Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)
Interview with Felipe Montoya Greenheck by Ortixia Dilts
This article blossomed from my continuing delightful conversations with Felipe Montoya Greenheck. Initiated as an inquiry over the MILPA seed project as presented in Terralinguna’s publication, Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), we soon diverged from our original subject and into the intent and thinking behind the MILPA projects, concluding with an inspiring model for community revitalization.
…..tell me a little about Milpa.
I began MILPA as a project to revitalize the living connection between Costa Rican rural communities and the traditional seeds they cultivated. Among the most memorable and enduring activities was a simple seed exchange among small farmers. Paying respects to the local seeds, traditional crops, and land races the participants brought to exchange was very important to tear down the ideology of the supremacy of “improved varieties” that had been introduced and officially promoted, displacing the traditional varieties. Their worth was restored and from that time on (since 1997), traditional seed exchanges have continued to take place in Costa Rica, mostly linked to organic farmers markets. MILPA also organized a conference on Cultivated Biodiversity which was declared of “national interest”. So MILPA pushed the issue among peasant farmers, NGOs and the academia, as well. Only recently, MILPA was offered a project to “revitalize agricultural-food traditions” among rural communities (one project with the FAO), as well as among urban and semi-urban marginal communities (the other project with UNESCO). We have to come up with a “revitalization strategy”. So the idea is first to understand how these traditions satisfy a number of human fundamental needs (I borrow this concept from Manfred Max-Neef, an economist from Chile). Among these needs are: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Freedom, Understanding, Participation, Creativity, Identity, Leisure, and Transcendence. Recognizing how preparing or cultivating certain traditional foods contribute to satisfying some of these different needs, will help restore the value of these traditional practices. The science involved here is basic social science: interviews, questionnaires, with a representative sample of the population so that the results are statistically significant. But in our field work inquiries we also ask about the more empirical science involved in the cultivation and preparation of these traditional foods. …and how does language fit in? Language is probably our most sophisticated instrument not only of communicating, but of actually creating our world. Each language continue reading–>
Hace mucho, pero mucho tiempo, cuando aún no habías nacido tú, ni tus padres, ni tus abuelos, cuando aún no habían casas ni calles, ni habían televisores ni radios, cuando aún no habían libros y los únicos cuentos que existían eran los que se escuchaban contar por los abuelos y las abuelas alrededor del fuego, hace mucho tiempo, cuando las personas todavía salían a cazar y a recolectar frutas silvestres para poder comer, pues aún no sabían cómo cultivar la tierra sembrando semillas, en ese tiempo tan lejano, casi al comienzo de los tiempos, había una niña llamada Pacha. Pacha era una niña muy particular, pues no le gustaba hacer lo que hacían las demás personas. No le gustaba ir de cacería, ni tampoco le gustaba andar por el bosque recolectando frutas silvestres. En cambio, a Pacha le gustaba hacer cosas que a nadie más le interesaba. A Pacha le encantaba jugar en la tierra, enterrando cositas y recordando dónde las había escondido para volver a desenterrarlas. Este era su propio juego. Era un juego de memoria que sólo ella entendía, y con el que ella solita se entretenía. continue reading–>
Project Contributor: Felipe Montoya Greenheck
In Costa Rica, agrobiodiversity has been lost because of market pressures on agricultural production. The demand for high-volume, standardized production has been a disincentive for the continued cultivation of low-yield traditional seeds, even though the traditional varieties have for generations been selected for their higher nutritional value and their adaptations to local conditions. State policies promoting agricultural “development” have provided incentives in favour of monocropping. Findings show that after only one generation of farmers not planting their traditional seeds, many of these varieties have disappeared, along with the genetic material and the associated cultural knowledge.
More recently, a new sensitivity toward biodiversity and appreciation for diversity in itself, as well as the increased cost of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have fostered an interest in organic farming and in recovering traditional seeds, exchanging them, and sharing the related knowledge. The recovery of native and local seeds is also an important link in the process of safeguarding the family farm as a way of life. The family farmer, or campesino, is one of the foundations of Costa Rican national identity and worldviews. The production of the family farm is the source of Costa Rican national, regional and local cuisines, along with the accompanying vocabularies.
However, the transition process from conventional to organic farming was hampered by the lack of local, traditional seeds. The umbrella organization COPROALDE, which brings together a number of Costa Rican NGOs dedicated to alternative development projects, especially involving organic farming, was not addressing this deficiency due to other priorities. That led the project contributor in the late 1990s to establish another organization, MILPA Inc., dedicated specifically to promoting the recovery of practices that would safeguard the presence of viable traditional local seeds.
The project “Participatory Genetic Improvement of Traditional Crops and Native Tree Species”, supported by MILPA Inc., helped revitalize the traditional practice of seed exchange and the associated traditional knowledge among Costa Rican small farmers. Although the project ended several years ago, and MILPA stopped being active as an organization, the network of seed exchangers that the project promoted continues to grow, and is helping build an organic farming movement based on diverse, locally adapted organic seeds. Valuing this local genetic diversity is helping rekindle appreciation for the local knowledge that had before been cast aside as worthless. Youth are also actively involved, and project information is included in studies at the continue reading–>