by Flor Rivera López
This is the story of a project aiming to promote native maize biodiversity conservation in Mexico. It started when I was having a conversation with native maize farmers there about transgenic corn and its potential effects. An elderly farmer told me, “You are concerned about what kind of seed we will plant, but the problem of native maize is bigger. Young people aren’t actively participating in farming anymore and us old farmers are dying, and therefore so is native maize.” Such a statement made me reflect on the fact that challenges to native maize could be perceived or at least weighted differently among farmers.
You are concerned about what kind of seed we will plant, but the problem of native maize is bigger. Young people aren’t farming anymore.
I wanted to understand how farming communities perceive challenges to the conservation of native maize, how they would like to face them, and whether I could collaborate with them. I realized that the challenges could be also perceived differently among different generations, genders, and communities. To verify this, I needed to find two Indigenous farming communities whose main economic activity was farming but were different in terms of ecological factors, socio-economic conditions, and migration patterns. Finding two communities that were willing to build a collaboration with me was a challenging but enjoyable task, and I was able to secure permission to work in Santiago Apostol and Nuevo Santiago Tutla in the state of Oaxaca. In the process, I confirmed that transparency, honesty, and patience are key ingredients to create mutual trust and encourage an equal partnership. Once I had an agreement with the two communities, it was time to collect perspectives.
It was my desire to minimize my intervention. I could involuntarily influence the outcome with my own values and vision on native maize. I searched for methods that allow participants the free and deep expression of their thoughts, encouraging reflection while diminishing the potential influence of the interviewer. I found Photovoice, a qualitative method for community-based participatory research in which participants take pictures and through them express their thoughts and feelings on a given topic or task. This method was great, although not perfect for my purposes. Elders, for example, normally aren’t comfortable with technological gadgets, and the use of cameras could prevent their active participation. So I thought that I could take the advantages of Photovoice and modify it to achieve my goals. That is how our method, called CreativeVoice, was born. In CreativeVoice participants are free to choose any kind of art form in which they feel most comfortable to express their thoughts and feelings. Participants are provided with time and material to create their artworks, which are later discussed collectively. In these discussions, real-life challenges are identified and collective solutions are envisioned. In my study, participants were asked to tell their own history and share stories about native maize in their community.
In CreativeVoice, participants are free to choose any kind of art form in which they feel most comfortable to express their thoughts and feelings.
Over a period of approximately one month, volunteer participants reflected on what native maize means to them, what could put it at risk, and how they imagined a desirable future for it in their communities. Their reflections were portrayed in a series of amazing artworks. These artworks were first presented and discussed in focus groups divided by gender (male and female) and age: youth (12–25 years), adults (26–50), and elders (over 50). Although not everyone was able to make an artwork, those that were created were a boost for drawing out memories to collectively construct the history of native maize in the communities. All participants were keen to share their stories and discuss the challenges faced and potential solutions.
The stories shared in these groups were fascinating and reinforced the awareness of how important native maize is to the communities’ history and cultural identity. The stories recalled family and community memories, including happy days of harvesting green corn and eating it with their family beside the plot as a reward for their hard work. They also expressed good memories of doing tequio, voluntary collective work to help each other in field labor. Tequio strengthens their community’s social links, representing solidarity and mutual help, creating activities in which farmers share work, food, and agricultural knowledge. The participants also remembered how native maize was valued as a precious gift. In the old days, if one grain of maize fell on the ground, people were supposed to pick it up immediately and never walk over it. Otherwise, the maize could feel disrespected, increasing the possibility of bringing hunger to the family or community. In one of the communities, people evoked memories of a season of famine. They remembered it as a challenging yet rewarding period. Community cohesion was stronger than ever. Rich and poor people showed solidarity and together faced hunger by sharing native maize reserves among each other. They were also united in performing ceremonies asking Mother Earth for help, showing humbleness, and giving offerings.
Rich and poor people showed solidarity and together faced hunger by sharing native maize reserves among each other.
Through the stories elicited by CreativeVoice, participants also recognized challenges to native maize biocultural conservation. They highlighted changes in traditional farming practices and the decline in cultural value accorded to native maize as the most important problems. They acknowledged that new forms of farming, such as using tractors and agrochemicals, have helped to decrease their workload in the field. Doing so, however, has also created a gap between them and the land, provoking a reduction in the traditional ethic of caring. For example, the use of tractors makes farmers drop bunches of seeds in the furrows made by the machines. By contrast, in the old days, farmers went behind a bull yoke carefully dropping three to five maize seeds along with pumpkin seeds in little holes that were carefully designed to give enough space for each maize plant to grow successfully. The use of agrochemicals, particularly herbicides, has damaged the land and decreased the biodiversity characteristic of traditional systems. Before the use of herbicides, edible plants — including purslane, pumpkin, and quelites — used to live alongside maize and were harvested, thus complementing people’s diets. Traditional gastronomy based on native maize has lost value as well. Younger generations seem to prefer hamburgers, pizzas, and noodles over traditional dishes with maize.
Discussion of stories during the focus groups seemed to confirm the statement of the old farmer, who I quoted earlier and who made me think more deeply about this project. Youth accepted that they didn’t value native maize as much as their counterparts in the old days and that they weren’t participating in traditional farming anymore. Nevertheless, these young people truly wanted to do something to conserve their native maize biodiversity and the culture linked to it. The reason for their declining participation wasn’t a lack of interest in or respect of traditions, as the older generations believed. Social pressure from their parents, grandparents, and peers to abandon the land made them desist from farming. From their early years, they were urged to get a scholarship and become something “better than farmers.” In these circumstances, choosing farming would represent a disappointment to their relatives. Furthermore, they were told that only people who didn’t succeed in scholarship would have to resign themselves to work hard on the land under the merciless sun. Then, they could be pointed at as being lower-class citizens by their peers.
Social pressure from their parents, grandparents, and peers to abandon the land made them desist from farming. From their early years, they were urged to become something “better than farmers.”
Discussing this divergence of perspectives with all participants was an enlightening experience. Older generations could reflect on their own responsibility for the decline of youth participation in traditional farming. Participants from all generations and genders found meeting points, leading to mutual “forgiveness” and respect. This then allowed them to jointly think of strategies that could be implemented in their communities to promote biocultural conservation of native maize. One of these ideas that came to fruition was starting a festival that functions as a reminder of the important role played by native maize in their community history and cultural identity. In the festival, called Feria del Maíz Nativo de Santiago Apostol, community members and visitors can taste delicious traditional dishes based on native maize, attend talks given about it and current problems in rural life, enjoy traditional dances and artworks made as part of contests, and so on. The festival is led by young people and has become a tradition in the community of Santiago Apostol. The enthusiasm shown by these young people gives hope to the cause of native maize conservation and supports the following statement by a woman farmer: “Native maize will always survive because there will always be someone like us who wants to take care of it!”
Flor Rivera López is a PhD student at the University of Tromsø (UiT), The Arctic University of Norway. She has worked in participatory research on native maize conservation with Indigenous farming communities in Mexico for over 10 years. She is particularly interested in integrating sociocultural values with agrobiodiversity conservation.
Boege, E. (2008). El patrimonio biocultural de los pueblos indígenas de México. Hacia la conservación in situ de la biodiversidad y agrobiodiversidad en los territorios indígenas. INAH, México, 33.
Fernández‐Llamazares, Á., & Cabeza, M. (2018). Rediscovering the potential of indigenous storytelling for conservation practice. Conservation Letters, 11(3), e12398.
Lopez, F. R., Wickson, F., & Hausner, V. H. (2018). Finding CreativeVice: Applying arts-based research in the context of biodiversity conservation. Sustainability, 10(6), 1–18.
Maffi, L., & Woodley, E. (2012). Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook. London, England: Earthscan.
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