Implications of the Decline in Seed Varieties

by douglas reeser on April 30, 2012
You may have caught this graphic making the rounds on social networks - or maybe it's just the friends we keep that brought it to our attention. What you're looking at is the change over time in the diversity of a selection of food crops available to growers. The upper part of the graphic portrays the surprising number of varieties available for a number of foods: 408 types of tomato seeds, 285 different cucumber varieties, 288 different types of beets, 307 types of sweet corn, and 341 varieties of squash are just some examples. Compare that to what was available 80 years later in 1983: 79 types of tomatoes, 16 types of cucumbers, 17 varieties of beets, 12 kinds of sweet corn and 40 types of squash.

These differences are quite astounding, and it's important to remember that the decline in seed varieties doesn't just mean less of a selection at your local supermarket. Most of the food plants we have today are a direct result of that huge diversity that we created in the past. That diversity allowed humans to expand our settled territory, feed growing populations, and become who we are today. By reducing the diversity of food plants that we grow, we are putting our very own livelihood at great risk. A less diverse food system, such as we have created today, is much more vulnerable to drought, floods, pests, fungi, and anything else that might affect growing crops. As extreme weather events appear to be on the rise around the globe, this could become a serious problem.

Some farmers around the world continue to cultivate a wide variety of food crops. These farmers are often indigenous peoples who carry on traditional forms of agriculture passed down through the generations. If you're a regular reader here, you know that traditional lifeways are threatened all over the globe. Here is yet another reason to support efforts that seek to revitalize and maintain traditions wherever they may be practiced. Maintaining diversity in all of its forms is necessary in a time when the challenges we are facing are just as diverse. The more options we have to turn to in times of stress and distress, the more likely we are to succeed in overcoming those challenges.

For more on this issue, visit the Rural Advancement Foundation International >>>

Open Letter from Colombia's FARC to the Summit of the Americas

The mountains of Colombia are a notorious strong-hold of FARC forces.  
by douglas reeser on 4.27.12
Following is a translation (from Spanish) of an open letter from FARC to the Heads of States that are attending the Summit of the Americas in Caracas, Venezueala this month. If you're unfamiliar with the organization, FARC is a revolutionary force in open conflict with the Colombian government. The US National Counterterrorism classifies them as a terrorist organization, and notes their founding in 1964, their Marxist ideals, and their use of violence as a tactic for resistance. Despite the political slant on the situation, this is a voice that is rarely heard on the international stage. After Israel, Colombia is the largest recipient of military aid from the US, which is funding a war on drugs and "terrorism" to the tune of billions of dollars. The war has gone on for decades, and is decidedly messy, with civilians, indigenous groups, and a host of other bystanders caught in the cross-fire. Amnesty International, which has been calling for an end to the US-Colombia collaboration for over a decade because of wide-spread human rights abuses, has more details on the conflict. 

Thanks to the St. Louis Interfaith Committee on Latin America which had an intern translate the open letter from the FARC to the Summit on the Americas. 
Open Letter from FARC Distinguished Presidents and Heads of States of America:  
As those present will undoubtedly recall, in the first CELAC summit held in Caracas, a group of respectable voices expressed to the president their willingness to assist Colombia in finding a political solution to the confrontation our country suffers. The direct response of President Santos was that it was better to do nothing; the resolution of the conflict should be exclusively in the hands of Colombia.  
Nevertheless, the government of Colombia acknowledges receiving from the United States more than ten billion dollars for war in the last 12 years, calling for direct intervention, turning over the entire territory for air operations, increasing the number of advisers, North American military and paramilitary personnel, receiving the latest technology and subjecting their counterinsurgency plans to the commands of the Pentagon. Pressure is on its neighbors to jointly combat the guerrillas in Colombia, which is described in the most offensive adjectives.  
For the war, yes, it is willing to receive all participation possible. As often reiterated by President Santos, his purpose is to achieve peace, by good or bad (one way or another). Understanding the course of good means only capitulation and surrender. After the last decade of large operations of military extermination, the truth about the impossibility of a military solution to the conflict is seen. In a similar way, the United States concluded that it was best to leave Afghanistan and Iraq. After half a century of bloody fratricidal conflict, the Colombian regime still insists on an uncertain military victory.  
The FARC-EP are far from being the monster described by the Colombian oligarchy. We are thousands of women and men who want to realize the dream that was cut short by the death of our liberator Simon Bolivar. We join with the people of our country in the most legitimate political and social aspirations. We will never be separated from these dreams by the vast but regular army patrols, the fleets of bombers and helicopter gunships, the police forces and security forces, paramilitary groups and all kinds of gunmen that lower the hopes of a better life in Colombia.  
Our armed uprising answers the domestic situation of state violence. There are more political assassinations of leaders of the unions, indigenous (Afro-Colombians) and peasants, than were committed by any of the disastrous Latin American dictatorships in the past. Despite regular elections and the institutional façade, state crimes and inequality guides the social set up in our country to an explosive situation. Each of the powerful economic groups control a vast media monopoly, and almost 200,000 of the victims of paramilitaries in the last twenty years, certified by the Attorney General’s own nation, are just an anecdote for the old press that continues to slander us. One tenth of the population is in a forced position of displacement. The prisons are full of social activists. Only unconditional support for the U.S. interests in the continent and the world explains the generosity of Washington to the Colombian leadership. In our country, they apply the heavy handed enforcement of multilateral lending agencies, privatize as much as possible, fill themselves with transnational investment privileges, worsen labor conditions and cut social guarantees, destroy the peasant economy, surrender to plunder their rich vast territories, and persecute with a vengeance artisan and craft production. GDP growth favors a small group of investors who are not Colombian.  
And they (cook) the conditions for future aggression against people who are unwilling to admit a similar model for things. Peace in Colombia, always involving popular participation in the democratic decisions of the state, is a basic prerequisite for the peaceful future of the other nations on the continent. We have always opposed a peace that amounts to a mere return to the corrupt institutions generated by this uprising. We stress the need for dialogue to be responsible, facing the Colombian people and their active interference, to recreate the conditions to enable democratic coexistence. Half a century of Colombian blood demands it.  
In the midst of a global capital crisis, a successful summit of the Americas should deal with much more than economic growth related to market rules. Addressing the respect for sovereignty and independence of their nations, a model of alternative development, and outlawing war as a way of dealing with conflicts. The end of the irrational embargo, as well as the valiant demand of President Correa to integrate free and fully Cuba, we legitimate Argentinian claims over the Falklands and the political solution to the long Colombian conflict are priorities on a continental agenda.  
Perhaps it is time to address the infeasibility of the war on drugs. As we stated in open letter to Congress and to the people of the United States in April 2000: “…if what you are looking for is a solution following the scourge of drugs, the world must prepare for the larger discussion about the desirability of the legalization of its use, as happened in the past with other scourges such as alcohol and snuff.” It is in any case a serious social problem that cannot be fixed by military means, that agreements require a national and international commitment and participation to the great powers as main sources of global demand for drugs.  
Central Secretariat StaffRevolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army FARC-EP  
Mountains of Colombia, April 2012.

Traditional Maya Beekeeping

by douglas reeser on April 21, 2012
Around the globe, bee populations have been mysteriously declining for the last few years. Theories on the cause of the decline include cell phone signals that interfere with bee communications and a variety of chemical pesticides that have had a deleterious effect. Along with the decline in bee populations, it turns out there has been a decline in traditional beekeepers among Maya populations in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. In this short film, Dr. Stephen Buchmann of the Drylands Institute in Tucson, AZ and the Pollinator Partnership offers a glimpse of the ancient practice.

From the producer: "Deep in the rainforest of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, in the shadow of his ancestors' great stone pyramids, one of the last Mayan beekeepers guards an ancient secret. It was passed on to him directly from his fathers in the Mayan language from long before the time of Cortez. He is one of very few modern Maya upholding the beecraft skills of keeping stingless bees. All is unveiled as Emmy award-winning cinematographer Keith Brust (Planet Earth, etc.) takes us deep inside the bees' hidden world and this ages old Mayan tradition for the first time."

Uncontacted Tribes Found in the Colombian Amazon

An indigenous round-house deep in the Colombian Amazon.
Photo by Cristóbal von Rothkirch, courtesy of Colombian National
Parks Unit and Amazon Conservation Team.
by douglas reeser on April 19, 2012
Recycled Minds has covered a number of "uncontacted tribe" stories over the years, so thought we would share the latest coming out of Colombia. So far, this story about what may be three different indigenous groups is a bit unique from the past stories we've covered. The previous stories came with some controversy, something to this point lacking in the Colombian story. In 2008, a group was filmed in the Brazilian Amazon and declared a "Lost Tribe", however the story stayed in the headlines as people declared it a hoax, and then later accepted that the group was just re-discovered after almost 100 years. (You can read about that story and check out some pictures on our posts from 2008 here and here).

Next came a story in early 2011 from the Peruvian Amazon that claimed to be the first-ever video footage of an uncontacted tribe deep in the forest (Check out our coverage here). This story was significant for the fact that the indigenous group was under threat from illegal loggers operating in the vicinity. Both stories highlighted the difficulty such groups have in maintaining their autonomy and way of life free of outside influence. Brazil and Peru each have organizations charged with protecting the rights of such groups, but when faced with the relative power and influence of international logging and oil companies, their limitations are exposed.

This latest story from Colombia offers a slightly different situation. In conjunction with numerous government ministries, NGOs, and anthropologists, legislation was passed in 2011 to specifically protect remote, uncontacted and autonomous indigenous groups:
The State shall guarantee the rights of uncontacted indigenous peoples or indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation to remain in that condition and live freely according to their cultures on their ancestral lands. Therefore, as subjects of special protection, under no circumstances may they be stripped of their territories, or be subject to policies, programs or activities, private or public, that promote contact or realize interventions in their territories for any purpose. 
The groups were found in the 2.47 million acre Rio Puré National Park during a project that was attempting to determine if tribes were in fact living in the park. Now that groups have been located, the government will begin to define their territories, and develop plans to deal with accidental contact, specifically readying health resources. Rapid health response to first contact is vital to the survival of a group, as introduced diseases have decimated previously uncontacted populations. Groups in Colombia have unprecedented legislation in place to protect them from outsiders, and it will be interesting to see if that's enough to maintain their autonomy and survival.

You can read the entire story on Mongabay>>>

Views from the ANThill: Learning Language, Using Anthropology

The Punta Gorda Branch Library - a budding community center and host to a new series of
Indigenous language classes. Photo courtesy of doug reeser.
by douglas reeser on April 13, 2012
I think of myself as an anthropologist. My primary efforts in the field are designed to provide insight into human behavior, particularly in the realm of health and illness. There is also another side to what I do here, work that is distinctly applied anthropology. I come out of a program that has an applied focus, where we are urged to work for positive change in our host communities. My applied work is not directly tied to my research; however, it is a direct result of my being an anthropologist. I do not think of myself as being the source of action here, rather I see my work as more facilitation. Let me explain.

Language is one of the core foundations of culture. As anthropologists and scholars, we know this; and yet around the globe, languages are being lost at an alarming rate. In Belize, there are still a number of indigenous languages in use, but little data is available on their health and vitality. My research is not specifically about language, and most of my research is done in English, so I am not faced with language issues on a regular basis. Still, the applied aspect of my work in the field is directly related to the local indigenous languages.

Maya Day 2012: a Photo Essay from Belize

by douglas reeser on April 11, 2012

~ Signs of the Times in Toledo ~
Maya Day is an annual event that celebrates traditional Maya culture held at Tumul K'in Center for Learning
in Blue Creek Village in the Toledo District of southern Belize. I traveled to the festivities on the
morning of the event, passing through the village of Dump along the way. There I noticed a banner for
Maya Day hanging among election campaign banners from the regional and national elections held
just a few weeks before. The challenging PUP (blue sign) won in Toledo, but the UDP (red signs)
took the majority nation-wide, causing some concern that Toledo would be neglected
by the ruling party.
~ Welcome to Tumul K'in ~
Tumul K'in Center for Learning in Blue Creek Village is host to the Maya Day festivities. The school is
a unique blend of traditional and modern teaching that offers classes that include traditional
agriculture and traditional medicine, but also instructs youth in computer programing, radio
engineering, and modern animal husbandry. A small school that attracts youth from throughout
Belize and from multiple ethnic backgrounds, Tumil K'in boards students throughout the school year. 
~ Maya Health and Spirituality ~
The Maya Day festivities included small demonstration stands for such topics as traditional agriculture,
Maya history, Tumul K'in products, health, along with a number of local food vendors. Pictured
here is the "Traditional Health and Spirituality" booth, where Q'eqchi' Maya healers presented a number
of medicinal plants and discussed their uses with local community members and others there for the events.
~ Tuba Caldo ~
One of the main attractions at Maya Day is the food. My main meal of the day was Tuba Caldo,
a traditional soup made with a local river fish and corn tortillas. I also enjoyed craboo shaved ice
(a local cherry-sized fruit) and fresh local watermelon. There were a number of other foods available,
but I think the most popular may have been the chicken barbecue. I particularly enjoyed the
corn tortilla making demonstration, where they made some of the thickest, plumpest tortillas
I have ever had. 
~ The Deer Dance ~ 
The Maya Deer Dance is a traditional dance that mixes elements of pre-contact historical fables
with colonial era characters. The dance is a story that promotes respect for the environment and all
of earth's creatures through a depiction of the careless over-hunting of deer by the Spanish
conquistadors. The Deer Dance is held at significant Maya events throughout the present-day Maya
world, including Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and Belize.  
~ Maya Stilt Walking ~
One of the many performances at Maya Day was the stilt walking dance. Dancers recreated a scene
from the Popul Vuh,  often considered the Quiche Mayan book of creation, and originally written
in Maya glyphs. In the scene depicted by the dancers, the Hero Twins walk through a fiery
level of the underworld. 
~ The Greasy Pole Climb ~
Another event at Maya Day was the greasy pole climb. Much ritual and community effort
was involved in bringing the correct pole to the festivities. Before raising, the pole was
blessed with incense and prayer, and then pulled up and into place by the support ropes.
A prize awaits the first person to reach the top, and traditionally, contestants are aided by
the use of a large support stick. Nobody reached the top using this method in 2012. 
~ Traditional Maya Dancing ~
Another fun event was the traditional dance competition. Maya women performed the traditional
waltz-like dance to live marimba music. Only three women took part in 2012, and there did not
appear to be a winner. Instead, the rather austere dance was simply observed by a small part of the crowd. 
~ Reaching the Top of the Greasy Pole ~
As mentioned above, nobody was able to reach the top of the pole following the traditional method.
Instead, two contestants scaled the support ropes to the top. The guy closest to the top reached first,
but was unable to release the prize. The second guy, reached, climbed onto the very top of the pole
and grabbed the award - $250 Belize ($125 US), some handkerchiefs, and a bottle of rum. 

First Friday Picture Show: Southern Reclamation by Meg Kassabaum

This month's Picture Show features the photography of Meg Kassabaum. Meg is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Originally from a family of artists in St. Louis, Missouri, her passion for photography developed while traveling and working on archaeological digs throughout the American South. The small southern towns that have served as home for various summers and semesters provided locations for exploring the intersection of nature and culture, revealing places so long established that the human constructions blend seamlessly into the landscape. In her photography, she strives to shift away from concentrating on the structures human impose upon natural places, and rather focus on the moment when nature starts to take these places back.