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  • Rebecca Day Cutter

Seed Travels

By Rebecca Day Cutter



Artwork with permission by Eber Uzias Cortez Grave


For 16 years, Maya Achi farmers have been traveling from Guatemala to the southwest United States and, more recently, to the Haudenosaunee Territory in the northeast US for a series of knowledge exchanges around the cultivation of amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus). Over time, these exchanges have become known as Seed Travels or Semillas Viajeras.


Seed Travels is inspired by the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) philosophy of reciprocal action. Farmers from the Global South travel the ancient trade routes to share seeds, seed-saving skills, traditional ways of life, and stories of resilience. Today, Seed Travels is a social movement of 20+ community gardens, farms, and Indigenous-led organizations.


History of Resistance to Colonization and the Persistence of a Seed

It took the Spanish over 200 years, during the 16th and 17th centuries, to overcome the decentralized Mayan Pueblos who resisted the colonization of their territory and the forced conversion to catholicism. Eventually, the colonizers, recognizing how important amaranth was to the Maya, both nutritionally and spiritually, prohibited them from growing this sacred food.


The Maya struggled to maintain their agricultural practices through government-sponsored debt-servitude that forced Indigenous people, pushed off their ancestral lands, to work on large plantations growing crops like indigo, cochineal, cotton, sugar, bananas, and coffee to supply, in part, the industrializing Northeast Atlantic.


In 1945, Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president, Juan José Arévalo, developed social and agrarian reforms that would return arable lands to smallholder farmers. The United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) stood to lose 400,000 acres of unused land. In 1954, Allen Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State and board member of The United Fruit Company, orchestrated a C.I.A. Coup to oust President Jacobo Arbenz, Arévalo’s successor who intended to implement these agrarian reforms. What followed was a series of brutal dictatorships and a 36-year armed conflict that took the lives of over 200,000 Guatemalans. In 2012, human rights activists won the case for genocide, forced disappearances, and crimes against humanity in the Guatemalan court. Many Seed Travels delegates from the Rabinal, Baja Verapaz region are first and second-generation survivors of this genocide.


Incidentally, Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president, is the father of today's democratically-elected incoming president, Bernardo Arévalo, whose anti-corruption political party is aptly named “Semillas” or Seeds. Not surprisingly, Guatemala’s ruling class is engaged in a campaign to prevent Arévalo from taking office in January. The Attorney General suspended the “semillas” party and ransacked the electoral office. In October, Guatemalans took to the streets in pro-democracy protests, shutting down highways, schools, and businesses in support of Arévalo.


The practice of cultivating amaranth was nearly eradicated during the scorched-earth policy that destroyed whole villages, burning crops to the ground during Guatemala’s armed conflict from 1960-to 1996. Buried in glass jars and ceramic pots, Maya farmers kept their seeds alive, and little by little, amaranth is showing up once again in gardens and fields from the south to the north.


In a double assault, the 1950s also brought the first waves of “development” to Guatemala in what’s referred to as the Green Revolution. This introduced agrochemicals to farmers and a shift from subsistence farming to export agriculture. Smallholder farmers who traditionally grew for sustenance and local and regional trade now grow hybrid crops in monoculture to sell in larger markets. Because of this, during the pandemic, when all transportation was shut down and the markets were closed, many Guatemalans suffered food shortages. Few communities today grow the varieties of foods and plant medicines necessary to sustain their families. Fortunately, amaranth leaves and seeds - incredible food medicine - can be harvested three times a year in Guatemala’s tropical and subtropical climates.


For decades now, corporations like Monsanto have threatened further colonization of traditional agriculture with patents, GMO seeds, and agrochemicals. Amaranth has become a symbol of resilience within the Food Sovereignty movement in this environment, outsmarting Monsanto’s herbicides.


Seed Travels partner Julian Vasquez Chun, Maya Achi Farmer likes to point out that the same transnational corporations, Monsanto and Bayer, that sell you the hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides will sell you the medicines you need when you get sick from eating these poisoned foods, from breathing the poisoned air and drinking the poisoned water.


What’s Incredible about Seed Travels

The tiny amaranth seed, has become a catalyst for profound personal and collective growth. At each site that Seed Travels visits, there is an exchange of knowledge and intense feelings of solidarity. What starts as a conversation about cultivating amaranth seeds becomes a sharing of histories, the impacts of colonization, stories of migration, creation stories, cooking courses, talks on traditional medicine, and lessons for practicing traditional foodways.


In 2009, The Garden's Edge, a nonprofit that hosts Seed Travel gatherings, supported a group of farmers from Guatemala in taking an Indigenous Design Course with the Traditional Native American Farmers Association in New Mexico. In this course, farmers connected through shared histories and stories of their seeds. In conversations with elders, it was remembered that amaranth was also once a part of Indigenous recipes in the Southwest. At other Seed Travels events, participants from the diaspora of Central America, Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, Congo, and Sudan also shared stories of the amaranth their mothers or grandmothers cooked. Sarah Montgomery, Director of The Garden’s Edge, recalls, “Sometimes at a Seed Travels event, tears will fall as a participant reconnects with this food from their homeland.” In Guatemala, amaranth is known as Lab’ises, or Tez, in the Congo as Lenga-Lenga and in some places in the Caribbean as Callaloo. This ancient seed has found its way into the diets of people all around the world.


Of the many takeaways from this year’s Seed Travels tour of nine farms and gardens in the Haudenosaunee Territory, I want to share with you one story from our visit to Akwesanse, the Mohawk Community located in what is now considered the borderlands between Northern New York, Southern Ontario, and Quebec.


While harvesting amaranth with the children from the Akwesasne Mohawk Freedom School, three elders harvesting corn nearby spotted the brightly colored regalia of the Seed Travels’ Maya delegates. They could hardly believe their eyes. 43 years ago, they were members of the White Roots of Peace, a solidarity group that traveled to Guatemala during the worst years of that country’s genocide. The first White Roots of Peace delegation to Guatemala was to thank the Maya Nations of Mesoamerica for creating the sacred grain, Maize.


These Seed Travels encounters across borders strengthen our commitment to seed saving, helping us reconnect to culturally important foods and the people who have carried this knowledge since time immemorial.


Our Indigenous partners believe that our seeds are our ancestors. By learning how to care for them, we ensure their future for generations to come. The concept of entangled reciprocity, as described by Vanessa Andriotti, a Brazilian educator and Indigenous land rights activist, is the interconnectedness and interdependence of people and all life. Seed Travels engages in seed-saving practices from within the larger Food Sovereignty movement and in relationship with the lived realities, past and present, of people and the cultures that have stewarded these seeds for generations.


We hear a lot of talk these days about de-colonizing and re-indigenizing. People who have been separated from their roots through the many diasporas, colonization, manifest destiny, war, migration, individualism, and the violence of capitalism might be wondering how to connect or reconnect with their traditional foodways.


Seed Travels helps heal these wounds of separation by connecting people’s deeper stories in unexpected ways that bring people and plants together in community. The act of planting amaranth – harvesting and eating the tender leaves, watching the deep red or golden yellow flowers grow tall, harvesting the seeds, threshing and winnowing them, popping them and eating them – satisfies a deep yearning to reconnect with our seeds and the places where they grow.


Seed Saving, Climate Resilience, and Food Sovereignty

As the effects of climate change, the rising cost of fuel, and market destabilization become more noticeable, foods like amaranth, which are high in nutritional value and capable of withstanding harsh weather conditions, will undoubtedly become essential to our food security. Over the years, through Seed Travels, we have watched amaranth adapt and thrive in many different microclimates, from the high desert mountains of New Mexico to the dry coastal lands near the San Diego/Tijuana border to gardens in Los Angeles, where it thrived in over 100-degree heat, to the shorter, hot and humid, summers of Northern New York.


Seed saving is more than a technical skill; it’s an act of resistance. Sabina Ajcot Sosof, Education Coordinator at The Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP), defines Food Sovereignty as “...our basic right to life.”


In Guatemala, where 50% of children five and under suffer from chronic malnutrition, the resurgence of amaranth is making a difference. Two community-based organizations in Guatemala, Qachuu Aloom and IMAP, have artisanal amaranth seed processing plants where they pop, roast, and mill large quantities of seeds grown by their members. In the Maya Achi region, Qachuu Aloom purchases 3,000 pounds of amaranth seeds yearly from its members. In these processing plants, Qachuu Aloom and IMAP prepare packaged flour, cereal, and cookies to be distributed to local and regional markets, schools, clinics and hospitals.


One cup of cooked amaranth seeds has 251 calories, 9.4g of protein, 3.9g of fat, 46g of carbohydrates, and 5.2g of fiber. It’s also an excellent source of manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron, and is rich in zinc, vitamin B6, B5, and folate.


How to Grow and Harvest Amaranth

Given sufficient sun, soil fertilization, and rain, amaranth seeds from Guatemala, grown in the Northeast, germinate in 5 days and will grow to a height of 4’ - 5’ with a surprisingly large flower head that’s about 2’ wide and up to 3’ feet tall. The tender sprigs are harvested when the plants are 2 - 4 weeks old and can be thinned and eaten raw in salads. From 4 - 6 weeks, you can continue thinning the less vigorous plants and saute or steam the leaves to eat with eggs, soup, or stir fry. After approximately 40 days, the leaves become bitter and the flower head begins to form. Amaranth seeds take about 4 months to fully mature in hardiness zones 4b-6, where it’s best to plant toward the end of May, after the last frost. In the fall, there are several ways of knowing when the seeds are ready to harvest. Birds - also wanting to eat the seed - are your best indicator of when the seeds are ready for harvest, but you can also see a difference in the color of the plant leaves as they begin to dry out. The best way to know if your seeds are ready to harvest is by gently rubbing the flower between your fingers. If the seeds drop easily into your hand and they are slightly opaque and creamy in color with a white dot in the center, then you know they are mature. Otherwise, the immature seed is white.


To learn how to harvest Amaranth seeds and how to clean and cook them, go to our website, gardensedge.org and join our mailing list. We’ll invite you to our Seed Travels event when our partners from Guatemala return to the Northeast.



Rebecca Cutter lives in Ithaca, NY, where she works for The Garden's Edge and can be reached at rebecca@gardensedge.org.

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