From Guatemala to Oklahoma, communities are tackling multiple challenges by saving seeds of traditional agricultural crops.
June 2, 2020 — In the central highlands of Guatemala, Rosalia Asig Cho ushers a small group of visitors into a one-room building, filled floor to ceiling with shelves of earthenware cylinders containing seeds from Indigenous families across the area: corn, amaranth and other crops almost lost during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.
Seed banks, usually associated with the massive “doomsday vault” in Svalbard, with its nearly 1 million samples, are seen as backup copies of crops that might otherwise be lost due to natural or human factors.
Experts say seeds from traditional agricultural varieties — otherwise known as landraces or heirloom breeds — could help solve food shortages and malnutrition, as well as boost food system resilience to climate and cultural challenges.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in the 20th century, around three-quarters of the world’s crop genetic diversity has been lost as farmers adopted high-yielding breeds with relatively little genetic diversity. Now around 95 percent of the energy we get from food comes from only about 30 kinds of food crops.
But as Asig Chó, coordinator of the agricultural development non-governmental organization Qachuu Aloom, explains, Indigenous communities around the world have been pioneers in preserving and reintroducing traditional agricultural varieties.
At the Qachuu Aloom seed bank, earthenware jars hold seeds from indigenous families throughout the Baja Verapaz region of Guatemala, including heirloom corn, amaranth and beans. Photo courtesy of Andrew Wight
“Our work began in 2003, when families began to gather the seeds they have in their home, mainly corn and beans,” she says, “But most of the families did not have seeds from native plants.”
She says many of the families lost their seeds during the country’s armed conflict. Another factor was the introduction of hybrid seeds and agrochemical-based farming methods from overseas.
Now the organization has 500 active members — 80% of them women — spread across the territory of the Maya Achi Indigenous group of Guatemala. Their aim is to help farmers get better at traditional and agroecological farming practices while helping to preserve native seed. The seed room provides the raw materials for this process and for the circular gardens and raised beds at their main seed farm outside of Rabinal, Guatemala. The project also has a diplomatic role: Seeds from the collection have been sown in the United States by students and supporters of the organization.
Indigenous efforts to preserve seeds scattered by conflict aren’t limited to Guatemala. In February 2020, the Cherokee Nation became the first Indigenous nation in the U.S. to deposit its traditional seeds in the Svalbard vault.
Pat Gwin, senior director of the Cherokee Nation’s Environmental Resources group, says the tribe has focused since 2005 on finding and cultivating the crops lost during the forced relocation of the Cherokee people from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma during the 1830s.
“In 1838, only one crop went with the tribes because the tribes didn’t feel like it was right to uproot them,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of those things were not removed with us, so we started at zero.”
He says the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank now preserves more than 100 different kinds of seeds. Last year they distributed close to 10,000 packages of seeds to growers across the U.S.
Colombian scientist Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, project manager with the Seeds for Resilience project at the international NGO Crop Trust, says seed banks conserve many crops that are relevant to food security.