Letter from Chile: Meeting the Keepers of the Seeds

(Photo courtesy of the author)

I sat alone in the plaza as the thick November dusk dissolved off the stones. I was in a town in southern Chile called Curarrehue: a village of a few thousand people, mostly indigenous, nestled at the base of a volcano-speckled valley, with gravel roads twisting through the passing farms. I watched cloud stripes on the horizon fade from electric orange to soft grey, guessing which evening wanderer Edith Cumiquir might be. I knew her from weeks of stuttering correspondence that began when I found her email address on a list of Chilean organic farms. To get Internet, she has to visit the back room of a local pharmacy.

Eventually, her silver streaked black hair appeared. We linked eyes, kissed cheeks, and followed the spiral of streets. Dark eyes blinked deliberately from behind her glasses as we spoke.

Her home stood a few blocks away, a one-story house surrounded by its own rainforest: a canopy of large, leafed branches drooping under the roof and onto her porch, lined with herbs and flowers growing out of old tires and pots. I dropped my backpack inside, and she brought me my first mug of tea, a sugary blend with the green spines of pine needles floating to the top.

That mug of tea was the first of several traditional treats Edith shared with me. My favorite was nalka, a wide-leafed wild rhubarb plant found throughout drenched in sweet milk. In the kitchen, the steps for these traditional dishes fell from her fingertips without recipes, just like the names of the area’s plants streamed from her lips as we passed them by.

Like nalka, Edith is native to southern Chile. Edith is Mapuche, the country’s most prominent indigenous group. Shehas lived in Curarrehue her whole life, and her ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years.

“This is one of the original towns,” she explained to me. “We are the descendents of the first owners of the land.”

In Curarrehue, she is the president of La Sociedad de Gastronomía y Cultivos Rayen Quimey, the Society of Food and Crops. Through this organization, she leads seven other Mapuche women from the indigenous community of Francisco Cumiquir in Curarrehue. They aim to share their Mapuche worldview through community-oriented tourism, based around, as she described it, “[their] ancestral knowledge of gastronomy, work with sheep’s wool, and use of native medicinal plants.”

These eight women share ownership of a farm a few miles outside of town and a restaurant they started together, a small circular building with a stone fireplace set

in the center. They specialize in traditional Mapuche food and drinks. Fresh juice is particularly sought after. At a meeting one rainy afternoon, I sat by the woodstove in their restaurant kitchen, passing around maté with five of the eight women, and between turns sipping through the metal straw, they discussed their menu for the evening. The conversation tripped over how to make enough juice from the berries they had after customers the week before had demanded pulp-stained pitchers of raspberry juice all night.

But for Edith, preserving local knowledge of the land goes beyond the tasty rewards it often offers. In the past, Trafinktu was a practice of exchanging seeds between Mapuche neighbors or villages. Often, women had the honor of choosing the seeds to trade or preserve. Among other benefits, this practice conserved the biodiversity of seeds of the region. As the years went on, the practice waned. But Edith refuses to consider its obsolescence.

“We find it impossible to maintain our biodiversity now. This is why the protection of and exchange of seeds is so important—it helps us avoid having our biodiversity driven by the larger market,” she said.

In response, Edith and other Mapuche women from neighboring towns established a group, Las Curadoras de Semillas, the Keepers of Seeds, to revive this exchange to conserve local knowledge about the biodiversity of seeds. Edith thinks women have been at the center of the issue because of their unique position in Mapuche society.

“We worry more about society itself, beginning with our own families, and our children, who will continue our work of recovering the natural environment,” she remarked. “We are more integral.”

Edith believes universal health and survival depend upon the health of indigenous communities, the recovery of what has been forgotten, and the prioritization of plant life. As a Keeper of Seeds, her work focuses on preserving the land and traditions she knows so well by maintaining natural spaces and collections of seeds, as well as planting seeds in areas where they have been lost.

Eating helps, too. Seeds deteriorate if they are not consistently planted. And continuing to grow and eat plants helps ensure that their seeds remain viable for future generations. In the past, traditions in Chile and around the world included collecting, saving, and trading a variety of seeds from one season’s successful crops while selecting specific traits to save, such as taste or durability in one region’s climate.More recently, larger seed companies and genetic modification have affected these practices. Some seed companies, such as Monsanto, require farmers sign a contract to not save or sell seeds, ensuring that the farmers return as customers year after year. The company has also marketed controversial seeds with genetic use restriction, often termed “suicide seeds,” that die after one season.

The fight to preserve native species is fortified in Curarrehue by the history of Trafinktu and the strong connection between Mapuche people and the land, though outcry against the homogenization and centralization of agriculture has grown louder in the debate around the future of food globally. Larger scale efforts include an 8,000 member Seed Saver’s Exchange based in Iowa and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank located on an island in the Arctic and managed by the Norwegian government.

As food activists in different pockets of the world look to revive a past of green zebra tomatoes and Kenearly yellow eye beans, Edith focuses on her own backyard, one with nalka and more. She wants to preserve the land the way her ancestors knew it, the land whose seeds she keeps.

Diana Saverin ’13 is an English major in Berkeley College. Contact her at diana.saverin@yale.edu.