The Secret to Potato Mapping

The International Potato Center (CIP) requires detailed geographic and analytical mapping, as well as data exploration tools in order to successfully spearhead and administer a great deal of its diverse projects. CIP’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) consists of a crack team of dedicated researchers, cartographers, and programmers that collaborate and support CIP projects by anticipating adverse effects such as erosion, urbanization, tourism, mining, and climate change on the biodiverse hot-spots of all potato species. The work is detailed, diverse, and to a large degree – groundbreaking; but what exactly does geographical mapping have to do with potato science, and what impacts does GIS have on the development of CIP activities?

Actually quite a lot, as it would turn out.

Henry Juarez, a CIP Associate Researcher who leads the GIS department, explains that GIS was primarily started as a means to support the collection of germplasm for the genebank, and “allow researchers to explore potential locations for growing and finding new strains of tubers.” From there the potential of GIS took off considerably and is now a fundamental part of many research projects carried out by the Center.

An interesting area of support given by the GIS to CIP is the mapping of areas to show the visible effects of climate change on potato production. Geographic information collected by GIS is relevant to a wide range of different CIP projects that study the effects of climate change on potato production. Another area where the information is useful is to help analyze migration patterns and the effects of mining on potato production, both of which, “Are shown to have definitive impacts on potato cultivation throughout Peru,” according to Juarez.

While support is given to a number of crosscutting projects, another important task delegated to the GIS department is to help provide the genebank and the genetic resources department with a gap analysis of potato, sweetpotato, and other Andean roots and tubers (ARTs). A gap analysis is a term used to measure and identify gaps in the conservation of biodiversity by comparing projections against the evolution of collected materials over time in a large area. “This project is large,” says Juarez, “as it includes incorporating all the information collected by CIP for over 40 years of fieldwork, into a map.” The gap analysis will give CIP scientists a much stronger idea of what varieties of potato, sweetpotato, and ARTs are in need of protection, and what areas of the country they are most likely to be found.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing projects being supported by GIS is CIP’s Chirapaq Ñan – ‘Rainbow Route’ in Quechua – project which monitors and promotes the agrobiodiversity and conservation of the native potato by means of interconnecting microcenters of high diversity across several Latin America countries. GIS supports the project through establishing a baseline for the systematic monitoring of microcenters, which make up the core nucleus of the project. Juarez explains that, “This baseline serves as a photograph that helps CIP understand the actual state of conservation for the diversity of cultivated potatoes in the communities selected by Chirapaq Ñan.” The GIS will also help Chirapaq Ñan to study the total diversity (including characterization and genetic footprints) of all catalogued varieties, the relative abundance of varieties, and the total distribution of varieties with detailed mapping.

In order to provide the project with this type of information, Juarez says that he needed to train over 18 local farmers living in various communities in different regions of the country to help with GPS mapping. Juarez explains how the potato custodians and community leaders helped to select the most responsible farmers in each area before they were each given a GPS and detailed instructions on how to map various plots and describe, in detail, the different varieties and quantities of native potatoes being farmed throughout all community agricultural allotments.

Detailed satellite imagery was also purchased to help define the allotted areas of agricultural land used for potato cultivation. These images were then used to print out giant maps (some measuring 4 m) which were shown to local farmers and community leaders in order for them to help map out their potato crops. Juarez recalls that upon seeing a giant map of his territory, the leader of a community from Cerro de Pasco commented, “I feel like God.”

The methodology for the baseline study for Chirapaq Ñan will continue over the duration of the project, and will eventually branch out into other Latin American countries. With this baseline study, the project will be able to carry out a systematic monitoring of diversity for decades to come, and the collected results will not only help to conserve native potatoes and increase the livelihoods of local farmers, but will also be able to provide detailed information that can be used to support other projects across CIP.

The small but dedicated team of GIS professionals working at CIP help provide the structure and baseline support needed to give a great many of CIP’s projects momentum. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how to best implement CIP projects,” explains Juarez, “and geographic information systems help CIP conceptualize each project for greatest impact, before providing the necessary information needed to put the wheels of each project into motion.”

The recognition is growing steadily. RTBMaps – CIP’s joint work with other RTB participating centers Bioversity International, CIAT and IITA – was recently honored at the latest ESRI Conference with a Special Achievement in GIS Award.