The Department of Huehuetenango borders to the north with Mexico, to the east with the Department of Quiché, to the south with the Departments of Totonicapán and San Marcos and to the west with Mexico (Map 1). The area covers about 7,403 square kilometres, which represents 6.8% of the national territory.
The topography of the Department is extremely varied, with mountains of more than three thousand metres in height and lowlands down to about three hundred metres, with climates that vary according to the different altitudes in the area. The region is drained by eight river basins towards the Gulf of Mexico and by the river Montagua which flows into the Atlantic.
The soils of Huehuetenango have been divided into 26 categories, consisting of 22 series of soil, two phases of soil and two classes of miscellaneous land. According to the classification of Simons, Tarano and Pinto (1959), the soils of the north-western region, to which Huehuetenango belongs, were divided into five groups: mountain volcanic soils (1%), soils of the central high plateau (27%), soils of the limestone hills (60%), Petén lowland soils (11%) and the miscellaneous classes of soil (1%).
The annual rainfall in the area is about 1,000 mm, although this can vary greatly. There is a clearly defied dry season (November-April), generally referred to as summer. Even during the rainy season, there are two well known dry periods referred to as canículas. As regards humidity, the IGN (1972) for the area was 60% to 70% of atmospheric humidity.
In the Department, 7 life zones are identified, in other words 50% of the life zones known in Guatemala20 , which demonstrates the plant diversity which can be found in both wild plants an in cultivated plants.
The most widespread life zone is the "low mountain humid forest" which covers about 36% of the region and is distributed mainly over the southern part of the Departments of Huehuetenango and Quiché. The natural vegetation consists of evergreen oak (Quercus spp.), "sad" pine (Pinus pseudostrobus) and ocote pine (Pinus montezumae), as well as capolin cherry (Prunus capuli) and cold-land strawberry trees (Arbutus xalapensis).
Another important life zone is the "hot humid sub-tropical forest", which covers about 24% of the region's surface area and is distributed over the north of the Department. The typical plant species are babassu (Orbignya cohune) and breadnut trees (Brosimum alicastrum).
In the territory of Huehuetenango, there are nine different peoples of Maya origin, out of a total of 21 existing in the country: Akateko, Awakateno, Chuj, Huista (Jakalteco), Q'anjob'al, Mam, Tectiteco, K'iche and Q'eqchi'. This gives a complete picture of the cultural diversity that exists in the Department. It is an element of prime importance in the ethno-botanical study we are carrying out. Map 6 (Appendix IV) shows the distribution of the ethnic groups present in the Department of Huehuetenango.
To understand the role of women in the conservation of maize genetic resources, it is important to start with an understanding of the social, educational and economic context in which this participation was defined.
Table 2 shows population data for the Department of Huehuetenango in 1980 and 1995, where we can appreciate a high concentration of population in rural areas. More than 4/5 of the population, both men and women, live in rural areas; and there is very little variation between 1995 and the situation 15 years previously, despite the migrations abroad recorded and the armed conflicts over this period.
The census of 1994 shows a predominance of local ethnic population in the region of Huehuetenango (see Table 3). The female population, both indigenous and non-indigenous, is slightly larger than the male population, which is probably due to migration and the armed conflicts which have affected the area.
Table 4 shows the female population by age-groups, which reveals that in 1994 the female population of Huehuetenango was remarkably young, with the resulting potentiality from the point of view of an economically active population. More than 50% of the women over the age of 12 were younger than 30; a situation which contrasts with the low levels of schooling that were found.
There is a predominance of women who receive no formal education at all, followed by those who have only been educated at Primary level. Although the lack of schooling is more evident among women over 45, the indicator is high in all age-groups. This explains why only 15 women reached university graduation after higher education courses.
The majority of women over 7 years of age were considered as a population not economically active, as shown in Table 6. Out of a total of 244,309 women, only 18,023 were considered as an economically active population (7.38%). This indicates that the participation of women is not considered as work in many cases. Moreover, the census data show that, within the work categories, out of a total of 17,804 women with jobs, 5,127 were in the group of non-remunerated family-based employment, 5,459 were self-employed and 6,918 were employed. As regards the not economically active population, it was found that of the total of 226,286 women in this group, 179,141 stated that their main activities were "home duties", which is not classed as an economic activity; 42,032 were students and 1,326 were retired and the rest were in the `other' category. These figures do not reflect the contribution women make to the economy of Huehuetenago.
However, other sources (FLASCO-1996) indicate that in the region of Huehuetenango and generally in the other rural regions of Guatemala the working day of women registered as "housewives" begins at five in the morning and ends at eight in the evening, a total of 15 hours of activity. Their main activities are the following:
Apart from the migration to the coast and the making of craft objects, the other activities are not remunerated and are not quantified, even in the census processes. In certain cases, the work in the craft workshops is not considered as work, because it is assumed that they do the work "in free time". This situation is supported by the existence of the Civil Code of Guatemala, which establishes that the representation of the home is the right of the man, who in this capacity can oppose any remunerated employment outside the home on the part of the woman.
According to INE, APROFAM and CITGUA, the main indicators of the health of women in Huehuetenango are:
In the study by León and Vargas (1992) it appears that only 10% of land deeds issued by the INTA since 1954 were in the hands of women who had mainly obtained them through inheritance or widowhood. On the other hand, 88% of those interviewed indicated that they have no possibility of acquiring land, since there are no government policies for land deeds to be made out specifically to women; this is why the majority of the women interviewed (50%) thought that credit for land purchase could be the most viable solution.
However, even access to credit is very limited for the rural farmers and even more complicated if these are women. León and Vargas (1992), in their study on women, showed the various constraints women face in gaining access to the limited sources of credit. Only 16% of those interviewed had ever made a request for credit; of these, 40% received it from an NGO, 33% from a public institution, 20% from a cooperative and the rest from money-lenders. The NGOs that work in the field of credit indicated that their loan levels are low, with low interest rates and over short terms. As regards their purpose, the majority are for production, craft-work projects or marketing. There is a lack of data concerning the use of credit in maize farming.
20 de la Cruz, 1982.