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Unknowingly, amid a germinating global pandemic in late February, a crowd gathered in the twilight of Svalbard, Norway, fewer than 700 miles from the North Pole.
“It is the most beautiful part of the year to be up there,” says Hannes Dempewolf with The Crop Trust, an international organization that focuses on conserving crop diversity and helps manage the Svalbard Seed Vault.
The vault entrance, jutting from the side of the mountain, opened its doors to 60,000 new seed samples representing hundreds of plant species from around the globe.
More than 1 million seeds are now stored in the vault that’s carved into the rock on the Arctic Archipelago.
“Just like you would back up your data on a hard drive, seed banks around the world can use the facility to back up their materials,” Dempewolf explains.
In February, the Cherokee Nation deposited their own heritage varieties of corn, squash and beans into the Svalbard vault.
“Living in Tornado Alley, it’s a sense of peace to know I can leave seed in the vault,” says Pat Gwin, senior director of environmental resources for the Cherokee Tribe in Tahlequah, Okla.
Gwin was asked by the tribal council to preserve crop seeds important to their culture. During his decade-long expedition, he discovered no one in his region was growing the traditional seeds, as the majority of the heirloom crops did not travel the Trail of Tears with the Cherokees.
“We heard about a display at the Native American Museum in Minneapolis, Minn., with some Cherokee items including a medicine pouch,” Gwin says. “We got nine seeds of tobacco from them.”
From a handful of tiny seeds, Gwin and a team of agriculturalists have resurrected 20 to 25 different types of crops with some varieties dating back nearly 1,500 years.
Last year, the Cherokee Nation shipped and shared nearly 10,000 packages of seed. “We send far more seeds out of state to Cherokees who utilize this as their cultural connection and tie,” Gwin says.
This is why the Svalbard seed vault is so vital to ensuring a secure future. It’s become the Noah’s Ark of restoration should a country’s seed bank or the world ever face a catastrophe big enough to wipe out its plant and crop diversity.
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