in advance. Not to mention that in a lot of places there are large coral/limestone outcroppings. (At one time South Florida was under a few meters of water.)

    One nice thing about all this limestone is that there are multiple aquifers throughout Florida – at least in the peninsular part. If you have the time, visit Silver Springs just outside Ocala. The waters there are clear enough to enable one to see to the bottom ^^

    I learned Spanish as a child (and still speak it). So if it makes things easier for you I can translate the article and send it to you for your consideration.

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