In alternative strategies, the conservation of plant genetic resources and agricultural development by peasants can be considered simultaneously. In a recent article (Altieri and Merrick, 1987), we suggested the best ways in which traditional varieties, agroecological patterns, and management systems can be integrated into rural development programs to salvage crop genetic resources. These are reviewed below.


The stability and sustainability of traditional agriculture are based on crop diversity (Altieri and Merrick, 1987; Chang, 1977; Clawson, 1985; Egger, 1981; Harwood, 1979). The peasant’s strategy of hedging against risk by planting several species and varieties of crops in different spatial and temporal cropping systems designs is the most effective long-lasting means of stabilizing yields. Although improved varieties are distributed throughout Third-World countries, they have made serious inroads in areas strongly linked to commercial agriculture and the national market, where they have hastened the disappearance of wild relatives and traditional varieties of crops (Brush, 1980). Thus today, the rural landscapes consist of mosaics of modern and traditional varieties and technologies (Figure 41–1). As areas become more marginal in natural resources and in infrastructural support, however, the use of improved varieties declines; farmers abandon them because of

FIGURE 41–1 A traditional small farm system in Tlaxcala, Mexico, exhibiting a corn-alfalfa strip-cropping pattern, borders of Maguey and Capulin trees, and a number of wild plants both within and around the crop area. Photo by M.A.Altieri.

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