By Ignacio Birriel
From a research work on the uses of natural resources, in the Caribbean zone of Guatemala, important conclusions were obtained about the traditional seed conservation system in the region, important ethnobotanical and cultural findings that contribute to the knowledge of the conservation of local varieties de Maíz, in Guatemala.
A regional, cultural strategy for the conservation of varieties of Corn, in Guatemala, threatened by the introduction of food aid from the United States.
From a research work on the uses of natural resources, by the Q'eqchi 'communities, located in a Protected Area of the Sierra Santa Cruz, in the Department of Izabal, in the Caribbean area of Guatemala, important conclusions were obtained about the system conservation of traditional seeds in the region, important ethnobotanical and cultural findings that contribute to the knowledge of the conservation of local varieties of Corn, in Guatemala ... This research was funded by the office of indigenous affairs of the Norwegian Embassy in this country and the technical and administrative support from the NGO: FUNDAECO. This article describes some of these interesting practices that are already well known to the scientific community. Some of them are valued as very positive and a new concept is described: that of “cultural, regional strategy for the conservation of local varieties of Corn”.
Urban map, prepared by women from Santa Cruz Rubel Hó
At the end, a special reference is made to the main threats to this practice, mainly due to the incursion into the area of seeds imported from the United States, probably genetically modified, in the form of food aid.
Description of the characteristics of the area
“Located north of Lake Izabal, in the department of Izabal in Guatemala, the Sierra Santa Cruz is the terminal portion of the orthographic system of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, which separates the vast plain of the department of Petén, from the Lake basin of Izabal. Its relatively isolated location in a mountainous terrain, broken and with a unique karst landscape, have given rise to a number of sinkholes, hills, sinkholes, caves and springs. Together these factors have formed a magnificent sample of highly peculiar biological richness ”(FUNDAECO, 2004).
The “Chocón Nacional” Nature Reserve is part of Complex II of the Sierra Santa Cruz Special Protection Area, with an approximate extension of 24,300 hectares, mostly covered with broadleaf tropical forest (B. Villeda, com. pers.).
Around this particular geographic system there are more than 40 communities of the Mayan ethnic group, "Q'eqchi". Which were the indirect study population of the work carried out, of which 4 (10% approx.) Were extracted, on which a direct work was developed.
An approximate calculation, yields the figures of 940 families in the geographical region that was studied, those that are related in the conservation strategy described.
Most of this population has arrived in the area in the last 40 years. The internal conflict and mainly an excessive military repression on the indigenous communities, generated a process of internal displacement, which affected most of the indigenous population of Guatemala, in the period of the '70s and' 80s, (Agrarian Platform, 2003). These families have moved to geographically different regions, taking with them the material goods that they could carry and an important cultural knowledge, which has allowed them to quickly settle and re-establish social production networks for the conservation of seeds, capable of generating self-sustenance of the families.
This population is found in one of the areas with the greatest biological diversity in the Department and is currently in the legal process of declaring a protected area. They develop an intense activity of use of natural resources, in the form of exploitation, in religious activities (since there are a series of places of prayer where Mayan spirituality is practiced), and they also exercise an elemental function as protectors of the area. (Birriel, 2005).
How do they use the resources?
Among the most important activities are traditional agriculture, with multiple activities for the production and conservation of a significant number of traditional varieties of food production (45 species), cereals, fruit, tubers and others.
“ ... in the same town there are fruit trees of bananas, sapotes, jocotes, Tierra Caliente custard apples, guanabas, round gourds, some annatto trees, very sweet pineapples and all that they also have in their cornfields and in them a lot of sweet potatoes, squash, chayote, yuccas, beans and sweet canes and in some parts lemons. The houses of the milpas although smaller, as good as those of the town and in them their barn for corn, muddy.
Fray Diego de Rivas in his account of the entry and conquest of the Peñol del Petén Itzá, from the year 1692… ”(Estrada Monroy, 1990, pg.76).
I want to refer to the community space (existing area in what is the urban space of the village), which is also used for the production of food, mainly fruits, which make their respective contributions to the diet throughout the course of the different seasons In the photograph of a Vernacular map made by the women of the Santa Cruz Rubel Hó village we can find some diagrams or drawings, which show the incredible diversity of fruits found within the limits of the community, more than 20 different species are identified , also combined with the animal production of poultry, pigs, cattle and even fish farming in some communities.
They also develop the complex system of indigenous polyculture or Conuco (Núñez, 2004), in which a large number of food items are mixed, such as Musáceas ( Muse paradisiaca), cardamom ( Elettaria cardamomum), Cocoa ( Theobroma cacao), Pineapple ( Ananas comosus), Pataxte ( Tiliaceae sp .), etc. This system is especially soil-conserving and recommended for subtropical cultivation characteristics, on fragile and sloping soils. With this system, the communities achieve a varied and safe food production, which also contributes to the production of domestic animals. Another example of this is the small plots of Yuca ( Manihot esculenta), Güisquil ( Sechium edule), Yam ( Colocasia esculenta), Malanga ( Alocasia macrorrhiza), which are maintained in areas that were previously produced from milpa (in this way they are called corn crops, Zea mays), these basic products, in the diet of other cultures, are produced here as an alternative, when corn is scarce.
Regional, cultural strategy for the conservation of corn varieties
Despite the strong social disarticulation produced by the displacement process and the strong psychological connotations that it produces (Espinosa, 2001), the Q'eqchi 'communities have managed to develop a regional system of productive self-sustaining work, which proves to be a complex cultural system for the conservation of biodiversity, mainly on corn seeds.
If we investigate the Q'eqchi 'culture itself where it is defined, in its religious practices, as a man of corn (Estrada Monrroy, 1990) and when studying the history of this cereal is where we find that the origin of it is found in the bosom of these cultures (Ecological Action, 2004). From this we deduce that the diversity of cultural practices on maize seed is very extensive in this region of Mesoamerica.
The traditional sowing techniques are maintained in which the Tumba y Quema (Production Committees and Mujeres del Volao and cols., 2002), the second sowing, the particular constructions for the conservation of the post-harvest product and the rituality that encompasses all the sowing and harvesting of the same.
There is great variability in this regard, in the forms of production, the different items to be produced and also the sowing and harvest times, customary in the different communities. This makes diversity conservation practices more efficient, because the same taxon is subjected to different productive strategies in each community (soil conditions, slope, shade, altitude, and planting dates above all). In this way, greater genetic variability of the species in question is achieved, with the increase in variability, it also increases its survival capacity and the specificity to each special microecosystem. So the Q'eqchi 'communities have developed a complex genetic production system, which makes food security possible in each community. The latter is enhanced by two interesting practices to analyze and which are key. The main one is that two villagers in a village never sow on the same day. This causes the harvesting times to be separated and a greater environmental variation is achieved over the total production of the village. In this way, the sowing of the first farmer is separated by a minimum of 15 days from the sowing of the last (because most of the villages are made up of a population of 10 to 20 families), thus generating a buffer effect, before some weather irregularities that decimate production. A process of flooding, onset of drought, fire, etc; They are examples of catastrophes that can end a plot of cultivation in process, but being separated, the certainty that one will come to term is high. An example of this occurred in the Angel Há community, during the period that this investigation lasted, in which a villager planted his corn with the first rains and speculated that it would continue to rain, this did not happen and the crop was totally lost, while those that began sowing 15 days later, presented normal production yields. In this way a villager may lose his harvest, but never the total of farmers. So then the community can absorb the lack of food for some families.
This same process becomes regional, since the time of planting of a community never coincides with that of its neighbor and this extends the interval between the first planting and the last of the proposed geographical region, extending beyond 3 months in the communities studied. Thus, in a small region that does not exceed 50,000 hectares, a collective action mechanism has been developed for the protection of seeds and food security. Product of the particular cultural conditions of the region and in this way, never a natural catastrophe, has produced the loss of total production in the region and not the local seed, adapted to the ecosystem, which is very jealously conserved by the Q'eqchi 'communities. . Since the base of production and Q'eqchi 'life is corn agriculture.
Threats to traditional practices of conservation of diversity.
This cultural characteristic has managed to maintain the maize varieties and has managed to move geographically, from extreme social processes such as war and racial discrimination, human displacements to geographically and climatic different regions. It is currently threatened by the recklessness of the different state apparatuses that have introduced corn seeds from the United States in the form of food aid to the region (personal observation). This product with a high percentage of genetically modified seeds, more than 80% (RAPAL-VE, 2004), has been introduced for a few years, in the area without having had the precaution of even distributing genetically modified seeds (transgenic), in territories that are in protected areas. Personally, I was able to verify the current use by some indigenous producers of red corn, a variety that is produced mainly in the United States, and that is not traditionally used in the area (it is only customary to sow white and black corn). This fact represents an important threat to the biological and cultural diversity that surrounds the traditional Milpa (Maíz) system in the area in question. Mainly due to the consequent loss of local genetics due to crosses with genetically modified corn, contamination by modified genes has already been demonstrated in southern Mexico (Alvaro Salgado Ramírez, com. pers.), it is possible that the same thing is also happening in this protected area. Also the interaction of this crop with species of the local ecosystem is likely (Tuxil and Nabhan, 2001), which would extend the problem to natural biodiversity, which is being conserved. An example of the latter already exists in the area, as a consequence of the introduction of Tilapia ( Tilapia sp.), a species of fish from Africa that has been promoted in the area as a strategy for feeding human populations.
Reflecting on these issues, it can only be said that in the field of conservation there is still a lack of extreme measures regarding the avalanche of the food industry that is devastating local, cultural and biological diversity.
* Doctor in Veterinary Medicine, Specialist in Peasant Organization and Agroecology.
Ecological Action, 2004. Corn from sacred food to hunger business. Network for a GMO-free Latin America. Quito, Ecuador. 111 pp.
Birriel, I. 2005. Uses of natural resources by Q'eqchi 'communities, from Izabal. Investigation report. Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation, Guatemala City, Guatemala. 31 + xvi pp.
Production committees and Mujeres del Volao, ASPROFINCA, ASPROCIG, Association of Artisans of San Andrés de Sotavento, ASPROAL, Association of Producers of San Pedro Alcantara, ASPROINPAL, ASPROINSU, ASALMA, ASOCAMCOCRE. 2002. Creole corn. Management, production and uses in the Colombian Caribbean region. Campaign to disseminate native corn, Colombia Caribbean Region, Seeds of Identity Series, 2. Colombia. 39 pp.
Espinosa, O. M. 2001. On territory, war and forced displacement, a sociological look. Pp. 115-125, in Territories and Culture, territories of conflict and Socio Cultural change (B. Nates, ed.). Territorialities research group, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Caldas. Manizales, Colombia 2001. 615 pp.
Estrada Monroy, A. 1990. Esoteric Maya-K’ekchí life. Culture Edition, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Collection Obra Varia no 3. Guatemala City, Guatemala. 374.
FUNDAECO. 2004. Sierra Santa Cruz Special Protection Area, Municipality of Livingston, Department of Izabal. Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation, Guatemala. 12 pp.
Núñez, M. A. 2002. Sustainable Rural Development Proposal. Latin American Parliament, Regional Legislative Council of the State of Barinas. Merida, Venezuela. 152 pp.
Agrarian Platform. 2003: Opening the gap. A proposal for rural development. 2nd Agrarian Platform Editions. Ed. 68 pp.
RAPAL-VE. 2005.TRANSGENICS a day no. 25. At www.rap-al.org. April 30, 2005.
Tuxil, J. and Nabhan, G. P. 2001. Plants, communities and protected areas. A guide to on-site management. Conservation manuals of the "peoples and plants" series. World Wide Fund for Nature, Editorial Nordan-Comunidad. Montevideo, Uruguay. 227 pp.