E C O N O M I C S
Working Paper 02-02
Social Relations and Seed Transactions
among Smallscale Maize Farmers in the
Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico
Lone B. Badstue
Mauricio R. Bellon
Ana M. Solano
E C O N O M I C S
Working Paper 02-02
Social Relations and Seed Transactions
among Smallscale Maize Farmers in the
Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico
Lone B. Badstue*
Mauricio R. Bellon*
Ana M. Solano*
*International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Apartado Postal 6-641, 06600 Mexico, D.E
SSistema de Centros Regionales Universitarios, Universidad Aut6noma de Chapingo, Mexico.
CIMMYT (www.cimmyt.org) is an internationally funded, nonprofit, scientific research and training
organization. Headquartered in Mexico, CIMMYT works with agricultural research institutions
worldwide to improve the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of maize and wheat systems for
poor farmers in developing countries. It is one of 16 food and environmental organizations known as the
Future Harvest Centers. Located around the world, the Future Harvest Centers conduct research in
partnership with farmers, scientists, and policymakers to help alleviate poverty and increase food
security while protecting natural resources. The centers are supported by the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) (www.cgiar.org), whose members include nearly 60
countries, private foundations, and regional and international organizations. Financial support for
CIMMYT's research agenda also comes from many other sources, including foundations, development
banks, and public and private agencies.
F U T U R E" Future Harvest builds awareness and support for food and environmental research
H A R E S T for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a
better environment. It supports research, promotes partnerships, and sponsors projects that bring the
results of research to rural communities, farmers, and families in Africa, Asia, and Latin America
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) 2002. All rights reserved. The opinions
expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the authors. The designations employed in the
presentation of materials in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on
the part of CIMMYT or its contributory organizations concerning the legal status of any country, territory,
city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. CIMMYT
encourages fair use of this material. Proper citation is requested.
Correct citation: Badstue, L.B., M. Bellon, X. JuArez, I Manuel, A. M. Solano. 2002. Social relations and seed
transactions among smallscale maize farmers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico. CIMMYT Economics
Working Paper 02-02. Mexico, D.F.: CIMMYT.
Abstract: This paper explores social arrangements associated with seed transactions among smallscale
maize farmers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, a centre of crop genetic diversity. A formal seed
distribution system has yet to develop in the region and when seed loss occurs, farmers are faced with
costs and difficulties identifying, locating, and obtaining seed of desired varieties. For these reasons, it
was hypothesized that there were strong incentives for collective action among farmers to facilitate seed
supply. The study found, however, no evidence of collective action with regards to seed supply in the
three study communities-San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo Albarradas, Santa Ana Zegache. Instead,
farmers acquired seed using a variety of networks of social relations and different types of seed
transactions. The results suggest that seed flow among farmers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca is a
complex process of negotiation and reciprocity, influenced by a variety of agroecological, socioeconomic,
and cultural factors.
AGROVOC descriptors: Zea mays; Maize; Rural sociology; Social policies; Socioeconomic organization;
Cultural development; Research policies; Marketing; Genetic variation; Input output analysis; Cost
analysis; Small farms; Oaxaca; Mexico
AGRIS category codes: E50 Rural Sociology
E70 Trade, Marketing and Distribution
Dewey decimal classification: 338.16
Printed in Mexico.
2 The Study Area
4 Farmers' Distinction Between Grain and Seed
5 Access to Information on Seed
6 Seed Transactions and Social Relations
6 Seed transactions
8 Social relations
10 Considerations Before Entering a Seed Transaction
5 Table 1. Producer and consumer prices for maize seed, grain, and fodder, San Pablo
Huitzo,San Lorenzo Albarradas, and Santa Ana Zegache, Central Valleys of Oaxaca,
Mexico, May 1998.
9 Table 2. Types of seed transactions by social relations, San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo
Albarradas, Santa Ana Zegache, Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico.
10 Figure 1. The relation between social distance and the strength of commitment.
This work was carried out with a grant from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research (CGIAR) Systemwide Initiative on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi). We
thank the farmers who participated in this research for the information they provided, their
kindness, and their patience.
Thanks also goes to Satwant Kaur for editing this report and to Marcelo Ortiz S. for production,
layout, and printing.
Social Relations and Seed Transactions among Smallscale
Maize Farmers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico
L. B. Badstue, M. R. Bellon, X. Judrez, I. Manuel, A. M. Solano
Mexico is a center of origin for maize and maize diversity. Mexican smallscale farmers are
not only heirs to this diversity, but many continue to maintain it. Unlike farmers in
developed countries or commercially oriented farmers in developing countries, smallscale
farmers in Mexico continue to grow local maize landraces and depend almost entirely on
themselves or other farmers to access this diversity.
Most small scale Mexican farmers keep seed from one season to the next. When they lose or
need seed, they turn mostly to other farmers. Farmers acquire seed periodically, either
because of seed loss due to climatic or storage problems or because they want to test seed of
other crop varieties1. They sometimes face problems acquiring seed of varieties they prefer.
Acquiring seed can be difficult, time consuming, and costly, especially when a farmer wants
a particular maize variety. The farmer has to first find out who is growing what variety, the
characteristics of those varieties, and especially, their performance. He or she then has to
ensure that the information is accurate and that the seed is reliable (i.e. it will have an
acceptable germination rate). Finally, the farmer has to negotiate the conditions of the
transaction with the supplying farmer. The last step may be difficult if the supplying farmer
is from another village or if there are no social ties between them. The problem of
identifying and finding seeds of varieties farmers want is exacerbated by poor
nomenclature for maize varieties in the region.
Given the importance of the maize crop for farmers' livelihoods, the probability of seed
loss, and costs and difficulties associated with identifying maize varieties that meet their
needs, one can hypothesize that there are strong incentives for farmers in the region to
organize a group or other form of collective action to secure access to seeds; as a group
farmers can maintain greater diversity at a lower cost and incur less probability of loss than
The research described in this paper builds on another research project undertaken by the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Instituto Nacional de
Investigaciones Forestales Agricolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP) in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca,
SHere we refer to varieties in terms of "farmer varieties," i.e. different crop populations that a group of farmers
recognize as distinct units. This meaning is not the same as the one given to varieties in the context of industrial-
ized agriculture (Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991), where a variety should be
new, distinct, uniform, and stable. In this paper, the term variety is applied mainly to distinct maize landraces that
farmers distinguish in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico. It should be pointed out that while these may be
recognized as distinct, they may not have specific names beyond the color of the kernel, i.e. a farmer may plant
two varieties of white maize. Even though a farmer would recognize them as different, he does not have specific
names for each, and refers to both varieties as 'blancos' (whites).
Mexico (Bellon et al. 2000; Smale et al. 1999). The aim of that research, which began in 1997
and ended in 2002, was to determine whether it is possible to improve maize productivity
while maintaining or enhancing genetic diversity. This working paper increases the scope of
the 1997 study by examining the social infrastructure (social relations and seed transactions)
that shapes seed and information flows on which farmers depend. Only three of the six
communities in the 1997 study-San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo Albarradas, and Santa Ana
Zegache-were included in this report because of its preliminary and qualitative nature and
This study is a first approach to issues of social arrangements and seed transactions.
Studying and understanding social arrangements and seed transactions is important
because they form the basis of supply of landrace diversity for farmers in the area, who
value these landraces and continue to plant them. By doing so, farmers are contributing to
the conservation of biodiversity. The long-term viability of genetic resources in farmers'
fields depends to a great extent on the structure and function of these social arrangements
and seed transactions.
A description of the study area and the methodology used is presented in the next section.
This is followed by a section on farmers' distinction between maize grains and seed and
access to information on seeds. The next section looks at social relations and seed
transactions, followed by a discussion of the findings and the conclusion.
The Study Area
The three study communities, San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo Albarradas, and Santa Ana
Zegache are located in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. The climate is mild-December,
January, and February are the coolest months and April and May are the warmest. The rainy
season is from May-October. Maize, beans, and squash are the most common crops and
average farm size is 3.49 hectares (Smale et al. 1999).
Oaxaca state is divided into districts and municipalities. San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo
Albarradas, and Santa Ana Zegache each constitute municipalities headed by a municipal
president and a body of councillors. All three have electricity and drinking water, some
medical services, and a primary school. San Pablo Huitzo furthermore has secondary
schools, and Santa Ana Zegache and San Lorenzo Albarradas each have a tele-secundaria (a
national secondary school programme via television).
San Pablo Huitzo is located at 1,700 masl and is the most prosperous of the three
municipalities. It also has the most stable and mild climate, the best soils, and the largest
irrigated area, favouring more intensive agriculture. The use of tractors for land
preparation, for example, is more common here. Besides the basic grains mentioned above,
alfalfa is also grown for fodder, since milk production is important. Some farmers also grow
vegetables for the market. Some inhabitants work as skilled or day laborers within or
outside the community. Finally, San Pablo Huitzo also benefits from its close proximity to
the Puebla-Oaxaca highway.
Santa Ana Zegache is located at 1,480 masl. A large part of the population in this community
(>30%) belongs to the ethnic group known as Zapotecos. The area is characterized by poor
soils and scarce rainfall. Only 3% of farms have irrigation (Smale et al. 1999). Like in San
Pablo Huitzo, alfalfa is also cultivated here, although on a much smaller scale. Some farmers
also cultivate castor beans (Ricinus communis), flowers, garlic, and groundnuts. Even though
the community is situated some distance from main transportation roads, access to urban
centers like Oaxaca (1-11/2 hours) and OcotlAn (30-45 minutes) is fairly easy.
San Lorenzo Albarradas is the most remote of the three communities. It covers three agencies,
a Mexican administrative term for branch or unit: San Isidro Roagufa, San Lorenzo, and San
Bartolo. There is a wide range in altitudes in this community (from 1,300 to 2,500 masl)
resulting in vast variations in temperature and suitability for agriculture. A large part of San
Lorenzo Albarradas' terrain is made up of steep and stony slopes with very low yield
potential (Smale et al. 1999). As with the other two municipalities, maize, beans, and squash
are cultivated, along with maguey mezcalero, a type of agave2 used to prepare a spirit known
as mezcal. Several families make petates (hand woven mats) and other local handicrafts.
The best agricultural land in San Lorenzo Albarradas is found in the San Bartolo agencia, on
the road to the Sierra Norte de IxtlAn. Some parts of San Bartolo have irrigation. San Bartolo
is also where the harvested maguey is gathered and prepared for transport; a source of paid
work and cash income for some community members. There is also a mechanics workshop
and a few restaurants and food stalls.
The San Isidro Roagufa agencia is where "Hierve el Agua" is located a natural
phenomenon and tourist attraction where a small number of families earn income from the
sale of food and handicrafts to tourists. There are also a number of cabins for rent. The ejido
authorities3 of San Lorenzo Albarradas administer the income from these cabins.
Twenty-two informants, 13 males and 9 females, were interviewed in December 2000.
Informants were identified according to their knowledge of communities and their
willingness to share information about maize cultivation and ways to obtain seed. On
several occasions, other members of the informant's household were also present during
interviews. Interviews were semi-structured and were carried out using an informal
interview guide. Two agronomists, a sociologist, and an anthropologist conducted
interviews in teams of two. On two occasions, the person interviewed did not agree to the
use of tape recorder, and only notes were taken.
2 The agave varieties most commonly used for mezcal are Potatorum zucc, Amailidaceas and Angustifolia haw (http:/ /
3 The ejido is a land tenure system through which peasant communities received land grants from the government
under the Agrarian Reform. An ejidatario is a member of an ejido. The term ejido also refers to the community of
ejidatarios, a form of social organization.
Farmers' Distinction Between Grain and Seed
In theory, any maize kernel could serve as seed or as food as long as they are healthy
and have no specific, immediately observable characteristics objectively
distinguishing these kernels as seed. Farmers, however, operate with different
categories and clearly distinguish between seed for planting and grain for
consumption or sale (Aguirre 1999; Louette and Smale 1998).
Smallscale farmers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca generally refer to maize kernels as
"grano" or grain, without specifying its' intended use. Grain can be used for
consumption purposes, for animal feed, or for selling. It has not (yet) been classified
according to its' intended use and its' destiny is therefore not homogeneous.
Contrary to this, seed is destined specifically for planting and is an altogether different
Seed is defined through a process of categorization. A series of criteria is applied,
according to which farmers decide from which ears to select kernels to be used as
seed, as well as which kernels on these ears to define as seed. As has been documented
by Smale et al. (1999) farmers' seed selection criteria tend to emphasize aspects related
to ear and grain health and size, and grain filling. However, other factors may also
play a role, for example, grain colour or other local perceptions associated with what
makes a good seed. In this process, farmers exercise selection pressure in an attempt to
enhance favoured varietal traits and lessen the influence of undesired traits.
Seed is then maize kernels that have been selected for traits associated with a high
potential for producing good parent plants capable of enhancing certain favoured
Once redefined as seed, the value of the kernels (turned seed) also changes. Like any
other valuable object or good, farmers take good care of their seed and store it in the
best possible condition, often separated from the rest of the maize. A series of beliefs
and recommendations is furthermore tied to maize seed. According to some
informants, one must take care not to spill any seed while shelling maize ears, lest a
hen, a turkey or other runs for it and picks it up. Birds may also pick seeds in the
field and this is sometimes interpreted as an omen that the milpa4 will not be
established. Another precaution some farmers take is to keep cobs from which seeds
were selected in a closely tied sack in a safe and dry place until the milpa is knee
high and well underway. Burning the cobs, feeding them to animals or discarding
them before then brings bad luck and consequently the milpa will not develop
properly. It has not been possible so far to record these practices and
4 The concept of milpa has several interpretations. In Mexico, the word milpa generally refers to any plot where maize is
cultivated (Lara Ramos 2001;_Whipperman 2000). This is the sense in which it is used here and most commonly used by
Oaxaquefios. However, in certain contexts, milpa refers to a traditional Meso-American intercropping system where
maize is cultivated with other crops, most commonly beans and/or squash, and sometimes also tubers or others (Ter6n,
Rasmussen, and Cauich 1998; _Museo de Culturas Populares/SEP 1982; http:/ /www.agroecology.org/cases/milpa.htm)
recommendations in a systematic way but their existence indicates the importance
and value attributed to seed. This is also reflected when seed transactions take place
among farmers in the Central Valleys. As shown in Table 1, maize seed has greater
value than maize grains for consumption purposes.
Table 1. Producer and consumer prices for maize seed and grain, San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo Albarradas, and
Santa Ana Zegache, Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, May 1998.
Maize San Pablo Huitzo San Lorenzo Albarradas Santa Ana Zegache
Buy 4.66 4.09
Sell 4.34 4.97 4.07
Buy 2.20 1.54 2.61
Sell 2.17 2.06 2.60
Note: US$1= MX$ 8.89 (May 1998)
Source: CIMMYT/INIFAP 1997 Survey, Smale et al. 1999.
In spite of the seemingly clear distinction between seed and grain, under certain
circumstances, farmers may use 'grains' as seed, i.e. maize kernels originally destined for
consumption. This mainly happens in relation to smaller quantities of 'grains' or during
circumstances when it is difficult to obtain seed-either because of lack of resources or
because the seed donor is not willing to provide seed. Although a clearly defined concept
of seed exists (selected, clean, and of good quality), it is not a rigid or a static concept.
Rather, the concept of seed appears to be dynamic and negotiable, depending on the
circumstances. This in turn demonstrates the flexibility of farmer categories and the
inclination towards experiments and practical solutions.
Access to Information on Seed
Farmers in the study communities look for diverse traits in maize varieties they grow-
traits that relate to the farming environment, production risks and management constraints,
as well as consumption preferences (Bellon 2001). Farmers therefore demand crop diversity.
As pointed out in the introduction, the nomenclature for maize varieties in the Central
Valleys of Oaxaca is poorly developed, even though a strong genotype-by- environment
interaction is generally perceived. These factors contribute to the difficulties farmers face to
find and identify seeds. How do farmers obtain information on the types of maize seed
available? How do they find out who has what kind of seed? And how does a farmer
ensure that the information is accurate especially when the existing nomenclature is
vague and ambiguous?
Farmers obtain information about seeds in a number of ways during conversations with
family members, compadres (see Social Relations section, p. 9) and neighbors, by paying
attention to what other farmers are growing(for instance, when working together in a
tequio5 or a guelaguetza6), and as they move around in their communities. Most informants
emphasized that seed must not only be of good quality but that the variety must also be
adequate for local production conditions. Some also take into consideration the way the
maize has been cultivated and the quality of the farmer's work.
Some farmers mentioned learning about maize from other regions from family or friends
who travelled or worked in other parts of the country. In San Pablo Huitzo, a loudspeaker
used by a local merchant to announce the sale of seed constituted another source of
information on seed for farmers.
The maize mill, which is frequented particularly by women, is another arena where
farmers learn about the different types of maize grown. Likewise, women who make
tortillas or other maize dishes for sale are also a source of information on the types of
maize cultivated in the community.
Seed Transactions and Social Relations
The most common way farmers in the study area secure seed is to select and store seed
from the previous harvest. Nevertheless, they sometimes have to obtain seed from other
sources for a number of reasons, for example, a poor harvest, losses during storage,
because the family had to use it for consumption, or simply because they wished to try
In general, respondents mentioned several different types of transactions through which
seed flow occurred both to obtain and supply seeds. These transactions take place between
different persons and represent a wide variety of roles or social relations. There are no
fixed rules, and each transaction is influenced by the relationship of the two contracting
parties, their social positions, and the degree of confidence (or closeness) between them.
Farmers obtain seed by either actively going out and looking for seed or simply taking
advantage of opportunities that present themselves. In many cases, the process of
acquiring seed contains elements of both. The different ways of obtaining maize seed are
referred to as seed transactions, in which at least one contracting party receives seed. Seed
is defined as any type of maize kernels used as seed at the moment of planting. It can be
seed of improved varieties (open-pollinated, hybrids or synthetics), seed obtained from
5 Tequio refers to a form of communal work in which one has to provide a service to the community. It can refer to
communal work in the interest of a certain group (for example, the conditions of a local school), or it can be in the
interest of the community in general (for example, construction and maintenance of roads in the community,
drinking water, infrastructure, sewage etc.).
6 Guelaguetza is a Zapotec institution of mutual aid between households. It can take place in many different
situations and between different people and includes agricultural tasks, the roofing of houses, weddings,
funerals, and fiestas of village saints (Montes Vasquez 1985). Under guelaguetza, gifts must be repaid in kind and
in exactly the same amount (Beals 1970; Montes Vasquez 1985). Hence, all exchanges are carefully recorded. For
example, turkeys are weighed or appraised as to maturity, and maize and sugar measured and recorded (Beals
1970). Nowadays the concept of guelaguetza has lost much of its former popularity, although it is still practiced
in some Oaxacan communities.
another farmer, or maize grains that were originally destined for consumption. The
following is a list of seed transactions that are common in the study area:
* Purchased seed. Purchased seed is the most common seed transaction and refers to seed
that has been bought and paid for in cash at a price agreed upon by both parties.
* Borrowed seed. Borrowed seed refers to a transaction in which the 'borrowed' seed has to
be paid in kind. In other words, the person who receives the seed does not pay for the
seeds with money but promises to return the seed after the harvest, either as seed or grain
(mixed grains). The quantity returned depends on the agreement between the two parties
and the relation they have with each other. If the seed has to be paid back in grain, it is
common for the quantity to be greater because of the higher value of seed.
* Seed as a gift. Informants differed in their views on this transaction. Some say the
transaction ends when the seed is given as a gift. Others, however, say that the
transaction carries an implicit obligation to return the favour when the farmer who
provided the seed needs assistance.
* Exchanged seed. This is another type of seed transaction in which seed of one type is
exchanged for seed of another. These exchanges usually involve only a few kilos of seed
or grain. It is a way of obtaining seed of a desired type of maize, provided the other
person is also interested in the seed offered in exchange. If this is not the case, the person
with the desired seed may accept maize grains in exchange. However, quantities may
vary. Furthermore, when the quantities are of equal proportions, the transaction can be
perceived partly as a gift, due to the higher value attributed to seed. It is also common to
exchange grain of one kind with grain of another kind, for example, when a certain kind
of maize is needed for the preparation of a special dish. Sometimes farmers may even
decide to use this maize as seed instead of consuming it.
* Seed obtained without the knowledge of the provider. In this case, the seed donor is not actively
involved and does not know whether the maize was used for consumption or planting.
This may occur when maize is stolen (something that is frowned upon), or just taken
without asking the owner, or simply when maize grains that were provided for
consumption or for the making tortillas were used as seed.
There were many instances where farmers planted maize kernels that were not obtained as
seed in any of transactions described above, but that were still used as seed without the
knowledge of the seed provider. In one of the communities, for example, a farmer
commented that one of the maize varieties that he grew originally came from his neighbor's
maize field. He said he was attracted by the 'beauty' and sturdiness of his neighbor's maize,
and when he realized that she was not going to harvest it, he decided to "tear off some cobs,
before they were wasted". From these maize cobs he selected the best kernels and planted
them on his own land the following season. A female respondent, who among other
activities makes tortillas, said she was so fascinated by the color of a maize type that was
brought to her for making tortillas that she took some grains and asked her husband to plant
it. She then selected seed from the harvested maize, but never shared this information with
the person who brought her the maize.
The latter is not an extraordinary occurrence. Several informants commented on
experiences of this kind. In most cases, the quantities were small and in some cases, the
experience was an effect of what could be termed farmers' experiments. It can also be part
of a clear strategy to obtain seed. As one farmer explained, if you really want to obtain a
certain kind of seed from someone who is not very willing to sell or provide the seed, or, as
he put it, "someone very jealous of his seed", one can simply ask this person for maize for
consumption and select the best kernels from this maize for seed. These statements reflect
farmers' inclination towards conducting their own experiments using grain that was
originally meant for consumption as seed. At the same time, it demonstrates the dynamic
and complex character of what we refer to as seed flow.
* Sharecropping. Sharecropping is a common traditional arrangement between two farmers
who agree to share farming costs, such as land, inputs, and labor. For example, the
farmer who owns the land supplies land and seed, and he or she has the privilege of
choosing what seed will be used. The other farmer supplies labor and both share
additional costs as well as the harvest between them. Sometimes cash subsidies from the
Program de Apoyos al Campo (PROCAMPO)7 is also shared.
* Seed from various projects. Sometimes farmers obtain seeds from research projects or other
programs operating in their area. This was the case with the CIMMYT/INIFAP project
mentioned earlier, where some farmers obtained seed through their participation in the
research activities, while others bought seed directly from the project.
It is important to underline that each of these transactions may exist in many variations.
Hence they should not be considered as fixed or static models, but rather as dynamic
categories with room for variations.
Seed transactions occur within a set of specific social relations. The following is a list of
social relations frequently used in seed transactions in the study area. However, the list is
not exhaustive. In addition, it should be noted that each category can be divided into
subcategories with overlaps and variations among them. For example, neighbors can
sometimes be relatives or compadres (see below).
* Family members. This category includes blood relatives and affiliated relatives. This
category is the most important for most informants, many of whom received their first
seed from lots their parents cultivated for many years. Some believed the seed they
received were passed down from their grandparents. For many people, parents, siblings,
and children are the closest social relations and the most readily accessible when help is
needed. Family relations are therefore among the first to be consulted when farmers need
seed. Furthermore, it appears to be quite common that seed is sold at a lower price when
the transaction takes place between close relations such as family members or compadres.
In other words, one may say that an "element of gift" is more present when the
transaction is between relatives.
7 PROCAMPO is a government program that provides subsidies for agricultural production. The subsidy consists
of a fixed amount (MX$ 873 in 2002) per hectare of land a farmer cultivates.
* Compadres. Compadrazgo refers to a ritual kinship, through which close relations of
loyalty, mutual help, reciprocity, and confidence are established and formalized.
Compadres are considered almost like family and cannot easily refuse when asked for
help. However, there is also a certain degree of prestige in being asked to be someone's
compare or comadre, and in some ways compadrazgo can signify social capital
(Greenwood 1966; Cordero Avendafio de Durand 1997). While compradrazgo plays an
important role in Mexico, a more in-depth study of the structure and significance of this
concept was not within the scope of this study.
* Neighbors. Neighbors constitute another important social relation, and many informants
mentioned this group in relation to seed transactions. It should be noted that neighbours
may also be relatives or compadres.
* Friendships. Friends include current and former workmates and people who belong to
the same social organizations, church group or communal work group. These relations
may be a little less close and not quite as confidence related as, for example, blood
relatives or compadres. Nevertheless their importance is significant both as a source of
information and in terms of exchange or mutual help.
* Acquaintances. This includes persons people know, but with whom they do not have
close social ties.
* Commercial seed vendors. These are persons who sell maize commercially, i.e. vendors in
OcotlAn, Oaxaca or Tecolutla or small businesses in communities. For example, one
female informant in Santa Ana Zegache, who has a small grocery shop said she
sometimes gets paid in maize instead of cash. This maize is then sold either as seed or as
maize for consumption.
* CIMMYT / INIFAP project. This project is mentioned because seed of local landraces have
been bought from and sold to farmers through the project.
* Strangers. This category includes persons of whom nothing or very little is known, but
with whom some form of seed transaction has been carried out. In this instance, seed is
usually sold for cash, as no relation of trust or familiarity exists.
From informants' responses we can get a sense of the frequency by which different types of
transactions are applied according to the type of social relation between contracting
parties. Table 2 illustrates the relationship between social categories and types of seed
transactions. While the table does not cover all types of social relations, it nevertheless
indicates a tendency in the pattern of common transaction types.
Table 2. Types of seed transactions by social relations, San Pablo Huitzo, San Lorenzo Albarradas, and Santa Ana
Zegache, Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Social relation Purchased Borrowed Interchanged Gift
Family Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Compadres Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes Sometimes
Neighbors Common Sometimes Sometimes Rarely
Friendships Common Sometimes Sometimes Rarely
Acquaintances Common Rarely Sometimes Rarely
Commercial seed vendors Common Rarely Rarely Rarely
INIFAP/CIMMYT Common Rarely Rarely Rarely
Although not a determining factor in itself, the data suggests that social relations between
persons involved in a seed transaction influenced the type of transaction used. The "closer"
the social relationship between donor and recipient, the higher the possibility of negotiating
a transaction other than'purchased seed'. This trend may also be expressed graphically.
Figure 1 shows that the greater the social distance, the weaker the obligation. This is very
much in line Marshall Sahlins' finding on 'primitive exchange' (1972).
The strength of commitment
Fig. 1. The relation between social distance and strength of commitment.
Social distance refers to the degree of "closeness" of the social relation between contracting
parties, while 'strength of commitment' refers to the degree of obligation implied beyond
the immediate transaction.
Considerations Before Entering a Seed Transaction
Seed transactions have different implications for the donor (the person who provides the
seed) and the recipient (the person who receives the seed). For the recipient, it may imply
costs or debt in cash or kind, or an unspoken obligation to return a favor. Asking someone
for seed can also imply embarrassment, as this need for seed can be interpreted to be due to
poor farming skills or laziness. Furthermore, farmers often run the risk of being cheated
and receiving bad or poor quality seed. Receiving or providing seed can also imply the
confirmation of social ties, fulfilment of a promise, or recognition of the seed donor.
A seed transaction may also be risky for the seed donor, for example, when the recipient
does not keep his or her promise. On the other hand, accepting the transaction means
helping another person. From a power relation perspective, this creates a situation in which
the donor has the better position or upper hand. Likewise, providing someone with seed
can be interpreted as an investment; if at some point in the future the donor needs help or
support, there is someone who owes a favor to whom he or she could turn to. From this
perspective, helping others carries strong social capital.
The examples of commitments and obligations of those involved illuminate the social
mechanisms of seed transactions. This, in turn, helps identify considerations that
contracting parties often take into account before entering a seed transaction. For the
persons trying to obtain seed, the following considerations are relevant:
* That the seed is from the same region. Many informants emphasized this criterion as
important when obtaining seed because it is assumed that seed from the same region is
adaptable to local agroecological conditions. This consideration relates to farmers'
perception of a high genotype-by-environment interaction, i.e., only seed of certain
maize types will work under their farming conditions.
* That the person selling the seed is trustworthy. This is a way of protecting oneself against
being cheated. Several informants pointed this out as another reason for acquiring seed
in their own community where they know who is trustworthy and who is not.
* That the seed owner is willing to sell seed. Some farmers are very reluctant to part with their
seeds. In this case, it becomes necessary to obtain seed from someone else or decide on
another type of seed. However, as mentioned earlier, there is also the possibility of
asking for grains for consumption and use some of this as seed.
* Production objectives commercial, fodder, pozole8 tortillas, elote9 or others. For the majority of
respondents, the intended use of the maize is important when looking for seed. As
documented elsewhere (Bellon 1996 ; Smale et al. 1999) different types of maize occupy
different niches. For example, some special dishes are only made with certain kinds of
maize, some maize varieties are good only for fodder, and the grain of some varieties
weigh more than grain of other varieties-a fact that may play an important role in
Aspects that seed donors or distributors consider are:
* That the recipient is able to pay and can be trusted to do so. Some informants said it was better
not to enter a transaction if there was reason to suspect that the person asking for seed
will have difficulty paying. In a few cases, informants singled out single women,
explaining that it is usually more difficult for a single mother to accumulate resources
(e.g., cash) than for a man or a woman who has a husband. In the case of borrowed seed,
where the payment or part of it is realized after the seed has been handed over, it is
important for the donor to make sure that the recipient takes his or her obligation
seriously. In other words, some transactions imply a considerable element of obligation
and trust between parties.
* That the person requesting the seed has a real need for it. Several informants mentioned that
the recipient's need for seed is an important consideration. For example, they pointed
out that seed is rarely given away to someone who does not really need it unless they are
very close relations. This emphasizes the aspect of moral obligation (and the implicit
priority to those who really "deserve" the favor, i.e. those who normally save seed from
the previous harvest and rarely loose it).
8 A traditional and very popular dish prepared with a particular kind of maize.
9 The Mexican term for corn on the cob, a very popular snack or light dish throughout Mexico. For some farmers
in the study, elotes represent a source of cash income. Seed of maize varieties, which produce big ears, are
preferred for elotes.
10 In markets in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, maize can be sold by measure or by weight. In the case of the
latter, the weight of the kernel is important.
*That the person who requests the seed is someone, who will "take care of it". As previously
mentioned some persons watch fiercely over their seed. People say they are "very
jealous" or "very attached to" their seed, almost as if attributing a personal dimension
to it. These persons do not to like to sell or lend their seed, unless they are assured that
the person requesting the seed is a good farmer who is able to and keen on taking
good care of the seed.
The considerations presented here suggest the existence of a general norm: that each
farmer is expected to select and keep seed from the previous harvest, and that this is part
of the practice of being a "good farmer". This is similar to the concept of "bonus pater
families" 11 of Roman law. Following this hypothesis, a farmer is expected to make every
effort not to loose his or her seed. It is acceptable and legitimate for a farmer to obtain
seed from other farmers in a bad year, provided he or she has followed the norm of
"taking good care" of his or her seed. In this case, the person is someone who has a
justifiable need for the seed and the donor is also assured that he or she will "take good
care" of it. In other words, this person is someone who "deserves" the seed and who will
appreciate the favor. He or she is not someone who does not make the effort of selecting
and keeping seed from the previous harvest, and instead relies on others for seed. This
may also reduce the problem of free riders, i.e. farmers who are always asking for seed
but are not capable of providing it to others. This hypothesis helps explain the absence of
local organizations to secure seed supply, as one could claim that there is no need for such
If seed loss occurs, for example, every five years on average, it is a big investment in
terms of time and energy to sustain an organization whose sole purpose is to secure
access to seed of a diverse set of maize landraces. Moreover, from the point of view of
farmers, seed loss may not seem at all likely, given the fact that people generally follow
the practices of a "good farmer", carefully selecting, treating and storing seed from each
cycle to another.
The frequency of seed loss among farmers in the study area is not clear. However,
research shows that most seed losses occur among non-white maize varieties (Bellon
2001). As previously mentioned, different maize varieties occupy different niches. White
maize is most widely used and accounts for the majority of maize production in the study
area. Moreover, it is the least difficult to sell and generally fetches the best price. Colored
maize varieties, on the other hand, are used for more specific purposes and are generally
planted on much smaller plots.
11 Bonus Pater Familias ("good father of family") is a legal concept referring to a certain standard of reason and conscien-
tiousness applied when estimating a person's guilt. A bonus pater families is expected to act with reason and care.
The concept can be applied to practically all categories of persons, professions, and ages in terms of whether or not
the person in question behaved in a reasonable and conscientious way under the given circumstances.
Planting several varieties can be seen as a way of diminishing the risk of seed loss. Seed
loss would not be so serious if only one variety was lost, particularly if the variety was
not as important in terms of area planted and contribution to the household's total maize
production and income. For example, if a farmer loses a black variety, he or she still has
the white and the yellow variety.
However, from another perspective, planting several varieties can also increase the risk of
seed loss. Smallscale farmers have little land at their disposal. The more varieties they
grow on these plots, the smaller the area for each variety. Some varieties are often planted
on very small plots (for example belatove, pinto, and black maize). It then follows that
the quantities harvested are small. This obviously increases the risk of seed loss if the
harvest fails. Moreover, very small plots also enhance the degree of inbreeding and/or
contamination from neighboring fields.
Still, securing seed supply does not depend entirely on farmers and their management.
Weather conditions, for example, can be a determining factor. When a bad year hits, it
usually affects smallscale farmers and many may lose their seed. This increases demand
for seed, which may become expensive and difficult to obtain. The findings of this study
indicates that this is a situation where social relations, in particular, play a significant role.
Seed flow is a social process, a negotiation, in which people's decisions can be interpreted
as responses adapted to conditions characterizing their current situation- economically,
socially, and culturally. Farmers select different strategies for seed transactions: with
whom they carry out the transaction, their circumstances, their responsibilities and
obligations, and resources at hand. Social relations play a central role in these processes,
often transforming themselves into yet another resource for the individual.
Seed appears to be a special category that has fewer of characteristics of a commodity
than maize grains for consumption. Although it can be sold, bartered, lent, or given away,
farmers' behavior and attitude towards seed is different than towards a commodity. Even
though a conceptual effort to separate seed from grain obviously exists, it is nevertheless
a very fluid one, emphasized by the fact that grain can be redefined as seed and vice
versa. The moral tone with which farmers in Oaxaca talked about exchanging seeds using
terms such as "jealous", "deserving" indeed confirms it as a cultural construct that
separates the circulation of seed from that of grain for consumption.
The results support the view that there are no "specialized" networks of seed supply of
maize landraces in these communities, in the sense of sets of multilateral relationships
among a well-defined group of farmers, with clear membership and rules of interaction.
Instead, we found that most farmers operate within sets of bilateral transactions, albeit
with rules, and in many cases with a medium to long-term perspective. However, in
some cases seed is accessed through other means such as local markets. It is not known
exactly how often this takes place.
The lack of specialized networks seems logical given that seed loss may not be such an
important problem in the study area, as we originally thought. Seed loss may not be a
frequent occurrence for the farmer. Furthermore, even when it does happen, it may not
jeopardize the survival of farmers who plant several maize varieties, or farmers who have
other sources of income, such as off-farm labor and remittances.
Nevertheless, farmers still loose seed from time to time, and still demand different types
of maize. In addition, they perceive a high genotype-by-environment interaction and the
local nomenclature for maize varieties is poorly developed. Farmers therefore need some
form of social infrastructure to access seed of varieties they want. While incentives to
maintain specialized seed networks are not high, there is still an incentive to make use of
networks and social relations to identify, locate, and obtain seed of desirable maize types.
By superimposing seed supply on other networks and social obligations, for example
kinship, compadrazgo, or neighbors, these farmers can spread the costs of maintaining a
network over several different functions, one of which would be access to seed and the
information required for identifying appropriate varieties.
This study is a preliminary and qualitative examination of the social infrastructure that
shapes seed and information flows among smallscale farmers in the Central Valleys of
Oaxaca, Mexico. It confirms the important role of social relations with regards to informal
seed supply and local geneflow, and has led to the development of a set of ideas on
guiding principles and mechanisms of local seed transactions in the study area.
Although the role of social relations with regards to local seed flow and exchange of
information on seed availability and seed providers was stressed, no evidence was
found of the existence of specialized networks or social institutions with the specific
objective of securing access to seed supply of a diverse set of maize landraces.
Instead, it seems to be standard practice among farmers in the study area to select
and save seed from season to season. When there is a need to acquire seed from
outside the farm (for example, because of seed loss), farmers' informal distribution
and acquisition of maize seed were found to beEmostly bilateral transactions that
often involved a complex process of negotiation and reciprocity, and that was
influenced by agroclimatological, socioeconomic, and cultural factors.
A number of different types of seed transactions have been identified together with a number
of different types of social relations involved in these transactions. Furthermore certain
relations between these two categories have been detected. For example, the study found a
pattern whereby the probability of non-monetary exchanges (not buying and selling of seed
according to market prices) increased with the degree of 'closeness' between contracting
parties. Likewise, seed is not handed over as a gift or lent to unknown persons. At the same
time, it is very difficult to deny seed to persons representing close social relations. It should be
noted, however, that this does not hinder the sale of seed to close relations.
Social relations can also play a key role when locating and establishing contact with
possible seed providers. Seed transaction negotiations are often initiated by making
reference to shared social relations. If the establishment of some sort of common
denominator between seed provider and seed receiver is successful, it may strengthen the
latter's efforts to obtain seed.
The findings from this preliminary study suggest that rather than maintaining a social
organization with the specific purpose of securing access to seed supply, farmers in the
study area make use of social relations and networks when they need to obtain seed from
outside the farm. Like mutual aid, loan of tools, advice, friendship and other sociabilities,
seed may be just another resource that farmers occasionally share with each other that are
part of the arrangements that make life in rural areas possible.
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Apartado Postal 6-641, 06600 Mexico, D.F, Mexico
Worldwide Web site: www.cimmyt.cgiar.org