War bad for seeds, seeds good for peace

We asked Jacob van Etten to write about war and agricultural biodiversity after seeing his great website. It’s just coincidence that he sent the following piece in right after we blogged about flooding and genetic erosion. Sometimes things work out that way. Thanks, Jacob. We’re always open to guest contributions…

War can be disastrous for the environment. Think about forest destruction in Kurdistan or burning oil wells in Iraq. But we know very little about agrobiodiversity losses caused by armed conflict. Some time ago, a team of geographers wrote an alarming article about maize biodiversity in Guatemala, where a war raged in the 1980s. They claimed that war and modernization had caused a massive disappearance of indigenous maize varieties. This was based on a quick study of several townships.

However, in a recent restudy, which involved more intensive sampling in a single township, it became clear that several maize varieties were still hiding in the corners. Variety loss was in fact rather low and no varieties were reported to be lost due to the war. What seemed to have changed over the last decades was the social distribution of seeds and knowledge, suggestive of a disrupted social exchange network.

As other studies in Rwanda and West Africa have given similar results, a general picture seems to emerge. The problem is often not the physical survival of seeds and varieties during war. They may be conserved by those who stay in the village or recovered after the violence from fields and secret storages. The main problem is that war destroys the social and economic tissue that underpins agricultural diversity management. Mistrust and poverty will limit the circulation of seeds, leading to access problems and a fragmented local knowledge system. There may thus be a lot of sense in a project of CARE by Sierra Leone that turned the problem of seeds and war on its head. It used the distribution of seeds as a way to evoke discussion on the principles of social exclusion and the causes of the armed conflict.

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