Essential aspects to be considered in this study
This study finds its origins in the field of biology and anthropology; and more precisely in ethno-botany. This discipline, which examines the dynamic relationship between humans and their natural environment, allows us to study the relationship between human groups in the Department of Huehuetenango, the development of maize production through the ages (an historical study of the human-maize relationship) and in different environments (various sites within the Department of Huehuetenango). Through an understanding of this relationship one can draw conclusions as regards the role women have played in the evolution of maize and its conservation as a genetic resource.
The most revealing ethno-botanical studies are carried out in regions that are rich in culture and in plant genetic resources. These conditions exist in Guatemala. The country is located in the heart of Central America, one of the centres renowned for both the origin and the diversity of its plant species, as well as for its cultural wealth due to its legacy inherited historically from the Mayas, as represented by the different ethnic groups existing in the area. In the Department, nine different native language groups are represented, and it also offers a great deal of plant diversity, which can be observed in seven distinct life zones. Moreover, the geographical location of the country, which is a bridge between the north and the south of the American continent, gives rise to the presence of flora consisting of elements typical of the north, the south and the Caribbean, and especially of endemic species1 . In addition to the above, its geography, dominated as it is by mountain ranges, affords the presence of many isolated habitats; an essential requirement for the acceleration of the plant evolution process.
Human beings, in their interaction with the environment, have selected certain plant species to develop in them the process of "selection under domestication" which is guided basically by the "selection motives" that are established by the human groups involved in this process.
For a long time it has been suggested that the region of Huehuetenango was the area where maize first grew, given the presence of a number of wild sub-species and the great diversity of the maize varieties in the area. It is equally important to recognize the direct role played by the culture in the domestication of maize; or rather, the historical role of maize in the Mayan culture and what now remains of this in the human populations of the region under consideration. Knowledge of all this constitutes a basic reference on the selection motives, which, we may say, are of two types: factors of an agronomic type, such as the selection of material that can resist pests, diseases, droughts, can adapt to different environments and produce the highest yield; or factors of a culinary type, in other words, the genetic material's adaptability to the culinary tastes and customs of the population as regards colour, texture, sugar content, ease of peeling, etc. One cannot discard the possibility of the existence of a third set of selection criteria defined by considerations of a religious type.
Yum Kax, Mayan god of maize
A knowledge and an understanding of the genetic diversity of the maize currently present in the region of Huehuetenango, compared to that of the past (40 years ago, for example, about which we have the information generated by Wellhausen)2 can provide us with a clear picture of the role played by women in the conservation of the genetic resources of maize. In the same way, we must consider factors of a social nature (acculturation) and economic factors (introduction of higher yield crops, improved varieties and new farming techniques) that are causing genetic erosion in the germplasm of the maize present in the Department of Huehuetenango.
Understanding the role of women in the agricultural production process enables us to interpret their influence in the evolution of maize, the great diversity of varieties they generated and how they maintain them.
1 Azurdia, 1989.
2 Welhausen et al. 1957