During the study, it was observed that the current maize farming practices in a large number of the rural sites had not changed much from those used in pre-Columbian times. The genetic diversity maintained in the grain production is the basis of the population's food supply and at the same time of the multiple uses and practices linked to maize. Women have a central role in the traditional cosmology and through this, legitimate their access to plant genetic resources of maize, and their rights to decide how they are used and distributed. Nevertheless, it was observed that there is a gradual loss of the cosmology that formed the basis of these maize farming practices. This change, among other things, is directly influenced by the introduction of the development of a market-oriented agriculture, with a prevalence of crops destined to be sold (nationally or internationally) which displaces areas, resources and customs previously related to subsistence farming. As was observed in some of the communities, the replacement of maize by other crops deemed more remunerative in commercial terms places the genetic basis of maize, farming practices related to it and the ecosystem it belongs to at risk, thus also affecting the patterns of consumption, customs and occupation of the men and women involved.
As a result of this, generally, the rural populations' knowledge system, culture and social organisation are damaged and displaced. At the same time, this dismembering of the social fabric diminishes the possibilities of inducing development on the basis of these social groups' inner motivations.
The conservation of the wide diversity of maize genetic material, as well as constituting a central element in the Maya cosmology which has such an influence on the ecology and the culture of the area, also constitutes a central element in the food security base of the rural population in the Department of Huehuetenango and it is the staple food of a large part of the population of Guatemala and Central America.
After studying the written historical sources regarding the work-processes of maize farming, it was found that these sources omit the role of women in the different stages and cultural practices related to the crop. However, the oral tradition does confer importance to this role and this tends to be constant through the ages. The direct consultations through mini-workshops and the general workshop carried out in the various communities of the study led to the discovery of the pre-Hispanic cultural complex surrounding maize, as well technical innovations. It was found that the oral tradition coincides with the data on women's involvement in the farming practices related to maize and in the family economy. The determinant role of women in the selection and conservation of the seeds and their knowledge of the different crop varieties provide evidence of their involvement in the management of the genetic diversity of maize and, along with this, in the farming system of which the production of this grain is an integral part.
The conservation of the traditional varieties is clearly closely linked to the survival of consumption practices and rites which explain the rational utilisation of resources in accordance with a predominantly Maya vision of the cosmos and with that of other indigenous populations.
In the Department of Huehuetenango there is a great variety of maize genetic resources due to a long process of culture-biodiversity interaction which led to the generation of nearly 57% of the landlandraces of maize recorded in Guatemala (8 out of 14) and of 33% of the sub-landraces present in Guatemala (4 out of 12). Moreover, the presence of teosinte is important for the increase of the genetic diversity of maize, since it represents a stock of useful genes which can be transferred by natural means of cross-breeding or by plant-improvement methods. In this respect, the choice of the Department of Huehuetenango for the study of the genetic diversity of maize proved most appropriate.
Although this study did not set out to analyse the crop's links with the rest of the production system, the observations made in the area also led to an appreciation of the fact that the genetic diversity of maize is also associated with the production of other crops and with the diversity of production systems in general.
The selection process of already existing varieties reflects both natural causes and preferences in the uses to be made of the grain in different contexts.
Field observations also indicate that small and indigenous farmers, the main producers of this grain, know the effects of pollination ("un maíz pinta al otro en la dirección del viento" [one maize paints another according to the direction of the wind]) and even the effects of the pollination of a maize of one colour with the grains of another colour (xenia); and the different periods of flowering and maturation of the different varieties. Such knowledge begins to provide the key to how indigenous farmers, as observers of biological phenomena of their crops, have carried out their selection under domestication. If one examines the gene base of the characteristics selected by the farmers, one finds a high incidence of single gene characters: floury, sweet, yellow, pink grains, red grains, violet husk.
The results obtained in the workshops and mini-workshops indicate that the farmers of the Huehuetenango region have not adopted the improved varieties created by the national agricultural authority, ICTA, nor have they replaced their traditional varieties, except in the area of Aguacatán, where some farmers reported using these new varieties. In this sense, one can say that this factor as a cause of genetic erosion has not been determinant in the area of the study. The genetic materials present before the beginning of the so-called green revolution should still be present in the area.
In areas where it is possible to develop intensive agriculture, which includes the introduction of more marketable crops, such as onions, garlic, cabbages or coffee, maize farming is being displaced by these new crops. For this reason, in recent years, many of the farmers who have replaced maize with new crops consider maize as an unimportant crop and tend to abandon the genetic materials that they have cultivated for thousands of years, due to their poor market value.
With this substitution of crops, the gradual loss of the cosmology means that the knowledge accumulated by human populations over thousands of years is disappearing. In this way, the concept of the importance of conserving the genetic resources of maize is also being lost. The quest for new human satisfactions, such as economic competitiveness and financial efficiency in the use of available resources, results inevitably in the loss of genetic resources and biodiversity.
To understand the role of women in the conservation of the traditional varieties of maize, one needs to distinguish between the different activities that include decision-making on the choice of the genetic materials to be used. Clearly, the type of agriculture practised in the study-area favours the multi-cropping or traditional system, which, as we have already discussed, fosters the conservation of the genetic resources of maize. In addition, we demonstrated that maize is primordial in the diet of the Huehuetenango populations, since it is consumed in many different ways; and lastly, it was shown that women participate actively in the agricultural process of growing maize, especially in the post-harvest activities. But who makes the decisions as regards the type of agriculture to practise, the types of maize to use in accordance with the culinary requirements and in general, who controls the motives for selection, men or women, or both? A partial answer is provided by the demonstration that in most cases women are in charge of shelling the grain from the cobs already selected for seed in the following crop cycle. In this way the grain is shelled and selected by the women. This manual harvest technique represents an intensive phase of artificial selection which allows them to maintain the characteristics of local varieties, as well as giving these "women farmers" the opportunity to recognize and propagate attractive mutations or new hybrids.
On the basis of this investigation, however, the answer to the initial question regarding "the role of women in the conservation of the genetic resources of maize", one can say that women play a crucial role on the basis of their determinant participation in the seed selection process, both as material to be sown and as grain to be used as food for its culinary properties. Of course, further investigation will be necessary to quantify the specific importance of women's contribution, in the present and in the past, to the conservation of the genetic resources currently present in the Department of Huehuetenango. In addition a combination of social, cultural, economic and environmental changes are eroding the central role of women and resource decision-makers and thus have the potential of increasing the erosion of useful genetic diversity in maize.