Maize as Cultural Heritage

Peter Waldkirch is a second year LL.B. student at the University of Ottawa., a website providing “news, views and information about science, technology and the developing world” recently covered a move by Peru’s National Institute of Culture to declare the techniques for farming a variety of giant white maize, paraqay sara in the Quechua language, a part of Peru’s cultural heritage. Although the practical effects of this declaration are unclear, it is noteworthy as part of the continuing movement to recognize and protect traditional and communal forms of knowledge in a global intellectual property regime that emphasizes rewarding individual innovation.

The maize in question has a long history of cultivation which stretches back to the pre-colonial era. It is produced in a narrow geographic region – the Urubamba Valley or Sacred Valley of the Incas, close to the famed Machu Picchu. However, the variety is already protected through the geographic designation of origin mechanism. One effect of declaring the maize a part of Peru’s cultural heritage may be to grant further protection to the indigenous name – currently, for example, it is listed only under its Spanish name, Maíz Blanco Gigante Cusco, in the WIPO library.  While this move may have significant symbolic value and lay the groundwork for the future promotion of local agriculture, it doesn’t seem to currently add any legal protections. The report, for example, cited Alejandro Argumedo of the Peruvian NGO ANDES, who believes the cultural heritage designation will not have any effect on the intellectual property status of the variety. Rodomiro Ortiz of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center approved of the move as recognition of the contribution of traditional farmers and farming techniques to biodiversity.

This isn’t the first time farming techniques have received recognition for important cultural contributions. In 1995, for example, the 2000 year old Ifugao rice terraces in the Philippines were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Probably the most prominent use of such designations, however, are to protect more tangible forms of cultural heritage. Many countries now have legislation aimed at regulating the sale of historical and cultural artifacts. Peru actively uses its cultural heritage legislation and various bilateral agreements in this manner. Last November, for example, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency returned several eighteenth century religious artifacts to the Peruvian government after seizing them from a Miami resident who tried to enter the US with the items in his luggage. Another prominent example is the ongoing decade-long battle between Peru and Yale University. Yale currently holds many (part of the dispute concerns the quantity in question) artifacts brought to the US by Hiram Bingham, the “discoverer” of Macu Picchu. The two parties reached an agreement over the matter, but Peru backed out over claims that Yale was not honouring its obligations or respecting Peru’s heritage. The matter is currently before the courts; recently Yale asked for the action to be dismissed on the grounds that the limitations period had expired.

This sort of dispute illustrates how laden the question of cultural heritage can be with issues of colonialism and national identity. Even if declaring paraqay sara affords little concrete legal status to the historic maize, it certainly makes a statement about the significant cultural importance of the crop and the farmers who developed it.