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The Huehuetenango region, in the Cuchumatanes highlands of Western Guatemala, is an important centre of diversification for maize. While farmers here have inherited a wealth of local varieties from previous generations and traditionally maintain them on farm, changing environmental and social conditions are beginning to have a negative impact on local genetic diversity and food security. Over the past ten years, climate variations and natural disasters have affected maize-based production systems considerably, and smallholder farmers are suffering as a result. The fragmentation of land holdings, coupled with a lack of knowledge of seed selection and conservation practices is seriously affecting yields and reducing farmers’ appreciation of local varieties. Farmers are increasingly acquiring maize seeds at the market, paying high prices for improved materials that often do not respond well to low input, harsh growing conditions, nor do they match farmers’ preferences and multiple uses of maize crops.
Agricultural biodiversity is key for crop adaptation to marginal environments and the maintenance of local traditions and culture. Based on this conviction, Asocuch, a Guatemalan association of agricultural cooperatives, together with the Fundación para la Innovación Tecnológica, Agropecuaria y Forestal (FUNDIT) and the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (ICTA), began work in the early 2000s to halt the loss of agricultural biodiversity within the framework of the ‘Collaborative Programme on Participatory Plant Breeding in Mesoamerica’.
Starting in the Quilinco community, maize landraces conserved by farmers were collected and characterized, in order to produce a representative collection of the diversity available in the region. This initial collection formed the basis of a participatory plant breeding process, involving farmers in the mass selection and assisted crossing of varieties. It immediately became evident that the original seeds had to be conserved as a reference during the improvement process, and a rudimentary seedbank was established in Quilinco. Over the years, gradually improved materials from the breeding effort have been included in the bank, all carrying the name of the contributing farmer and maize type (black, red, etc.). The Quilinco seedbank now hosts around 657 maize accessions, Another seven community seedbanks have been established in other communities in the area. Up to 1,000 farmers have been trained in mass selection and seed conservation, and significant increases in local landrace yields have been achieved (from the average 1.5 tonnes/cuerda to 4 tonnes/cuerda, ‘cuerda’ being the traditional unit of land measurement corresponding to approximately 700 m2).
These efforts have not only contributed to strengthening the seed and food security of more than 5,000 community members in the region, but have also enabled the conservation of local maize diversity. Recently, community members have begun selecting the best-performing improved landraces and have started larger scale multiplication efforts to produce seed packets for sale. These are being advertised through field visits and radio messages, to raise awareness of the advantages of improved landraces and to sustain the financial stability of the initiative.
Challenges however remain in terms of dissemination and wider adoption of these seeds. No policy mechanisms currently recognize the value of improved landrace seeds produced by farmers and agricultural cooperatives. Asocuch is currently participating in technical and policy discussions around the drafting of a national seed law, advocating for the inclusion of a seed category and related regulations appropriate for the diverse set of landrace seeds produced by the farmers of the Cuchumatanes.
With the launching of the Bioversity International-led project ‘Strengthening national capacities to implement the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’ in Guatemala, it is hoped that policymakers will become more aware of the success of farmers’ roles and rights in the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity for sustainable development and food security. Furthermore, during the participatory drafting of the ‘Strategic Action Plan for Strengthening the Role of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture for Climate Change Adaptation in Mesoamerica’ (also supported by Bioversity International), regional stakeholders placed significant emphasis on community seedbanks and participatory plant breeding as effective tools for responding to the increasing challenges of climate change. The implementation of the Strategic Action Plan over the next ten years will provide further opportunities for developing coordinated actions to support the Cuchumatanes farmers and similar efforts in Mesoamerica.
Article by Gea Galluzzi and Isabel Lapeña