Amaranth: an Ancient Seed
“...when he asked his grandmother why people used to live so long she told him it was from eating the indigenous “weeds”-like amaranth.” (2, pg. 178)
(photo: heritage amaranth from Qachuu Aloom, Guatemala, growing at Gingerhill, Kealakekua, HI. photo credit: Sarah Montaño) (1)
Amaranth: an Ancient Seed
Amaranth is a sacred plant to indigenous peoples of the Americas including the Maya and Aztec. It has been cultivated for over 8,000 years. The leaves and seeds of the plant are edible and a rich source of essential nutrients including amino acids, protein, calcium, magnesium, and iron. Amaranth is incredibly hardy; it can thrive in dry-land farming conditions and has the ability to set seed even after up to 40 days of drought.
Amaranth sustains life and can miraculously survive incredibly harsh conditions; attributes both of which make it an ideal recipient of deep adoration from the people that tend to the plant. Mayan were animists in their beliefs and their mythology is rich with stories that express that life force is omnipresent throughout the plant and animal kingdom. The Aztecs believed that amaranth gave them superpowers. History tells us that they would create sculptures of their gods using a mixture of amaranth seed and honey. They would eat parts of the idol in ritual.
The war on Plants circa 1500 a.d.:
Spanish conquistadors did not understand the intricacies of indigenous spirituality in the Americas. They banned the use of amaranth in ceremony and punished anyone caught growing the plant by cutting off their hands or executing them. Their Christian ideals and beliefs were threatened by the rituals of the Mayan people of Guatemala. We have observed throughout history that invaders enslave native peoples by forbidding them to worship independently -- in attempt to sever their direct contact with the Divine.
The seed, the right to worship, the culture, and the wellness of the people are so entwined that without one the other cannot exist. Spanish invaders almost succeeded in the eradication of amaranth and a war against the native peoples of the Americas brought suffering to the land and to the people that raged on for centuries. The Spanish replaced the socio-economic order of the ancient Mayan people with a plantation economy based on forced labor and enslavement of the people.
Some native people of Guatemala were able to withstand the Spanish conquest and survived in small, remote villages. The Achi Mayi of Rabinal Guatemala successfully resisted Spanish colonization and survived for centuries as an independent community of Mayan people.
Modern Conquest for Capitalism:
Beginning in 1954, the United State’s Central Intelligence Agency staged a coup-d’etat and removed the civilian land reformist President Jacobo Arbenz’ to install a militant dictator in favor of multinational corporations and decades of civil war ensued in Guatemala.
Over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or forcibly disappeared in a civil war from about 1960 through 1996 and an estimated 1.5 million were displaced from their home. There is indisputable evidence that the Guatemalan government enacted genocide upon the indigenous Mayan people. (3)
“In the early 1980’s Rabinal was targeted by the Guatemalan military, which had a policy of genocide against the indigenous Maya population. The community endured some of the worst violence of the civil war, and they were left with a shattered population and without access to basic resources, such as clean drinking water and medical care. New Mexican Sarah Montgomery founded Qachuu Aloom with Cristobal Osorio Sanchez, a local farmer who had lost members of his family in the notorious Rio Negro massacres. The massacres claimed up to five thousand lives over a two-year period, sparked by protests over the hydroelectric dam project in which a total of thirty-eight communities were forcibly relocated to Rabinal.” (2)
Threats to the Land and the people of the Earth:
A compounding factor to the atrocities of Civil War in Guatemala is the baneful fact that the United States sent hybrid seeds to Guatemala as part of an attempt to provide foreign aid to the people. Many farmers who tried to grow the hybrid seeds quickly found out that the aide was really a coercion to trap them into becoming lifetime customers of foreign agri-biotech companies. Some farmers became dependent on chemical fertilizers and were essentially forced to buy new hybrid seeds every season if they wanted to grow their own food. Worse still, they found that in the second season of planting, seeds they saved from the previous season of hybrid crops were not viable. Some gave up farming altogether.
Help from the North
In 2002, New Mexican activist Sarah Montgomery went to Guatemala to help widow’s of the Guatemalan civil war replant native heritage and medicinal crops -- including amaranth. The seed miraculously survived decades of war and the burning of fields by the opposition to the people. Seeds were buried or hidden so that they could be found later by surviving family.
Montgomery’s work has blossomed into an incredible movement that teaches seed sovereignty, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and defends human rights -- bringing hope and health to many people across Central and North America. Her non-profit, The Garden’s Edge, helps farmers and families in the villages around Rabinal to organize and fund their own association, called Qachuu Aloom “Madre Tierra” — The Mother Earth Association. (4)
Qachuu Aloom has created a seed bank, offers nutrition classes, teaches natural farming & amaranth cultivation, and offers microlending and other social services to Mayan people. Qachuu Aloom and The Garden’s Edge have witnessed how sustainable food and seed production has helped Mayan families recover their independence and health.
I was fortunate to attend a community seed swap in the New Mexico spring of 2018. I heard Sarah Montgomery speak about her work and share stories about the sacred amaranth and the importance of seed saving and sharing. Hearing her words that day inspired me to start my own seed bank and to carry seeds with me on my path whenever possible. It is with great joy and reverence that I have travelled with and shared seeds of Guatemalan heritage amaranth given to me by Sarah and her community of seed savers.
Amaranth is rich with resilience. It grows feral in the high desert mesa of New Mexico. It grows in the jungles of Costa Rica. Spiny amaranth grows feral in Hawai`i and is a superweed, having become resistant to glyphosate. Here by at Gingerhill, the feral variety of amaranth has small seed pods, a spiky stalk and edible green leaves. We are growing the heritage Guatemalan Red Amaranth with regal ruby flowers, and garnet rainbow leaves given to me by Sarah of The Garden’s Edge. You can follow the journey of amaranth on social media with the hashtag #seedtravels.
Amaranth has taught me that plants have stories to tell. Seeds contain the potential for life and when we help care for these plants, save seeds and share them with friends, we are defending sacred life and the story of the people who are fed by these plants.
Many heritage seeds are alive today because of ancient seed sharing practices. Farmers who grew amaranth would save seeds from their harvest and share them with neighbors and distant people. This would ensure that that plant would be spread to new locations where it could acclimate to a different climate. If anything were to happen to the original seed stock, the plant would not perish because it lives on in another location.
The war on plants is not something of antiquity. Currently, in the United States, it is illegal to grow some plants. Hemp is a non-toxic plant with many beneficial potentials including a source for food, fabric, and energy. Unfortunately it has been illegal to grow hemp in the United States for over 100 years now and it is scheduled as a narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Ironically, Betsy Ross wove the nation’s first flag out of hemp fabric, and Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. This evokes the question, “are the forces of governance waging war on benign plants as a means of interfering with the people’s potential for self-reliance?”
A radical exercise of self reliance and an exclamation of freedom is to forage food, grow food, save the seeds, and share the seeds with community.
Birnbaum, Juliana & Louis Fox (2014). Sustainable [R]Evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books