In situ: Native Maize in Mexico
In situ conservation involves the maintenance of crop biodiversity in its natural habitat. This allows crop biodiversity to be directly developed and adapted to ecological changes as they take place in the field. In this model, farmers (and particularly small-scale farmers practicing traditional forms of agriculture), are important developers and stewards of agricultural biodiversity and key for the conservation of a wide range of seeds and varieties.
Mexico is the center of origin of maize and home to a huge diversity of different landraces and varieties developed by farmers through generations. Maize is also a staple food source in Mexico, with around 40% of the farming labor force dedicated to it and of which around 85% are small-scale farmers. These small-scale farmers predominantly plant for self-consumption and use agricultural systems that combine pre-Hispanic and modern techniques. In addition to its great economic importance, maize also plays a key role in the cultural life of Mexico, particularly for peasants and indigenous people.
The diversity of native maize in Mexico, developed over thousands of years of cultivation and selection, is currently under threat from a range of socio-political and biocultural developments (such as the substitution of landraces by conventional seeds, market changes due to free trade agreements, emigration of the labour force, lack of interest in farming from younger generations, and conflicting policies on the import and cultivation of genetically modified organisms). This part of the project seeks to better understand the challenges facing native maize biodiversity from the perspective of indigenous people involved in its creation and cultivation and to specifically explore to what extent differences (in gender, age and community structure) affect how challenges are perceived and how strategies to overcome them are imagined and prioritised.
To do this the project is using participatory arts-based approaches to research. In the first stage of the project, members of the communities from different age and gender groups were asked to create artworks to represent and describe their history, the role of native maize in their lives, and the changes they see as threatening its ongoing conservation. This lead to the creation of a huge range of different artworks by community members, including paintings, photos, embroideries and even a wall mural. These artworks and stories were then discussed and synthesized into key challenges in small groups divided by gender and age (to see differences across these groups) and then together with the community as a whole so as to come to agreement on prioritized challenges and some common strategies to address these. Since different challenges and strategies were highlighted as important across the different groups, the project is now working together with the indigenous communities to implement some of their agreed strategies for supporting better in situ conservation of native maize biodiversity.