1 Jul 2015

Notes About Agricultural Biodiversity…

(Foto: Flickr - curtapanama / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By: Jorge ventocilla


Several years ago, Agripino Ríos and me were working on a book about the history of Cébaco (1). We thought it would be appropriate to talk about seeds  in the chapter devoted to agriculture in the island. With almost 20 acres, Cébaco, located in the Gulf of Montijo, province of  Veraguas, is the third largest island in Panama, after Coiba and San Miguel.


Mr. Francisco Calle, nicknamed “Maestro chico” or just “Maestrín” (Little Teacher), lives in Platanares, a community in Cébaco. He has worked the land for seven decades now, his whole life, and has been witness to the changes in the environment and how they have affected the island. He was very young when mahogany and other forest trees were harvested, especially during the late 40’s and the early 50´s. Francisco could experience also the shrimp (langostino) “boom”. Recently, he has noted that many species, specially sea creatures, are no longer available for consumption or have suffered a significant population decline because of commercial exploitation; for example: manta rays and sharks (for their fins). In the last 15 years, he has seen how his neighbors have sold their land, particularly to alien people unfamiliar with the island, while he kept holding on to that part of the mountain inherited from his parents, where they planted and cared for the trees that stand tall today on that unofficial, isolated sanctuary…there in Platanares, very close to the sea.


I would like to quote Maestrín here, when asked about agriculture in Cébaco:  “…we have bananas”, he said; “¨[different varieties] patriota, chino, enano, hartapobre, manzano, cajeto, dominico (of two kinds, one is white, and the other is purple), quinientos, brought from mainland Los Bonitos by  Teresa Ríos, and other varieties like primitivo or pirito. We have a white banana, but it is not available in all areas and not everybody in the island have it. Beans? We have capisucio, mantequilla, blanco, rojo, prontoalivio, coibeño, azulillo, cariblanco, and garbanzo.”


“Approximately 30 years ago, we began running out of seeds” – said Maestrín. “We had a white bean (kimbol) that was very tasty, but we don’t have it anymore! We also had pumpkin (auyama), but it is gone too. The only one who is growing peanuts now is Ruperto [Saavedra, from Platanares]. The Castile potato, a vine, was also lost. The same happened to the watermelon, although there are still watermelons at El Jobo [another village in the island]. There are several types of cassava, like the  yastá, yema de huevo, blanca, piepalomo, chilibreña, and the panameña… with one of these shrubs you would get a full load of cassava! And corn: we have calilla, punto cuatro, blanco, and  granadín.”


We then talked about rice, a valuable crop for people in the country, Maestro chico told us the following: “The seeds that are being used now are new. There are just a few or none of the old ones; these were the pedromonte, arroz chino, chino patiblanco, and chameño or petaca, which has not been grown in the past two years [in 2006, when the interview was conducted].


Even though we, here in the city, tend to think that we are not part of the natural world – and to think that it is just a distant thing that can only be found at museums, we are part of this “biological diversity” and we even create it. We contribute to the enhancement of this diversity by working the land, selecting vegetables and taming animals. “Agricultural biodiversity” refers to vegetables, either growing wild or cultivated, and animals, both wild and domestic, that are part of our production systems.


Some specialists think that as many as 7 out of 10 agricultural varieties have been lost worldwide, in the last 100 years. This situation has decreased the chances of a better life, not only for this generation, but for generations to come.


These memories about Cébaco, agricultural varieties and how I could write about them come to my mind this Full Moon of July 2015, as I visit the Pisaq region, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in Cusco, Peru. There is a “Potato Park” in this region, and it is a joint effort of several communities interested in protecting the potato seeds. I will quote some of the explanations available at the Park’s website (from the English version of www.parquedelapapa.org). 


“We are more than 6000 people in six qeswa communities: Sacaca, 

Chawaytire, Pampallaqta, Paru Paru and Amaru.  All the projects are administrated collectively by the six communities to ensure the effective participation and sharing of benefits.”


“Legally, the communities form part of an  Association of Communities of Potato Park, which is the communal administrative body of the Park.”


“[and] we apply Andean principles of duality, reciprocity and balance..”


“The Park is located in an area known as a microcentre of origin and diversity of potatoes, one of the world’s major food crops which has been protected for centuries by the deeply rooted local food systems of Quechua peoples. The Potato Park, as its name denotes, celebrates the tremendous diversity of native potato varieties and other native Andean crops characteristic of Andean food systems. The Potato Park is dedicated to safeguarding and enhancing these food systems and native agrobiodiveristy….”


“…[the approaches used here] …link traditional and science-based understandings….” “…the Potato Park is concerned with indigenous peoples’ self determination and securing Quechua people’s tenure and rights to agricultural biodiversity, local products, traditional knowledge, and related ecosystem good and services.”


Maestrín used to tell me that he thought some of the seeds that could no longer be found at Cébaco could be found in mainland, where some farmers he had not seen in years may have them. More than once, I thought about going to these places with him, but I didn’t.   Recently, while working in Alto Bayano, east of the Province of Panama, I have had the opportunity of seeing people from the indigenous communities of Comarca Kuna of Madungandí, and Piriatí and Ipetí Emberá, growing different varieties of rice and fruits that, at least from my experience, do not grow in the communities nearby. 


I am convinced that cultural biodiversity and agricultural biodiversity go hand in hand. This is something I wanted to highlight under this bright Full Moon.


I would like to finish this by remembering what my friend Jorge Martínez mentioned some days ago. In his opinion, the desire for sovereignty in the Canal Zone helped bring individuals from different social status together and that how we value our cultural diversity (not only as an expression of the indigenous people), and its potential for the common good (since agricultural biodiversity has proven to do so both in Panama and in every other country, I would add) could be a valid, strong reason for staying united today as a nation. 





(1) “¡Cébaco! La historia de isla Cébaco, Panamá, contada por sus pobladores” (The History of Cébaco Told by Its Inhabitants). Smithsonian and Editorial Futuro Forestal, 2013. 192 pp.