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“Jwal sulul li’be!” The Muddy Path to Agri-cultural Insights

by Anne Elise Stratton

Anne Elise with EcoLogic field technicians & colleagues in Sarstún

Anne Elise (center) with EcoLogic field technicians José Domingo Caal (right) and Samuel Coc (far right), and friends and colleagues in Sarstún

Anne Elise Stratton is working as a field intern for EcoLogic this summer in the Sarstún region of Guatemala, where she is also pursuing research about seed selection and exchange in the area. She is currently a rising senior at Tufts University, where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Biology and Environmental Studies with a focus on food systems.

The Sarstún River forms part of the border between eastern Guatemala and southern Belize. The area is home to rich biodiversity and natural resources, but also hosts some of the highest rates of poverty in Central America. On the Guatemalan side of the river, EcoLogic is working with our local partner, the Mayan Association for Well-Being in the Sarstún Region (APROSARSTUN), to conserve the area’s natural resources and also improve quality of life for local communities. APROSARSTUN is a community organization led by local Maya K’ekchi’ youth who graduated from the local Ak’Tenamit School, and has a membership of more than 40 young people. Anne Elise’s research will help inform EcoLogic and APROSARTUN’s work on sustainable subsistence farming in the area.

My workday is never without a touch of adventure here in Sarstún, a tropical lowland region of eastern Guatemala. I divide the typical week between trips out to rural villages and days at the office of APROSARSTUN, EcoLogic’s local partner in the region.

The communities we collaborate with are nestled in the lowland mountains near the coast, while our office is no less isolated, marking the highest point on the rainforest campus of a vocational boarding school for Maya youth called Ak’Tenamit. When I head into the field with the APROSARSTUN technicians, I expect to ride one or two hours “en lancha” (motorboat) over both fresh- and saltwater, and then to hike just as long on slippery trails before arriving at our destination. Because of the time and effort required to get to the villages, we usually stay overnight and often move from village to village over several days before returning to Ak’Tenamit.

EcoLogic map of Sarstun River area in Guatemala and Belize

A map of EcoLogic’s project area in the Sarstún River Basin (click to enlarge)

With so much field time, I have gotten to know and developed good camaraderie with my coworkers. In my first week here, as EcoLogic field technician Samuel Coc and I navigated the tricky footpath to visit the village of Plan Grande Tatín, we chatted in a mix of three languages. With exchange in mind, we passed words back and forth in English and K’ekchi’, the local Maya language, and explained their meanings in Spanish. Samuel is learning English at a nearby university, and I have been working to pick up some K’ekchi’ while I’m in the neighborhood. While he had a steady stream of questions about verb conjugation and common expressions, the only phrase I could think to ask him was what was very prominently on my mind at the moment – “The path is very muddy!” “Jwal sulul li’be,” he replied with a chuckle, keeping an eye on me as I slipped and slid about on the trails he traversed with sure footing.

Unsurprisingly, “Jwal sulul li’be” has stuck with me throughout my six weeks here, and the phrase never fails to make an appearance on one of our village visits. When asked what I can say in K’ekchi’, it is always the first sentence out of my mouth. This has resulted in many good-natured guffaws from farmers and giggles from their ever-curious children, most of whom speak exclusively K’ekchi’. The K’ekchi’ language is particularly tough for non-natives, since it is chock-full of glottal stops and throaty pronunciations that require muscle learning just to attempt a simple phrase… which ensures I sound silly to the utmost anytime I try to communicate, let alone when what I am saying is, in fact, silly.

Anne Elise at Cerro Blanco, near the Sarstún project area

Anne Elise at Cerro Blanco, near the Sarstún project area

At least I can manage the word for “thank you.” “B’antiox” is the word I repeat with the highest frequency: “B’antiox” before and after each interview we conduct, “b’antiox” any time we are offered coffee or fresh fruit from a villager (which happens delightfully often and is a sure day-maker), “b’antiox” for every meal we share with farmers and their families. I say it so much that one village leader even asked me jokingly if it was the only word I knew in K’ekchi’. No, I told him. “Jwal sulul li’be!” Bursts of laughter erupted from the onlookers. If I have learned anything from the fifty maize subsistence farmers I have interviewed so far, it’s that no matter how much crop yields have fallen, no matter how unpredictable the climate has been, no matter how muddy the path, it should always be easy to laugh.

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