Photo Credit: Shrimp farming in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Mike Lusmore/Duckrabbit, 2012 via Flickr.com user WorldFish

Potato Diversity and Traditional Knowledge

As mentioned in last week's blog post, in Peru's Parque de la Papa-the Potato Park-, the Quechuan farmers maintain some 1200 varieties of potatoes named in their own language. Farmers are particularly attentive to the effects of climate change on the micro-habitats where each potato variety can be planted. Quechuan Ricardo Paco Chipa says his father constantly reminds him that the elevation distributions of potatoes today are far different than those that were common when he first farmed a half century ago. Certain varieties cannot grow as low as they once did, because of the heat they would suffer in those places today. At least four cold-tolerant varieties once planted at the highest levels have recently become rare, for lack of any habitats today that are free from the heat during their six month-long growing season. One black and white variety which Ricardo called luqui was once commonly used for making chuno, the freeze-dried potatoes that can be rehydrated for soups and purees: "There is less snow each year, less water, and hotter seasons. Now we must plant each variety higher and higher from year to year. The varieties adapted to the very coldest country below the peaks now have hardly any place to grow." And yet, these Quechuan farmers are not passive victims of climate change; they are dynamically responding to such changes by employing their crop diversity and their traditional knowledge to meet such challenges. Ricardo was clear that this was among their primary motivations for engaging in the collective mission of the Potato Park: "We are not only bringing back a diversity of potato varieties to our fields, but the traditional knowledge about how and where to grow them-and prepare them-as well." This was not always the case. In the 1960s, the Peruvian government and international agricultural agencies lured Ricardo's forefathers into adopting new agricultural practices and concentrating on a few "improved" potato varieties. But these imported techniques, technologies and hybrids did not necessarily suit the conditions found in highlands surrounding Cusco. One Quechuan farmer-Justicio Ucra-smirked as he explained what happened: "We found that the improved varieties not only did poorly in the marketplace, but they were bad for the soil and bad for your health." Gradually, the farmers returned to the time-tried varieties that they had not already abandoned; with the repatriation of other varieties collected by CIP's plant explorers in the 1970s, and others gifted to them by farmers in other parts of Peru, they now collectively cultivate over a thousand varieties each year. This not only offers them a modicum of food security from year to year; it is also allowing the farmers to move toward the goal of true food sovereignty: "We have to go beyond mere food security to food sovereignty and sustainability because that is the only way we can have a good relationship with Pachamama, a good relationship with the land..." In the meantime, the farmers wives—who also sow, harvest and ceremonially bless the potatoes—are busy experimenting with how to better use their great diversity of potatoes. They've formed "the Gastronomic Work Group" (Maruja) with other women from the six communities to document traditional recipes and innovate around them: "What we do is not unlike the kind of innovation with food that our grandmothers did. We combine particular potato varieties with various medicinal plants and other herbs from the wild used in making sauces. We evaluate them on whether they are both tasty and healthy." In the park's co-op restaurant called Papamanka, the food they offered us met both of those criteria. It also had a rich sense of cultural heritage to it that may still not be apparent in many Novo-Andino restaurants in the city. Alejandro Argumedo explained just why that might be: "Our intent has been to integrate all aspects of managing or sustaining a landscape and its food diversity through cultural means. This has been our basis not only for conserving potato diversity, but also for sustaining traditional livelihoods...We had the faith that if we stayed true to the notion of cultural integrity—with the symbol of the potato to unite us under one sombrero—we would achieve not just one objective, but many at the same time." The people of the Potato Park—including the potatoes themselves—have done just that. This success would have intrigued and delighted Nikolay Vavilov, his colleague Sergey Bukasov, and many of the other crop historians who visited Peru over the last century. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Gary Paul Nabhan is a world-renowned ethnobiologist, conservationist, and essayist. He is the author of the new book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine.