Choosing the best potatoes.
Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS
Saving the Potato in the Peruvian Highlands
By Milagros Salazar, special to Tierramérica*
A handful of Peruvian families are working to preserve 200 varieties of potato in the Andean highlands, where this crucial crop was domesticated eight thousand years ago.
HUAMA, Cuzco, Peru, May 5 (Tierramérica).- A plate of parboiled potatoes of various sizes, shapes and colors welcomes the visitor to Huama, a town in the southern Peruvian Andes, at an altitude of 4,500 meters.
"Help yourself, miss. Eat what we reap," offers Rafael Pilco, president of the conservationists in this impoverished community in the Cuzco region, where 200 varieties of native potatoes are grown and protected from pests and climate extremes.
Wearing colorful ponchos, the leaders of the group and their spouses take us to the "chacras", or fields, in the highlands where they are conserving this international nutritional treasure.
More than 8,000 years ago, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) was domesticated in this region. U.S. taxonomist David Spooner, of the University of Wisconsin, locates the tuber's place of origin between Cuzco and the Altiplano, or high plains region, shared with Bolivia.
Of the 120 families in Huama, 40 are dedicated to preserving this food based on their ancestral knowledge and beliefs. The rest raise livestock and grow crops including the potato, of course, as well as maize, "olluco", also a tuber, and other vegetables.
"We plant when the moon is full, because if we do so without the moon, the diseases come and production isn't god," explains Pilco in the Quechua language, as his colleagues nod in agreement.
For the past three years, the 40 families have supplied two of the best hotels in Cuzco with the culinary benefits of the native varieties under an agreement that has allowed them to sell 20,000 kilos so far.
Each kilo is sold for half a dollar, with profits of just 10 percent, according to the farmers' calculations. Though in the end their take is less because they don't factor in the transportation costs.
The women are in charge of transactions because -- as the men themselves insist -- they are better at business.
Agronomist Miguel Angel Pacheco, of the governmental National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA), helps with translation from Quechua to Spanish. He is amazed at how well organized this community is.
"The potato is the symbol of Peru as a crop that has allowed development in the Andes, as a basic food, activity and even as a ritual. The potato signifies "pachamama" (Mother Earth), that which is born from the earth, and has great potential that contributes to our economy," Mario Tapia, an expert with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Tierramérica.
UPS AND DOWNS OF ANCESTRAL TRADITION
The conservation of native potatoes, initiated by the Incas, was maintained for centuries. But the effort was nearly lost with the multiplication of diseases and the devaluation of these varieties in the larger markets, where they were replaced by new and hybrid varieties obtained through modern techniques, selected for high yields.
In Huama, just four families kept up the tradition, which then began to gather new momentum 10 years ago.
What changed? They say the organization of the community improved when they decided to fight alcoholism, which is widespread in the Peruvian Andes.
"Alcohol led to childhood malnutrition because the parents left their children without eating, and it also led to domestic violence," explains community president Gregorio Barrientos. Anyone who touches alcohol, "even a little drink", has to pay a fine of 54 dollars.
Camilo Huaraca, 48, is the head of one of those original four families, and today has more than 150 varieties growing on his plots.
"I am a conservationist through the legacy of my grandparents. Before, I had just 60 varieties, and later I expanded my collection at the fairs, where I exchanged seeds with other farmers," he tells Tierramérica.
At those fairs, promoted by non-governmental organizations like Arariwa, small farmers from around the country compete in exhibiting their varieties, and the winners are awarded the natural fertilizer guano or farming tools.
LOOKING TOWARDS THE MARKETS
In June, the Ministry of Agriculture, with support from FAO, will hand out awards to 35 potato conservationist families. The process includes workshops in which the finalists are selected and requests for assistance made, under the direction of researcher Tapia.
The United Nations is celebrating the International Year of the Potato in 2008, a year already shaken by high prices and shortages of many basic foods around the globe.
Peru has the world's largest potato germplasm bank: seeds, tissue cultures and plants representing 5,000 varieties from across the Andean region, of which more than half originated in this country. Management and research are in the hands of the non-governmental International Potato Center.
In Huama, FAO has developed a program to improve seeds, and the INIA headquarters in Cuzco is committed to providing assistance to increase production and to link the farmers to attractive markets.
It also means offering processed foods: dried potatoes, the main ingredient of dishes like "carapulcra", whose recipe also calls for red chili, peanut, onion, garlic and different meats.
"We want to trade knowledge with these communities so that they have better tools for cultivation and for entry into the market," INIA agronomist Ladislao Palomino told Tierramérica.
The Institute also studies the culinary and nutritional wealth of the potato in order to make the information available to the small farmers and to entrepreneurs who want to invest in products made from the native potato varieties.
"The 'puca sonjo' potato has high content of anthocyanin and betacarotene, which contribute to preventing cancer. This gives high added value to the consumption of this food," says Palomino.
FIGHT AGAINST THE CLIMATE
INIA president Walter Delgado traveled with Tierramérica to Huama, where he noted the drop in production this year, after three frosts and scant rainfall.
The farmers say the livelihood of their families is in danger -- as is the sale of 5,000 kilos of native potatoes to the Cuzco hotels.
To deal with these setbacks, the farmers have developed a technique of mixed cultivation: they plant different crops on the same parcel to improve the chances for a healthy harvest, because some plants are hardier than others.
The INIA experts hope to confront these challenges with the project "Andenes", in which they study the agronomic traits of the potato, including its adaptation to very high temperatures and the discoveries of new viruses.
Meanwhile, the farmers are not giving up ancestral practices to guarantee a good harvest. They "pay back" the earth with offerings that include their best fruits, and the presence of the "arariwa", guardian of the crops.
"He is chosen by all of us. He is a respected person and is treated like the first man," Huaraca explained.
* IPS Correspondent.