Ancestral Maya Chortí agroecological technology challenged by climate change

Ancestral Maya Chortí agroecological technology challenged by climate change

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By Ollantay Itzamná

Faced with a global food crisis, be it the result of the greed of the corporations that commercialize food, or the inability of the earth to regenerate its fertility, it is very difficult for modern technologies to bring about sustainable solutions from the market thirsty for assets. In these extreme situations, it is advisable to turn our gazes towards the moral and technological reserves that underlie the ancestral traditions of our native peoples.


The times that pass, due to the unprecedented phenomena in the known history of humanity, require deep reflections on the knowledge and behaviors that guide humanity. These times, from the perspective of the climatic behavior of the earth, as well as of the production and distribution capacity of food on the planet, pose transcendental challenges to the human being in his mission to preserve his species on earth.

Humanity will be able to survive without the stock markets and without oil, but it will hardly survive the widespread food shortage. Faced with a global food crisis, be it the result of the greed of the corporations that commercialize food, or the inability of the earth to regenerate its fertility, it is very difficult for modern technologies to bring about sustainable solutions from the market thirsty for assets.

In these extreme situations, it is advisable to turn our gazes towards the moral and technological reserves that underlie the ancestral traditions of our native peoples. Not with the purpose of going back in history, but with the sole intention of looking for lessons and alternative agricultural technologies that did work for thousands of years of cultivation without unbalancing the regenerative capacities of the land.

This work is a basic introduction to the ancestral agricultural knowledge and technologies of the Mayan Chortí people in Honduras, collected through dialogues and encounters with the Chortí producers themselves. Its purpose is to generate a basic concern for the possibility of an intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue in the search for everyday solutions and elementas in the cultivation of the land for daily sustenance, and thus try to adapt to climate change.

I. Background of the Mayan Chortí people

In Honduras, although there are no official data on indigenous demographics, it is estimated that 20% of the national population is indigenous and black, distributed in 8 indigenous and black peoples of the country. 5 indigenous peoples (Lenca, Maya Chortí, Tawaka, Tolupa and Pech) and 3 of colonial origin (Garífuna, Misquito and English-speaking Negroes or Creol). The total Honduran population is 8 million, not counting more than one million Hondurans living abroad.

The Chorti Mayan people are a cultural expression of the Mayan civilization that spread throughout Mesoamerica, especially in pre-Columbian times. This civilization currently subsists in the Mayan peoples distributed in part of the territories of Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Honduras (1). The Mayan Chortí are settled in part of the territory of Guatemala and in the western zone of Honduras, on the border with Guatemala (2).

In the Honduran territory, the Mayan Chortí people are made up of 38 thousand members of the National Indigenous Maya Chortí Council of Honduras (CONIMCHH), settled in communities of five municipalities in the Department of Copán (Copán Ruinas, Cabañas, Santa Rita, Paraíso and Dulce Nombre) and in communities of two municipalities of the Department of Ocotepeque (Sensenti and La Labor).

Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians agree that the origin of the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica dates back to more or less 2000 years BC. Expanding to the Gulf of Honduras in the “classic” period (3rd to 8th century AD) The majestic Maya Chortí Archaeological Sanctuary, in the current Department of Copán, Honduras, would have been built and inhabited between the 7th and 9th centuries of our era. This Sanctuary is the maximum expression of the intellectual and spiritual splendor that this civilization achieved and accumulated. From the ninth century, the decline of Mayan ostentation began (3).

II. Recently recognized in Honduras

The holocaust of European colonialism, and the internal colonialism of the ethnophagic Honduran state, failed to completely annihilate the descendants of the Mayan civilization in Honduras.

Without lands, without names, without surnames, without language, without gods, the Chorti Mayan people resisted and resists the systematic annihilation established by the Ladinocentric State of Honduras. For more than five centuries, the Chortis survived by cultivating, as servants, the lands of the bosses. Living as foreigners in their own land and confined in factual apartheid in the XXI century.

Until the end of the 20th century, the Chortis who claimed their rights were simply silenced by rustic landowners with the argument of: “Uds. They are not Hondurans, they are Guatemalans ”. And on the other side of the border, the state's argument was similar with respect to the Chortis trapped within the Honduran borders.

This uninhabited and renegade people by a State unknown to them, decided to mobilize and organize as an indigenous people, protected by the International Convention 169 of the ILO, which became Honduran law in 1994. That same year, the Chortí people managed to be recognized as a people. indigenous (with legal status) by the Honduran State.

As a result of the taking of roads, embassies, the legislative palace, and the resumption of the touristy Mayan Sanctuary in Copán Ruinas, the Honduran governments realized that the Mayans, on the Honduran side, had not completely vanished. This is how the Honduran State recognized this people as a valid interlocutor and promised them 14 thousand hectares of land for cultivation, a bilingual education system, health, and many other similarly unfulfilled promises.

Almost two decades have passed since those commitments. But the Mayan people continue without the right to have rights (4). Even the Chorti children who come down from the hills to visit the crowded Mayan Archaeological Sanctuary, in the Municipality of Copán Ruinas, the work of their ancestors, are even denied entry.

An illustrative case of how the Honduran State currently treats the Chortí people is the issuance that the National Secretariat of the Interior made of a second legal status as a Maya Chortí indigenous people to a peasant association organized by some former leaders of the Chortí Maya National Indigenous Council of Honduras, expelled by the parent organization for acts of corruption. This situation further weakened the Chortí organization, pushing it to the limit of fragmentation and violent confrontation (5) between the two organizations that share the same territory.

III. Ancestral Mayan Chortí agricultural technology

The Chortís, in the Honduran territory, are still a people in the process of identity reconstruction. They made progress in the community territorial reconstitution, but there is still a long way to go in the cultural, spiritual and socio-political reconfiguration. The process of miscegenation that they lived and live was so strong that, like the other indigenous peoples in Honduras, almost the only common denominator that characterizes them, due to their working conditions, is that of being impoverished peasants.

Since their organization and recognition as an indigenous people (1994), with the advice and help of their co-Chorti brothers and sisters from Guatemala, they have been remembering and recovering their language (through bilingual schools), their spirituality, their philosophy (cosmovision) , etc.

Observing and talking with the Chortis about their agricultural breeding practices, the following ancestral technological elements come to the fore:

Lunar agricultural calendar. The Chortis cultivate the land in fidelity to the lunar calendar. This is how they learned and survived for more than 4 thousand years, even in inclement weather.

An old man says: “For there to be a good harvest, you have to look for a good moon to sow (3 and 4 moon days, the best moons to sow). 1 and 5 bad days. From 6 to 9 moons also the best. Growing moon is always a good time to sow. The engineers tell us ‘You guys. They sow on the earth, not on the moon, "but we know that the moon tells us when to sow."

The basic grains of the Chortí diet are corn and beans. These and other products are sown twice a year (May and November, in the case of corn). But in recent years, due to the negative effects of climate change, agricultural weather has been erratic. But despite these changes, the lunar calendar continues to define the agricultural cycle of the Chortis.

Management of ecological floors. Due to the topography and the climatic and rainfall conditions of the ancestral Chortí territory, the rotation of the farmland was conditioned to the magnitude of the winter (rains).

Another of the indigenous people interviewed tells us about it: “When the winter was strong, it was cultivated in high places. When the winter was less, it was cultivated in low parts. When the weather is too hot, there is no harvest. "

This ancestral technology was used by the indigenous when they had the necessary land to cultivate.

In these times when Honduras suffers the most cruel effects of climate change (flooding of agricultural and urban areas), the management of ecological floors, based on the climatic rotation of cultivated soils, would be a possible mitigation measure. But, for this, the immoral land tenure in the country would have to be redistributed in a more sensible way.

Bio indicators. Like the rest of the indigenous peoples, the Mayan farmer had almost infallible techniques to identify when times were good or dangerous to cultivate and guarantee production. Today, the Chortis still cultivate their insufficient and tired lands, resorting to the signs transmitted by the bio-indicators, be they plants, animals, waters or cosmic signs.

In a workshop on ancestral Mayan technologies, one of the elders tells us how he knows it will be a good year: “When the mountain Irayol (plant) is dressed (with foliage), be prepared that winter is coming. If some plants are clothed and others are not, then this will be the winter, with choppy rains. When the mango produces in abundance, it is a sign that it will be a good year to grow. "

Another participant tells us: “When the rivers come and accumulate the foam in the bends and next to the stones, it means that the rain is coming. When the dry streams wake up wet then, the humidity rises, so get ready to cultivate ”.

On the bio-indicators, an indigenous woman also tells us: “When the birds wake up singing, the ants go out to the streams, the pigs run and bathe in the puddles. When the birds are fatigued it is a sign that there is not enough food. "

Some of these signs continue to be decisive in the Chorti agricultural calendar. Although many of the bio indicators are extinct or change places as a consequence of climate change.

Diversified cultivation. Historical records indicate that monocultures were not known practices in ancient civilizations. The Mayans, like many other civilizations, always practiced the diversified cultivation of plants, in compliance with the productive vocation of the soils, to prevent the sterilization of the land. Vestiges of this technology can be seen in the following testimony of a Mayan woman in Guatemala: “Our grandparents taught us to cultivate in the cornfields, always placing a bean grain, along with three grains of corn and another of chili. This is a mechanism of organic fertilization and use of natural repellants against insects. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil to nourish the corn, the chili repels insects and the corn plant serves as a support for the beans. This is an agricultural life system no less than 4 thousand years old. "

In the plots and family gardens of the Mayan descendants in Honduras, today, diversified cultivation is still practiced with native seeds, and in some cases with organic fertilizer. Although, due to the apparent comforts, "improved" seeds (genetically manipulated), chemical fertilizers and herbicides, gain ground among the Chortis.

Monocultures, promoted by the commercial interests of multinational consortiums of basic grains, are rapidly destroying the fertility of farmlands, polluting water and soils and decimating the biodiversity that guaranteed the balance and permanence of life in the planet. In these conditions, the ancient agricultural technologies of the Mayans continue to be a current proposal for the intercultural dialogue of inter-civilizing knowledge that these times demand of us.

Hand turned. It is another of the ancestral practices that consists of reciprocal collective work, according to the urgent needs of the families. In this practice, it is not so much the economic value of the work that prevails, but the sense of community and solidarity cooperation. You go to work on your neighbor's plot, not so much expecting or demanding monetary compensation for the work rendered, but knowing that you will be reciprocated in the same way when you need it on your plot.

The fundamental principle that guides the practice of the turned hand is reciprocity. In indigenous philosophy, in this case Chortí Maya, everything tends towards permanent balance. This balance is made possible and guaranteed through reciprocity: “it is given and received”. If it is only given without receiving, or it is received without giving, then social, economic, ecological, cultural imbalance is generated, etc. Reciprocity does not end in work activity.

All dimensions of life and existence are woven by reciprocal interrelationships for balance. Festive offerings are made to the saints and / or divinities knowing that the blessings received from the saints will be abundant.

Collective land tenure. All the lands that the Mayan Chortí people recovered from the landowners (through the State) are owned and cultivated by the community. The lands do not belong to families or individuals, but to the Mayan Chortí people, represented in their organization called CONIMCHH.

This collective sense of the land is rooted in two basic concepts that guide and base the life of the indigenous.

The consciousness of being earth. The indigenous person, deep down, is assumed as land. Land that feels, land that laughs, land that cries, land that dreams and thinks. From this consciousness the feeling of belonging to the earth is born. For this reason, this ancestral sentence subsists implicitly: "the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land." This explains the ease with which the indigenous person assumes the earth as Mother Earth.

The community sense of life. The second fundamental element for the collective sense of the land is the consciousness of belonging to the community. For the indigenous, nothing exists outside the community. Everything that exists coexists, everything that coexists subsists forming and generating community interrelations. In the indigenous world, the individual and his interests / aspirations are subordinate to the interests of the community. Individual achievements are not promoted or rewarded, but community achievements. There is no individual identity separate from community identity.

These and other conceptions, present perhaps more implicitly, guide the collective consciousness of the land in the Mayan Chortí people. For this reason, one of the young CONIMCHH authorities, in a conciliation meeting of individual and collective interests on land, declared: "If we allow individual land titling, we would no longer be indigenous, well."

IV. Chortis Maya agricultural techniques

The information collected among Chorti Maya farmers on some ancestral farming techniques and what they practice today is presented below in a comparative table.

Not always all practices appear because there is still, and very strong, the unconscious self-contempt for the ancestral (the result of centuries of colonization and processes of miscegenation) and self-censorship, due to the consciousness of installed sin, for evangelization and education , in the psychology and individual and collective of the indigenous.

V. Spiritual dimension of Mayan Chortí agriculture

The indigenous Mayan has a ritual rationality. His life itself is a ritual and spiritual act. From there comes his calm, contemplative and almost silent attitude in his surroundings.

Daily spirituality, even after centuries of evangelization, has not been entirely eradicated. On the contrary, the indigenous resistance, for more than half a millennium, finds its motor and source in the contemplative attitude and in the permanent interrelation with the divinities present in daily life.

An elemental principle of indigenous Mayan spirituality is the consciousness of the sacred present in the world. The land, rivers, forests, humans, animals, all are sacred because the divinities inhabit them. For this reason, to cut the mountain, dig the earth or enter the springs, they made ritual offerings of permission or gratitude.

In the Mayan indigenous logic, just as the land does not belong to the human being, but this is the one who belongs to the land; so it is not the human being who produces the earth, but the earth is the one that produces its fruits.

Therefore, the land is the main subject of production. That is why there were and are different spiritual rites for the different moments of the Mayan Chortí agricultural calendar.

Talking about the ritual offerings that the Chortí offered to Mother Earth, a Chortí told us the following: “Before, to start sowing, an offering to the Holy Earth was buried by making a hole in the middle of the plot. This offering consisted of chicken soup, horchata, chuco atol, montucas or other foods. So, everything was happiness for them. The land gives, but it also has the right to receive. Now the older ones still do it. Our organization is reviving those traditions. "

Behind this agricultural ritual act is the living consciousness of the Maya that the Earth is a living being and with rights, in addition to being the one that produces food. In addition, there is the ethical principle of reciprocity, not only between human beings, but with other beings that coexist on the planet. Mother Earth is a subject of rights and obligations (she receives offerings because she gives back). And to the extent that the community recognized and respected Mother Earth as a living being with rights and obligations, there was happiness in said indigenous community of farmers.

Once the seed was sown in the earth, the great danger always was and is the absence of rain. Before, as in these times, the Chorti farmer almost always depends on rainwater for crops. To manage this climatic danger, the Mayan civilization also practiced, and the Chortis still do, another ritual to provide themselves with rain.

One of the CONIMCHH authorities, about the rain ritual practiced by their ancestors, tells us the following: “In times of drought, older people organized processions with images of saints (Saint Anthony and Virgin Mary), adorned with dry branches , and they walked in procession towards the slopes. On the slopes the images were covered with green branches, those present and the images were sprinkled with water, and the community was returned. (…). Thank God it always worked for us. After the procession, it began to rain. Now as an organization we are rediscovering these practices. Our elders were careless. "

This ritual expresses that for the Mayan indigenous, everything is in permanent interrelation with everything. Nothing exists outside of interrelation. Modern science tried to deny this fundamental dimension of the interrelation of reality. But the truth is that since the beginning of the last century, Heisenberg's scientific principle of indeterminacy has been showing that reality occurs, to a large extent, driven by the predispositions of the subjects that intervene in it. In this sense, ritual acts intervene and condition the reality of the events. This, in religious anthropology, is called the principle of "doing." That is to say, make the intentions of the ritual happen in reality through rituals.

The ritual of the offerings to Mother Earth, like that of the processions to the slopes, has Christian elements, but it is based on ancient pre-Christian spiritual practices. Beyond effectiveness or not, they have a load of individual and community ecological ethics that societies vulnerable to climate change, like ours, should take into account.

SAW. The Chortí people and the survival of climate change

The Honduran population suffers from a still profound ignorance about the ancestral knowledge and technologies of the indigenous peoples with whom it shares the territory. This ignorance, to a large extent, is related to the permanent and evident contempt for the indigenous in Honduras, a country that wanted to exist as a mestizo, despising its native roots and longing for the whiteness of the skin that it does not have (6).

When one asks ordinary people with moderate information about the possible causes of the "collapse" of the Mayans, whose vestiges are found in the Archaeological Park, commonly known as "Mayan Ruins of Copán", the answer is almost always: "Possibly the they died out of hunger because they cut down the forests too much and the land no longer produced enough ”. This is one of the hypotheses that spread for a long time about that supposed collapse. This hypothesis is flatly denied by the agricultural practices in the process of reconstitution of the Mayan Chortí people in the vicinity of the Ancestral Maya Chortí Sanctuary of Copán.

The Mayan civilization has not completely disappeared. That its survivors of permanent colonialism have been made invisible and stigmatized is different. The truth is that the Chortí Mayan people, in the Honduran territory, exist as a people, with an indigenous identity in the process of construction.

The ancestral knowledge and agricultural techniques that the Chorti Mayans still remember, and practice to a great extent, is evidence that the Mayan culture was a civilization highly friendly to the environment and integrated with the land. Docility to the lunar cycle, the management of ecological floors, the cultivation of biological diversity, the community use of soils, the work ethic of mutual aid, etc. show that the Maya were better prepared than current societies to survive the climate vulnerability in Mesoamerica. Otherwise, how could they have survived as a civilization for more than 4 thousand years?

If we look more closely at the elements that underlie the spirituality of the Mayan Chortí people, we identify highly ecological philosophical principles such as interrelationality (everything is related to everything. The Earth, forests, rains, rivers, divinities, people, all are related to each other), reciprocity (given and received to guarantee social, environmental and cosmic balance), community (everything exists in community, nothing outside of it. All existing beings in the universe coexist in community) , sacredness (all spaces and times are inhabited by divinities, therefore, they are sacred. Earth is the largest sacred temple).

The human being is not any single purpose. It is a cofinality, together with the other beings. What differentiates the human being (community animal) from the rest, is his greater responsibility to take care of (raise) the balance of life on the planet. From there comes his ritual and contemplative attitude of the Mayan indigenous to tend and reestablish cosmic balances through rites.

In these erratic times, in which the western oil civilization launched the Earth ship into the climate debacle, it is urgent to turn to other sources of wisdom with historical authority. Only an authentic dialogue of intercivilizational knowledge will help us to extend a little more the survival of life on our Mother Earth, which has lost its climate self-regulation as a result of the impact of three centuries of irresponsible modernity.

We do not need, nor can we go back to the past. A good first step would be for current societies and states that stigmatize the heirs of millenary civilizations to be willing to listen, observe, and learn from peoples like the Mayan Chortí. The vocation for life, the ethics of nurturing and balance, and openness to the different other, are lessons proclaimed from the impoverished Chorti communities. These times require transformations of the civilizing matrices of all humanity. And this we can only undertake with intercivilizational dialogues.

Ollantay Itzamná - Honduras


  • BARAHONA, Marvin - 2005 - Honduras in the 20th century, a historical synthesis. Tegucigalpa. Editorial Guaymuras.
  • CARÍAS, Marco - 2007 - From the native land of the Creole to the shared homeland, a history of Honduras. 2nd. Edition. Subirana editions
  • MARCEL d’Ans, André - 2009 - Honduras: difficult emergence of a nation, of a State. 7th. Lithograph López.
  • RIVAS, Ramón D. - 2004 - Indigenous and Garífuna peoples of Honduras. 3rd reprint. Editorial Guaymuras.
  • VALENZUELA Sotomayor, María R. - 2009 - Why the weapons? From the Mayans to the insurgency. Havana. Editorial Social Sciences.


(1) It was assumed that the Mayan civilization volatilized and disappeared from the planet in an untimely way. It is true that five centuries before the European arrival in Abya Ayala this civilization no longer had the preponderance of before. But it is also completely undeniable that after more than five centuries of permanent foreign colonialism, there are more than 4 million Mayaphones, especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, resisting and recreating millenary forms of upbringing and coexistence according to ancestral principles.

In Mexico the Chontales, from Tabasco, and the Choles, Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Tojolabales and Lacandones from Chiapas. In addition to the Yucatec Mayan in the Yucatan peninsula. Between the border with Chiapas and Guatemala, live the Chujes, Jalaltecos, Mam and Motozintlecos groups. In Guatemalan territory, members of the Kanjobal, Ixil, Kekchi, Pocomchi, Uspanteca, Aguacateca, Quiché, Tzutujil, Cakchiquel, Pocomam groups also live, and, on the border with Honduras, the Chortí. In Belize, the only Mayan group is the Itzae.

(2) There are currently approximately 100,000 Chortis. More than 60,000 in the Department of Chiquimula, Guatemala, and 38,000 in the departments of Copán and Ocotepeque, in northwestern Honduras. The Chortí language is spoken by the Chortí in Guatemala. In Honduras, children are learning the native language in schools, adults hardly speak it anymore.

(3) The French anthropologist André-Marcel d'Ans maintains that the Mayan “collapse” was caused by a political crisis generated by a surprise military invasion of Mexican origin and a social upheaval that the ruling class could not remedy, and not by the depletion of cultivated soils, as erroneously assumed for a long time (MARCEL, 2009: 32-58)

(4) The researcher Ollantay Itzamná, referring to the living conditions of the Chortí people, says the following: “At present, the extremely poor conditions in which the Chortí survive twists any sensitive heart. Entire families in total misery. No corn, no beans. Covered in rags. Boys and girls with hungry stomachs, bloated with parasites and without any future. This is how the Honduran State pays the descendants of one of the most important civilizations of its legendary past. " (

(5) In the month of May of this year, in the community of La Pintada, in the Municipality of Copán, the affiliates of the two organizations faced machetes, with the balance of 8 seriously injured, claiming legitimacy on a plot farm owned by CONIMCHH. Similar conflict situations threaten to turn into fratricidal violence in the Chortí people.

(6) The effort of the Honduran State to completely annihilate ethnic and cultural diversity was permanent. For example, in the early 1920s, during the government of Miguel R. Dávila, the Minister of Development and Agriculture, Rosendo Contreras V., tried to found a political organization called the “Evolutionist Party”. This idea was inspired by the social Darwinism of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, and its purpose was to eliminate the weakest, the indigenous, and guarantee the survival of the fittest Hondurans. This initiative was unsuccessful.

En la década de 1930, se planteó la necesidad de un nuevo mestizaje en el país. Para este cometido se intentó mesclar biológicamente a campesinos e indígenas de Honduras con ciudadanos de escandinavos, alemanes, franceses e ingleses. Así se buscaba construir una raza hondureña laboriosa, moralmente intachable y físicamente bellos. Para lograr este objetivo se promovieron políticas migratorias atractivas y ventajosas para atraer anglosajones a Honduras. Pero tampoco resulto. Más por el contrario llegaron árabes, chinos, judíos y obreros caribeños, estos últimos, hacia las plantaciones bananeras. Los árabes y judíos se quedaron, sin mezclarse con los hondureños, pero sí se apoderaron hasta de las cenizas del soñado “progreso” y “civilización” hondureña. (BARAHONA, 2005: 82-84)

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