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IV. Genetic conservation of the resource: maize

Plant genetic resources represent an under-valued source of wealth. They represent the whole history of the evolution these resources have undergone over thousands of years, through both natural selection and selection under domestication. Plant genetic resources contain the accumulation of all the genetic changes that occurred over time. The wealth referred to here is the great genetic diversity present in the germplasm of any particular species. It is thus worth considering the purpose of this "genetic variability" stored in the germplasm of a given species. Life carries on under the effects of a changing world, both from a purely physical point of view, that is to say, environmental changes (climate, vegetation, soil types, associated species, predators, etc.) and from a social viewpoint (changes in eating habits, changes in farming techniques, changes of crops, etc.). In this sense, the only way to confront these selective forces is to have ready access to genetic diversity, in other words, there can be no evolution if there is no "genetic diversity" to respond to the changes required, be they environmental or cultural. Hence the importance of preserving genetic diversity.

Maize is an important element in the culture of Guatemala due to its role in the nutrition and in the cosmic vision of the country's rural population, especially of those peoples of Mayan descent, who actually developed the traditional farming techniques. In this sense, maize is an element of cultural cohesion and ethno-botanical balance. In order to have a better understanding of the nature of the germplasm it is essential to conduct more thorough studies on the selection criteria that the different peoples applied, their possible access to empirical knowledge and their understanding of the hereditary mechanisms. It is not easy to elucidate the considerations used by farmers in adjusting their production practices and their selection of species to the prevailing ecological, technological, social and economic conditions18 , because of the cultural void in which the researchers are working.

For example, production risk and security factors in limiting and uncertain weather conditions are not taken into account when the focus is on maximum yield for commercial purposes.

The maize varieties present in Huehuetenango correspond to the needs of the population, as well as to the germplasm's capacity to adapt to the changes in the different micro-environments that exist in the Department, given its great ecological diversity and the different anthropocentric focuses specific to the different crops present in the area (sources of carbohydrates, construction materials, medicinal and fodder materials, better soil management as well as a mythologically and ceremonially important plant). This is why the preservation of the germplasm of maize is not an isolated phenomenon, but a fact linked to the preservation of the life of the communities that grow it.

The discussion of maize conservation in Huehuetenango is centred on the selection motives, in other words, those human preferences, decisions, and processes that determine which direction the genetic variation present in the maize germplasm will take. With reference to the different and changing environmental factors, local men and women farmers have a perfect knowledge of the types of maize that adapt to locations at different altitudes and in different weather conditions, and consequently they know the genetic materials that are resistant to drought, diseases, different soil types, etc. This aspect will be the focus of what follows.

A selection motive in the conservation of the genetic resources of maize in which the human factor, especially that of women, plays a direct part, are the culinary virtues of the different types of maize. In areas where traditional farming is practised, certain genetic materials have specific uses and culinary qualities, and this is what determines the priority given to their conservation. Women are the ones who are most knowledgeable in the management of these traits within local maize varieties.

An important factor in the loss of certain genetic resources was the arrival of the so-called "green revolution" which brought the introduction of high yielding varieties, which in turn implied very high costs through the erosion of genetic resources and the environmental damage it generated in the production models it introduced.

Currently, other factors continue to decimate the existing stock of maize genetic resources. The construction of new roadway and irrigation infrastructure, and the predominance of market-driven systems are factors which shatter the geographic isolation and replace the traditional practices linked to systems of exchange in kind and local consumption which used to facilitate the preservation of native genetic resources that had survived even after the Spanish conquest19 .

As demonstrated by Hernandez and Ortega (1987) each maize variety corresponds to a different ecological and social niche. For this reason, the preservation of a maize variety is dependent on the survival of the ecological and social niche that fosters it. Where economic and social changes disturb or eliminate these ecologies and niches, much diversity may also be lost.

Map 1
Location of the Department of Huehuetenango in the Republic of Guatemala

18 Hernández X., 1978.

19 Montes, 1978.

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