Ing. Tania Martínez | Biosystems specialized in irrigation and biofuel production
Ing. Tania Martínez

Ing. Tania Martínez | Biosystems specialized in irrigation and biofuel production

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Women in Science


Dr. Arturo Solis


Thank you for the opportunity, greetings to all of you.

Climate change, as we already saw, is terrible and the problems come from different approaches: Food production, energy production, contamination of water; anywhere we look, it’s a complicated picture.

So what the engineer Tania Martinez is going to present to you is very interesting because it talks about food production which is also an emergency for us. The Earth is losing its capability to produce food, in spite of all the tons and tons of agricultural chemicals that are used, and we know that in the long term they make the problem worse. At this moment it looks like there are no options, but surely human creativity will allow us to succeed in this.

It is an urgent problem, food production. Just in the United States, 20 million people don’t have food security, they don’t know if they will have something to eat tomorrow. So I invite the engineer, Tania Martinez, comrade, so she can please speak to us about her work.

Tania Martinez

Indigenous Mixe

Youth Prize (Mexico)

First, I always have to adjust the microphones because I am really short, give me a second, got it.


Good afternoon, everyone, I’m pleased to be able to visit you and greet you in your native land; I am very honored to be here to today. I would like to ask if they could play my presentation, please.

The initial greeting was in Mixe, my native language or “wayu,” as we say in Mexico. My PowerPoint presentation? Perfect.

What I am going to present to you… here my comrade presented me as an engineer; I am currently being educated as an anthropologist. Its more of a story about native corn.

Normally we see native corn, not as a technology, and we that come from a technological background believing that technology is only that which is generated in a research center through the scientific method. But, what happens with all that local knowledge that has co-existed for thousands of years in our communities?

The topic of food security has been attempted to be solved worldwide, has been a constant issue, with technologies that have been developed mainly large research centers. One of the main examples is the Green Revolution and modern technologies.

While we can say that the Green Revolution and the technologies that were promoted had a positive impact in some regions, it has also been highly criticized because it led to the exclusion of many farmers, especially those with fewer resources; it also led to environmental deterioration and loss of biodiversity.

But, I ask myself, is everything always black and white? With what I’ve told you, no; as long as there are positive effects, there are also negative effects.

Particularly in the case of Mexico (and I could say that in Latin America), most of the agricultural development projects or the problem of food security has been seen from that productivist approach: improved seeds, chemicals. And, well, what about local knowledge?

In the particular case of Mexico, how is it that traditional knowledge has coexisted, the native seeds? Because it is still cultivated, in Guatemala and in many regions of our Latin America too; and it is part of the sovereignty of our peoples.

Normally, especially for people who work in anthropological or development issues, I often find that there is a big tendency to make dichotomies: traditional and modern.

What is traditional? What is modern? Can both things coexist? Well let's see.

The native corn in Mexico

The native corn in Mexico, in the case that I present, I take as a technology, because yes, it does allow us to guarantee our security, our food sovereignty; but it is also intertwined to our history in a different way.

I am going to tell you, for example, that my grandmother was a spiritual guide, and within her knowledge, to do all the ... like in some regions they use ayahuasca or peyote or mushrooms, in my region the spiritual guidance is made through corn, and it was a native corn that was inherited from one generation to another.


I do not know ... People who are from here in Guatemala or Peru could say: "We are very used to it, when we have such a rich meal, that certain types of varieties are what we use for a certain meal.”

In the case of Oaxaca, for example, I can tell you: we do not prepare an atole with blue corn, we do it with a white corn; some pork tamales are not made with a white corn, we make them with a blue corn. And so we are having a very different relationship, which can not necessarily be touched, it is not tangible, but it is intertwined with the lives of people.

The native corn in Mexico has been part of a much more complex system that we call milpa [cornfield]. Guatemala will not let me lie, because I believe that you also have milpa, right? And there is not only one type of milpa, we have a great diversity of milpas; these milpas are adapted to the specific conditions of each region.

On the one hand, also, when we make the selection of seeds, it has to do with preferences and with the way we have grown and the cultures or traditions that we have inherited from our parents.

In the particular case of Oaxaca, I can tell you that our milpas have pumpkins, potatoes, different colors of corn, beans, even fruit trees, and we produce what will allow us to sustain ourselves throughout the year.

But is it just that? Is it just a system? No. I mentioned to you before the social fabric and the relationships we have with corn.

The story that I want to present to you today has to do with a Zapotec community in Oaxaca. One of the questions I had...

I have to confess (when I spoke a while ago of dichotomies) that I sometimes sin as a romantic because, when I speak of my people and speak of my traditions, I speak of the traditions with which I grew up as a child; but we have to accept that life changes and that we are also adapting as human beings.

But the milpa system and the ways in which we grow corn, are they constant? Do they change? What is it that makes this change, if it has changed? And that is a bit of what I wanted to investigate in Santa María Yavesía.

This story takes place in the Sierra Norte of the state of Oaxaca. And to be able to understand a little how corn practices have changed, I went to do a historical reconstruction on how they did things before and what they do now, and what are the factors that have determined that there are changes.

Initially, in the 40s, it was a mining area; and although the farmers (right now that we are talking about climate change) did talk about natural phenomena, they said they could be self-sufficient; they could produce what they needed for the whole year.

Mining; like many peasant families, diversify work tasks: carpentry, have backyard gardens, etc.

In the 50s the Bracero Program arrived in Mexico, which pushed a large wave of migration, and that is when we have the first trigger that begins to affect the practices. People continue to cultivate, but there is already a flow of migration, and there is also a different economic income.

Around 60, the mine closes, then people also begin to migrate looking for other forms of life and go to the cities, not only to the United States; although the field is still a main activity.

When initially the communities lived in the high part of the mountains..., and there they cultivated; As migration progresses, families (because women are the ones left) begin to concentrate more in the center of the population.

Towards the 70 the migration continues, they continue to settle more and more in the center of the population; and few families are left sowing in the highlands.

What's happening here? We spoke a while ago about the influence of public policies. What happens in Mexico is that at one point, with the neoliberal policies, it was expected that basic grains would be replaced or they would be taken to the farmers through some houses that we called CONASUPO. What was expected? Well, that peasants migrated to the cities and became labor hands and that they become integrated into other types of markets. And yes, more or less that is how it happened, but I think that when this policy was planned, there was no long-term view of what the effect on people's lives would be.

People start to interact a little more with the outside environment; for example, fertilizers arrive, and when one asks the farmers why they used the fertilizers, they said: "Well, they told they fed my little plant,” right? But in reality there was never a study like to determine if the soil or plant had those requirements.

There are other programs that begin to focus on the development of skills, such as carpentry.

Around the 90s, what we see is that a small percentage is cultivating the land. In the high part of the mountains, there are not so many people anymore. People buy corn: "Why do we grow if we have enough income?" They cultivate, but they are no longer self-sufficient; they cultivate only for the most important rituals of the region.

That traditional milpa system continues to be mixed with the fruit trees, but incorporating improved varieties of peaches that farmers can sell with a much higher commercial value.

But then the 2000s arrive. The temporary employment programs continue, the question is still present, of "Is there money? Why do we sow? Are we going to have where to buy?” Sowing continues in small quantities, but they are no longer self-sufficient.

And the story changes after 2005. Why? First we have hurricane Stan, which blocks roads, but people are still able (have money) to stock up on corn from the villages that are much higher up in the mountains.

Then in 2007 we have the "tortilla crisis” with the boom of biofuels in the United States, which also causes an increase in the price of corn

Droughts, rains come, and finally 2010 is the drop that spills the glass: With the hurricanes (because they were two) and several storms, the road or the main bridge that communicated to a whole region of Oaxaca falls. There is no food, there is no corn. "We have money, but not where to buy," farmers say; and then they begin to ask themselves: "Well, are we sovereign?"

So this is simply a map (it’s upside down);the upper part is downstream, it is the lower altitude, where the center of the population has been concentrated in recent years; in the highest part is where they lived initially, but they moved according to ... Also, considering a bit the traditional systems, when men begin to migrate, women are not left alone in the forest, they have to go down to the center of the population to be closer and more communicated.

These are partial results, but what I have found to this day is that there is already, for example, little yellow corn in this region (because the yellow corn was planted mainly in the highest part, and also the potatoes); and it's still part of their diet. There are some families who are still growing yellow corn, nowadays, but they are working to readjust their seeds.

Also another important thing is that initially, when they worked in the upper part, in Mexico, in Oaxaca, we have something called tequio or guelaguetza. What we do is that we are five people in a neighborhood, tomorrow we sow in your plot, the next day in our neighbor’s, and so on, and so we are helping each other.

When migration begins to be a factor that begins to change the dynamics of the community, the tequios are no longer so effective, then also the social dynamics begin to change.

Well, I told was telling you that the community starts being pensive, saying: "Well, we have money, but if we do not have food or what to buy, what are we going to do? Then no, then we must return to sow our lands.”

So then here begins a story that I like very much, which I call community improvement of milpa. Community because the community is organized and among them they have to recover all the seeds they had, going with the neighbors, with people from other communities, to re-adapt their corn. And then they say: "Well, but the earth is tired, the rain patterns have changed, we sow in temporary. What do we do?".

Well, here's the meeting with an engineer that you see in the photo, his name is Humberto Castro. Humberto Castro was a corn breeder, of native corn, and normally he only focused on improving the plant.

The story of this town and of Humberto is very interesting because normally we think (as scientists) that if you are taught, for example, to grow sorghum, that you will only grow sorghum all your life. Nothing else. How do you adapt that to the farmers' context?

Then Humberto says that he realized that people not only needed to improve their seed, their native seed –because it was seed already adapted to those regions-; and he also goes to practices. What are the practices? Sowing density, spacing, if we have water, let’s use the irrigation water; but all in a process negotiated with the farmer. Then it is a mutual learning, bidirectional.

So here, for example, what we see is a picture of the peasants in their experimental fields. What they did was take their little seed, planted a few rows and, when they finished (they call it "the little school"), at the end of the harvest, they all chose which one they liked the most and kept reproducing it.

So, Humberto, what he taught them is: "Let's see, just like when we choose the girl or boy we like, what is the corn that you like the most and what baby corn would you like to have?" Then he taught them how to protect the plants, to pollinate them, and to have those genes that they were really interested in transmitting from one generation to another, in a collective manner.

This is their seed bank. The advantage that the seed bank had is that the farmers said: "Well, if my crop was lost and I could not rescue enough seed, I can go to this bank. If I like the neighbor’s seed, I can ask him if he give me a little; and if he does not have enough, I can go to the bank and take the seed from there."

When I spoke to you all about the milpa reconfiguration (this photo shows that more or less), initially, because of the different ... the photo you see, which says "in the 80s,” shows how… they would initially put 5 seeds of corn, beans, potatoes, at 90 centimeters, because you had to give space for all this to grow.

And Humberto told them: "No, no, no, no, no, but we have to increase production, so we have to reduce the space; let’s put less seeds, because imagine that your soil is like a mother of cats, if she breastfeeds five, then she may not have for all; is she breastfeed three, it's better. So, let's think that way about the ground."

But the peasants told Humberto, "Hold on, you tell me that if it is a matter of maximizing, then let’s sow at every 20 centimeters; but when I go to the field I cannot take 20 centimeter steps. Why don’t we do it so it’s adaptable to me?" So then, "Okay, what's better for you? About 40? How is your step?" And they started playing the same way in their little school with different spacing.

The most sacred symbol of this town is water, and the grandparents say that the milpa is not watered, that the milpa must be fed with rainwater, with the storm. The younger generations said, "Well, that's true, but we're also struggling with all the droughts we've been having. It's not that we're being disrespectful to our beliefs, but rather that we're trying to adapt to this changing context."

And they started to implement some irrigation systems ... They call them "irrigation systems,” in reality they are only emergency irrigations to help the land to germinate the corn; and if you ask a strict irrigation specialist, he will tell you that it is not an irrigation system as such, but, let's say, they play with what they have and they adapt.

As I was telling you, they reconfigured their practices. They would not do a very precise handling of the seeds. Now they use silos, for example, the silos are made by local artisans, which also mean that labor is being generated locally.

In the plot they see on the left side, well, the stubble is also left to feed the land and not have to use fertilizers or, in any case, organic fertilizers.

Well, there are things that we don’t see when we talk about the milpa, native corn, the intangible meanings. Here you see three families that still sow in the high part that mentioned I mentioned to you; and they help each other, and perhaps they are the last group that sows more or less at 2600, 2700 meters above sea level in this community.

People say that when they are going to sow the earth… because first you have to ask Pachamama, with a sip of mezcal (which is a typical Oaxacan Mexican drink), to please give you abundance. They pour a little drink to the earth and the best banquet you can have is in the plot. Why? Because you have to celebrate that you are sowing and that hopefully you have abundance.

The tortillas that you see to the side… I asked myself, "Why are the people who are supposed to be the hosts don’t bring tortillas?” And the answer is that it is part of the exchange of biodiversity. All of those who go to work on these plots bring their own tortillas, and on the comal that you see there you can tell the neighbor, "How nice, and what a flavor, what a nice texture! I want you to give me a bit of your seed." Then it becomes another form of exchange, and it is important within the same social fabric.

Well, today these farmers became self-sufficient again; of the 300 kilograms that they harvested initially, they have reached about a ton using their own seeds, without having to change the milpa so much, only making some adjustments.

And I present this story to show that not only farmers are passive people who receive; we as technologists and as scientists must also have that openness to learn from them and combine the best of these worlds.

Now, with the corn they have in excess, they sell it, they have given it an added value, they continue to maintain their traditions, and they have even started a corn fair, which they celebrate in December every year.

I show you the image of the families sowing upstream, and what I heard (and that was already a year ago from the fieldwork) is that there were very enthusiastic people saying, "Maybe we have to go back up,” because it also becomes a feeling of nostalgia for what we had in the past as children, that is yellow corn or potato, and that we no longer have now. The milpa is continues being a part of the social fabric.

Why is this important? Because public policies have usually been oriented to one type of technology. We must open spaces so that other alternatives are heard; local knowledge.

In this case the native seeds are adapted to extreme environments, and that is why we have not been able to eradicate them completely, and that’s a good thing! They are part of the sovereignty of our peoples. We also have to understand that contexts are dynamic, so we have to adapt. And well, the native seeds in the end are part of our biocultural diversity as peoples.

To conclude, I want to close with a phrase from Nazaria (2013), she is an anthropologist; and this is a Quechua phrase, which says:

“When the mountains that surround you are your mother, the leafy tree your grandfather, the rocks your scouts, the freshly harvested potatoes your children, the bean bushes your sisters, and you do not move away from them to protect them? Well, that's how it is for many of our cultures that are still living in a lively and intimate landscape; there is no room for hierarchy and separation. This is life itself,” and thus, what we scientists can give different names: biodiversity, development, whatever.

Thank you.


Well, we thank Tania for her interesting talk. She shows us that agriculture is a formidable challenge that has evolved due to the fact that all the factors conclude energy, water, population growth; we are all intertwined. And the urgent need to produce food we see it for example, when she mentions fertilizers, right? And if we were to suddenly stop using fertilizers, a third of the world's population would die, so it is very important.

It is also so that Fritz Haber, the person who invented the method… invented the gases of war in World War I and when the World War I ended, they declared him a war criminal; and the following year he was given the Nobel prize for the  invention of fertilizers. That is how history is, those are the conditions.

The challenge of producing food, more food without using water or using less water, without the excess of pesticides of substances that intoxicate the earth, is a formidable challenge; it is something that must be faced, right?

But not everything is bad news. There is project between CUMIPAZ and the Center for Research on Human Photosynthesis, because two years ago we were able to replicate what nature does, that is to say: Beginning from the CO2 of the atmosphere, it combines it with water and we obtain glucose. That had not been possible.

Fortunately we were able to achieve it 2 years ago in 2016. So as CUMIPAZ and we can boost this food production that is revolutionary, because it is made in the laboratory… we will have no need to spend water,  add pesticides, fertilizers, it will diminish the current predatorial, so to speak, attitude on Earth, that we want  it to give everything, but the Earth has a limit. So the production of food in the laboratory is going to be a partway.

Another project is the eternal battery that in average lasts 50 years, and that again, together with CUMIPAZ and we, the Center for Research on Human Photosynthesis, are perfecting.

And speaking about energy, nanotechnology a great option, is a great role, a great opportunity; so I think it will be interesting the talk of Dr. Susana Arrechea, right? It's about nanotechnology with an emphasis on energy, please.