BY CAROLANN MOISSE
I learn things from foreigners. We are all messengers.
During a recent trip to Belize, I visited the cacao plantation of Eladio Pop and observed the quiet passion, humility, and expertise of one of the District’s most well-known organic farmers.
We were returning from our ecolodge in Belize’s tropical heartland to the Belize City municipal airport. There, we would take a short flight to the southern state of Toledo. On the way, our driver asked our permission to pick up a woman waiting at a lonesome bus stop in the countryside. He knew her as the wife of a farmer and she was taking a basket of squash to market. We exchanged small talk and when she left the van, she turned to me and said, “Little Belize has a lot of richness but nobody pays no mind.”
I was still thinking of those words when we landed in Punta Gorda, just a little more than an hour later. Yes Belize is little. But I’m wondering if being ignored by the world is not a blessing in a way. With the exception of controversial coastal developments, and admittedly recent concerns over plans for offshore oil exploration, Belize seems comparatively untouched, and especially here in the south. The view from our fourteen-seat Cessna aircraft was uninterrupted green and snaking rivers.
Home to both Kekchi and Mopan Maya, farming in traditional ways remains a characteristic of this locale. Villages are nestled throughout the countryside off unpaved roads. Thatched-roof houses dot the lush green foothills of the Maya mountains. Many of these villages offer tours of local plantations as well as demonstrations of cacao bean roasting and tastings. Visitors can arrange an excursion through their hotel.
The Agouti Cacao farm is one such working plantation. Located in San Pedro Columbia, a traditional Kekchi Maya village of three hundred people, it’s about twenty miles from Punta Gorda. My husband and I spent a pleasant afternoon there. Indeed, this is a place in Belize that “has a lot of richness.”
Eladio Pop is a Mayan farmer at the Agouti Cacao farm and he is something of a local legend. He started the cacao plantation himself with a handful of seedlings more than thirty years ago. Now he has a thousand trees. Pop uses traditional Maya techniques, which involves companion planting and no fertilizers. He also admits to talking to his plants. Always holding a machete, he guides you through the trees as he clears the forest floor (for optimal aeration to protect from fungus). While we walk he explains nature’s ways.
“The more you pay attention to your plants the more they love it. These are my children here,” pointing to the cocoa tree as he cuts away a thunder vine that is beginning to strangle the trunk.
Bending over, he pulls up a small bulb of ginger and teases it with his thumb. It’s brilliantly orange, unlike the golden colour of ginger I know. “It’s flowering now. When the flower falls, the root is ready. There’s beginning to be a market now for ginger, here. Everything has a time. Um hum.”
Like many traditional Maya, Eladio is a spiritual person, infusing a kind of mysticism into his explanation of simple techniques. Referring to the agouti, a small rodent that collects and scatters seeds around the forest floor, he says, “I see Jesus through this little animal. I give respect to wildlife.” Thanks to the agouti’s forgetfulness, he will benefit from newly germinating cacao saplings.
My husband Dan is a master gardener back home in Canada and runs a small seasonal landscaping business. Both men are comfortable in each other’s passion for plants and Dan finds a kindred spirit in Eladio’s natural world approach. Dan explains how he has been discouraging deer in our garden back home by hanging rags on tree branches soaked in coyote urine. I expect this technique is not unknown to Eladio, still he responds with gentle humility, “I learn many things from foreigners. We are all messengers. Um hum.”
Cultural anthropologists observe that the Maya not so much transformed their culture under siege but grafted new ways onto old ones. At the time of the conquest, for example, the Maya remained intensely religious, absorbing and fusing Catholicism into their worship of earth, sky and ancestors. Whether the culture will continue to adapt to modern pressures, this time in the form of materialism, remains to be seen. But here at the plantation there’s hope. Eladio Pop is grafting modern organic farming techniques onto his ancestral Maya farming traditions.
An ancient Maya riddle asks “what is a man on the road.” The answer is “Time.”
We emerge out of the woodsy plantation at the base of the hill and we thank him for the tour. Eladio responds: “I am just a traveller. I am only here for a while on my farm. Um hum.”