necessary to develop better crops. International efforts have so far placed more emphasis on increasing yield than on maintaining stable harvests (Plucknett et al., 1983)—an emphasis that has provided the justification for technological innovation and transfer in a manner not reflecting indigenous social, ecological, and ethnobotanical considerations. Landraces1 and wild relatives of major crops are collected from their native habitats, and the seed or vegetative material is placed in gene banks for storage or breeding collections for evaluation and potential use (Frankel and Bennett, 1970). Although ex situ conservation methods have contributed to the improvement of certain crops and the storage of the germplasm of a variety of major crops (Frankel and Bennett, 1970), they do not provide a panacea for conserving natural sources of crop genetic resources (Oldfield, 1984). A major problem is that seed storage freezes the evolutionary processes by preventing new types or levels of adaptations or resistance to evolve, because plants are not allowed to respond to the selective pressures of the environment (Simmonds, 1962). In addition, ex situ methods remove crops from their original cultural-ecological context (Nabhan, 1985)—the human-modified systems in which they evolved.
As Wilkes (1983, p. 136) stated, “The centers of genetic variability are moving from natural systems and primitive agriculture to gene banks and breeders’ working collections with the liabilities that a concentration of resource (power) implies.” Controversy has already erupted around the control of gene banks, since countries such as Colombia, Cuba, Libya, and Mexico question the free access to genetic resources by industrial countries. In the industrial countries, breeders develop new commercial varieties, often using valuable genes derived from landraces or wild species originally collected in the Third World. Then, the new commercial varieties are sold back to the Third World at considerable profit (Wolf, 1985).
A number of scientists have emphasized the need for in situ conservation of crop genetic resources and the environments in which they occur, since in situ conservation allows for continued, dynamic adaptation of plants to the environment (Nabhan, 1985; Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1982; Wilkes, 1983). For agriculture, this phenomenon is particularly important in areas under traditional farming, where crops are often enriched by gene exchange with wild or weedy relatives (Harlan, 1965). However, most researchers consider that in situ preservation of landraces would require a return to or the preservation of microcosms of primitive agricultural systems—to many, an unacceptable and impracticable proposition (Ingram and Williams, 1984). Nevertheless, we contend that maintenance of traditional agroecosystems is the only sensible strategy to preserve in situ repositories of crop germplasm. Although most traditional agroecosystems are undergoing some process of modernization or drastic modification, conservation of crop genetic resources can still be integrated with agricultural development, especially in regions where rural development projects preserve the vegetational diversity of traditional agroecosystems and depend upon the peasants’ rationale to utilize local resources and their intimate knowledge of the environment (Alcorn, 1984; Nabhan, 1985; Sarukhan, 1985).