The Doomsday Vault Plan B

Feb 10, 2012

The Doomsday Vault Plan B: A Conversation with Miguel Santistevan
by Arianne Shaffer, Kindle Project

Intimacy. Apocalypse. Respect. Plan B. Activism. These are just some of the words that came up in my conversation with Kindle Project grantee, Miguel Santistevan. Not at all what I was expecting when I was planning my interview with him in regards to seeds and the ‘Doomsday Vault’. But then again, that’s just one of the reasons why Miguel is one of our grantees. As our in-house seed expert he works in truly holistic ways – meshing the spiritual with the scientific, the social with the practical and all the while being one of the most fascinating people we’ve ever met.

Miguel and I spoke primarily about the Doomsday Vault but I quickly discovered that asking him about this Norwegian project I was unraveling many other questions we’ve been asking ourselves at Kindle for the past couple months and Miguel provided us with some answers.

The idea of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (a.k.a The Doomsday Vault) is something we could not ignore while focusing our attention to seeds. A kind of science fiction-esque cave set in Norway just over 8oo miles from the North Pole storing already half a million seed samples from around the world. A quick Google image search will reveal this silvery structure embedded in ice as a kind of ominous reminder of what is at stake in our current global, political, environmental and climate context. The seeds that are housed in this vault are from all over the world and anybody can place seeds there free of charge, thanks to the Norwegian government who has funded this initiative to the tune of roughly US$9 million.

In speaking with Miguel I was curious about his opinions on the vault. As someone who understands, lives and works with seeds on both the very personal and broader academic and global levels I was certain his thoughts on the vault would provide insights into this controversial project.

When I asked Miguel to share his thoughts about the vault in Norway I knew his answer would not be simple: “I think it’s a good idea… At local level and at the bigger level we need to think of a Plan B. It’s a good idea as a back up, but it’s only half a solution – it’s ex-citu conservation –  in-situ conservation is more important. It’s only 400 feet above sea level and I think we’re in for a great surprise in terms of what the ocean and earth are capable of doing. We’re blind to the potential of what this mother earth can do to clean herself. I think we need a better plan.”

Miguel’s suggestion was to have not just one massive seed bank that addresses a post-apocalyptic scenario, but rather to build thousands of seed banks all over the world. This would then address the problem and pressure the seeds in the Norway vault face – feeding people. Miguel’s assessment of these seeds is that they would need about five years to adapt to a local climate, soil and etc. Then how viable is this vault? Is there still a way to decentralize the world’s seeds? What else can we do?

In answering some of these questions with Miguel I was struck by the innate complexities that this vault presents. Additionally, it opened up a whole new arena for our conversation to the necessary depth of relationship we need to get to with the seeds we save and cultivate. “This Norway vault is still treating seeds an object to be saved. I see seeds as an ambassador of mother earth. Human beings are in a symbiosis with plant world… we’re forgetting the original relationship with the seeds, we’re abandoning that and just focusing on technology and economy.” The way Miguel went on to speak about his relationships with seeds expressed a kind of intimacy I was not expecting. His reverence for seeds in combination with his experienced, academic, and scientific knowledge of this field was humbling.

“The wisdom and relationship with seeds is very personal and very intimate. It’s challenging…It’s one of the most engaging and beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.” He reminds us to listen to the seeds, to notice the earth, the land, the water, the climate and all the changes these elements are going through. Without this relationship, and the attention required to cultivate it, it seems all the seeds in the world, even if protected in the icy vault will be of little use to us as humans.

From the magnitude of the Doomsday Vault to the minutia of a single square inch of soil on Miguel’s land I was left wondering how I could be involved, invested and active in this issue of seeds and their sovereignty living in an urban metropolis. Miguel’s reminders were simple: “Even though you’re in the concrete jungle – remember there’s soil under that. Sledgehammer it. Break through it!”

He urged us as urban dwellers to remember that every time we’re eating, we’re voting with our food choices. Seems simplistic enough, but not unlike the complexities of each square inch of land, we must consider each square inch of cultivatable space in urban areas. We spoke of community gardens, raised beds, vericomposts, rooftop gardens, and the many ways urban dwellers are engaging with local farmers to engage with these issues on a daily and very personal level.

DSCN5541For Miguel, saving his seeds and cultivating his growing seed libraries is a form of local and global activism. We spoke about activism in general and how some are drawn to protests and rallies while others contribute to activism in seemingly more quiet and personal ways. “The most hard core revolutionary out there is maize – she’s not out there protesting, she’s very graceful and doing what she’s doing.” It may seem like a soft argument. Perhaps a plant is not the kind of leader activists are looking for, but Miguel’s illustration of maize as a revolutionary was as perceptive and as in-depth as his analysis of the Norway vault. He explained that agricultural activism is not about jumping on a bandwagon, because this kind of activism demands one be committed and consistent all the while “putting you in touch with your own mortality.”

Exploring the Doomsday Vault with Miguel acted as a kind of call to action, a very personal one that encourages me to look at cultivable land in my city, to keep reading and trying to understand the complexities of this vault and to foster a relationship with the ways that I can contribute to this changing food systems of our planet. Miguel’s words really sum this up, “we need to engage with seeds in the present so that we can have an agricultural future.” How we carry this forward is up to each of us and whether the seeds in the Norway vault will be viable for future generations is not something we can know now, but according to Miguel the chances of that being successful hinge on our intimate and personal relationships to each individual seed.

With a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Science degree in Ecology from the University of California, Davis, Miguel Santistevan is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Biology at the University of New Mexico.  His research interests are in the traditional acequia-irrigated and dryland agricultural systems of the Upper Rio Grande and Sangre de Cristo mountains. Miguel is certified in Permaculture and ZERI Design and has been a High School science teacher in Pecos, Peñasco, and Taos school districts.  He has directed youth-in-agriculture programs such as ePlaza of Hands Across Cultures and the Regional Development Corporation and the Sembrando Semillas youth-in-agriculture project of the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA).  He has produced video and public radio programming (¡Que Vivan las Acequias!) with the NMAA and Cultural Energy, of which he is a Board Member.  He maintains a conservation farm with his wife and daughter in Taos called Sol Feliz where many visitors have participated in educational presentations, tours, and hands-on workshops (  Miguel coordinates a ‘Living Seed Library’ program through the Agriculture Implementation, Research, and Education non-profit corporation he is co-founding (  Miguel has recently been elected Chairman of the Acequia Sur de Río de Don Fernando de Taos for the 2010-2011 growing season of which he is a parciante (irrigator) and past Mayordomo (ditch boss).  He also serves as a Board Member for the Taos Valley Acequia Association. More information on Miguel can be found at

Photo Source of Seed Vault – National Geographic News