Landrace maize diversity in milpa: a socio-ecological production landscape in Soteapan, Santa Marta Mountains, Veracruz, Mexico



Fundación Semillas de Vida, A.C.


13 December 2019






Landrace maize, small-scale farmers, biocultural diversity, milpa, knowledge, indigenous people


Adelita San Vicente Tello and Malin Jönsson, Fundación Semillas de Vida, A.C.

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


We will present the results from a project implemented in the village of Soteapan, Veracruz, in south-east Mexico, by the Foundation Semillas de Vida. The objective of the project was to increase understanding of the multiple values associated with sustainable use of resources in the socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL) known as milpa, particularly in terms of native maize.

In Mexico, maize is staple food and a central crop which dominates all landscapes. Agriculture and a whole civilization were constructed around this crop. Maize’s cultural importance is highly relevant to understand the indigenous people’s worldview and relationship with nature. In Mexico, knowledge about agriculture has been developed around maize, heightened by the crop’s especially great capacity to adapt to different kinds of climates around the planet. 

Semillas de Vida, in collaboration with local communities, as well as authorities, students and researchers from the Intercultural University of Veracruz, gained experience in and studied maize diversity, use and application. We also learned of the small-scale farmers’ knowledge concerning diversity and adaptation to climate change. Henceforth, we were able to understand how stakeholders in the SEPL have different visions of the landscape and its resources as well as their usage priorities and perceptions of value. Samples were collected and characterization of native maize performed, analyzed by their pigments and association to specific uses.

The results highlight the importance of the agrobiodiversity cultivated by the indigenous and small-scale farm communities, and illustrate the wide knowledge they have and the multiple values of nature (MVN). This exceptional diversity is related to the special type of slope agriculture applied in the Santa Marta Mountains. The 15 variations of native maize found demonstrated important adaptation to the specific climatic conditions and the multiple values of nature given by the farmers to the milpa production.

We concluded that the knowledge and diversity is exceptional, and probably greater than in other tropical regions in the country. The diversity is associated with multiple values of the SEPL, such as different food uses, especially for black and dark blue maize, preferred in the traditional drink pozol and cultivated by practically all the families in the mountains. Together with maize cultivation, accompanied by ample plant diversity within milpa, the Popoluca (Nuntajiyi) people have traditional diverse small-scale coffee plantations and in recent years they have also added production, management and commercialization of understory palm, selling their foliage.

The diversity of native maize grown by the Popoluca (Nuntajiyi) people still requires further studies and projects developed together with the communities, as well as an institutional framework for its protection and development.

Figure 1. Map of the country and case study region
Figure 2. Land cover map of case study site (Source: Google Maps)

1. Introduction

In this chapter, we present the results of a project implemented in the municipality Soteapan, Veracruz, in south-east Mexico, initiated by the foundation Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life, Through the study of vast diversity of the landrace maize used by the farmers, as well as their knowledge and adaptation to climate change, the project has contributed to a deepened understanding of the multiple values associated with sustainable use of resources in the socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL), especially production in the milpa

Bartra (2008) asserts, “the Mesoamerican people do not just plant maize, we make milpa, with all the intertwined diversity it beholds” (p. 42, own translation). Milpa is a part of the Mexican indigenous people’s worldview; it is a way to understand and relate to nature (see Fig. 3). It represents a landscape with multiple values of nature (MVN). Within the polyculture milpa system, each one of the virtuously combined species contributes with its special characteristics to support the others. For example, the bean, as a legume, fixes the nitrogen from the air into nutrients required by the maize. Together with maize and bean, chilli and squash constitute the foundation of the milpa. In fact, the number of different plant types can reach as many as 10 to 20; the combination depends on the geographical place and local conditions. Likewise, in these production systems the small-scale farmers conserve and manage their own varieties of seeds which maintain and drive the germplasm evolution process forward. 

Figure 3. Milpa in Sotepan

In general, Mesoamerican indigenous people, the inventors of the milpa, have an inclusive vision of nature. This applies particularly to the region where the study was conducted, a region still inhabited by the Popoluca (Nuntajiyi) people. The indigenous vision of nature considers all of the elements as a whole, interconnected: plants, insects, forests, water, marine life and soils, among others. The vision includes human life as a part of the interrelated whole, thus consequently, harmonious relations become necessary for nature’s reproduction and permanence, which is represented in the milpa. They preserve the supreme symbolic meaning of nature as “Mother Earth”, which gives life and allows reproduction of the universe. This is reflected in agricultural production where the milpa itself creates its own ecosystem as a part of the environment, not destroying it.
The established relations between humans and nature have generated a profound knowledge about natural processes and reproduction itself. In fact, this part of the planet, Mesoamerica, is considered as one of the centers of origin of agriculture due to these processes that were initiated by the people more than 8,000 years ago. Today millenary agricultural practices, such as the milpa, are upheld by indigenous people and other small-scale farmers in the region.
The milpa itself has been, and still is, a fundamental tool, used by small-scale farmers and indigenous people, to conserve and develop agrobiodiversity. The importance of emphasizing agrobiodiversity and the agroecological matrix as an analytical category, including the definition of agrobiodiversity, has been established by Blanco (2006, quoted in Boege 2010, p. 42, own translation):
“Agrobiodiversity implies a domesticated part of the biological diversity. Because of this it should be analyzed as a special category, above all since it is a vital element of development. Its lack of recognition has prevented its conservation, protection, encouragement and also its incorporation in the market economy.”
The milpa production method is mostly applied in south and central Mexico, where we find highly diverse territories with differing climatic conditions, with cultivation on the hillsides in the mountains, conditions which make mechanized monoculture practically impossible. There are thousands of examples of families and small-scale farmers in Mexico using the milpa system. One example can be found in a collaboration Semillas de Vida has had with the organization Alternativas Sustentables Agropecuarias (RASA) in the state of Jalisco, which has worked on sustainable agricultural alternatives within milpa production over the last 20 years. Other examples are the cooperative Tosepan in the mountains of the state of Puebla and coffee producers in Chiapas. Various organizations and communities there insert coffee plants as a part of their milpa (Bartra et al. 2014).

2. Maize – the backbone of the milpa SEPL and Mexican agrobiodiversity

It is important to specify the importance of maize in the Mexican context, as the axis of the agricultural production system, particularly in milpa, and as central to every food table. Maize has been a vital part of the civilization process that began approximately ten thousand years ago. In Mesoamerica, maize is found at the center of creation; its circle of life makes human life possible, shaping the community social life. This long process finds its roots in maize and milpa: the former as the backbone and the latter as the tissue established to complement and promote a series of supporting relations. 

Maize is not only the most important grain in our country, but also worldwide. Its rapid expansion across the world is likely due to its considerable capacity to adapt to different production conditions and also thanks to its versatility of use, making it an ingredient in various industrial products. The global market is dominated by a yellow maize, modified to generate an increased amount of starch; a large part is also genetically modified (GMO) and produced with seeds owned by a few transnational corporations. Álvarez-Buylla & Piñeyro (2013) argue, “their main interest is the economic profit, very much above the cultural, symbolic and sometimes religious value that maize has in many cultures, also the value it has in Mexico for the entire population as one of their basic food products” (p. 18, own translation). Precisely because of this global homogenization of maize, it becomes more relevant to emphasize the importance of the vast biodiversity that still exists; landrace maize is conserved and developed by farmers themselves. In this chapter, we will illustrate this prominence. 

The state of Veracruz is in seventh place for national maize production, where five percent of this sacred grain is produced. Of this, 97 percent of the maize is seasonal without irrigation, which means that production mostly comes from small-scale farming of less than five hectares per farmer. It becomes interesting when compared to Sinaloa in northern Mexico, where 93 percent of the maize production in Sinaloa comes from irrigated land with agro-industrial monoculture production based on homogeneous seeds and agrochemicals, that is to say, the opposite of the production type we find in the south-east of the country (SIAP-SAGARPA 2018). 

Maize diversity in Mexico is widespread at a national level and tends to be concentrated and present patterns of larger variation in specific regions, mainly in the mountains where there is a higher presence of indigenous people. In these regions, maize’s ample adaptability and uses are illustrated since it has been adapted successfully to the adverse ecological conditions. Agrobiodiversity plays a central role in food provision, and maize is the basis of a diet which is rich, balanced, diverse, appropriate to the environment and accessible to the population. Thanks to polyculture, the necessary quantity and variety of foods are cultivated together, and surpluses can also be generated which are sold commercially in local and regional markets. The species produced in these regions are useful for food, feed and medicine. 

A region that is particularly distinguished by its diversity is the Santa Marta Mountains in the south of Veracruz. This region is located in the distribution corridor of maize from the group Dentados Tropicales, represented by the landraces Tuxpeño, Tepecintle and Olotillo (Kato et al. 2009). Despite the especially complicated conditions in the mountains, indigenous peoples such as Nuntajiyi and Nahua have succeeded in creating exceptional pigment variations and adaptations of these tropical maize varieties.

3. Santa Marta Mountains, Veracruz

Different political and socioeconomic factors have influenced the evolution of maize diversity and other species from the milpa, generating a change in the Santa Marta Mountains’ socio-ecological production landscapes. The study, documentation and analysis of this diversity represent a significant step in contributing to the profound knowledge of the communities and the conservation and use of this diversity, as well as a basis for defending the communities in this region.

The Santa Marta Mountains interrupt the plains of the Veracruz coast, generating mountainous environmental conditions in a tropical zone with high humidity, from which life flourishes in its multiple diversity expressions. The indigenous people have developed and conserved great landrace maize diversity and species associated with the milpa in line with the mountains’ environmental variation. The area’s geological history and orographic conditions, with forests and jungles, generate moisture and rain catchment. This makes it a, fluvial filter, vital for populations in low-lying areas, mainly in the cities Acayucan, Minatitlán and Coatzacoalcos (Ávila, Morales & Ortega 2016). This region, with its biological richness, is a part of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve.

Thanks to the hard work of generations of small-scale farmers and also the special environmental conditions, the mountains are not only a reserve of vital resources and biological richness, but also a haven for a particularly vast agrobiodiversity of landrace maize. The maize grown here is distinguished in the impressive variation of pigments, uses and adaptations (Ávila, Morales & Ortega 2016; Negrete et al. 2013).  

The mountains are the home of the Nuntajiyi people, as they call themselves (Elson & Gutiérrez 1999; INALI 2010; Leonti 2002), also known as Popoluca or Zoque-Popoluca, inheritors of the territory where the Olmec culture flourished. The land is shared with other communities such as Nahua and Mestizo people. Our project was developed in communities in the municipality of San Pedro Soteapan, “the natural home” of the Nuntajiyi people (Blanco 2006) (see Fig. 1, 2 and 4).

Figure 4. Landscape, San Fernando, Soteapan, Veracruz

4. Methodology

During the year 2017, Semillas de Vida, in collaboration with communities and authorities in the municipality Soteapan, and graduates and researchers of the Intercultural University of Veracruz, guided experiences in the study, collection and characterization of the diversity, management and use of landrace maize seeds in communities in the Santa Marta Mountains. We collected and characterized samples of this diversity, as well as carried out pigment analyses with help from researchers at the university. A portion of the results is presented here for the knowledge and use of the communities and as a modest acknowledgement of the farmers who preserve the agricultural activity indispensable for the vast richness and legacy which the landrace maize of this region represents (see Fig.5).

Figure 5. Small scale maize farmers in the municipality Soteapan

The agrobiodiversity of maize was studied through identification and preliminary characterization of landrace maize in the communities. This methodology involved collecting maize samples and interviewing the small-scale maize farmers, after which information was gathered and samples were characterized. This method is applicable in the future and could be useful to follow changes in the maize agrobiodiversity and adaptation achieved in face of climate change. 

During collection and documentation of maize diversity, 106 small-scale farmers participated from different communities: 25 in La Magdalena, 24 in Ocotal Grande, 11 in San Antonio, nine in El Tulín and Santa Marta, eight in San Fernando, seven in Ocotal Chico, five in Ocozotepec, four in Mirador Saltillo, two in Soteapan and one in Buenavista. All of the communities are a part of the Santa Marta Mountains. 

In developing the activities, the university students’ participation was fundamental; they were trained in collection, documentation and preliminary characterization, with the intention that they would be able to continue the assessment of the agrobiodiversity in the future. The samples contained around 5 to 10 representative maize cobs of each type cultivated by the farmers. 

We consider that the recuperation of knowledge and processes provided us with keys to understanding how the seeds have been preserved and developed over the centuries, and also, most importantly, how we will keep on preserving them in the future. The objective was to revaluate this richness and generate larger benefits for small-scale agriculture and indigenous communities, who are the keepers of agrobiodiversity, through the design of highly diversified agroecosystems.

5. Farmers – essential for agrobiodiversity and for the milpa SEPL

Maize is the foundation for food and the economy in the Nuntajiyi communities, and is closely linked to the family as a unit. It is also the nucleus and an essential part of the profound worldview (cosmovisión) of these people, which is reflected in the mythical presence of the god-hero of maize, Homzhuc. The god of maize tradition is an expression of maize’s relevance and connection to the sustenance of Mesoamerican people. Today this tradition is still a part of the worldview, culture and agricultural practices of Mexican and Central American indigenous people, and is particularly vivid in villages of the Nuntajiyi people in the Santa Marta Mountains. 

In the communities of the study, we collected 234 maize samples with the following distribution: 65 in Ocotal Grande, 55 in La Magdalena, 24 in San Fernando, 18 in El Tulín, 17 in San Antonio and Santa Marta, 16 in Ocotal Chico, eight in Mirador Saltillo, eight in Ocozotepec, four in Soteapan and finally two in Buenavista. Each sample contained one type of maize that was cultivated by the farmers in these communities (see Fig. 6). 

Figure 6. Maize from Ocotel Chico

On average, the farmers cultivated 2.3 different types of maize, but this number varied depending on the community. For example, the average in San Antonio was 1.5, but rose to 2.7 in Ocotal Grande and 3.0 in San Fernando. We observed that some families planted four or five different varieties of maize; the maximum was ten different varieties by the same farmer. 

Consistent with the environmental variations in the mountains, the Nuntajiyi people conserve a diversity of maize and other crops adapted to the temperature, precipitation and high relative humidity conditions. The special conditions are created by the rain shadow effect which comes from humidity captured in the Mexican Gulf and brought to the mountains’ foothills. Together with maize cultivation, accompanied by plant diversity in the milpa, the Nuntajiyi people also practice traditional diversified coffee production (in Veracruz we find 25% of the amount of coffee produced in Mexico, SIAP-SAGARPA 2018). In fact, traditional coffee agroecosystems are an excellent source of connection between different patches of original vegetation. This can be a basis, not only for programs to maintain connections between agroecological matrices, but also for reforestation and productive diversification, placing special emphasis on the use of native evergreen species, mainly in places with sleep slopes. Recently the production of understory palms for commercialization of its foliage were also added.

One of the first things that surprises during the study of landrace maize diversity in the Santa Marta Mountains’ communities, is the already mentioned vast color variation of the grain. The communities mainly use this characteristic to distinguish the varieties of maize they grow. It is common for each family have at least one white and one black maize. However, variations could be greater due to  various reasons, for example: 1) the ample crossing that exists between the landrace maize of different colors; 2) selection made for distinct uses; 3) environmental adaptation; and 4) in some cases for the association of cultural concepts, such as the so-called “blood maize”. 

While white or cream-colored maize is predominant, next is the black maize that is widely appreciated in the communities for preparing one of the most important drinks and foods in Mexican tropical zones: pozol. Unlike in other regions of the country (e.g. Yucatán, Chiapas) where this drink is generally made from white or yellow maize, here the preference is for pozol made from black or red maize. 

The natural pigments in landrace maize, expressed in colorations such as dark blue, black, red and orange, are of great importance not only for their natural origin, but also for food and health benefits. It is known that the pigments contain antioxidants, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory elements and can contribute to the control of degenerative diseases such as diabetes (Castañeda 2011; Miguel 2011; Salinas et al. 2012, 2013).

In these mountains, the entirety of agrobiodiversity is adapted to hillside agriculture. Here we find heterogeneous soils and extreme meteorological phenomena–such as strong wind and hurricanes– together with the incidence of pests and diseases, making production conditions somewhat complicated. Nevertheless, over the generations, farmers have succeeded in adapting close to 15 different landrace maize varieties, which are grown between 300 to 1,700 meters above sea-level, to these special conditions.

Compared to commercial hybrids, these landrace maize varieties are most adapted to local conditions. Farmers continue to use them, even though they have had only very limited state support for their conservation and production initiatives. The state policies have favored the use of commercial hybrid seeds through technological packages and financing schemes connected to inputs related to these seeds, such as chemical fertilizers and other agrochemicals. 

In the lower parts of the mountains (as in other parts of Mexico), the hybrid seeds have practically displaced the landrace maize seeds. Even though some families, even in lower parts, preserve the landrace maize for their own consumption, especially the red and black for pozol, it is in the middle and higher parts of the mountains where most farmers produce only the landrace maize (see Fig. 7). This trend could be explained by cultural aspects, but also by the special climatic and geographical conditions. For example, few hybrids are appropriate for growing high above sea-level.

Figure 7. Making tamales, Veracruz

In the following landrace identification, the person responsible was the agronomist and landrace maize expert, Cecilio Mota Cruz. The three most common types found in the study were Tepecintle, Olotillo and Tuxpeño. The preliminary characterization is based on relevant references to the region (Wellhausen et al. 1951; ed. Sierra 2010; Ávila, Morales & Ortega 2016), and Mota’s own ample experience.

5.1 The most common maize landraces

5.1.1 Tepecintle

This landrace has received little attention in Mexico, but it is definitely a staple food for the communities located in the hot-humid mountainous regions of practically the entire slope of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching into the mountainous region in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas (also south-east). With this study, it was possible to confirm the extraordinary diversity of this landrace for its adaptation abilities, thanks to the indigenous groups in this region.

The name itself, with roots from Nahua (tepo = mountain, cintle = maize), refers to the different niches or environments where it has been developed and grown (Wellhausen et al. 1951). It is characterized by semi-cylindrical cobs, and its top tends to be devoid of kernels, which simplifies its identification. The kernels have a considerable variation in texture, from serrated to semi-crystalline. Within the landrace, the colors white, cream and yellow are common. Nevertheless, as observed in the region of the study, this landrace can also be black, dark blue, pink, red and mixed colors (see Fig. 7).

Tepecintle is the predominating landrace with the greatest diversity in the region. We found 113 samples of this landrace, accounting for 56% of the samples (See Fig. 8). Of these, 76 were identified as only Tepecintle, and 37 were combined with other landraces, such as Olotillo, Tuxpeño, Olotón, Zapalote Chico, Dzit Bacal and some other mixes and influences by hybrid maize.

Figure 8. Tepecintle (Photo by Cecilio Mota)

5.1.2 Olotillo

We also found the landrace Olotillo to be widely distributed in the communities of the Santa Marta Mountains. It had the second largest prevalence in the Soteapan communities, with 52 samples associated and identified as belonging to this landrace (See Fig.9).

This landrace is particularly adapted to hillside areas and often grown on stony or less fertile ground. As expressed in its name, Olotillo is distinguished for its “slim cob”. This characteristic makes for a fewer number of kernel rows, making it almost always possible to bend the cob. This landrace is highly appreciated since it grows in thin soil and/or in marginal lands and, thanks to its structure, is easy to thresh.

The Olotillo has an ample variation of cob and kernel characteristics, and particularly diversified is the dimensions of the cob. The kernel’s texture can be semi-crystalline, serrated and semi-hardened. The color can range from all-white or cream to dark blue, black, yellow, orange or red.

Figure 9. Olotillo (Photo by Cecilio Mota)

5.1.3 Tuxpeño

The most representative and important landrace in the tropical areas around Mexico is called Tuxpeño. A total of 16 of the samples were characterized as this landrace. Its material is the best adapted to local conditions; it also has the largest output and excellent agronomic characteristics. Therefore, it has been widely used in not only in Mexico, but also in other tropical regions in the world. Tuxpeño has also been used as the base for generating hybrids or varieties produced in special selection processes, to develop so-called “improved” hybrid seeds.

Tuxpeño is characterized by cylindrical long cobs (around 20 cm) and the number of kernel rows is usually more than 12. But it is also known for its jagged kernels with an ample variation of colors, predominated by the white and creamy-colored (Wellhausen et al. 1951).

Due to environmental conditions, this variety of maize is cultivated together with a vast array of other varieties, such as the previously mentioned Olotillo and Tepecintle. We mostly found it in the lower lands of the mountains, and in the municipality of Soteapan, it grew in the community of La Magdalena (See Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Examples of kernel colorations of landrace maize in Soteapan, Veracruz. (Photo by Cecilio Mota)

6. Discussion

This case study illustrates the vast agrobiodiversity in the milpa, particularly concerning maize. Henceforth, we conclude that in the same plot you can find not only different species (maize, chilli, squash, beans, green plants such as quelites, tomatoes, etc.) but even different varieties of maize itself. The preliminary characterization carried out in our study is vital for the community itself to learn about the vast diversity of their own maize. In this way, the diversity can be protected, preserved and developed. Information has thus been gathered about this richness created by the farmers.

In Mexico, the milpa constitutes a socio-ecological production landscape (SEPL), a space in which, even though maize is central, there is a diversity of plants. Various different kind of plants, from combinations of the three basic plants grown at the same time, to intercropping, to the succession of crops at different times, can all be found in the same space. The possibilities and variations in this system are many. Today we can also find milpa intercropped with fruit trees (MIAF).

Even though milpa are one of the systems that contributed to constructing the base of agroecology (Morales 2011), they have not yet been sufficiently studied and analyzed. This production system represents vast opportunities, and analyzing it is highly relevant to accomplish biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Firstly, we have observed the importance not only of the study of maize, but also of the diverse agroecosystems of the whole region. Subsequently, there is a need to understand the beneficial relationships between these species and agroecosystems. We also consider it fundamental to observe and quantify the milpa as a system in terms of energy recycling and nutrition. 

The milpa of Mexican farmers make up a part of a worldview where biodiversity is identified and respected as a part of the culture, and are therefore also of a way of thinking. This conception permits the sustainable management of the landscapes. As such, while the ecologically-termed relationships should be further studied by evaluation and monitoring methods, it is also vital to know and recognize the profound knowledge of the farmers. These capacities have been despised and even fought against as a remnant of the past, but today they are central to landscape preservation and sustainable management.

The most important challenge is to achieve acknowledgment for the milpa SEPL, considering its contribution to multiple values. Unfortunately, the value of agricultural production, relegated to the so-called Green Revolution, has been measured through the output of the plants cultivated. This is a challenge for the agrobiodiversity of maize since even though there are MVN benefits, the economic value of the amount that can be sold has been prioritized. Aside from the output itself, another challenge is the use of agrichemicals, which are problematic for different reasons. For example, herbicides kill all the plants except for the maize and have been developed for monoculture. Often these chemicals contaminate, for instance fertilizers that destroy the soil. So, even though milpa and agro-industrial monocultures are for the most part grown in different places due to the diverse geographical and climatological conditions, there is still a high risk of the small-scale diverse production without agrochemicals being eliminated, since these farmers are competing in the same deregulated market as the monoculture production. The import of cheap maize puts at risk the small-scale landrace production of maize.

While throughout the last century and still in this one, public policies have tended towards terminating the milpa system, aiming to impose monoculture, today there are some programs beneficial towards farmers producing in this system. One example of this is told in a book published by Semillas de Vida, entitled, “The countryside in the city. The city in the countryside” (El campo en la ciudad. La ciudad en el campo, San Vicente & Mota 2018). This book discusses a rural part of Mexico City called Tlalpan, where the municipality has given subsidies in the form of financial support for maize and milpa production. The book presents a similar case study to the one of this chapter and illustrates the impact of policies that foment the milpa production system.

To solve today’s challenges of sustainable food production, input from multiple actors is necessary. Hence, the foundation Semillas de Vida promotes what we call social milpa, which aim to reproduce social relations based on the concept of a system which benefits from a diversity of multiple characteristics and that allows for complex agroecological matrices.

7. Conclusion

The biodiversity conserved and in constant development in Mexico, particularly that supported by indigenous people such as the Nuntajiyi, still deserves and needs further research, and projects need to be implemented together with the communities. This further research is required not only due to the vast variation of species cultivated and the adaptation of landrace maize to the particular conditions of the mountain, but also because important aspects of the uses of this biodiversity have not yet been discovered and described.

There are various aspects to the SEPL and multiple values of nature (MVN) apart from those addressed in the case study. Since the milpa production system reproduces and increases the number of species and different varieties of maize, the MVN are increased. It is essential to preserve the production and seeds in the hands of the farmers to keep this elevated number of different varieties. Agrobiodiversity is not only important in and of itself, but also in relation to other aspects of life, such as food culture. Each species and maize variety has its own special destiny as food, foremost for humans, but also for animals. This value is multiplied through the dialogue of knowledge, which at the same time produces and deepens farmers’ indispensable knowledge about the milpa system, agrobiodiversity and the selection of seeds, amongst other aspects. Also, it is important to build high-quality agroecological matrices by increasing biodiversity. Doing so would achieve water catchment and improve its quality and reduce global warming, which would lead to preservation of the integrity of biogeochemical cycles and conservation of forest resources, and accordingly food self-sufficiency, preservation of culture, and protection of the rights of Nuntajiyi people.

To maintain and develop maize agrobiodiversity, it is necessary to support farmers, for example through subsidies that remunerate them for their meaningful work of selection and adaptation. In fact, in Mexico the possibility of paying the farmers for preserving biodiversity has been discussed, and another suggestion has been paying a higher price in the market, particularly for their maize. This could be accomplished by a governmental institution buying the maize for a dignified price. Nevertheless, it is also possible to increase the income of the farmers though opening up new markets, since today a direct connection between market and production is lacking.

The characteristics of the maize pigments have great value as an important part of the socio-ecological landscape due to their importance for food, health, environment and culture. The results of the study illustrated that the agrobiodiversity cultivated by the indigenous people and small-scale farmers in this region has great value in the rich variation of the grains’ colors: white, cream, light yellow, intense yellow, orange, black, dark blue, red, violet, purple, mixed colors, etc. This exceptional agrobiodiversity is associated with different types of food, for example, pozol.

If this type of agricultural activity is going to be preserved and supported, support should be given through the dialogue of knowledge. This methodology implies that ancestral knowledge is recognized and a dialogue with modern science can be established to accomplish the sustainable management of nature and agriculture. As we have shown in this study, these small-scale farming communities are indispensable to the conservation and development of the vital landrace maize agrobiodiversity, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a social one.

The struggle to defend landrace maize, together with the farmers, contributes to re-establishing relations and empowers the profound historical and contemporary connection that we as Mexicans have with maize, our food and agriculture. The diversity and strategies of humans have similarities to the basic principle of the milpa system. As at the heart of sustainable agriculture species lives together in harmony, human communities support each other in established relationships based on cooperation taking advantage of the particular characteristics and abilities of every member. This is how the multiple values of nature inserted in the social context could be understood, from the perspective of smallholder and indigenous communities in the municipality of Soteapan, through the study of the use of landrace maize.


This project was made possible thanks to the agricultural communities, who with tenacity, and in spite of all the circumstances going against them, have preserved the agricultural production in Mexico. Therefore, firstly we would like to express acknowledgement to them who preserve and develop agrobiodiversity in the countryside, in our case, landrace maize within the milpa. A particular thanks to the small-scale farmers in Soteapan, who kindly welcomed us and opened up for dialogue about the vast maize richness and its management. They shared their time and knowledge, and facilitated our access to the maize samples they cultivated.

Also, we would like to profoundly thank Dr. Carlos Héctor Ávila Bello. He is a researcher and teacher at the Faculty of Engineering in Agricultural Systems of the Universidad Veracruzana, and has committed his life work to small-scale farming communities. Particularly in this region, he has done a great job of interconnecting diverse perspectives in support of the communities. With this integrated vision, Ávila invited us to work in the region and provided the support we needed from graduate students.


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