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The secret to a town’s perfect potatoes? Its well-preserved forest.

Toribio Cabrera, a potato farmer in Concepción Chiquirichapa, Guatemala. Like most of his coleagues, Cabrera attributes the success of the local potato harvest to the use of leaf litter from the forest as a fertilizer. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Toribio Cabrera, a potato farmer in Concepción Chiquirichapa, Guatemala. Like most of his coleagues, Cabrera attributes the success of the local potato harvest to the use of leaf litter from the forest as a fertilizer. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

  • Concepción Chiquirichapa, a town in southwestern Guatemala, is renowned for its excellent potatoes.
  • The rise of potato agriculture there is due, in part, to the use of leaf litter as an organic fertilizer and a steady supply of high-quality water from the local forest, which the town began restoring and protecting four decades ago.
  • As potato farming spreads and the local population grows, the town is attempting in several ways to protect its natural resources.
  • This is the third part of Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Concepción community’s effort to restore the forest of Siete Orejas.
Links to other stories in this three-part profile of the Concepción Chiquirichapa community’s stewardship of its sacred cloud forest will appear here once they are published:
How a Mayan town restored its sacred cloud forest and water supply
Ancient spirituality guides a Maya town’s conservation efforts


CONCEPCIÓN CHIRIQUICHAPA, Guatemala — Each morning, the commercial terminal in Concepción Chiquirichapa gets busy. Potato farmers, alone or in groups, come here to negotiate the sale of thousands of pounds of their produce.

Like most Guatemalan markets, all the activity takes place outdoors, in an area that resembles a bus terminal. Farmers negotiate with potato traders. Groups of young men wearing washed-out hoodies as protection from the fierce sun heave red mesh bags of potatoes onto big trucks. From here, the potatoes will travel to local markets around Guatemala, as well as to El Salvador, Canada and the United States.

José Escobar, a laborer in Concepción Chiquirichapa. Like many locals, he relies on the potato industry. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

It’s a typical scene during the harvest season, from October through December, when the rains finally end. Like the rest of Quetzaltenango, a department in southwestern Guatemala, Concepción Chiquirichapa is known for the quality of its potatoes. The type of soil in western Guatemala is perfect for growing underground crops such as potatoes and other tubers, carrots, garlic and radishes.

“This is very unusual in a country like Guatemala. In a tighter soil, potatoes do not develop as they should, but in this area, they have the best conditions to grow perfectly,” says Samuel Estacuy, regional director of the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP by its Spanish initials). In 2013 the Guatemalan potato industry reported a total income of more than $3.2 million, of which Quetzaltenango produced 21 percent.

But the potato farmers of Concepción have a few extra advantages that come directly from the town’s protected forests: a 1,200-hectare (4.6-square-mile) park on the local mountain, Siete Orejas, and five smaller municipal forests scattered around town.

The forests supply water for the whole town, as the people have come to appreciate through environmental education programs run by the municipal Department of Protected Areas (DAP by its Spanish initials). They also supply organic matter and the micro-organisms that live in it. Local farmers have used leaf litter from the forest as an organic fertilizer for generations, but since the early 2000s the DAP has helped them perfect the technique.

Toribio Cabrera, a potato farmer in Concepción Chiquirichapa, Guatemala. Like most of his coleagues, Cabrera attributes the success of the local potato harvest to the use of leaf litter from the forest as a fertilizer. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

“The farmers started to experiment first only with the leaf litter and then only with chemical fertilizers,” Toribio Cabrera, a local farmer, tells Mongabay. “After a while, we found out that a mix of both is needed to grow the potatoes correctly.”

Now it has become common knowledge that the leaf litter is what gives Concepción potatoes their quality. Vicente Hernández, a local potato exporter, trucks loads of up to 30,000 kilograms (66,000 pounds) daily to El Salvador. “We have seen that our potatoes are better compared to ones from other parts of the country,” Hernández says.

Other regions, he says, use fertilizers made from ash, poultry droppings and other organic material, combined with chemical fertilizers. “[But] it isn’t the same,” he adds. “Our buyers prefer the ones from Concepción.”

A potato trader takes notes at the commercial terminal in Concepción Chiquirichapa, where potatoes are traded daily during the harvest season. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Productive conservation

Estacuy says that what Concepción does, maintaining protected areas to provide water and organic matter to benefit the town’s agricultural economy, is rare in Guatemala. In the mid-1970s the community decided to begin restoring the cloud forest on Siete Orejas, which had been deforested by a volcanic eruption and subsequent sheep grazing, to obtain more water. Without knowing it, they set the foundation for their economic and agricultural development.

“The protected area has an impact on the quantity and quality of water that they have,” Estacuy says. Potatoes need specific quantities of water to develop properly, and the presence of the trees allows the mountain to capture water from the clouds, which is then distributed underground to the entire Concepción area.

People living near the protected forests have been able to install irrigation systems that help them grow healthy crops. They also have a constant flow of water to their homes, all because of the community’s reforestation and protection of the mountain.

A spring in Concepción Chiquirichapa, which residents adorn with flowers as a token of gratitude and respect for the water they provide, direct from Siete Orejas mountain.

Striking a balance

But as potato farming has increased, and the population has grown at a rate of 2 percent a year, the community has had to take steps to make sure agriculture does not impinge on the forest that supports it.

“Even with the protection program, people are already digging wells to get to the underground water,” says Marcelino Aguilar, director of the DAP. “This is because the demand is so much higher than the forest and the water springs can produce.”

The protected area has prevented the growth of the agricultural border. But most of the rest of Concepción is in private hands, so it is susceptible to conversion into farmland, which is reducing the forest cover and the capacity of groundwater supplies to meet demand. In a region where resources are already strained and poverty and child malnutrition rates are high and entrenched, it’s a precarious situation.

From Siete Orejas, farmland can be seen advancing up a nearby hill. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

To address the issue, the DAP is trying to create wells to collect rainwater in areas with limited forest cover. The department is also encouraging farmers to terrace slopes to reduce erosion and capture rainwater to feed the town’s springs. “There is little collaboration on the part of the villagers, because they argue that when making terraces, potentially cultivable areas are lost, which could reduce their income,” says Martha Tax, the local director of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, which conducts conservation and economic development programs in Concepción and other area towns.

However, other measures have been better received. To reduce the expansion rate of the agricultural border, the DAP has been teaching farmers to diversify their produce, giving them access to crops like beans, vegetables and corn so they can reduce their dependence on potatoes, which take three months to grow.

In 2005 the DAP regulated and limited the extraction of leaf litter to prevent harm to the protected forests. A decade later it started a program called “energetic forests” to encourage landowners to grow their own private forests, thereby increasing forest cover, capturing water, and providing them an income through the sale of leaf litter to farmers.

Farmworkers gather leaf litter to use as fertilizer in Kum Kum Wutz park, Concepción Chiquirichapa’s protected area on Siete Orejas mountain. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

“We have provided, through the municipal nursery, several species of oak, pine and other species to private landowners,” says Aguilar. “We believe that the energetic forest program could be a great alternative for the town’s population.”

Ultimately, however, observers say Concepción will need to create land-use plans to prevent its growing population and farm economy from diminishing the natural resources upon which they depend for food, water and other necessities. This is the most complicated task of all; most Guatemalan communities are facing the same problem, which is reflected in the contaminated state of water sources throughout the country.

“We know that we have to take care of our natural resources and use them well, because what we have now is thanks to what the mountain keeps giving us,” Aguilar says.

Marcelino Aguilar shows off Concepción Chiquirichapa’s nursery, where the town grows trees for its reforestation program on Siete Orejas mountain. He says the town intends to plant 30,000 trees in 2019 and to provide seeds for other towns’ reforestation projects. Image by Jorge Rodríguez for Mongabay.

Jorge Rodríguez is a Guatemalan photographer and journalist, always willing to learn and contribute. Follow him on Twitter @elapachabotones.

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