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 local university. The project illustrates how biocultural diversity conservation is linked to landscape conservation, to alternatives in sustainable development, and to the quality of life in general. In the words of the project contributor: ‘Biocultural diversity is our last resource pool that we need to maintain. It is the non-fossil fuel that will keep the world rich in many ways.

Furthermore, not only has COPROALDE taken on the ideals of the project and established a weekly organic farmers market with the exchange of seeds as a central feature, but also the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Health are currently collaborating in a nationwide project aimed at protecting food traditions and sub-utilized foods. With looming threats to food security throughout the world, the need to secure national food production and local and native seeds becomes an issue of national security. Protecting cultivated biodiversity is fundamental for the survival of Costa Rica and the cultural diversity within it.

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