Ignacio Blasco, SJ and Jaime Tatay, SJ
The Granja Escuela Popol Ja (or Popol Ja Farm School) is part of the Jesuit parish La Natividad de la Virgen María in Santa Maria Chiquimula, Totonicapán in Guatemala. The farm is located next to a Fe y Alegría school (Centro de Educación Integral Indigena Popol Ja) and is a place of education, training and experimentation designed to generate knowledge that can be replicated in home gardens and communities across the municipality.
Totonicapán is an agricultural region inhabited mainly by the K’iche’, one of the Maya indigenous groups. In their indigenous language of K’iche’, the word k’iche’ means “many trees.” The Society of Jesus has been working for more than 20 years in this community, with educational, pastoral, and development programs.
The Granja Escuela Popol Ja started three years ago with the desire to expand the school’s academic programs by providing training on agriculture, livestock, and forestry to the local community. The farm has several stables for breeding pigs, chickens, and rabbits, a composting center, a greenhouse, a nursery, more than 15 agricultural experimental plots, a permanent botanical garden, and a laboratory for the production of natural medicine.
Farm animals and organic fertilizers
Pigs, rabbits, and chickens are raised entirely on the farm, since they are purchased as chicks and piglets until slaughtering. Manure from the animals is stored in three compartmentalized rooms, to be mixed with green leaf, brush, lime, and earth in six composting facilities. Fertilizers are also prepared by using earthworms, a process commonly called vermicompost. Plant debris from the orchard and school kitchen are also used in the composting process. Fertilizers are then used to enrich experimental agro-ecological plots and produce vegetables.
Agro-ecological and greenhouse plots
The four types of fertilizer are used in the production of different vegetables, distributed in more than 15 plots: chard, turnip greens, cilantro, cabbage, radishes, beets, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, spinach, broccoli, corn, cauliflower, and celery. The farm greenhouse produces tomatoes and chiles annually. Comparative studies are conducted regularly based on the type of fertilizer and production experimental plots.
More than 50 medicinal plants are grown in a permanent botanical garden. Each plant is classified with detailed medicinal properties and collected plants are treated at the herbarium research center. Medicinal products are developed in a laboratory equipped with precision instruments along with a dryer and a formulation manual. Four products – soap, shampoo, syrup and ointment – are produced and sold on the farm and in the parish clinic.
Three types of indigenous tree species are planted in the forest nursery: alder, pine and jacaranda. The tree seedlings are for the reforestation around the Popol Ja school and for private land restoration in the municipality of Santa María Chiquimula.
Marketing and training
Eggs, meat, seeds, vegetables, forest plants, and natural medicines are the products marketed at the Granja Escuela Popol Ja. There is also a classroom in which various training courses on agriculture, livestock, and forestry are taught. These courses are offered to students at the school, “parish promoters of the land,” and other local groups.
The Granja Escuela Popol Ja aspires to become a regional resource center in agroforestry education; a center able to generate knowledge and catalyze sound agricultural and forestry practices and thus build sustainable local communities. The absence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in vegetable production and the almost complete closure of the carbon and nitrogen cycles demonstrates that sustainable agricultural and animal production practices can be implemented successfully, improving the quality of life of local communities.