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, grows to an astonishing height and produces the largest maize ears in the world. Despite its vigor and size, the survival of this landrace is at risk as its genetic diversity fades and young people, who could carry on growing traditions, leave the rural land in search of an easier life.

A new maize festival, Feria de la Mazorca del Maiz Nativo, or Native Maize Festival, aims to improve this remarkable landrace’s future. It was launched on December 10, 2018, in the town of Coapan, which adjoins the valley’s namesake town of Jala. The festival encourages farmers to protect the genetic potential of their landrace, while creating a forum for young people to air their views. This event is a collaboration between Denise Costich, head of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) maize genebank, 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 researchers are simultaneously studying the landrace’s genetic diversity, with hopes of preserving its quality and working with farmers to safeguard its future. Research also explores the challenges of creating an enabling environment that facilitates improved livelihoods by leveraging the merits of Jala maize.

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

A gigantic guanacaste tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) presides over the town square in Coapan, presenting a focal point for the festival. Beneath its giant boughs, the town’s children, elders, cooks and dancers celebrate maize and its associated traditions. The festival culminates in the inaugural Largest Maize Ear contest. The winning farmer in 2018 was Jose Carmen Gomez Rodriguez of Jomulco, boasting maize ears a staggering 37.7 cm in length.

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

Recently, concerns have arisen that harvesting outstanding examples of Jala maize at the green stage removes some local genetic potential. The young ears harvested in August have not reached maturity, so their kernels cannot be used for storage or as seed for the next generation. Festival initiators hope that the new contest, featuring maize ears at the later dry and mature stage, will encourage growers to retain more of their most vigorous ears until maturity, for planting, propagation and conservation.

To ensure that the landrace is safeguarded locally, CIMMYT’s maize genebank helped growers to set up a community genebank during the Coapan festival. “Jala germplasm is safeguarded for the global community in the CIMMYT genebank 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 genebank 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 genebank, so these outstanding local genetic resources can be stored for future use.”munity gene bank, so these outstanding local genetic resources can be stored for future use.”

Restoring the full genetic potential of the landrace is also important. In 1924, a visiting scientist observed examples of Jala maize plants more than 6 meters in height and ears exceeding 60 cm in length. Today’s winning specimens rarely reach 45 cm, indicating a loss of genetic potential. Likely causes include accidental crossbreeding with other landraces and locally grown improved varieties, in addition to inbreeding depression, which reduces the expression of vigorous growth due to restricted gene flow in the isolated pockets where Jala maize is grown.

Researchers from the CIMMYT genebank, in partnership with CIMMYT’s Seeds of Discovery project, are investigating the remaining 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. Analysis of the genetic variability of native maize enables informed efforts to restore the landrace’s full potential and support farmers who are conserving it in their fields.

Maize festivals and contests encourage farmers to continue growing Jala maize, but alone are not enough to ensure the landrace’s preservation. Native landraces in Mexico face many challenges — economic, cultural and genetic — and Jala maize faces a host 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 to milling and more economical for husk, fodder and feed. The texture of Jala grain is also less 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. One highlight of the festival in Coapan was a panel discussion with local young people, including graduate students from the Autonomous University of Nayarit. The session explored their experiences with native maize and their feelings 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, fostering an enabling environment and leveraging the unique qualities of Jala maize through cultural initiatives makes it unlikely that farmers will ever completely abandon Jala maize. The community takes pride in growing the largest maize in the world, and restoring the full genetic potential of the landrace will boost incentives to preserve it.

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.

Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) 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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