Community-led conservation: saving a giant landrace

by Carolyn Cowan

Within a lush and humid valley in the state of Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific coast, a giant resides. The local maize landrace, named ‘Jala’ after the valley in which it grows, produces the biggest maize ears in the world. Its plants grow to such a height the only way to harvest the ears is on horseback. However, despite its vigor and size, the survival of this landrace is at risk as its genetic diversity fades and young people who might carry on growing traditions leave the rural land looking for a better life.

A new maize festival, the Feria de la Mazorca del Maiz Nativo, or Native Maize Festival, was launched on December 10, 2018 in the town of Coapan, which adjoins the valley’s namesake town of Jala. The festival aims to improve this remarkable landrace’s future by encouraging farmers to protect its genetic potential and creating a space for young people to have their views heard. The festival is a collaboration between Denise Costich, head of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) maize gene bank, Carolina Camacho of CIMMYT’s socioeconomics program, Victor Vidal of INIFAP-Nayarit and local partners including Gilberto Gonzalez, Ricardo Cambero, Alondra Maldonado, Ismael Elias, Renato Olmedo (CIMMYT), and Miguel Gonzalez Lomelí.

Meanwhile, CIMMYT researchers are studying the landrace’s genetic diversity with hopes of preserving its quality and working with farmers to safeguard its future. Research is also exploring the challenges around creating an enabling environment that will allow improved livelihoods through leveraging the merits of the local landrace maize.

Setting up the contest entries in Coapan: (l-r) Cristian Zavala of the CIMMYT maize gene bank recording data, Rafael Mier from Fundacion Tortillas de Maiz Mexicana, Dr. Victor Vidal, INIFAP collaborator and judge of the contest and Alfredo Segundo of the CIMMYT maize gene bank. Photo: Denise Costich/CIMMYT.

A gigantic guanacaste tree presides over the town square in Coapan, presenting a focal point for the festival, and beneath the giant boughs, the town’s children, elders, cooks and dancers celebrated maize and its associated traditions. The festival culminated in the inaugural Largest Maize Ear, mazorca, contest, showcasing maize ears at the dry and mature mazorca stage. The winning farmer was Jose Carmen Gomez Rodriguez of Jomulco whose maize reached 37.7 cm.

This is not the first giant maize contest in the valley. A competition for the biggest maize ear is held every August as part of the town of Jala’s two-week Feria del Elote, or green maize ear festival. This contest, established in 1981 in an attempt to ensure the preservation of Jala maize by encouraging farmers to grow it, appraises the maize at its mid-season green stage when the ears are swollen with water weight and of maximum size.

Concerns have recently arisen that harvesting outstanding examples of Jala maize at the green stage is removing some local genetic potential. The young ears harvested in August have not reached maturity, so their kernels cannot be used as seed for storage or to grow the next generation. Festival initiators hope the new mazorca contest will encourage growers to retain some of their most vigorous ears until maturity, making it possible to plant, propagate and conserve the seed of these outstanding examples. This will help the community to preserve the genetic potential of the landrace.

In an effort to ensure the landrace is safeguarded locally, CIMMYT’s maize gene bank helped growers set up a community gene bank during the Coapan festival. “Jala germplasm is safeguarded for the global community in the CIMMYT gene bank outside of Mexico City, but it is important that the local community also safeguards its seed,” said Denise E. Costich, head of the CIMMYT maize gene bank and festival collaborator. “By working together to create and maintain a community genepool population, they can enhance their role as custodians of their own traditional landrace’s genetic diversity and have easy access to it. We were pleased that all of the participants in the Largest Maize Ear contest agreed to have their entries stored in the future community gene bank, so these outstanding local genetic resources can be stored for future use.”

Alongside safeguarding the local genetic resource, restoring the full genetic potential of the landrace is important. In 1924, a visiting scientist observed examples of Jala maize plants over 6 meters in height and ears more than 60 cm in length. Today, winners of the biggest maize contest rarely reach more than 45 cm, indicating a loss of genetic potential. Likely causes include accidental crossbreeding with other landraces and improved varieties that are grown locally and inbreeding depression that reduces the expression of vigorous growth due to restricted gene flow in the small and isolated pockets where Jala maize is grown in the valley.

Researchers from the CIMMYT gene bank, in partnership with CIMMYT’s Seeds of Discovery project, are investigating what remains of the genetic potential in the local Jala maize population. Specifically, they are studying the extent of inbreeding and outcrossing, and attributes of parentage that may reveal the landrace’s provenance. By analyzing the genetic variability of native maize, informed efforts can be made to restore the landrace’s full potential and support the farmers who are conserving it in their fields.

While it is clear the maize festivals and contests encourage farmers to continue growing Jala maize, they alone cannot ensure the landrace’s preservation. Native landraces in Mexico face many challenges – economic, cultural and genetic – and Jala maize has a suite of further problems related to its size and agronomy.

“Jala maize is unsuited to modern mechanization due to its size and agronomic requirements,” said Carolina Camacho, CIMMYT socioeconomics researcher and festival collaborator. “It must be sown deeper than other maize so farmers have to do this by hand and harvest of the ears at such a height has to be done on horseback.”

There are also challenges in the marketplace, where Jala maize is losing out to more competitive and profitable improved varieties favored by many local farmers. Although the flouriness of Jala maize is prized locally for its culinary quality, there are improved varieties more suited for milling and more economical for husk, fodder and feed. The texture of the Jala grain also means it is not so dense, so it fetches a lower price on external markets where grain is sold by weight.

Youth panel discussion at the Feria de la Mazorca del Maize Nativo with Carolina Camacho, CIMMYT. Photo: Denise Costich/CIMMYT.

“The solutions to preserve the Jala landrace need to be holistic, encompassing all aspects of the maize and with the support of the whole community, particularly young people,” said Camacho. A highlight of the mazorca festival in Coapan was a panel discussion with local young people, including graduate students from the Autonomous University of Nayarit. The session discussed their experiences with native maize, and how they feel about acting as custodians of Jala maize into the future. “Although they value the cultural importance of Jala maize and wish to continue its legacy, young people need a tangible reason to grow it. The panelists highlighted a lack of rural opportunities and the need for a pragmatic, economically secure future. In its current state, this is something Jala maize does not offer.”

Farmers will inevitably continue to grow more profitable and reliable improved varieties. However, by fostering an enabling environment and leveraging the unique qualities of Jala maize through cultural initiatives alongside the festivals and contests, it is likely that farmers will also continue to grow Jala maize. The community takes pride in growing the biggest maize in the world, and by restoring the full genetic potential of the landrace, the incentive to preserve it will increase.

The Feria de la Mazorca del Maiz Nativo festival is a collaboration between Denise Costich, head of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) maize gene bank, Carolina Camacho of CIMMYT’s socioeconomics program, Victor Vidal of INIFAP-Nayarit and local partners including Gilberto Gonzalez, Ricardo Cambero, Alondra Maldonado, Ismael Elias, Renato Olmedo (CIMMYT), and Miguel Gonzalez Lomelí.

CIMMYT’s maize germplasm bank contains about 28,000 unique samples of cultivated maize and its wild relatives, teosinte and Tripsacum. These include about 26,000 samples of maize landraces—traditional, locally-adapted varieties that are rich in diversity. Many have been developed over millennia by farmers in Mexico, the crop’s center of origin. The bank both conserves this diversity and makes it available as a resource for breeding.

The Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative is a platform for utilizing maize and wheat genetic resources, with lessons that can be applied to other crops. SeeD is a multi-project initiative comprising: MasAgro Biodiversidad, a joint initiative of CIMMYT and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture (SADER) through the MasAgro (Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture) project; the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize (MAIZE) and Wheat (WHEAT); and a computation infrastructure and data analysis project supported by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). 

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