Concepts behind successful seed keeping strategies of the Yucatec Maya – agroecology perspectives from the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo

During COP 13 that took place in December 2016 in Cancun, Mexico, we had the pleasure to meet Francisco J. Rosado-May, researcher in the field of agroecology at the Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, Mexico. At our PAR side event, he gave a presentation about biocultural diversity in indigenous food systems of Northeast India and Mexico, similarities between the two systems, and the role of agroecology therein. His University aims to bridge farmer knowledge with scientific research. Last week we received an interesting contribution from Francisco, where he shares the importance of local seed saving and sharing practices from the perspectives of Yucatec Maya communities:

Farmer next to a corn storage in Dzoula, Yucatán. Photo credit: Héctor Cálix de Dios

In 2014, Maya farmers won a case at the Supreme Court in Mexico against the cultivation of genetically modified soybean in Campeche. The high input of chemical pesticides necessitated by the large agribusiness killed a lot of bees, imposed negative effects on pollination of many of their traditional crops and natural vegetation, and polluted the honey used for both export and local consumption. One of the outcomes of the legal struggle, that lasted over two years, was a greater awareness on the importance of keeping local seeds. Community seed keepers and their knowledge became critical components in a new strategy to cultivate traditional varieties of many crops.

As in many parts of the world, one key challenge in supporting local seed saving practices is to bring traditional knowledge and formal science together in a mutually respective way. In Mexico, The Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo took on this challenge through an academic agroecology program where researchers and students work with elders, earning their confidence, understand their thinking and collectively present their thoughts in a way that westerners can understand.

maize diversity

Local seed exchange fair in José María Morelos. Photo credits: Héctor Cálix de Dios

There are several driving concepts behind effective strategies to keep, guard, protect, preserve and share the genetic resources kept in the many varieties that they preserve. There are several people, not less than three, in each town, with the role of keeping seeds. Seed keepers are people, men or women, acknowledged by their “buena mano” (special hand), meaning that anything they plant it will do well. There is no special system to appoint a seed keeper in the communities, it is rather a voluntary job motivated by a sense of belonging and contributing to the wellbeing of the community. The system does not rely only on the seed keeper’s children to carry out the same responsibility over generations, interested young people, men or women, from other families can get the training and knowledge from existing seed keepers.   

For the Mayas, food forms an intrinsic element in their way of life. To have good quality and enough food, three elements are necessary: food security, sufficiency and sovereignty. It is not enough to have food if it means dependence on sources beyond their control, it is not enough to have food sovereignty if there is not enough for the people.

Local fair where men and women exchange seeds. Photo credit: Héctor Cálix de Dios

Good seed keeping reflects the need to have food security, enough for the community and as independent from the outside as possible. Therefore, farmers have many varieties adapted to different microclimates, habitats, and social needs. Seed keeping must ensure all those elements. Seed keepers store their seeds under conditions that ensure viability of a variety for at least 5 years, and the community knows when there is a need to plant certain varieties to keep desired characteristics of that variety. Seed keepers also play an important role in creating new varieties of their crops, to adapt to climate changes, soil, pest and pathogens. Market prices play a marginal role in making decisions, whereas priority is given to securing sufficient food for the community and being independent from external seed supply.

Seed keeping of by the Yucatec Maya entails a process that includes many aspects often neglected or not considered important by modern science. The success of the process rests on cognitive models and in community ways of learning and constructing, innovating and passing on knowledge. It is very critical to understand these complex processes and support them, or the whole mechanism can collapse. In fact, not understanding those community processes or, worse, considering that because it does not come from science – western science-  is not worth it, leads to extinction of knowledge, cultures …..and ultimately seeds and their valuable genes.

The seed keepers are very much aware of how important their role is to the community. The community praises their work and the seed keepers value it. They receive respect by their own members and surrounding communities, when a new variety of a given crop, mostly maize, is available to everyone. So, it becomes a community endeavor to have the seeds that will be kept in the hands, minds and heart of wise elders. This is what motivates them, this is what makes a community functional; and this is what needs to be understood and be supported by researchers, organizations, governments and others interested in the genetic diversity of the seeds created and nurtured by indigenous and local communities.



Francisco J. Rosado-May

Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, Mexico (