The role of women
in the conservation of the
genetic resources of maize


Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations
International Plant
Genetic Resources Institute
Rome, 2002

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the lead agency for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and rural development. An intergovernmental agency, FAO has 183 Member Nations plus a member organization, the European Community. Since its inception in 1945, FAO has worked to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improved nutrition and the pursuit of food security - the access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healthy life.

The International Plant Genetic Resource Institute (IPGRI) is an autonomous international scientific organization, supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). IPGRI's mandate is to advance the conservation and use of genetic diversity for the well-being of present and future generations. IPGRI's headquarters are based in Maccarese, near Rome, Italy, with offices in another 19 countries worldwide. The Institute operates through three programmes: the Plant Genetic Resources Programme, the CGIAR Genetic Resources Support Programme and the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP).

The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations or the International Plant Genetic Resources Insitute concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.


Forestry Action Plan, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, Guatemala.

Enma Leticia Díaz Lara and César Azurdia

Coordination and guidance:
Zoraida García, Programme Officer, Gender and Development Service Gender and Population Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

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© FAO and IPGRI 2002


Preface: Essential aspects to be considered in this study


I. Background

II. Introduction

III. The origin of maize and its cultivation

3.1 The origin of the word maize

3.2 How maize reached Guatemala according to the Mayas

3.3 Women and maize in the oral tradition

3.4 Maize in the cosmic vision of Central America

3.5 The origin of maize and the role of Huehuetenango in its evolution

3.6 Maize culture and the other agricultural activities

IV. Genetic conservation of the resource: maize

V. Area of the study

5.1 Geographic location and topography

5.2 The most important life zones

5.3 The linguistic component

5.4 Characteristics of the situation of women in Huehuetenango

VI. Classes of maize specific to Huehuetenango

VII. Introduction of improved varieties

VIII. The farming of maize

IX. Survival of the cosmology of Pre-Columbian Central America, and the central place of maize

X. Other considerations

XI. Conclusions

1. The preservation of traditional practices

2. Hypothesis of the invisibility of women

3. The genetic resources of maize

4. Motives of selection under domestication

5. General considerations regarding genetic evolution under domestication

6. Genetic erosion

7. On the role of women in the evolution and conservation of maize

XII. Recommendations

1. Maize as a genetic resource

2. Maize as a crop

3. Recognising the participation of women in the farming and conservation of maize


Annex I
The communities of the study

Annex II
Teosinte: the possible origin of maize

Annex III
Women's testimonies

Annex IV


Photo 1
Black maize used for the preparation of black tortillas, which are eaten on special occasions

Photo 2
Local varieties of maize, grown by farmers who use traditional methods

Photo 3
Woman participating in the maize harvest

Photo 4
The shelling of the grain is the activity in which women have a preponderant role in the selection of the genetic material to be used in the next sowing of the maize crop

Photo 5
The selling of surplus maize in local markets in an activity exclusively reserved for women.

Photo 6
Preparation of tortillas, an activity exclusively carried out by women

Photo 7
The workshops fostered direct consultation with members of different communities

Photo 8
Teosinte (Zea mays subspecies huehuetenangensis) from the area of Jacaltenango, Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Photo 9
Post-harvest processing and selection of the maize to be used for the next sowing.The different classes of maize are shown. The maize for human consumption is spread on the ground, while the maize for sowing is arranged in bunches.


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

Map 2
Present map according to the inhabitants of Aguacatán

Map 3
Present map according to the inhabitants of Tuznul

Map 4
Future map according to the inhabitants of Tuznul

Map 5
Present map of the San Juàn river farms

Map 6
Distribution of the different local languages in the Department of Huehuetenango