Biodiversity is being cultivated in Mexico

Posted on 03 October 2019.

To help preserve ancestral varieties of corn, Mexican designer Fernando Laposse has created Totomoxtle, a veneer material made using the husks.

Totomoxtle is used to make furniture and objects such as lamps or vases - even decorative wall panels.

Over the last century, 75% of all cultivated plant varieties have disappeared according to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Extinction threatens the future of our food, health and environment. The cause? An agriculture model that encourages standardized crops. Of the 6,000 species of plants grown for food, fewer than 200 make a significant contribution to global food production. And just nine account for 66% of global agricultural production.
In Mexico, the designer Fernando Laposse is well aware of the dearth of plant species used in agriculture. In 2013, he was inspired by circular economy principles to improve biodiversity. His work focuses on transforming natural resources, often considered as waste, into design objects. In 2016, he created a durable veneer material – called Totomoxtle – made from colorful husks of the traditional corn varieities grown in Mexico.
Fernando Laposse teamed up with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, which has the largest collection of corn seeds in the world. In addition, in the village of Tonahuixtla in the state of Puebla in southwestern Mexico, he appealed to the Mixtec farmers - an indigenous people in Mesoamerica. Together, they selected old varieties of corn remarkable for their colors: black, purple, purple and pink. They are cultivated by the Tonahuixtla villagers using traditional agricultural practices that respect the environment.

Biodiversity and local employment

In addition to raising awareness of the need to preserve traditional seeds, this project aims to create the local jobs that are essential to the survival of the village. With the introduction of industrial hybrid maize, the demand for native maize species dramatically declined. "International trade agreements, the intensive use of herbicides and pesticides, and the influx of highly modified seeds from elsewhere in the world have decimated the practice of growing native maize throughout Mexico because it is simply no longer profitable," says Fernando Laposse.
After the harvest, the naturally colored maize husks are collected and processed by a group of women in Tonahuixtla. They are flattened and glued by hand on wood fiber boards to reinforce them. These are then laser cut into a multitude of small parts to be assembled into the designs.
Totomoxtle is used to make furniture, objects such as lamps, vases - even decorative wall panels. As for the corn husk residues not used in the Totomoxtle manufacturing process, they are composted to re-fertilize the soils in which the maize grows. Nothing is lost.