Potato Park, located in the Cusco region of Peru, is one of the world’s few biological reserves operated by local indigenous populations. It proves that, with the aid of science, mixing old knowledge with new technology can be a successful recipe for protecting crops against climate change.
Potato Park is home to over 6000 indigenous Quechua peoples from six surrounding communities. They share the land and their traditional knowledge to preserve the myriad varieties of Andean potatoes, root vegetables and other tubers that are native to the area and a key staple in the Peruvian diet. NGO ANDES has been managing the park since its inception in the nineties, when it’s principal purpose was environmental conservation.
The focused turned to agriculture, specifically climate-adaptive potato farming, in 2002. NGO ANDES and Quechua farmers collaborate with the International Potato Centre (ICP), which provides scientific and technical R&D to the initiative.
The initiative began when it became clear just how much of an impact climate change has had on crop planting, rotation, and yields. The region has been getting too much sun and early rains, as well as an early frost. These issues complicate the terraced fields that have been developed over generations of experience. Due to changes in temperature and seasonal precipitation, farmers have been forced to plant at higher altitudes.
Aylla: A System of Reciprocity
Crops not used to the different soil or altitude have failed, and so with the help of the ICP and NGO ANDES, farmers are learning to experiment with different varieties at different altitudes, hoping that particular species will adapt to the new environment. While this may entail something of a non-productive learning curve, according to Quechua culture, indigenous farmers live and work by “aylla”, which is a “system of reciprocity”, meaning that if those living at higher altitudes can’t grow a particular potato on which to sustain themselves, they can depend on community members living at lower altitudes within the park to share their produce.
In this process, science and traditional knowledge have united and, in a move perhaps not common in the industry, science is taking a backseat to traditional knowledge. The CIP learns from Quechua farmers first, and applies scientific techniques afterward, to preserve the traditional way of doing things. Having recognized and respected the need for Quechua people to preserve crops native to their area and way of life, the CIP has used seedling samples that were collected 50 years ago and have been stored in a “genetic seed bank” to reintroduce 410 varieties of Andean potato to the region.
In total, the community now cultivates 1347 varieties of potatoes and tubers, which farmers have learned to identify by colour, shape, taste and texture once harvested. The CIP and NGO ANDES have helped to facilitate this species identification by helping farmers to identify by leaf, flower and other markers in the field.
Before a potato seedling can be sown in the field, it is grown from seed in a greenhouse. When ready, it is planted in fields, and it can take upwards of 4 years before a potato is ready to be harvested. As a result of the technical knowledge gained at CIP, local people are learning to cross-pollinate in the field, which is minimizing a reliance on greenhouse-grown tubers and increasing overall crop productivity.
By cross-pollinating potato varieties, Quechua farmers are learning how to develop hardy potato strains that are resilient to climate change. Through trials, the CIP and farmers have together discovered which seeds are most appropriate for planting. Aside from enabling Quechua farmers to continue producing their traditional crops, this unity of scientific and traditional knowledge is simplifying Andean farming and bolstering productivity. Additionally, the area has seen increases in food security as many varieties, such as the Moraya variety, can be dehydrated, freeze-dried and kept for up to five years.
The Potato Park has proven to be a successful linkage between traditional knowledge and scientific progress, which has enabled Peru’s indigenous populations around Cusco to preserve their heritages and environments despite a rapidly changing world. Farmers from other locales around the world, including China and Bhutan (video below) have also visited the Park to learn how to better respond to and cope with climate change.
For this reason, the project has been showcased at the 20th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was hosted by Peru last week. This Conference has been the most recent series of global meetings on Climate Change.
This post was originally published in December 2014.