Leaves, Roots, and Fruits: Semillas Libres Preserves Seeds and Cultural Heritage for Food Autonomy

This weekend, I attended the We Are All Farmers Permaculture Design Weekend http://weareallfarmers.org

As always, this was an inspirational gathering of people from all of the Southeast committed to care of the Earth, care of people, and the return of surplus to all.

The weekend included an aquaponics and water management workshop by Brian Koser, a presentation about soils and tropical permaculture live from Dave Edelstein in Ecuador, and a brainstorming session on climatic factors with Edward Marshall.

WAAF Permaculture Design Course Participants conference live with Valentina Vives and Coloro Magana of Semillas Libres, a South American organization focused on saving seeds as an act of food autonomy and cultural preservation.

WAAF Permaculture Design Course Participants conference live with Valentina Vives and Coloro Magana of Semillas Libres, a South American organization focused on saving seeds as an act of food autonomy and cultural preservation.

However, the highlight of the weekend was a Skyped-in conference call with Valentina Vives and Coloro Magaña from a seed-saving social and political movement called Semillas Libres that is currently percolating through Chile, Ecuador and Peru.  This organization of seed savers, communicators, and defenders is recognizes each seed as a sacred medium carrying genetic, cultural, and spiritual memory.  According to a a United Nations Food and Agriculture Report of 2012, 75% of seeds have been lost in the past century, mostly due to the industrialization of agriculture during the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1970s.  Throughout Latin America, the divide between campesinos raising heirloom seeds in accordance with their rich Mayan heritage is in stark contrast with the structural adjustment policies that promote the purchase and cultivation of hybrid and GMO seeds for the purpose of producing large-scale commodities.  As Coloro poignantly observed, “Modern agriculture is designed to make money, not food.”  Indeed, by cultivating a agro-ecological polyculture in accordance with each culture’s heritage is more resilient and resistant to social, political, and climatic change.  They hope to preserve seeds for the use of communities throughout the world, and protect the cultural and genetic heritage from multinational corporations that hope to privatize the genetic information in seeds.

Semillas libres is focused on supporting Americans (both Northern and Southern Varieties) in the creation of their own ex-situ and in-situ seed banks.  This “cross pollination:” of ideas was conducted mostly in broken Spanish and English as a second language, so there may be some details missing.  But here is a simplified list of steps for creating your own seed-bank:


1. Open your heart

Saving seeds is about unity, and saving life from the cosmos.  Seed freedom is about human liberation.

2. Select the plant

Every seed matters, you do not only need to focus on local or endangered varieties.  Choose characteristics you like, such as early or late varieties, those that have a good size, flavor, or that thrive in atypical conditions.

3. Collect the seeds

Seeds must be collected before 10:00 am.  You should collect the whole plant, including the roots, and hang it upside down in a dark, dry place.  Try to dry off any dew or condensation.

4. Clean and dry your specimen

Remove the seeds from your plant, assuring that there is no organic material attached to the seeds.  You can test which seeds are viable by putting them in a bowl of water.  The seeds that float to the top of your bowl should be discarded, while the seeds that sink are alive and should be dried and stored.

5. Dry the seeds

You can dry seeds over a fire or dehydrator, as long as the seeds are not heated above 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees celcius.)  The seeds can be placed in a paper bag while drying.  The seeds should be so dry that they cannot break under pressure.

6. Classify your seeds

Using a notebook as a register, keep a record of your seeds and label them with a “seed passport.”  The passport should include the seed variety, the qualities of the plant, the conditions under which it was grown and harvested, the dates it was sown, the date it bloomed, the date it was harvested, and the date the seeds were collected.  The passport should include both the scientific name and any common names that the plant goes by, as the common names reflect the cultural significance and applications of the plant itself.

7. Conduct a germination test

Get a plastic ziploc bag and poke it with pin holes.  Put a moist paper towel and 10 seeds inside.  Then, record the number of seeds that germinate and calculate it into a percent.  This will be your specimen’s germination rate.  This is good information to add to your seed passport.  The more information you have on the passport, the better.

8.  Store your seeds

Keep you seeds in a cool, dark place that is between 45-75 degrees Fahrenheit (5-20 degrees Celsius).  Store your seeds in paper bags inside of glass or plastic jars with airtight lids.  Do not save seeds in metal containers.

9. Share your seed

Do not be greedy or anxious about your seeds.  As Valentina noted, “You can not have a sustainable culture all by yourself.”  A seed bank is meant to be a place to share seeds, not to hoard them.  It is better to have multiple people in your community with access to seeds in a decentralized fashion that you can then share in common in times of need.

10. Plant your seed

Seeds should only really be stored for a maximum of 2 years before they are planted again.  Planting your seeds keeps them genetically active and viable.  Collected, storing, and sharing seeds is good practice for a sustainable and caring society.

Great thanks to Valentina Vives, Color Magaña, and Crystal Allen-Cooke for organizing this incredible exchange of ideas and information.  We all look forward to coordination with Semillas Libres and hopefully meeting in person in the near future.

For more information about Semillas Libres, please visit their websites at:




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