By: Matthew O’Leary
Felipa Martinez shows off some of her family’s maize from last year’s harvest. Photo: Matthew O’Leary
Felipa Martinez, an indigenous Mexican grandmother, grins as she shows off a bag bulging with maize cobs saved from last harvest season. With her family, she managed to farm enough maize for the year despite the increasing pressure brought by climate change.
Felipa’s grin shows satisfaction. Her main concern is her family, the healthy harvest lets her feed them without worry and sell the little left over to cover utilities.
“When our crops produce a good harvest I am happy because we don’t have to spend our money on food. We can make our own tortillas and tostadas,” she said.
Her family belongs to the Chatino indigenous community and lives in the small town of Santiago Yaitepec in humid southern Oaxaca. They are from one of eleven marginalized indigenous communities throughout the state involved in a participatory breeding project with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) to naturally improve the quality and preserve the biodiversity of native maize.
These indigenous farmers are custodians of maize biodiversity, growing seeds passed down over generations. Their maize varieties represent a portion of the diversity of the 59 native Mexican races of maize, or landraces, which first developed from wild grasses at the hands of their ancestors. These different races (or types) of maize diversified through generations of selective breeding, adapting to the environment, climate and cultural needs of the different communities.
Guatemalan landrace maize hung up to dry. Photo: Denise Costich
Guatemala forms part of the center of origin of maize, and is home to a large amount of the staple crop’s genetic diversity. Smallholder farmers are the guardians of much of this diversity in the form of landraces, native maize varieties passed down through generations that are prized for their flavor and use in traditional dishes. These landraces are gaining interest in the culinary community, and many chefs are willing to pay more for traditional maize varieties. A recent study from scientists working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) investigated whether facilitating the emergence of niche markets for local maize varieties in the western highlands of Guatemala could contribute to poverty reduction.
Felix Corzo Jimenez , a farmer in Chiapas, Mexico, examines one of his maize plants infected with tar spot complex.
By Jennifer Johnson, Terry Molnar and Martha Willcox
In southern Mexico and Central America a fungal maize disease known as tar spot complex (TSC) is decimating yields, threatening local food security and livelihoods. In El Portillo, Chiapas, Mexico, local farmer Felix Corzo Jimenez surveys his maize field sadly… “It’s been a terrible year. We’ll be lucky if we harvest even 50 percent of our usual yields.” He fingers a dried up maize leaf covered in tiny black dots, and pulls the husk off of an ear to show the shriveled kernels, poorly filled-in. “Tar spot is ruining our crops.”
The CIMMYT maize germplasm bank is the lifeblood of many MAIZE activities, preserving the genetic diversity that is necessary to develop improved maize varieties farmers need to feed a growing population in a changing climate.
The bank contains over 28,000 unique collections of seed of maize and related species from 88 countries. These collections represent the genetic diversity of unique native varieties and wild relatives of maize and are held under long-term storage for the benefit of humanity in accordance with the 2007 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The collections are also studied and used as a source of diversity to breed for crucial traits such as heat and drought tolerance, resistance to crop diseases and pests, grain yield productivity and grain quality. Seed is freely shared on request to researchers, students, and academic and development institutions worldwide.