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Preserving diversity and helping farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico

On 24 April 2010, roughly 80 farmers and technicians gathered in a maize field surrounded by mountains for a farmers’ field day. The event was held in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, and was part of an effort to increase the genetic diversity in farmers’ fields and provide them with additional seed selection options.

The day revolved around the introduction of four maize seed varieties—H-318 (INIFAP hybrid), Pool 31 and Pool 32×31 (CIMMYT), and San JosĂ© (Chapingo University). The seeds are open pollinated varieties and were selected for high yield and high forage to meet the subsistence and livestock feed needs of farmers in central Oaxaca. Humberto Castro GarcĂ­a (pictured bottom, right) from the Autonomous University of Chapingo, Oaxaca campus, and event organizer, partnered with local farmers to multiple the seeds, which then went through testing procedures required by Mexican law, and were packaged for distribution and sale.

“The idea is to try and bring more improved diversity to the area,” said Suketoshi Taba (pictured middle photo, far left), head of the CIMMYT maize germplasm bank. “Most farmers here grow for self-consumption with low inputs, so the power of the seed is important.” Mexico is the center of diversity for maize, and Oaxaca is the Mexican state with the most natural maize diversity, he added.

After opening announcements and addresses, GarcĂ­a took farmers around the maize plots and introduced each variety to the group, detailing the characteristics, qualities, and differences between each one. All the attendees had received an information sheet that included varietal information such as grain type, plant height, cob length, and flowering period, and many carried these around throughout the presentation to make additional notes. Several also took photos of the varieties.

“I came here because I didn’t know how to make the most of my land or how to obtain better production,” said Severo Mendoza, an attendee who farms one hectare of land in Santiago Apóstol Ocotlán, Oaxaca. “I produce my own food but, with what my land produces, I am not self-sufficient. And since I have no access to technology or knowledge, I have to buy additional food.”

Mendoza’s day ended on a happy note; he not only learned about new available varieties, but he was also one of 13 attendees to receive a free 20-kg bag of seed, enough to plant his hectare of land. These volunteer farmers will plant the seed in May and will host field demonstrations at the end of the growing season. Eight other farmers chose to purchase bags of seed.

To round out the day, the participants also saw a demonstration on small machinery for husking maize and chopping forage, as well as metal tin storage containers, which are used to store grain without the use of chemicals. The airtight containers force any bugs to crawl to the surface for survival, where they then die from lack of oxygen, efficiently separating the bugs from the grain. The event ended with a delicious lunch and casual socializing.

GarcĂ­a will facilitate five other field days in central Oaxaca throughout April and May. Taba and GarcĂ­a hope to later visit the fields of the farmers growing the seed to see how the introduced varieties benefit livelihoods and on-field diversity. The event was part of a larger in-situ maize conservation project with farmers in Oaxaca that includes on-farm variety testing, collection of landrace germplasm, and the production and distribution of improved seed and landraces.