I went to Guatemala as a language student, not as a photojournalist. Since relocating to Mexico City after nearly 10 years in the Asia-Pacific region, learning Spanish has become a top priority and nowhere in the world has the same range of affordable options as Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala. So I impulsively bought a non-refundable ticket with the intention of learning as much Spanish as possible over the course of a five week intensive immersion program. Everything else was to be put on the back burner. In retrospect, if all I wanted was to focus on language then I should have left my cameras in Mexico, but of course I didn’t. Within two days of landing in the country I had started thinking about possible stories.
Three days later I was on a bus heading out of Xela to Almolonga.
Almolonga was home to some of the richest agricultural land in all of Guatemala and because of the incredible amounts of vegetables it exported across Latin America, it had earned the nickname of The Garden of the Americas. When I first arrived in the valley, an intricate grid of vegetable plots dominated the landscape, forming a patchwork quilt of various shades of green. It seemed to be an agrarian paradise of small-scale farmers, and had I turned around and left without probing any deeper that impression might have endured. But instead I started asking questions and before long realized that Almolonga – and the unbelievably perfect-looking vegetables it produced — was firmly in the clutches of the international agricultural chemical industry.
Over the course of the next few weeks I learned that Almolonga’s farmers were applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in such quantities that the land had become almost entirely dependent on them. Produced by international chemical concerns such as Monsanto and Bayer (now one and the same), these substances had been introduced to Guatemala during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and had exploded in popularity. For a farmer with a ten square metre piece of land with which he supported his entire family, the products must have seemed like heaven-sent gifts that allowed for previously unimaginable levels of productivity.
Of course things that seem too good to be true most often are. Over decades since the chemicals were initially introduced, their effectiveness steadily decreased while at the same time years of overuse rendered the previously fertile soil increasingly barren.
By the time I visited Almolonga, farmers were applying the substances in such unregulated quantities that the US Food and Drug Administration had banned the importation of the valley’s produce on a regular basis because of dangerously high levels of toxins. But the farmers were hooked, and in order to ween themselves off of the chemicals they would need to leave their fields fallow for roughly eight years — an impossible amount of time for a family living from harvest to harvest. So they sprayed the chemicals onto their crops in ever-increasing dosages and sold them domestically and to the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras where the regulations were sufficiently lax. The packages the chemicals were sold in offered nothing in the way of printed instructions, and the only source of education as to their proper application came from the chemical sellers themselves, who in turn received their instruction from the sales agents of the foreign manufacturers. To me this seemed utterly dangerous, akin to appointing a weapons manufacturer as head of a country’s armed forces.
What I learned after five weeks of visiting Almolonga was the insidiousness of the agri-chemical trap that bound small scale farmers into a cycle of paying for products that had to be applied in higher and higher quantities. Like tobacco, for the companies that exported the chemicals it was a near perfect arrangement — and just as addictive. Unlike cigarettes, however, where the power to stop using the product ultimately lay in the hands of the individual, the farmers of Almolonga had virtually no agency remaining. If they stopped buying, their crops would wither.
Further complicating the problem was the fact that the vegetables grown in Almolonga looked amazing. The chemically boosted crops produced carrots longer than my forearm, and just as thick, as well as radishes, heads of lettuce, and onions of such perfect colour and shape that they would be sure to catch the eye of any supermarket shopper. This helped me recognize that the problem isn’t simply one of supply, but the fact that modern demands have come to expect such unnatural perfection. When compared to the monsters that came out of the ground in Almolonga, an organic vegetable looked downright pathetic.
During my time in Guatemala I conducted many interviews and shot thousands of pictures, which I’m working on combining into a longer piece, but I wanted to share some images from this disturbing cycle in the mean time. Feeding the planet is going to be one of the main challenges of our time, and great care needs to be taken to make sure that Almolonga’s example doesn’t become the norm. I recognize that billions of people won’t be able to buy their vegetables at organic farmer’s markets and that technology and chemistry will have an important role to play in providing food security to the world. But if this process isn’t watched with care, future generations are going to have to deal with the financial enslavement and health risks associated with placing the global food supply in the control of the same multinational corporations that invented the likes of Agent Orange.