Living on a planet that witnesses overwhelming conflict in the form of violence, pollution, and increasingly unpredictable patterns, one might ask: How do I engage this complicated world in a way that is meaningful and in balance?
When Michael Ewens entered the ancestral homeland of the Maya Ixil in northwestern Guatemala, he was not welcomed as a neighbor but viewed as a stranger. Although they shared with him what little they had, their skepticism was sensible. Spanish colonial rulers brutally enslaved the Ixil people for centuries. Wealthy plantation owners robbed and swindled their land during the early twentieth century. More recently, the country was swept up into a 36-year long civil war (1960-96) known by many simply as la violencia or the violence. During la violencia the U.S. backed Guatemalan government and its army massacred more than 200,000 Mayan people. They had good reason to practice caution.
Michael Ewens harvests beans at Eden Ixil with Rosa and Daisy. Beans play a big part in the first stages of building healthy soil in the gardens.
A Ripple Begins
Twelve years ago, Michael witnessed an extraordinary sight: although understandably skeptical, the Ixil people walked through the streets greeting one another with kindness and carried on with life despite the scars. Some even invited him into their homes, and they started a decisive talk. He asked them, “What do you want?” Not long before, on June 16th, 2006, Michael’s son, Forest, lost his life in a military ambush in Afghanistan. The culmination of several key events had launched a wave of action, like a ripple spreading from a central point. The Ixil people’s answer to Michael’s question was simple but vitally important: We need clean water.
With the proceeds from Forest’s life insurance, Michael worked alongside the villagers to accomplish a worthy goal. In four months, one small Maya Ixil community built and opened the tap of their own gravity-fed spring water system. The Ixil language, a modern form of Mayan and most of the people’s native tongue, lends itself to playful chatter and word quickly caught wind. The ripple continued to grow. For years Michael worked four months out of twelve to bring clean water to different villages until he finally decided to dig in deep and put down roots. He married an Ixil woman and formed The Ripple Effect Inc. (TRE), a non-profit dedicated to the Ixil region with a single mission: serve those in greatest need of water and agricultural development. Do this with cultural sensitivity and in a sustainable manner.
Garden trainer, Salomé, teaches a workshop on soil building and plant spacing
Building Living Soil, Local Leadership, and a Center for Learning
Today Michael can sometimes be found chuckling beside the glow of the fire while admiring his wife, Maria, and her little girls, Rosa and Daisy. More often, he is busy running an organization with an active Ixil staff and various program functions. Local field supervisors guide the villages as they build their own water systems while another team assembles efficiently designed wood burning stoves. Program activities orbit around a 10-acre permaculture training center called Eden-Ixil. Permaculture principles like careful observation, collection of useful flows of energy, and the adoption of elements that perform multiple functions, all apply to the management of a non-profit organization just as much as a farm. When Michael first envisioned Eden-Ixil he wondered, “What would it look like if we had a balanced living example with animals, plants, housing, and appropriate technology?”
More than 400 gardeners, mostly women from neighboring villages, visit the center twice each year and learn about the importance of sound practices like planting in guilds and building living soil by layering in a variety of organic material. In fact, soil building and fertility are the basis of TRE’s garden philosophy. Despite the lush tropical wet forest that blankets these craggy mountain peaks, like so many tropical areas, the dirt below is a thick clay better suited for making pottery than growing vegetables. Ixil women do sometimes make pottery but more commonly are found seated in the front door of the home, weaving an elegantly complex and vibrant type of blouse called a huipil.
Malnourishment is common in children here and with little extra money earned from weaving, an important goal for many Ixil women is to grow nutritious food. To do this, a healthy living soil is key. Garden program supervisor and trainer Salomé describes how to do this, “Here we make our own organic compost from the weeds and other materials from the site, like manure. We don’t waste them and demonstrate this to those improving their own soil.”
After instruction and practice at Eden-Ixil, the women return home cradling diverse collections of heirloom seeds, native/medicinal plants, and fruit trees. They glow with an eye-catching air of pride and leadership. Whether engaging a village’s need for clean water or a mother’s need for life giving food, the aim is always the same: we must care for our neighbors. “To love someone as yourself who’s in extreme poverty,” Michael points out, “you have to walk alongside them and embrace them to even have a clue.”
Felipe prepares seedlings that are distributed in the garden program
View of Eden Ixil blends seamlessly into the surrounding biosphere reserve
The Edge - An Intersection of Two Environments
The Ripple Effect thrives for two main reasons. First, is the energetic determination of the Ixil people. “A little bit of opportunity through the missing link of materials or ideas,” Michael explains, “and a huge volume of energy and effort is released to meet a community goal.” For years, he has conveyed the urgent needs of Ixil people to bring in support from generous, caring foreigners. With access to resources previously unavailable, Ixil people are mobilizing and making sweeping changes in their own lives. Now Michael looks to the future of The Ripple Effect’s local team and what role international influence could play.
I first met Michael in late 2018. We (myself and my partner) had just finished an apprenticeship with Joe Hollis, the award-winning permaculture whiz and master medicinal plant gardener. The values we share with Michael Ewens called us on a journey more profound and essential than we imagined. In January, we travelled to Eden-Ixil on a road that had replaced a rugged mule trail only fifteen years ago; light bulbs were switched on shortly after. Today, we help Michael to manage Eden Ixil and other TRE programs. The conversation Michael started between people with serious basic needs and those willing to give support with an open heart continues.
Permaculture enthusiasts touring Eden Ixil are in for a treat as they meander between raised beds filled with vegetables, medicines, and flowers and stroll past waterfalls that cascade between ponds that slosh with Tilapia. Cows and mules graze in pleasant green pastures in the warm sun’s energy which provides the ranch house kitchen with light at nighttime and even gives the occasional hot bath. Giant nitrogen fixing Mucuna beans grow up trellises in the greenhouse as the food forest begins to take root and everyday looks more like the nearby biological reserve.
Local gardeners are proud of their hard work. The variety in their garden provides a wide range of nutrition for their family. Seen here is amaranth, squash, carrots, papaya, lemon, chard, hibiscus, and a variety of brassicas.
Rosa and friends smile wearing traditional Ixil huipils and skirts
Coming Back to the Question
“If we’re going to cut down a tree we should then plant ten more but most people don’t do that. Now the trees are disappearing and that’s why the rivers aren’t big or clean anymore,” building supervisor, Felipe, shares with the others sitting at Eden Ixil’s outdoor table.
Today an important meeting between TRE’s local leaders is in motion concerning reforestation, plans for TRE, and life for the community as a whole. It is a time of transition and crucial questions are being asked: How can awareness of the environment be raised? Can better education and sustainable economic opportunities empower the community? Will remittances earned in the U.S. continue, and can we find other ways to live well here at home? How do we engage this complicated world in a way that is meaningful and in balance?
As Michael and I discuss gardening he responds “Gardening is an open-ended classroom where we’ll always encounter new problems, and we’ll always find new options. There’s no one size fits all.”
The Ripple Effect (http://www.therippleeffectinc.org/) was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.