Educación, Cultura y Ecología, Asociación Civil - Educe AC, through their fiscal sponsor Saberes Locales, AC

Fostering continuity in the care and defense of the land, the project seeks to support traditional activities such as the Mayan milpa through the development of demonstration plots and the conservation of native seeds. Activities will be carried out in communities where there is representation from the Bacalar Maya Regional Indigenous Council (CRIMB) and the Much Kanan I’inaj Seed Collective (CMKI). Gatherings will be held to guarantee the distribution of seeds in the region, with the aim of conserving diversity, promoting local varieties and consolidating food security.

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Blanca Flor, La Buena Fe, Guadalupe Victoria, Paraíso / Quintana Roo / Mexico
29 m

There is a significant presence of Mayan communities in the western region of the municipality of Bacalar, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. The climate is warm and sub-humid with rain throughout the summer. Recent trends towards monoculture threaten the environmental and social balance of the area. The average annual temperature ranges between 25 ° - 27 ° C. Prevailing winds travel from the Caribbean Sea and fill the continent with moisture.

If there is maize, there is life
Blanca Flor, La Buena Fe, Guadalupe Victoria, Paraíso / Quintana Roo / México
PHOTOGRAPHY Tania Barrientos Radilla
TEXT  Luis Fernando Vargas

“Our land is not for sale,” says Juan Bautista Yeh y Teh, who has lived all of his 68 years in the Maya community of La Buena Fe in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. His 68 years and more than six decades working the milpa, along with the tone of his voice, give strength to his statement. He does not stop there: Juan believes that land should be given a fair treatment and taken care of. Throughout his life, Juan has seen people work the land in search of riches, an endless sea of agricultural terrain destroyed by that logic. “I think that, as long as the land I have gives me food, everything is fine.”

The care Don Juan gives to his milpa is methodical, therefore food is not absent. He wakes every day at six in the morning ready for breakfast. Half an hour later he leaves his house and by seven has arrived at his land in the La Buena Fe community, in the western region of Bacalar, Quintana Roo state, bordering Belize and the Caribbean Sea in the south of Mexico. Once there, work is tough: heaving the machete, plowing the land, sowing the seeds— leaving everything ready for the arrival of the rains, without which nothing will grow.

Quintana Roo is the fourth Mexican state with the highest percentage of people who identify as indigenous, following Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Campeche, around 40% of the population. 

285 people of Maya origin live in La Buena Fe. The majority spend their time at the milpa. They are ejidatarios, that is, according to Mexican law the lands are collective property, impossible to sell unless the community jointly decides otherwise. Few work outside of town, although lately young people are leaving school to search for opportunities elsewhere. “Few remain [in the community]”, says Juan, and that is what worries him the most as a communal leader.

“It has been tough because people already have the idea of introducing hybrids, due to pressure from a very powerful company. But here we are putting up a fight, as they say. We will not allow them to invade us.”

In an attempt to preserve La Buena Fe’s fraying social fabric, community leaders like Juan worked with the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), through its Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility (IPAF) fund, to launch a gathering focused on exchanging knowledge and seeds between community members. It also created a space for more political conversations around the situation for Indigenous Communities in the region and the advance of GMO crops.

The encounter built bonds and networks that collectively seek to maintain traditions alive. The project covers eight communities where there is representation of the Regional Indigenous Maya Council of Bacalar (CRIMB) and the seed collective Much Kanan I´inaj (CMKI).

“The seed fair encourages people to keep harvesting what our grandparents left us. The best way to preserve it is by planting. That is what all of this is about: taking care of the seed,” Juan Yeh explains.

At the core of the seed fair—and of all Maya culture—is maize, the life-giving crop from which humans were born, according to Maya cosmology. To preserve heirloom seeds is not only to preserve the food that has sustained generations, but also to safeguard the ancestral meaning of the harvest.

It is a struggle to maintain good quality crops. The use of hybrid, genetically modified seeds has become increasingly common. “We have already seen that these hybrid seeds do not last long. Native maize, if harvested as was taught by our grandparents, by using the moon cycle to select the seed, plant and harvest, the corn survives longer, it does not get moths (infected), as they say. In comparison, the hybrid is still in the bush and its dust is already falling if one does not harvest it”, says Juan.

“It has been tough because people already have the idea of introducing hybrids, due to pressure from a very powerful company. But here we are putting up a fight, as they say. We will not allow them to invade us.” 

The threat of monoculture is very present in Quintana Roo, based on a predominant logic of deforestation, soil exploitation, strong use of pesticides, and expansion. Each day, more people sell their lands.

In the state of Quintana Roo there are 593 communities inhabited by close to 200,000 people who speak the Mayan language. This equals 16.2% of the total population of the entity.


(10) The Mayan ancestors attended these natural elevations of the land to perform ceremonies. In recent years, the mounds have suffered considerable damage. (11) Heber Uc, member of the Xa'aybe Collective. In the background, a Mennonite farm. (12) Younger members of the communities are heirs of the knowledge and customs of their parents and grandparents who have cared for the land before them. (13) Other economic activities in the region are beekeeping, weaving and the sale of traditional food. (14) Pineapples. (15) Don Juan Pat's son prepares him for his upcoming birthday celebrations. (16) Roads of the Mayan territory in the Mexican southeast.

Meanwhile Juan continues to share his seeds, he keeps organizing and maintaining a lifestyle in harmony with his surroundings, which is increasingly uncommon. Tomorrow he will get up at dawn, he will have breakfast – with tortillas, of course, a fundamental and sacred food – and he will go to his milpa to work. “It is not a very comfortable job, but it has given me a lot of pleasure to do it. And when I enjoy my work I feel even happier,” he says.

Juan constantly reminds his children: “the land is not for sale.” His dream is for every person with a milpa to have access to native seeds, to harvest, to keep their culture and worldview alive. He hopes that with these types of initiatives more young people will take root in their land and learn the work of sowing. He is sure of one thing: as long as there is maize, there is life.

Blanca Flor, La Buena Fe, Guadalupe Victoria, Paraíso / Quintana Roo / México