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Parque de la Papa: Vavilov’s Dream for Potatoes?

For a quarter century, the breed of ethnobotanists I’ve hung with have proposed through countless lectures and publications that crop diversity can best conserved in situ, in the cultural landscapes managed by the traditional farmers who have long been its stewards. Now, in the highlands of Peru, a dream has come true, one that would have made the late Russian seed conservationist Nikolay Vavilov giddy with delight. Vavilov himself visited the Andes some seventy years ago, during an era when there was no “formal” in situ conservation for potatoes anywhere in the world.

But today, there is such a place, simply known as the Parque de la Papa—the Potato Park. I had the pleasure to visit the park and to listen to the Quechuan farmers within it just after their “winter” solstice of 2008.

To arrive at the Parque de la Papa, you leave Cusco’s high elevation urbanity at 11,000 foot, and you climb, climb, climb. It seems as though you might leave the altiplano behind altogether, for you wind up dirt roads toward the Andes’ snow-capped peaks until you can see above you only azure skies as deeply blue as a mountain lake. You must leave behind your earlier elevation sickness known as seroche by drinking the tea and chewing the leaves of a trickster of a plant known as coca, and by going slow. Indeed it is important to set your pace through the highlands slow enough for your mind to reconnect with farming traditions that have remained resilient for millennia; there are families here growing potatoes on stone-lined terraces with much of the skills and insights that their ancestors accumulated over dozens of generations.

When you are done meandering up switchbacks on a wheezing, teetering bus, you come to where Quechuans are harvesting their potatoes. There, you find yourself in front of a large billboard that proclaims that you have entered the Parque de la Papa. What it does not mention is that this is the only “park” in the world fully dedicated to the in situ conservation of native crops. The six Quechuan communities there have dedicated their future to the “repatriation, restoration and sustainable management of the native agrobiodiversity of the potato, and to the traditional knowledge shared within the communities associated with it.”

The six agrarian communities which have rallied around their shared interest in potato diversity are known as Chawaytiré, Sacaca, Kuyo Grande, Pampallaqta, Paru Paru, and Amaru. They did not always feel united with one another; in fact, in the years prior to the Potato Park, there had been some bloodshed between two of the communities over a contested boundary between their farming and grazing lands. Instead of staying entrenched in such territorial disputes, they agreed to be part of a grassroots initiative facilitated by ethnobotanist Alejandro Argumedo, one of the founders of Asociación Andes based in Cusco. These agrarian communities agreed that they had more to gain by banding together in defense of their sustenance—potato culture—than they could ever realize by struggling against one another or working in isolation.

And so, they began to form institutional linkages not only with ngo’s such as Asociación Andes, but with networks including other indigenous communities struggling to define and maintain their own food sovereignty as well. In 2002, the six communities were confident enough to declare some 10,000 hectares of their lands the Parque de la Papa, which was soon followed by an agreement with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru that allowed the repatriation of some 420 varieties of potatoes previously collected by CIP for the purposes of plant breeding.

Repatriation literally means to bring something back to the fatherland, taking into custody something which once belonged to your cultural community. There have been other instances of crop repatriation—notably the dozens of Hopi crop varieties relocated, documented and returned to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in 2002. This was facilitated by members of what is now called the Renewing America’s Food Traditions collaborative, including the Seed Savers Exchange, Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Center for Sustainable Environments.

Nevertheless, the repatriation of Peruvian potatoes for in situ conservation has been unprecedented both in scale and in its acceptance by one of internationally-funded crop conservation and improvement centers (collectively known as CGIAR). Key scientists at the International Potato Center (CIP) had become convinced that such a community-based conservation strategy was indeed worth supporting. Some two decades before, however, CGIAR administrators such as Trevor Williams formally dismissed in situ conservation strategies as impractical, costly and unproductive. Today, CIP’s more forward-thinking scientists provide technical assistance upon request to farmers in the Potato Park who wish to gain advice on the best ways to cultivate, fertilize and manage their many varieties of native tubers. At the same time, the leaders of the Parque de la Papa has requested that the UN Food and Agriculture’s International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources formally recognize their cultural landscape as a “gene bank” of equal importance and status of that of the International Potato Center.

Today, the Quechuan farmers in the Potato Park maintain some 1200 varieties of potatoes named in their own language, in addition to razas criollas (land races) of maize, oca, quinoa, fava beans and wheat. When you visit them, you are at first dazzled by the sheer splendor of colors woven into their caps, ponchos, pants or dresses; these are folks that understand beauty. But color is not merely ornamental; the many varieties of potatoes range from black and purple to brown and yellow; they are knobby, curvilinear, oblong, round, or shaped like a hen’s egg. Each has its own identity, its own flavor, its own texture; some even have their own “voice.”

Quechuan farmer Ricardo Paco Chipa of the village of Paru explained to me how one potato variety was found to have its own voice. It is now known as a “guardian potato” who collaborates with human guardians or stewards of potato diversity to protect this diversity from outside threats.

“The guardian potato is known as Santo Ruma. It began to speak one time when a thief came to rob all the potatoes from a field; it scared away the thief, and woke up the people to defend the field. Of course, it is rare for a potato to speak, “Ricardo added soberly, “but by doing so, it saved the others. Those of us who are appointed as human guardians of the potatoes must recognize this.”

I was intrigued by the notion that at least some of the potato varieties were perceived by the Quechuans as embodying qualities that the rest of us might attribute only to humans. Ricardo was straight forward in his defense of this notion:

“Potatoes are part of our family. We keep them in our homes with us.”

An elder several decades older than Ricardo added that one should never cut a potato with a knife, because it is alive. Such empathy with the sentience of potatoes is complemented by detailed technical knowledge about the plants themselves, and the environments in which they grow. One of the Quechuan farmers of the Potato Park wanted to affirm to academically-trained biologists of the veracity of his community’s knowledge:

“We want the world to know that we ourselves are scientists of the potato. We have detailed knowledge about the life of these plants. We read their flowers, their leaves, their vines. We read the soil, the weather; we see how the plants respond to the winds. They are our books.”

This has made the Quechuan farmers particularly attentive to the effects of climate change on the micro-habitats where each potato variety can be planted. 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.

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