Peru’s ‘potato guardians’ protect native varieties for future generations

HollyWhile it may not have the same ring as Hollywood’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ the Papa Arariwa of Peru, known as the ‘Potato Guardians’, are fighting a cause of their own – to protect and conserve hundreds of native varieties of the staple crop that exist in their fields.

Though most potato farmers in the country’s Andes mountains would consider themselves to be Papa Arariwa, and rightly so, a group of small communities who jointly manage and maintain the world’s largest in situ diversity of native potato varieties have made this their life’s work.

There are more than 700 local varieties, 400 varieties repatriated by the International Potato Center (CIP) and five wild varieties grown in Parque de la Papa (the Potato Park), which also houses its own genebank containing around 1,400 varieties.

Located close to the town of Pisaq in the Sacred Valley, the Potato Park sprawls over 12,000ha of the very soils that first bore the humble tuber millennia ago and is considered to be the center of biodiversity for the potato.

I’ve been invited here to join the celebrations of National Potato Day, the 45th anniversary of CIP and the signing of a renewed five-year cooperation agreement between CIP and the Andes Association (ANDES), which have worked closely together with the Papa Arariwa of the Potato Park for more than a decade to conserve Peru’s native potato varieties.

The communities have also been instrumental over the last 45 years in helping CIP to collect and preserve native varieties in the center’s own genebank back in the capital city of Lima.

In preparation for the trip, I’m told to anticipate temperatures as low as 4°C during the night and up to 20°C by midday, a harsh and bright sun, possible rain storms, strong wind and thin air due to the high altitude. Needless to say, this is a tough environment.

Yet it is precisely these conditions that make the region perfect for cultivating potato plants, which need cool evening temperatures between 4 – 15°C in order to ‘tuberize’, or develop potatoes. While the temperature tolerance varies across varieties, with some naturally more tolerant than others, it’s generally agreed that nighttime temperatures over 15°C affect this process, leading to smaller yields and even causing malformations in the plant.

As climate change warms our atmosphere, the Quechua people who live here have reported that over the past 30 years potatoes that were once cultivated by traditional methods at 3800 meters must now be grown further up the mountains at 4000 meters, where it is cooler.

Even more concerning is that some varieties completely vanished from the mountainside and had to be repatriated from collections held in CIP’s genebank.

However, it’s not just the temperatures that affects the plants. Warmer weather is expanding the reach of pests and diseases that attack and devastate potato crops, and in some cases allowing pest populations to grow at higher elevations where they were not previously able to thrive.

“The threat of climate change is real and the Papa Arariwa are actively searching for ways to mitigate the negative effects of pests and diseases they are encountering as a result of a warming Earth. It is important that we work hand-in-hand to combat this growing concern,” CIP’s Director General, Barbara Wells, tells the crowd who have gathered in the park to join the celebrations.

Through combining the modern scientific expertise of CIP and ANDES researchers with the Papa Arariwa’s traditional knowledge of native potato varieties, farming systems and the Andes region, they work together to adapt the ways in which the communities cultivate potatoes to meet the challenges of climate change.

Aside from climate smart agricultural practices, CIP is harnessing the genetic traits of some of the park’s more naturally hardy varieties to breed improved varieties resistant to stresses like drought and disease.

The lessons being learned here are invaluable for helping Peru’s potato farming communities to cope with climate change, and are also informing the Center’s work with potato farmers across Africa and Asia who struggle with similar issues.

“Parque de le Papa is both research in the field and a productive farming community unique in its use of traditional tools and methods combined with modern science to maintain its historic way of life. CIP is fortunate to have a relationship with this community,” Wells says.

As the celebrations end and we make our way back to Lima, I can’t help but think it is more than fitting that Peru’s ‘Sacred Valley’ is both the ancestral home and key to the future of the potato, which is itself a sacred part of the Quechua way of life.

As climate change and the threats it brings begin to have very real and serious consequences for income, food and nutrition security of potato farming communities both in Peru and around the world, it is clear that now more than ever the work being done by Peru’s potato guardians, ANDES and CIP is critical for securing the future of this staple crop in its many forms.

GLF2020, Peru, potato