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Guatemala’s Vanishing Harvests


ibtimes articleThe following is an excerpt from MARIA GALLUCCI | November 23, 2015 | ibtimes.com |

PETÉN Guatemala -- Every few days, Nevy Banegas slips on thick rubber boots and heads into the dense tropical forest to gather xate, a bright green palm so glossy it looks like plastic. Hunching over the short plants, he deftly slices stems with a machete, then hauls his load to an unadorned, one-room building in the center of this tiny village in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Here, residents sort, stack and roll the xate (pronounced “shat-ay”) into brown paper bundles. In a few weeks’ time, the fronds will garnish floral arrangements in U.S. churches and event halls.

Banegas, 37, is one of dozens of local xateros who derive much of their income from cutting the leaves. For every 30 gruesas of unblemished xate he delivers -- about 2,100 palms -- the village cooperative pays him around 125 quetzales ($16). In a good month, he can earn more than $400 gathering xate, about 20 percent more than Guatemala’s monthly minimum wage. But Banegas says his income is starting to dwindle. Xate plants are shriveling and shrinking amid years of irregular rainfall. On many of his recent treks, Banegas says he left the forest empty-handed.

Guatemala’s climate is divided in two periods: the rainy season, from May to October, and the dry season, from November to April. But in recent years, those divisions have begun to blur. Steady rains are becoming scarce, and when rains do arrive, the storms can bring torrential flooding, drowning crops and washing away soil. Banegas says he sees this in the forest. Xate plants that once took four months to regrow their leaves now take the better part of a year to regenerate. In the past he could hike to one patch of land to find his haul; now he walks across longer stretches, searching for a burst of glossy leaves.

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