The continued cultivation of crop species within their centres of diversity plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of genetic diversity. As such, centres of diversity represent a fundamental resource not only for farmers of the present but also of the future. It is this genetic variability that allows populations to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
The introduction of organic agriculture in the two case studies below has increased the economic value of cocoa in Mexico and cotton in Peru and as such, has provided livelihoods to peasants and indigenous communities. This is a necessary basis for the maintenance of agricultural production in the centres of diversity. The creation of a market outlet for indigenous products represents, together with sustainable use, a viable way of maintaining, in situ, a diverse genetic heritage.
Tabasco is a very fertile, mainly flat region in the south east of Mexico, bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It was there that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez landed and cocoa was discovered together with the new continent. Tabasco is in fact the first place in the world where cocoa was cultivated. It was the Mayas who originally cultivated cocoa, a species that has its biological origins in Amazonia. Tabasco now produces 80 percent of Mexican cocoa. The remaining 20 percent come from nearby Chiapas.
Cocoa has a deep bond with Mexico and its culture. Today, however, its cultivation is suffering a period of crisis. The brokers of multinational companies, who have the monopoly on purchases, establish low prices from which small farmers do not earn enough to live and maintain their families. In desperation, farmers have been cutting down the tallest trees in order to earn minimal incomes from the wood. Together with this, emigration and abandonment of the countryside are undermining the socio-economic and environmental situation in the traditional cocoa-growing areas of both Tabasco and Chiapas.
In 1984 some farmers began producing organic cocoa but they faced marketing problems. In 1993 a group of women headed by Doña Sebastiana (Slow Food Award) decided to process the organic cocoa grown by their husbands in the traditional manner of the women of Tabasco and the Mayan women before them. These women began making chocolate to sell to tourists in hotels and at Villahermosa airport. The idea was a winner.
In 1997 two biologists decided to form a non-profit association, the Asesoria Técnica en Cultivos Orgánicos, to promote a complex cocoa-farming project, involving both men and women. The men would be responsible for the land, producing organic cocoa and developing a system of reforestation, recreating ideal conditions for shade production of the crop. In fact, men's cooperatives provide a very important ecological function; in addition to farming organically, they also implement a programme of reforestation. As cocoa requires shade, there must be taller trees in the plantation. This system assures the conservation of the Tabascan ecosystem. Today, the cooperatives are carrying out a "progressive level" reforestation plan. Timber is obviously important but the trees are also valued for their tropical flowers and fruits, which the women preserve and sell with the chocolate. Women main role is to produce chocolate in the traditional manner.
In this project, the added value to the organic crop and processed chocolate boost family earnings and make it possible to purchase drying equipment. The result is that today there are seven cooperatives, four men's and three women's, directly involving 200-300 people and indirectly involving thousands of farmers and processors.
With a unique agricultural history, the cotton plant was domesticated independently in four different geographical regions, giving rise to four distinct botanical species: Gossypium arboreum (northern Africa), G. herbaceum (India), G. hirsutum (Central America) and G. barbadense (Peru). Organically cultivated, naturally pigmented cotton is one of the oldest industrial crops of humankind, and still survives as a backyard cultivar among many peasant and indigenous peoples of the tropics. Natural cotton colours recovered from Indian communities include colours ranging from white, beige, brown, chocolate, green to purple.
Since 1982, the Native Cotton Project of Peru has aimed to identify, recover, multiply and redistribute seeds from indigenous landraces of coloured cotton to local farmers and artisans. With the support of the American Indian Institute, Aid to Artisans, the Peruvian Science and Technology Council and other organizations, the Project has facilitated the reintroduction and commercial revival of naturally coloured cotton as an organic cash crop providing much needed income to thousands or rural farmers and weavers.
The project concept holds an efficient, economical and lasting strategy for the maintenance of the genetic diversity, which sustains indigenous agricultural systems. It promotes local consumption and good linkages with external markets, placing added value on organic textile fibres.
As a result of the agro-ecological farming systems of the jungle Indians and the conservation of ecotypes adapted to moist tropical conditions, native farmers constitute the most qualified and legitimate guardians of this unique cotton germplasm. With a high degree of natural resistance to insects, disease and drought stress, native cotton can also provide valuable genetic materials for improving other cultivars and commercial cotton varieties.
7 Source: Carlo Bogliotti, 2002. Doña Sebastiana Juárez Broca - Slow Arch. Magazine of the International Slow Food Movement.
8 Source: Vreeland, J. M., 2000. Systems and Genetic Diversity in the High Jungle of Peru. In: The Relationship between Nature Conservation, Biodiversity and Organic Agriculture. IFOAM/IUCN/AIAB.