Hundreds of species of flora and fauna in Mexican home gardens

Mexico's home gardens are sites of cultural richness that showcase customs and traditions. In the world, family farming is practiced on 12 percent of the arable land surface and feeds two billion people.

Hundreds of species of flora and fauna in Mexican home gardens
Home gardens in Mexico are sites of cultural richness where customs and traditions are displayed. Photo by Dayana Brooke / Unsplash

In Mexico, home gardens have a history of more than 11,000 years; they are the agroecosystem with the greatest biological diversity of flora and fauna species. University scientists discovered that, for example, in just one garden there can be up to 500 species of plants and animals.

They are laboratories where processes of selection, improvement, and domestication of numerous species that play a fundamental role in the environmental crisis facing the planet are carried out. In addition, they show the organization, patterns, and social and cultural norms; at the same time, they are key elements for food security and self-sufficiency of the population.

To recognize their importance, document and record their presence, an inter-institutional team led by María de Jesús Ordóñez Díaz, from the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research (CRIM) of UNAM, is developing the Biocultural Atlas of Family Gardens in Mexico.

In the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations points out that family farming is practiced by 1.5 billion people who work on small farms of less than two hectares; 370 million of the small producers are indigenous; they maintain approximately 200 different traditional production systems; produce 70 percent of the world's food; cover two billion people; safeguard agricultural biodiversity; and maintain territorial networks, cultures, economies and local and regional markets.

This practice is carried out on 12 percent of the planet's arable land surface; it is the predominant form of farming linked to global food security, indispensable for eradicating hunger, conserving the environment, and achieving sustainable development. In the case of Mexico, these spaces also represent up to 30 percent of family income, according to the findings of the research team led by UNAM.

Biocultural richness

In an orchard, there may be wild plants, plants in the process of domestication, domesticated plants, and others that are impossible to reproduce without human hands. They are nutritional, medicinal, aromatic, ornamental, and even ceremonial.

Among the Maya, the structure and composition of each one are so peculiar that it is possible to identify which family it belongs to; when getting married, the mother gives her daughter a packet of seeds, together with the recipes and remedies used to cure the stomach, empacho or "susto" (fright).

They are sites of cultural richness, where customs and traditions are shown, they are even sacred: in several places, women who give birth there bury the navels of the newborns and sow a plant. A woman from Xoxocotla, Morelos, said: "I am going to plant a mesquite tree so that my son will be tough, strong and the winds will not knock him down; so that he will know how to face the ups and downs of life".

In recent months, members of the research team evaluated the effect of the pandemic on families who have gardens and those who do not, and the difference is "impressive". The former has a space to unload their frustration, anger, and fear, hugging trees or planting, to enter their homes "clean" of bad feelings, and when they ran out of money, they renewed the barter; the latter only unloaded their anxiety on other members of the household.

First volume

The richest and most complex orchards in the country are found in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Veracruz, which are also the entities with the greatest cultural richness. The variety of species present can reach hundreds, and families are familiar with them.

The Atlas, which consists of a compilation of a bibliographic review, includes direct work with the owners; it is a comprehensive study that also includes economic aspects. The first volume published covers the states of Veracruz, Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Hidalgo.

The university professor explained that in this work you can find the distribution maps of the places with home gardens that have been studied so far; this makes it possible to determine where more research is needed. For example, Chiapas, where 14 indigenous groups live, has only about ten studies on the subject.

Work is currently underway on the second volume, which will include San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, State of Mexico, Morelos, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas; it could be published this year. It is expected that the combined number of species in the country's home gardens will increase to approximately 1,500, due to the different ecosystems.

From the plants and animals present in these "patios" are derived the foods of each place, the regional cuisines, which "urgently need to be compiled, because just like biodiversity, knowledge, traditions, and recipes are disappearing. Informants are leaving us, some of them 90 years old; we have to work immediately to recover their wisdom". Thus, the research team plans to work in parallel with the Atlas.

In Yucatán, grandparents consume 100 percent of what is produced in the garden; children, only half, and grandchildren only 10 percent. In Tabasco, it was detected that children and young people prefer french fries, hot dogs, and other unhealthy foods in their school lunches. "The Mesoamerican diet, one of the most nutritious and complete, is falling into disuse, and is being displaced by ultra-processed products that promote diseases such as obesity, diabetes, etc.," stressed María de Jesús Ordóñez.

The Atlas is aimed at society as a whole; written in an accessible language, it is intended to make these productive spaces known; likewise, "we made an effort to make it easily accessible", so it is available free of charge in digital format in the CRIM publications section, where it can be downloaded (