Ethnographic fields

The SeedsValues involves a team of researchers who will ethnographically document seed practices in Peru, Mexico, and Laos, agrodiversity hotspots of the potato, maize, and rice respectively. This transcultural approach is articulated on a comparison between two main ecological zones in the mountainous regions of Cuzco, Oaxaca, and Luang Prabang. Accordingly, in the lowland, agriculture systems are based on irrigation infrastructure allowing for the growing of improved varieties selected for high productivity. Seeds appreciation in the lowland context will be compared to highland agriculture were uneven slopes and unstable climatic conditions hamper economies of scales and the intensification of production. As a general fact, biological properties in seeds make the native varieties more adapted to climatic conditions in the highlands, while improved seeds are bred to fit with lowland irrigated field. Of course, the empirical reality is more complicated than this model suggests: highland growers also include improved varieties in their seeds cornucopia, while some lowland growers continue to cultivate native varieties in minor plots intended for self-consumption. Considering the diversity of cultivation strategies will be crucial to our comparative approach of the values of native and improve varieties within these composite landscapes.

These three field sites are also strategic regions for the intervention of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR): while Peru hosts the Centro International de la Papa-CIP, and Mexico the Centro International de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo-CIMMYT, Laos is the second-largest contributor of varieties to the International Rice Research Institute-IRRI based in Philippines. These are world-leading institutions in the design of seed breeding strategies for the three crops at stake. In these countries of notable CGIAR intervention, improved varieties have been massively spread. Yet, in some sectors mostly situated in the highlands, indigenous farmers have continued cultivating a huge diversity of crops. This diversity is now being reappraised under the threat of genetic erosion and ecological upheaval.

On this regard, the axe of comparison between highland and lowland agricultures will serve to explore the local ramification of the contradictory interventions of global institutions. Namely, the promotion of modernisation packages including the monoculture of improved varieties, on the one hand, and the promotion of in-situ conservation of agrobiodiversity in growers’ fields, on the other hand. The strength of a comparative ethnographic analysis is to account for an array of appreciations by different, and sometimes conflictive actors, such as cultivators, agronomists, conservators, traders, or policymakers.

Modelisation of the SeedsValues Comparative Approach