Saturday, June 15, 2024

Yucatán’s farmers set up seed banks to save the Maya milpa

When people think of banks, they most probably think about saving for the future in financial terms. But for other types of long-term investments, such as in our biodiversity, we may need to think up other definitions. A seed bank is a last-ditch investment that can help us retrace our steps and rescue critical crop species wiped out by man-made or natural disasters.

In rural Yucatán, a group of Indigenous Maya farmers are working to develop a social network of seed banks to protect their way of farming – and their way of life. Calling themselves The Seed Guardians, the group has identified a specific mission objective: saving the Maya milpaor field for growing food crops

The largest international seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built by the Norwegian Government some 1300 km beyond the Arctic Circle in February 2008. Inside freezing rock vaults, this Nordic anti-doomsday structure stores seeds from almost every nation, acting as a secure backup facility for the world’s crop diversity. It can store 4.5 million varieties of crops.

Mexico currently has 26 seed banks spread across ten states, although some experts believe more is needed to cover the country’s enormous geographical, climate and cultural diversity. A study published last year by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) on wild plant conservation claimed the current strategy was “far from successful.” In the same study, UNAM scientists also confirmed that just seven research papers were published on conserving Mexican plant species in seed banks in the last 20 years.

“The fundamental role that botanical gardens and seed banks play in conserving plant diversity not only in Mexico but worldwide is becoming increasingly evident,” the study concluded. “Nevertheless, there is still a clear disconnection between those working in these spaces and those carrying out in situ conservation and management. According to our analysis, despite notable efforts and the relatively important advances in both conservation strategies, they are still far from successful.”

In Mexico, existing efforts to conserve seeds are practically inseparable from farming practices. For this reason, The Seed Guardians are working to save crops and a whole ancient system. 

Seed exchange festivals have become a lifeline for local producers who support the Maya milpa by trading different species of endangered native crops.

The Maya milpa system uses intercropping, meaning many different crop species are grown together in the same space. It has been a sustainable method of growing crops for millennia, but monoculture and the climate crisis threaten the system’s resilience.

The Seed Guardians formed in the wake of Hurricane Idris, which struck the state of Yucatán in 2002 and left devastating effects on farmland across the peninsula. Rural communities were the worst hit, and many cultivators did not have access to specific seeds required to sustain the unique milpa ecosystems. As a result, many turned to monoculture because of a drastic shortage of seed diversity at the time.

Despite these conditions, The Seed Guardians grew into a vast exchange network connecting rural communities across the entire state. The group’s seed exchange festivals have evolved into more than just a bank to share stocks; they are now important cultural platforms to spread awareness about milpa mixed-cropping. The efforts of this group over two decades have allowed them to identify, preserve and disseminate seeds belonging to 22 different types of maize, or corn. 

Idelfonso Yah Alcocer, 50, a founding member of the group, is a passionate activist for his ancient agricultural heritage, which he feels could soon vanish.

“Our beliefs are being eroded. We need to have closer contact with these seeds and remember the traditions of our ancestors,” he said during a seed exchange festival in Sotuta, Yucatán, earlier this year. “We need to combine modern techniques with our ancestral practices. The villages around Yucatán hold a great deal of knowledge. The scientific world can learn a lot from farmers like us, but we need to work together to achieve our mutual goal, to provide enough nutritious food for our families.”

A comparative study against maize monocropping, published last year by six Mexican and Guatemalan scientists, showed that milpas have higher total productivity than monocropping. The research paper, Maize Intercropping in the Milpa System, also said these ancient techniques provided superior daily allowances of fourteen essential nutrients.

Ancient Maya mixed-cropping techniques are still used today and produce superior nutrients to monoculture.

“Based on a Potential Nutrient Adequacy (PNA) indicator, maize-bean-potato, maize-potato, and maize-bean-faba intercrops had the highest PNAs, and monocropped maize, the lowest,” the scientists found. “These results support the implementation of milpa systems tailored to different agro-ecologies to improve nutrition in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and a variety of similar regions,” including the neighboring Yucatán peninsula.

Alcocer argues that too many farmers and large corporations focus on agricultural monoculture, which produces fewer crops and provides fewer nutrients for a healthy diet. He said the traditional Maya milpa can provide everything from fresh honey to tomatoes, eggs and medicinal plants, which is better than a modern diet of sugary treats and hamburgers.

“Our ancestors lived happily and healthily with everything they needed provided by their backyards and milpas,” he said. “Today, there is little interest in the old ways, and we are descending into monoculture. This mentality poses a grave danger to a jungle that thrives on diversity. We want people to know that seeds are alive and part of this giant ecosystem, so we must learn how to coexist. [Seeds] will give us great abundance if we let them breathe every so often.”

Abelardo Tut Uican, 58, from Canakom, Yucatán, is closely linked to The Seed Guardians and believes the road is long to rescue the dying Maya tradition that was thriving a few decades ago.

“Around 30 years ago, it was the milpa that maintained the cities, but now it is the other way around,” he said. “It makes me reflect deeply on my work as a promoter of the old ways because I see fewer people who make the milpa their life’s work.”

Uican worries about monoculture farming industries that are “taking over” and suffocating the fragile jungle ecosystem, while contributing to climate change that directly impacts his community.

“They – the government and major international companies – are cutting down huge sectors of the jungle to make way for roads to connect their monoculture industries that are poisoning our villages, our cenotes and our milpas,” he added.

But Uican feels the only way to save the Maya milpa is to educate the next generation on the cultural and nutritional importance of traditional farming.

“We need to appreciate our traditions and show the world how [the milpa] can help them too,” he said. 

“Children living in Yucatán should be given at least some mandatory education on the milpa and more focus on the traditions of our ancestors. If not, we will lose it all. [Children] need to work the milpa and live it, which would be a valuable experience that will teach them to respect rural areas and promote sustainable development in the future.”

Mark Viales writes for Mexico News Daily.

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