The indigenous Tarahumara living in the Copper Canyons are subsistence farmers growing ancient varieties of corn and beans for their primary sustenance. In the early 21st century, the worst drought in Mexico’s recorded history wiped out their stored seed and led to widespread hunger and famine. Many Tarahumara have fled their ancestral canyons to beg on city streets.

For ten years, we have been visiting the canyons and meeting with various communities to determine their most pressing needs. Rather than impose solutions from the outside, we have consulted with community leaders to come up with solutions. Their unanimous request was for heirloom, non-GMO seeds and improved access to water. Unanimously, Tarahumara leaders have explained that the best way to keep Tarahumara on their lands is to provide sustainable food security through long-term seed banks and improved water access.

Beginning in 2014, Rotary and Barefoot Seeds partnered to build seed banks and initiate seed growouts for two Tarahumara communities of 500 people. We also improved water quality and access through gravity-fed water pipes and storage reservoirs. We improved soil fertility through the use of cover crops and goat manure.

Rotary Areas of Focus

This global grant was included within Rotary’s Economic and Community Development area of focus and provided sustainable, long-term food security to the indigenous Tarahumara people. The two seed banks enabled Tarahumara communities to sustainably feed themselves and continue traditional subsistence farming in their ancestral canyonlands. The seed bank farms have also tapped springs high in the canyons to provide better water access for dozens of Tarahumara families.

Approximately 500 Tarahumara in two Tarahumara villages benefitted from this grant. All are indigenous Tarahumara farmers and their families.


Our short-term goals for the global grant were to develop two seed banks, along with goat herds and rainwater/springwater harvesting, to provide long-term food security using sustainable farming methods. These seed banks and growout farms were located in two representative Tarahumara communities, one in the canyon highlands and the other in the canyon bottomlands, to ensure adequate seed varieties for the wide variety of climates in the canyons.

Once harvested and stored, a percentage of the seeds were distributed at annual Tarahumara festivals, where nearly all Tarahumara gather for religious and social functions. This targeted, centralized seed distribution was both cost-effective, time-efficient, and easy to measure.

Each seed bank stored approximately 5,000 kilograms of non-GMO, heirloom varieties of corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables for Tarahumara communities of approximately 500 people. The seed banks are located at the top and the bottom of the deepest canyons on the continent to provide climate-specific, regionally adapted seed cultivars for Tarahumara communities.

Seed farms grew drought-tolerant, regionally adapted varieties of corn. Goats were free-range pastured and fenced nearby. Soil fertility was improved through crop rotation, cover crops, and manure from goat herds.

Water from springs was gravity fed to seed farms using plastic water hoses and stored in reservoirs on site.

Seeds are now stored in central community double-wall adobe storage facilities. A percentage of the seeds —determined by community leaders—are distributed annually at traditional running festivals, called rarajpari and ariweta, organized by local leaders with oversight from Barefoot Seeds.

We measured our goals by the following metrics:

• Quantity of seed harvested and stored
Canyon rim: 4000 kilograms of corn stored
Canyon bottom: 5200 kilograms of corn stored

• Number of farmers participating in seed growouts
25 farmers provided land and labor. Additional farmers provided labor during planting harvest.

• Number of individuals trained in seed bank management
25 farmers were trained in seed bank management so that they can sustain the project in perpetuity.

• Number of farmers receiving seeds at annual festivals
Over 400 Tarahumara received seeds from our festivals and distribution.

• Number of individuals trained in water harvesting and hygiene
25 Tarahumara leaders were trained in water hygiene and harvesting.

• Number of families receiving goats and goat husbandry training
25 families received goat husbandry and training.

• Number and quality of varieties of seed saved
22 varieties of indigenous seeds were saved: 12 at the canyon bottom seed banks and 10 at the canyon rim seed bank.

• Number of goats
Over 150 goats have been purchased and bred. The offspring have formed new herds for approximately 12 families in both communities.

• Number of farmers with improved food supply
Over 500 Tarahumara farmers and their families have benefitted from greater food supply, improved food security, and a wider variety of indigenous seed storied for future needs.

Sustaining the project

Now that the seed banks are established, they will support themselves in perpetuity. We have trained community leaders to manage the seed banks, and they have the seeds, water, and land to continue growouts. All that is required is labor and organization.

After a decade of visiting with Tarahumara communities, their two biggest requests are for water and seed. They now have both. They want self-sovereignty and self-sufficiency through control of seeds and water, which provide them with the means to grow food and sustain their communities.