Reviving Traditional Seed Exchange and Cultural Knowledge in Rural Costa Rica

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–>

Strengthening Indigenous Cultural Heritage through Capacity Building in Costa Rica

Project Contributors: Hugh Govan with Rigoberto Carrera

There are eight indigenous groups in Costa Rica, numbering some 63,800 people, which comprise 1.7% of the national population. Half of them are now settled in 24 reservations or territories, which cover an area of approximately 325,470ha or 6.3% of Costa Rica. The indigenous groups are: the Cabécar, Bribri, Brunca or Boruca, Térraba, Huetar, Guatuso or Maleku, Chorotega and Ngäbe-Buglé. In 2001, two new reservations were created by law: Altos de San Antonio (for the Ngäbe-Buglé) and China Kichá (for the Cabécar).

The Ngäbe people number some 180,000, principally located in Panama, although around 4000 reside in southern Costa Rica, close to the Panama border. The Ngäbe- Buglé of Costa Rica inhabit five reservations or territories in the south of the country: Coto Brus, Abrojos Montezuma, Conte Burica, Altos de San Antonio and Guaymí de Osa. The 23,600ha of Ngäbe reservations maintain around 70% forest cover, consisting of a rich variety of habitats encompassing three of the five elevational zones found in Costa Rica (tropical, premontane and lower montane) and three of the four humidity provinces (rain, wet and moist). Examples are the tropical very wet forests of the Osa Reservation and the lower montane moist forests of Coto Brus.

The Costa Rican Ngäbe are among the poorest people in the country, but until recently there were almost no development initiatives taking place in their territories. This is due in part to difficulties in funding and cash flow problems. In part, it is also due to their legal status: the Ngäbe were not accepted as equal-rights Costa Rican citizens by Congress until 1993. The Ngäbe face a variety of major challenges, including the occupation of up to 25% of the reservation’s area by non-indigenous settlers, poor access to health services and limited options for the production of food and cash. The abysmal indicators for all these problems are at odds with the generally good quality of life experienced by the majority of Costa Ricans.

Using a co-management approach in collaboration between the Ngäbe people and the NGO Fundación TUVA, the project “Support Project for the Ngäbe Indigenous People” (Proyecto de Apoyo al Pueblo Indígena Ngäbe)  was set up to strengthen the organizational capacity and leadership of the Ngäbe, in order to reverse the loss of their culture, recover traditional political institutions and traditional medicine, support territorial defence and appropriate management practices, and improve continue reading–>

Learning That Wisdom Sits In Places: Apache Students Reconnecting To Land and Identity In Arizona, US

Credit: Jonathan Long

Project Contributors: Jonathan Long and Judy DeHose

Apache students identifying plants at Goshtlish Tú Bil Sikané Credit: Julee DeHose

Over three decades ago years ago, nearly 300 places of cultural importance to the Apache people in the valleys surrounding Cibecue, Arizona were mapped and photographed by anthropologist Keith Basso with the help of Apache tribal elders. The results were published by Basso in 1996, in a book called Wisdom Sits in Places (Basso, 1996). Many years later, in 2005, several individuals* worked with students at the Cibecue Community School to initiate the project “Ndee bini’ bida’ilzaahi: Pictures of Apache Land” with multiple objectives. First, the project sought to teach youth in the community about traditional Apache values for the land by identifying Apache names of places and associated stories told by their ancestors that describe their historical, social and moral significance. A second aim was to combine traditional ecological knowledge with scientific methods to record and explain changes in the land. A third objective was to instill in the youth a personal relationship with the land that would encourage them to further their education and engage in restoration of their land and waters. Funding originally came through a number of different sources, including tribal funds, support from the Cibecue Community School, and contributions from US federal grants and in-kind contributions.

photo credit: Jonathan Long

White Mountain Apache culture emphasizes the infusion of the physical world with mental and spiritual dimensions. The Apache language illustrates the inseparability of the two: for example, the root word ni’ can either refer to the “mind” or to “land”. Places within the landscape remind people how to live right (Basso, 1996), and people’s behaviours affect the conditions of the landscape. Water bodies hold exceptional significance, as nearly half of the place names in many regions of aboriginal Apache lands are associated with water bodies or wetland species (Grenville Goodwin Placenames Project, 1997, cited in Long, Tecle and Burnette, 2003).

The largest fire in the history of the Southwest, the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, struck Cibecue with a tremendous impact. The wildfire, while devastating ecologically and economically, provided the impetus to restore many springs and wetlands that were damaged. At the same time, leaders saw a need to better engage community members in restoration research and planning. The students visited 16 of the original sites that Basso’s team had surveyed, took photographs, and conducted an inventory continue reading–>