The Tarahumara Indians occupy remote slopes and deep canyons of the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua and Durango, Mexico, where they have retreated from the oppression of the modern world. Also known as the Rarámuri, or “foot-runners,” they are renowned long-distance runners with incredible endurance often fueled by consuming pinole made from their traditional popcorn and energy-boosting drinks from their native Chia seeds. They are also highly proficient dry-land subsistence farmers growing diverse crop varieties from seed handed down through generations.
Tarahumara families grow nearly all their own food, relying on the beneficence of nature for their survival. However, a decade-long drought combined with unseasonable cold snaps has challenged even the resourcefulness of these indigenous farmers and their hardy seeds. These climate extremes have taken a toll on the Tarahumara, who are now facing serious food shortages after repeated crop failures. As the crisis deepens, desperation has set in. Some villagers are beginning to leave their traditional lives to find work in the cities, while others struggle to survive on dwindling reserves.
The Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank contains 450 varieties of traditional Tarahumara crops. As news of the crisis spread, NS/S began investigating how we could help. Our contacts in Chihuahua, the Mexican state where most Tarahumara live, reported that many farmers had depleted their last reserves of seed. They had no planting stock remaining for next year’s season. Looking over our collection, we came up with a strategy to return these endangered seeds to the Tarahumara who entrusted us with them decades ago.
As a starting point, we selected several Tarahumara bean and corn varieties to grow out on our Conservation Farm. NS/S farmer Evan Sofro located four additional sites around Arizona to grow out even more seed, with the intention to eventually send a large quantity down to Mexico. We have been involved with several projects to assist the Tarahumara over the years and still have close contacts in the region (including longtime NS/S collaborator Juan Daniel Villalobos) that will be instrumental in distributing this relief seed. However, an ideal situation would be to provide seed immediately to farmers in lower elevations of the Sierra Madre who still had time to plant this season. It would be challenging to locate and assemble this network of growers without being on the ground in Mexico. It didn’t seem like a plausible option. As serendipity would have it, a phone call came in from Will Harlan of Barefoot Farm in North Carolina. He wanted to get involved with NS/S to help the Tarahumara—and he had a plan to make it work.
A marathon runner, Will had been traveling down to the rugged homeland of the Tarahumara for many years to train and compete with their superlative athletes. Inspired by their harmonious and self-reliant agriculture, he established his own organic, off-grid farm with all proceeds going to provide seeds and tools to assist Tarahumara farmers. Now, these indigenous farmers were in danger of permanently losing their ancestral seeds. Luckily, Native Seeds/SEARCH has been safely preserving many of these varieties. If NS/S provided the seed, Will could organize a group of local farmers, at lower elevations and with irrigated land, to grow them out and directly increase seed supplies in the region.
Although there was seed in the ground across Arizona to supply the Tarahumara this winter, Will had farmers in place and the necessary funding to immediately begin increasing supplies in the villages. Evan and NS/S Director of Conservation Chris Schmidt decided to act now. They packaged up more than 400 pounds of corn and bean seeds to send into Mexico, just over half of the total amount of Tarahumara seeds held in the NS/S collection. In the weeks that followed these precious seeds were distributed among a network of around 80 farmers strategically located throughout one of the canyons hardest hit by the drought. The seed harvested from their plantings will help replenish the supplies of thousands of hungry Tarahumara families.
To ensure their food security for the future, Will is organizing a network of seed banks throughout the Sierra Madre. The seed donated by NS/S was the first “deposit,” and a portion of what is harvested from these crops will be kept on reserve in dozens of small seed banks that will serve local villages. A centralized seed bank is being built in the town of Urique, where electricity is available to ensure long-term preservation of the seeds for the entire region. Through these developments, Will hopes the Tarahumara will never again face the possibility of widespread hunger or permanently losing their irreplaceable indigenous seeds. As it stands, many of the varieties they received from NS/S had already disappeared from their fields. Their elders remembered growing them, but younger farmers had never seen them before. This reunion of the Tarahumara with their native seeds during such a desperate time stands as a powerful affirmation of the work we’ve been doing for nearly 30 years.
The crisis faced by the Tarahumara could soon be our own. The worst drought in half a century is currently devastating corn and soy crops across the Midwest. Global food prices are projected to skyrocket as a result, causing dramatic food shortages around the world. In many ways, our industrial food system is far less resilient than the locally adapted agriculture of the Tarahumara. For now, the global food marketplace buffers us from isolated crop failures and weather disasters. But in an era of unpredictable climate, this protection will soon run out.
Native Seeds/SEARCH will continue working to ensure the Tarahumara once again have an intact agriculture to support themselves for generations to come. Beyond replenishing seed reserves, this will require adapting their food system to meet the extreme climate conditions likely to continue into the future. But an even greater challenge lies ahead. We must radically shift our own precarious food system back toward indigenous traditions of seed saving and community resiliency. Here, the Tarahumara have blazed a path for us. Like Will Harlan, we must learn to follow in their footsteps.