Peasants in the fertile lands of Michoacán always add a few kernels of red maize to the seed. “Our ancestors believed that red cobs would protect farm work,” remarks Javier Gabriel Pedro, adding that at least one of these guardians always pops up in his maize fields.
This is what brings us to the Pátzcuaro-Zirahuén region in Michoacán: documenting the diversity of landrace maize in the zone, where seven strains and twenty varieties adapted to the climate have been identified, and the efforts of a number of farmers to preserve this wealth.
Although Mexico is the center of origin of maize and throughout the country, small farmers continue planting over 60 strains of this crop, the plant’s incredible diversity is in danger. After three thousand years of domesticating the species, agricultural policies favoring large areas of monocultures, land use changes and the threat of transgenic seeds jeopardize their survival.
There are often many more types of maize in a single area of Mexico than in the whole of the United States” Edgar Anderson, 1946.
But it is difficult to think about this when we listen to Javier Pedro’s pithy analogies: “Corn silk is the grain’s navel,” and taste some of his freshly harvested, tender corncobs, roasted on a fire a few yards from his maize field in the community of Aranza, in the municipality of Paracho. “You have never tasted anything quite so delicious,” says Carmen Patricio Chávez, the field technician of GIRA organization (in hint: Inter-Disciplinary Group of Appropriate Rural Technology) and our guide throughout our trip. She’s right, and for a few minutes, chaos reigns while the work team comments on the unexpected burst of flavor and swaps corn cobs to contrast the sweetness and flavor of one with yellow kernels with another with black or white kernels.
Javier Pedro collaborates with Red Tsiri, a network coordinated by Carmen. Since its inception, its goal has been to create direct links between organic maize producers, tortilla makers’ workshops and socially aware consumers. Red Tsiri attempts to preserve sustainable peasant agriculture and increase the value of landrace maize through artisanal products. This sounds easy, except for the fact that landrace maize is forced to compete with cheap, subsidized maize from “improved” seeds, usually brought in from states such as Sinaloa.
“Conventional consumers are influenced more by price than by the way food is produced,” explains Carmen. “Here, hybrid maize [from improved seed] is cheap in comparison with landrace maize. For a difference of 50 Mexican cents, consumers buy hybrid maize without wondering about the conditions it was produced in”.
Another hurdle Red Tsiri faces is lack of awareness, both among city consumers and farmers in the countryside, who increasingly use agrochemicals to increase the short-term productivity of crops and purchase “improved” seed for planting, rather than growing local varieties. After a few days traveling around Pátzcuaro, Erongarícuaro, Tzintzuntzan and Quiroga, it becomes increasingly clear that what is at stake is not only the loss of biological but also cultural diversity.
6:45 am is the time when roosters share the stage with bats. The bats gorge themselves on mosquitoes while we wait for the sun to rise at the Ucazanaztacua pier.
A fisherman by the name of Gregorio will give us a boat tour of the islands in Lake Pátzcuaro: La Pacanda, Tecuena, Yunuén and the famous Janitzio. But we are not interested in seeing the herons that nest in Yunuén or the Day of the Dead celebrations in Janitzio. We want to fly the drone and with a bit of luck, interview some of the fishermen.
The first one we talk to is Tata (grandfather in Purépecha) Cristóbal, an elderly Purépecha fisherman with very little Spanish. With his legs covered by the net he is lifting out of the water, he willingly admits that both he and his wife prefer tortillas made from landrace maize but that for some years now, they have been purchasing “hybrid” maize because they can no longer find native varieties.
The second fisherman is called Alberto Morales, alias “Handsome”. Like Tata Cristóbal, this 20-year-old grows maize, squash and beans in the milpa system, but unlike him, he no longer speaks Purépecha and when we ask him whether he prefers landrace or hybrid maize, he just shrugs his shoulders.
Shortly afterwards, Eudoro Campos, a farmer from La Pacanda, who cleared half of his maize field to plant avocados, welcomes us with a smile, clad in jeans, a lilac-colored shirt and rubber boots. About six years ago, he exchanged his landrace maize milpa for “improved” maize seed, because “landrace maize grows taller and gets blown down more easily by the wind”. Since then, Eudoro and his family haven’t looked back. They definitely prefer it, they say. The only problem is that now, Eudoro and his family’s food security has been compromised. Eudoro is forced to buy new seed every year, since ”hybrid” maize cannot be reproduced naturally.
According to Carmen from Red Tsiri, those who replace landrace maize with hybrid maize or improved seed often do so to gain kudos, since they wish to establish a difference between those who can and can’t afford seed. Her reflection is based on her own experience.
“For me…growing up in the countryside and making tortillas at home was a symbol of poverty. It wasn’t until I started working with GIRA that I recognized the value of working in the countryside and making tortillas from the landrace maize our parents and grandparents had produced. That’s the most valuable thing we have,” remarks Carmen, who was born in the community of San Francisco Uricho in Erongarícuaro.
Red Tsiri’s numbers have fluctuated since its inception. The network now comprises five women who make tortillas, gorditas (filled tortillas) ponteduros (caramel popcorn), cookies and tostadas (dried tortillas). They sell their products at various outlets, restaurants, stores and schools in Pátzcuaro and Morelia in a fair trade chain that benefits all the links in the production chain. Its importance lies less in its size than in the replicability of its model in a system of decentralized networks:
“We have been asked whether we want to be a large firm. In fact, what we want is for this group to be able to support itself after it has been replicated elsewhere with other farmers and tortilla makers. The idea is not to set up a firm but rather short chains so we can reach customers”.
Carmen concludes: “Having a conscious consumer is very helpful to us, because he is contributing to biodiversity and ensuring that different types of maize are grown, and preserving a culture that will enable farmers to go on sowing maize”.