Protecting potato diversity in Peru
An Andean treasure that long predates the Incas, the potato was first domesticated in Peru about 8,000 years ago. There are now some 3,000 weird and wonderful varieties in the Andes - blue and knobbly; white and pebble-like; others look more like boomerangs than tubers. In Quechua, the indigenous language of the Andes, the word for potato is papa, father, and in this region, potatoes are more than just food; they enjoy cultural significance, with farmers continuing to nurture the varieties their ancestors domesticated.
But potato biodiversity in Peru is vulnerable, partly due to the tradition of local knowledge being passed down through the generations by word-of-mouth. With no written record, there is no guarantee that ancestral knowledge about particular varieties and how to grow them will be preserved. At the turn of the 21st century, some farmers were also concerned that the introduction of improved cultivars and food aid programmes had undermined the genetic resource base developed over millennia. There was also some anxiety over the risk of bio-piracy - outsiders obtaining farmers' planting material and claiming varieties as their own.
While no evidence was available to support the claims, there was no practical way to protect the farmers if their concerns turned out to be true. To help preserve knowledge and provide a better understanding of the problems farmers faced, the International Potato Center (CIP) decided to document potato varieties in-situ. Then, if necessary, efforts could be made to help preserve their varieties though on-farm conservation.
Out of the shadows
On the steep slopes of the Huancavelica region of south-west Peru, a team of CIP scientists arrived in 2003 to create a historical record of local potatoes. "At first, there was a lot of suspicion and it took a lot of effort to establish confidence, says CIP's project coordinator Stefan De Haan. "We spent a lot of time with the communities, staying with the local people. Gradually we were able to create a working environment based on mutual respect and trust."
One of the results of the four-year study has been the Catalogo de Variedades de Papa Nativa, a 200-page directory documenting 144 varieties of indigenous potatoes. Each variety is identified with photographs, detailed descriptions from farmers and, crucially, unique DNA fingerprints. By signing a clause of prior informed consent, participating farmers permitted the publication of their potato varieties and have a legal safeguard in place for the varieties their forefathers nurtured.
The research found virtually no evidence of potato varieties being under threat, and made some promising discoveries. One was Araq Papa (Solanum tuberosum subsp var lelekkoya), a large-tuber potato variety commonly harvested from the wild in Huancavelica. Araq Papa has shown no susceptibility to late blight and has now been earmarked for use in the development of new resistant varieties.
The CIP team has also helped to repatriate S. phureja, a cultivated potato species previously common in Huancavelica that had declined significantly. This early-maturing potato has similar properties to improved varieties currently being developed to resist the effects of climate change. The team discovered that the decline in S. phureja was linked to the political conflict of the 1980s and 90s, which forced rural families to flee their homes for months at a time. When they returned, the potato seeds had dried up and the species, with no dormancy, had virtually vanished. Through the repatriation efforts, cultivation of S. phureja is on the increase, although it still teeters on the brink of extinction.
CIP's Potato Park - a vast, rugged 12,000ha site in the Sacred Valley region of the Peruvian Andes - is a living repository of potato genetic diversity. At a quite literally breathtaking altitude of up to 5000 metres above sea-level, six Quechua communities live and work on the Park, growing around 600 varieties of native potato. CIP has helped repatriate many "lost" varieties to the area, which is believed to be one of the areas where potatoes originated. It is hoped the project will continue to help preserve indigenous knowledge and ancestral technologies, while ensuring the production of native varieties remains under local control.
A hardy, little-known variety called Puqya (S. stenotomum) was also discovered. "It's a very rustic landrace," enthuses De Haan. "We found that a lot of farmers had it but it was not grown commercially. It has very small leaflets that close in the afternoon and we found it always survived severe frosts and hail. This makes it very important for food security." This inherent resilience means Puqya will be an important variety for future research.
De Haan admits that at times the project has been frustrating. "In the beginning farmers would ask for help but we couldn't intervene because it would influence the study. At the end we were able to respond to their requests, reintroducing lost varieties, and cleaning up seeds." He believes one option now is for these communities to become commercial seed producers, using their own seed varieties to generate income, while preserving the tradition of potato production for future generations.
Date published: September 2008
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