Nearly five hundred years ago, Maya-K'iché scholars wrote down their seminal creation myths in a text called the Popul Vuh. This tells of the maize god, who was killed and his head placed in a tree. It immediately turned green, just as maize sprouts new life from its dry, bony husk.

Maya-k'iché people of Guatemala are descendants of the Mayans, one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. But colonialism ravaged much of their culture and forced the Mayan descendants onto the edges of society. There they cloaked their ancient rituals in Christian liturgical garb and continued to plant the maize their conquerors despised.

The strategy worked, to a point, and the Mayan origin people have survived with their heritage attenuated but intact. However, women, who occupy a central place in the Mayan world view, lost much of their autonomy to religious and cultural mores that restrict women's access to land and employment and denigrate their agricultural labour as no more than a helping hand for the menfolk.

The riches of the earth in the hills of the poor

Recent research carried out in Guatemala's northwestern department of Huehuetenango explores the relationships between Mayan traditions, plant genetic diversity and the role of women in the conservation of both. These have been documented in a new publication, The role of women in the conservation of maize genetic resources in Guatemala, one of five co-produced by FAO and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in a series called Gender and Genetic Resource Management. "We want to understand the role of women in managing a community's social and cultural change," says Zoraida Garcia, FAO technical officer for gender and development issues.

Huehuetenango, an area hard hit by the civil war that ended in 1996, starkly illustrates the correlation between indigenous peoples, poverty and genetic diversity. A high proportion of the population is of Mayan origin, and the department has a wealth of genetic resources - including teosinte, said to be the ancestor of maize itself. There are 47 different classes of maize in the region, notes the FAO publication, including at least 8 races, or subvarieties, and 4 subraces. In terms of both maize genetic diversity and cultural diversity, Huehuetenango is one of the richest areas in Guatemala.

Enduring kernels of a culture

In the maize fields and at the hearths of Huehuetenango, women's specialized skills preserve the country's genetic resources. Oral traditions of seed selection and storage handed down from mother to child have enabled the Mayan descendants to conserve an astonishing range of maize varieties - the living representation of their faith. Women are responsible for selecting the seeds for domestic consumption, the kernels for reseeding and those to be sold or bartered in exchange for tools or for other seeds at local seed fairs. It is they who decide what the family will eat until the next harvest.

"When we were just girls we learned to husk the cob and select the seed," says 84-year-old Doña Remigia López y López of Malacatancito village. "My grandmother used to say, ‘you can only do this when you are older, because it is a sacred thing.'"

The marginalization of the Mayan origin people and culture has proved a double-edged sword for development in the region. "In the short run, indigenous people tend to preserve their traditional food crops because they cannot afford to buy from the market, while in the long run that social isolation erodes their cultural roots, language and traditional knowledge, including the way they interact with nature," says Ms Garcia.

But efforts to bring the region out of poverty through the introduction of large-scale commercial monocropping threaten the Mayan origin culture and regional genetic diversity. Cash cropping is seen as men's work. The best land is given over to commercial crops, and maize production by women is relegated to other fields. Some families have given up growing maize entirely and buy all their food.

Monoculture cropping increases an ecosystem's vulnerability to pests and natural disasters. "Traditional crops have had centuries to adapt to the local environment," explains Ms Garcia. "Modern commercial crops require levels of husbandry and chemicals that smallholders simply cannot afford. In the past, if one crop failed because the rains didn't come, there was always another hardier variety to fall back on. Now, if a pest sweeps through a field, there will be nothing left to sell to buy food, and no crops to eat."

Withering of traditional support structures

Before, if disaster struck a family, the community could rally round with spare seeds and food. Now everyone's crop is equally vulnerable and each household is bound to the cash economy. Farmers have to buy the seeds for the cash crops they grow and the pesticides those crops require. Without seeds to exchange, the traditional support structures wither away.

"This seed is from Rancho Viejo," says 65-year-old Doña Concepción of Chiantla village. "It is in the high country where there is little water, so the kernels are small, and it doesn't need much fertilizer. It is a winter corn." But that kind of knowledge is being lost with the deaths of the elderly and migration to urban areas as people seek work in the cash economy. "The market economy is bringing cash crops and money to the Huehuetenango region, but at the cost of traditional foods," says Ms Garcia. Recognition of these kinds of losses was one of the reasons for the recent approval of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty will enter into force as soon as 40 countries have ratified it.

But time is running out for the world's traditional farmers and the genetic diversity they have nurtured. "Maize, as a traditional crop, is a vast and ancient encyclopaedia of survival strategies cultivated through the centuries," she says. "Just as a language dies with the last speaker, so indigenous genetic resources are threatened by foreign varieties of crops. And once a genetic resource is lost, we can never get it back."

June 2002