Breeding maize to survive hurricanes in Honduras

September 29, 2019

This corn can literally stand up to hurricanes.

Isidora Garcia: Indigenous farmer, researcher, plant breeder and community leader. (Photo: Faris Ahmed/SeedChange)

Farmers in the mountainous Yoro region of Honduras have bred and released several varieties of maize that are higher yielding, and more resilient to climate change. Based on local or “landrace” varieties, Capulin Mejorado and Santa Cruz produce large cobs, are adapted to high altitudes, but have shorter, sturdier stalks – which helps them withstand the longer and more unpredictable hurricane season and the risk of being knocked over by winds and ruined by rain. Capulin is an Indigenous maize variety that already grows well in high altitudes. Farmers collect seeds for the community seed bank to secure a healthy seed supply.

The release of these varieties coincided with one of the heaviest hurricane seasons on record. Many people had almost nothing to harvest, or seeds to sow in the new season. But communities growing Capulin Mejorado and Santa Cruz, were hardly affected. This is due to the high quality, adaptability, and resilience of these varieties, combined with agroecological farming and conservation practices.

Communities and government officials across Honduras have applauded their success, and have received Capulin Mejorado seeds for their own communities.

Farmers on the steep hillsides of the Honduran countryside have proven to be skilled plant scientists. Through continuous participatory breeding and varietal selection, farmer research teams (known by the Spanish acronym CIALs) have successfully bred and increased on-farm diversity in corn, beans, and other crops, while increasing average yields by 20-30 per cent.

Honduras lies in a biodiversity hotspot, with many native crop varieties, especially of maize and beans. The agricultural biodiversity and plant genetic resources are critically important for food security and nutrition, building climate resilience, and strengthening community food sovereignty.

Farm families participating in the plant breeding program, supported by SeedChange and FIPAH (Foundation for Participatory Research), are using agroecological and watershed management approaches, such as terracing, making and integrating natural fertilizers and pesticides, greater crop diversity, and preserving soil health. As a result, they have managed to drastically reduce what’s known as los Junios – the hunger days.