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Preserving Heirloom Crops, Preserving Diversity

January 2007

The legend of the first Thanksgiving is a tale of different worlds coming together in peace to share the bounty of the harvest, of Old World and New World crops and cultures coming together for the common good. Unfortunately, in the five centuries since the European voyages of discovery launched the first wave of globalization, native peoples and small farmers around the world have struggled to preserve their local foods and local culture. In the face of this assault on agrobiodiversity (a measure of the number of different kinds of crops farmers grow, and an important part of biodiversity in general) and local sovereignty, Grassroots is proud to be working with movements and organizations who are fighting to preserve local foods and local ways of life.

For our Thanksgiving, 2006 issue of Grassroots ONLINE, we asked our partners and allies like the Via Campesina and the Slow Food movement about their losses and about what they are doing to stop the loss of local food and culture.

Creusa Lopes, Polo Sindical, Bahia and Pernambuco, Brazil

The marizeira is a species of nut tree that grows in the humid forests of South America. It used to be found on the banks of the São Francisco River. It was a tree of medium size. In its season, bunches of kids used to collect the nuts–castanha de mari–to toast later. In this region of the São Francisco, with the construction of the Itaparica dam, all of the riverside areas were flooded and the marizeiras disappeared. People lost their lush river-side farms and they lost traditional native forest crops like the mari, and all that’s come to replace it are industrial scale farms, irrigated with our river water, that export fruit and vegetables to the cities on the coast and to the exterior.

Nicole Manuel, Secwepemc Nation, Chase, Britsh Columbia, Canada

It was six years ago that the Secwepemc gathered at a place called Squakmo. The white man calls it Sun Peaks. It’s a ski resort in our backyard, in our territory. There must have been almost a hundred Secwepemc there. When people started speaking about the land there, they started speaking about the hunting, how bountiful it was–the fish were in the lakes and creeks, there were berries and the roots all along the valley bottom of Squakmo. There were Indian potatoes. They were big like potatoes. That was the staple of our diet. The elders they spoke about running along the valleys there, and they would feel lumps under the bottom of their feet. Those were the Indian potatoes. They don’t grow there anymore. Right now there is a day lodge, a village day lodge, there’s a delta hotel, but no more Indian potato. And that hurts all of us.

Paul Smith, Oneida, Heifer International Indian Nations Program

Every native person in here is struggling with liberation. We struggle with liberation in a different way. What I’m saying is we recognize the land as sacred, and our relationship to that. All of our ceremonies are based on food, our seeds ceremonies, our harvest ceremonies-where the U.S. Thanksgiving came from-our green corn ceremonies, our planting songs and planting ceremonies; they are all based on our relationship to life forces.

From: Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Ever wonder about the earliest of America’s foods? What did they look like? More importantly, what did they taste like? Rarely one has the opportunity to actually find these ancient foods because so many have been lost, taking an important part of our history with them. But an important gem of history still emerges from the desert soils of the Southwest United States, chapalote corn: the first corn to enter centuries ago what is now the United States. Read more about chapotle corn and other endangered foods.

Carlos Marentes, Border Agricultural Workers

The chili market in the southwest of the United States has changed drastically in the decades that I’ve been involved. Chiles used to be grown for local consumption. It was all small-scale production. We had many very different types of chilies. Now it’s controlled by corporations, and small scale production has disappeared. We now longer see the farmer deciding what takes place on his own farm, because he’s taking orders from a supervisor from a supermarket chain or food processing company. All of those different colors and flavors have been pushed aside to make way for uniform chilies that look good on a shelf or make consistent, industrial-sized batches of salsa.

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