Peruvian Potato Farmers and Scientists Team Up to Adapt Traditional Practices to El Niño and Climate Change

Smallholder farmers in Peru will be hard hit by the impact of the Southern Oscillation El Niño climate phenomenon. The year 2016 is expected to be one of the more devastating El Niño years on par with the 1997 event that dealt a $3.5 billion blow to the Peruvian economy.  Temperatures are expected to rise as much as 3° C. Currently 14 regions of Peru have been declared a state of emergency and the Peruvian government is working to help mitigate the impact of expected floods and drought.


The International Potato Center, known as CIP for its acronym in Spanish, the  (Asociación ANDES in Spanish)  and the communities living and around the Parque de la Papa in Cusco, convened on November 18th to discuss the impact of the El Niño phenomenon in the region. Since 2004, the Potato Park and CIP have collaborated to preserve and promote the Park’s native potato varieties through repatriation of disease-free cultivars, as well as to identify traditional and scientific practices for food security and self-sustaining development, particularly in light of climate change.


Over the centuries Peruvian potato farmers have developed traditional practices that help them acclimate to severe weather variations and avoid widespread food insecurity. Climate change coupled with El Niño, however, are stresses that have rendered some of these tools less effective, making these populations more susceptible to hunger. In the past 30 years alone the communities in partnership with CIP have seen that potatoes once successfully cultivated by traditional methods at 3800 meters, now have to be cultivated at 4,000 meters due to rising temperatures.


The workshop looked to bridge science with traditional knowledge in order to create an action plan that will benefit smallholder farmers.  “Our role is to build capacity and help the communities understand these phenomena and how they can they can use their traditional practices to continue to have productivity,” says Dave Ellis, head of the CIP gene bank and program leader for Conserving Diversity for the Future. Participants discussed El Niño’s expected impact on potato production in the area, traditional knowledge and practices used in previous El Niño cycles, and what the plan of action will be in the Potato Park over the next 8 months including data collection, observations, and documentation of which potatoes grow best in different environments.


While a goal of the workshop is to help farmers prepare and respond to the additional challenges the upcoming El Niño, it is also seen as a springboard for gathering information that will be useful to responding to severe weather in the future.  “We have lots of data produced by researchers, but this data is piecemeal, there is no established framework that can be used by farmers to anticipate the potential impact,” says Alejandro  Argumedo, ANDES program director. “In the future we’d like to be able to adjust the collected information so that it serves as a base to continue to build future resilience.”


The workshop will help key stakeholders exchange knowledge and look for ways to merge best practices both traditional and scientific. “(It’s a way for us to) look for answers on how we can adapt to the changes we are living,” Argumedo says. “In order to create more effective tools and resistant varieties to respond to these challenges science can learn from traditional practices.”


Farmers will be impacted by the weather variations this El Niño will bring. By working together to document and test ways to mitigate that impact, approaches can be found that will help farmers better adapt to climate change and prepare for subsequent El Niños.  “Let’s use whatever information we glean off of this one (El Niño) to help us in the future,” says Ellis. “What we know is that the weather extremes, the highs and lows are going to be more variable. These types of catastrophic events will get stronger and stronger.  This is a learning process for all of us. Our participation with the farmers is a two-way exchange. We can both learn from each other.” 


About CIP

The International Potato Center (CIP), headquartered in Lima, Peru, was founded in 1971 as a root and tuber research-for-development institution delivering sustainable solutions to the pressing world problems of hunger, poverty, malnutrition and the degradation of natural resources.  CIP houses the global in-trust potato, sweetpotato and Andean root and tuber crops collections and contains the world’s largest collection of potato diversity.  CIP has regional offices in Peru, Ecuador, Kenya, India and China   and is active globally with projects in 30 developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.


CIP is part of the CGIAR Consortium, a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future. CGIAR research is dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources. Donors include individual countries, major foundations, and international entities.


About Asociación ANDES


ANDES Works cooperatively with indigenous organizations at the communal level in the development of adaptive models of indigenous biocultural heritage that affirm the rights and responsibilities of the communities and that strengthen food sovereignty and local sustainability.


ANDES Utilizes communal development strategies based on the Andean cosmovision and traditional values in an effort that the interventions are holistic, democratic, participative and effective locally.


ANDES is working to improve the resilience and adaptation of smallholder farmers to climate change, including El Niño climate variability under the projects: “Smallholder Innovation for Resilience: Strengthening Innovation Systems for Food Security in the face of Climate Change” (SIFOR) DCI-Alimentos/2012/287-315 financed by the European Union and the project “Putting lessons into practice: Scaling up People’s Biodiversity Management for Food Security” financed by  IFAD-Oxfam Novib.


About Potato Park

Located in Pisaq in the Sacred Valley of Peru, the Potato Park is a one of the few conservation initiatives in the world where the local people are managing and protecting local genetic resources and traditional knowledge about their health, food, and agriculture.


The Park covers more than 12,000 ha between 3,150 and 5,000 masl. About 600 varieties of native potatoes grow in the Park, most of them unique to this habitat. Six Quechua communities live in the Park. Some had been struggling for land tenure for years until the Quechua-Aymara Association for Sustainable Communities (ANDES in Spanish) brought them together in this in-situ conservation project.                                                                                               

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