#16 food & farming
Oscar Mañón Vázquez

Preserving Our Land

Seed banks provide vital insurance for smallholder farmers’ livelihood. A journey to Santiago Yaitepec in Mexico where indigenous households prevail demonstrates the need for and benefits of local agricultural self-aid.

After a 12-hour drive from Mexico City to the coast of Oaxaca that took us through mountains and up the slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, for the first time I found myself sitting at a table with fellow countrymen who did not speak my mother tongue Spanish. Our team had finally arrived in Santiago Yaitepec to shoot a documentary about endemic plants in the state of Oaxaca. After our arrival in the town “among the three hills”, as its name translates, an elderly man greeted us and took us to the town’s central meeting place where the sheriff and a group of women, men and children had gathered around a large table covered with fresh food.

Many inhabitants of Santiago Yaitepec have grown up speaking only their native tongue, which makes it more difficult for them to interact and trade with the surrounding cities.

Most people in Santiago Yaitepec still speak their native language Chatino, which I was told means “the hard word”. Chatino is a Zapotec language, a group of languages spoken in the indigenous areas of Oaxaca. Many inhabitants of Santiago Yaitepec have grown up speaking only their native tongue, which makes it more difficult for them to interact and trade with the surrounding cities. Like most of the people I had met before who work the land, the people of Santiago Yaitepec seemed to live on a different schedule based on a life in balance with nature.The town has no official records of its existence before an earthquake in 1870. Hidden in the mountains, it has existed for a very long time and it is said that even the war for independence and the Mexican Revolution did not affect the community at all. True or not, their native language and traditions have been passed down through many generations practically unchanged. And even today, the inhabitants of Santiago Yaitepec are largely self-supporters and farmers.

In Mexico though, the land has always been closely linked to a range of traditions and has a deep mystical and religious significance.

Growing up in a small city, I had known and seen very little about how farming works and feeds us before I visited Santiago Yaitepec. In Mexico though, the land has always been closely linked to a range of traditions and has a deep mystical and religious significance. The Mexican people celebrate festivals that are directly linked to the harvest where they offer tribute to pre-Hispanic gods, for example. In the state of Guerrero, which shares its eastern border with Oaxaca, traditionally organized fights take place between neighboring towns. The goal is to spill blood on the ground, as their tradition says “one drop of blood for one of rain”. Although Catholicism is the main religion in the area today, this tradition has been maintained from the distant past where they performed such rituals to honor Tlaloc, the god of rain. The lives of the Mayans and the Aztecs centered around agriculture. So the Mexican soil is not only a source of food for its people, but also bears witness to the country’s rich history and tradition.

Today 60% of Mexico’s agricultural products go to the U.S. and the agricultural sector only provides less than 4% of Mexico’s GDP…

In contrast to this historical and emotional involvement of Mexicans with their land, agriculture has not been favoured in recent years by federal law and international treaties, such as NAFTA which started in 1994 as a free trade agreement between Canada, USA and Mexico. Since then, the uneven competition with imported, cheaper agricultural products has weakened the living standard of people who work the land significantly, which led to massive migrations into the cities and the U.S. Right after NAFTA was signed by the U.S. government President Clinton deployed troops into the American-Mexican border anticipating that as a consequence people would try to reach the other side of the river. Today 60% of Mexico’s agricultural products go to the U.S. and the agricultural sector only provides less than 4% of Mexico’s GDP, while still accounting for over 10% in the late 80s before NAFTA.

The main goal of the seed banks is to secure the livelihood of the largely self-sustaining smallholder farmers.

In 2002 a group of researchers from the University of Chapingo, National Service Seed Inspection and Certification (SNICS) a branch from The Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) began developing a project to strengthen rural development and reverse the drop in food security and the importance of agriculture with a model they called community seed banks located in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The main goal of the seed banks was to secure the livelihood of the largely self-sustaining smallholder farmers. The seed banks help to preserve plant diversity and provide a safety net in case natural disasters strike the region and destroy the harvest. Oaxaca is generally a very fertile region that mainly grows corn, squash, and beans, but in some years and more recently due to climate change, excessive rain and hail have threatened the crops.

…seed banks strengthen the local community bound.

The first community seed banks were established in Mexico in 2005. By now there are 26 banks in operation and over 1,000 farmers involved. One of these seed banks has brought us to the village of Santiago Yaitepec for the documentary as part of the ongoing research project. After sharing a meal with all the generations of the  local community, the villagers brought us to a little warehouse where they store metal silos filled with different types of seeds. I learnt that seed banks strengthen local community bonds. In Santiago Yaitepec, each community member has to give the seed bank an amount of seed proportional to what he or she has harvested. The seed banks also encourage seed exchange among farmers.

Despite the lack of infrastructure in these villages, the group told us that they still manage to create the ideal conditions to store the seeds.

Usually a local meeting point such as a school, town hall or the home of a local resident are used to warehouse the seeds. Despite the lack of infrastructure in these villages, the group told us that they still manage to create the ideal conditions to store the seeds. If a farmer needs to withdraw seed from the bank, he or she then has to return the same amount borrowed after the harvest. The local community democratically elects a president, secretary and treasurer to manage the bank for a term of three years.

Women usually do not attend the seed bank meetings in Santiago Yaitepec. But that does not mean they play a minor role. Women are strongly involved in seed selection, conservation, exchange and use. I was told and witnessed first-hand that women are also traditionally more knowledgeable than men in the art of preparing dishes from freshly harvested foods. From a very young age, this knowledge is passed on to girls from their elders.

Although Santiago Yaitepec is not a wealthy village in terms of infrastructure and social services, it has a very strong community with tight bonds to each other. During the time I spent in the region, I experienced a sense of serenity and deep connection with the environment. The villagers were extraordinarily gentle with each other and also to us visitors. Despite the lack of material possessions, they generously offered us food, water or even a place to stay in their homes  -- all with a big, welcoming smile. This experience overwhelmed me, and highlighted the importance of being connected to and preserving our land.

When it was time to leave, a group of farmers and their families accompanied us to say goodbye. They invited us to return anytime.  Unfortunately our planned documentary was shut down a few weeks later due to a lack of resources. Fortunately the community seed banks are still functioning and the model is spreading to other areas. The hope is to establish a national network of seed banks. Such efforts will hopefully continue and revive agricultural wealth in our country again.

Photos: © Oscar Mañón Vázquez

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