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New Trees in Guatemala That Are Not Just for Reforestation

Special bicycle for shelling coffee beans

It sounds strange to speak of poverty as an exciting opportunity, but many of the projects in Guatemala make me do just that. I’m particularly impressed with those working with trees. Reforestation is often not so simple as just planting trees. Mass agriculture has created a need for serious reforestation efforts, but that need doesn’t override humanitarian concerns like malnutrition and poverty. A largely agricultural workforce still needs crops to sell, and to eat. So what do you do? This challenge has brought about some really innovative ideas. The Maya Nut Institute, De La Gente, Caoba Farms, and Valhalla are four organizations facing this situation creatively, sustainably, and altruistically, using trees to contribute to many a worthy cause.

Drying Maya nuts, ready for grinding

The Maya Nut Institute is promoting a traditionally wild source of food called, as you might imagine, the Maya nut. Maya nuts are actually seeds from a fig-like fruit that grows indigenously in Guatemala. Though full of nutrients and precious calories, Maya nuts long ago gave way to cultivated foods like corn and beans.

However, the Maya Nut Institute is helping Maya nut trees make a comeback. Not only has the NGO helped reintroduce the traditional food source into communities that once utilized it, helping to distribute the trees and conducting workshops on using the nuts, but it has also helped to instigate marketable products — Maya nut powder, cookies, cakes — for the farmers utilizing them.

Also, the hardy trees, known for surviving droughts, are reforesting the habitats of struggling species like quetzals and jaguars. The leaves of the trees, which thrive with regular pruning, provide great animal fodder — much more per acre than pastures. The project is so successful that even massive cattle ranchers, not at all in financial need, are starting to experiment with the trees.

Lessons for using Maya nuts

De La Gente is an NGO largely based around a cooperative of coffee farmers. Since 1996, the small growers in San Miguel Escobar, at the foot of the fertile Volcan Agua, have been doing things differently. In order to build the community’s economy, donations have helped them acquire man-powered machinery, develop artisanal businesses, and acted as a distributor for their fine coffee.

What they’ve done with trees is a simple and simply brilliant idea. Coffee requires shade trees to keep the fruit — called cherries — from overheating. Often, farmers use quick-growing trees with no marketable function. De La Gente’s growers have taken a different approach: The fields of San Miguel Escobar are thick with fruit and nut trees, providing the needed shade as well as other money-making crops.

De La Gente farmer giving us a taste test on our tour

Pushing it even further, and sticking to the creed that a product is much more profitable than a crop, local artisans extract oils from the cooperative’s macadamia nuts and castor oil plants. Some of the families now produce all-natural cosmetic items like lip balms and face creams. All of this from planting more trees, especially more of the right kind of trees.

Caster oil plant on one of the De La Gente coffee farms

Caoba Farms, while not a bona fide non-profit, is also helping Guatemala come at the tree vs. agriculture problem from odd angles. First, the locally-owned business itself is organic, complete with a worm farm, free-range chickens, and its own seed processing. In other words, in a spread of about five acres, Caoba has created its own sustainable ecosystem: chicken feed from weeding, fertilizer from the chickens, and the seeds to do it all over again.

The beautiful and bountiful Caoba Farms

Beyond the farm, Caoba works extensively with farmers growing an ancient tree from northern India: moringa oleifera. Now gaining popularity in the West, moringa (see here and here) has been recognized as a medicinal since 150 BC. Packed with vitamins, anti-oxidants, and protein, moringa is perfect — a “super food” — for providing quick, rich nutrients to a malnourished population. Any household here could grow their own moringa tree, and now many do.

The great kicker is it only takes regular pruning of the wildly nutritious leaves to provide families with a healthy boost. As for Caoba, the leaves are used to make a powder that can be added to smoothies, soups, or sauces. Not far behind moringa, chia and chaya will be easy, functional food plants for families to raise themselves with no destruction for mass agriculture.

Caoba Farms magical moringa powder

Valhalla Macadamia Farm (and more recently the Valhalla Experimental Station) has been around for over three decades now. Purchased in the mid-70s by a US-born couple, the farm remains in the family and continues to promote all things macadamia: pancakes, face creams, oil extracts, or just a handful of roasted, protein-rich, and highly nutritious macadamia nuts.

Beautiful macadamia nuts on the branch

Recognizing the incredible potential of their trees, both as long-living hardwoods and food producers, the folks at Valhalla have given thousands of saplings to communities around Guatemala. Again, the tree provides its treeness as well as a calorie-packed source of food and a high-dollar crop for its farmers and for generations to come: A macadamia tree lives over 100 years.

Besides trees and food, macadamias provide beautiful, healthy oils to extract for natural beauty products — yet another useful byproduct of this type of reforestation effort. The Valhalla project provides farmers with an alternative to the harmful slash-and-burn method and introduces them to trees that require little fertilizer without exhausting the soil. Macadamia nut trees offer a great, responsible option, both for people and the earth.

Macadamia nut shells for use as “gravel” sidewalks and/or mulch

It just makes me breathe easier. It’s possible to order many of these fair trade, organic and otherwise altruistic products online if you’re not visiting Guatemala any time soon. If you are headed this way, Valhalla, Caoba Farms, and De La Gente all welcome volunteers and offer tours. I’m proud to have contributed to or supported each one of these projects.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


    1. De La Gente puts out some great coffee, as well as organic lip balms, teas, etc. The Maya Nut Institute is set up to deliver a few different types of maya nut powder and cookies. The other two require visiting in person. Hope you enjoy.

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