The Guardians of the Potato: The future of potato biodiversity is in their hands

The Guardians of the Potato: the future of potato biodiversity is in their hands

High up in the Peruvian Andes, at altitudes of over 12,500 feet, a group of dedicated farmers painstakingly preserve the biodiversity of potato landraces for humanity. In Central Peru, a group of these farmers known as the Association of Guardians of Potato Landraces of Central Peru (AGUAPAN for its acronym in Spanish) is committed to growing at least 50 varieties on their farms with some planting as many as 500— resulting in a rainbow-like harvest of potatoes in shades of purple, pink, red, blue, black, yellow, and white.

Climate change, globalization, and urbanization are putting increased pressure on the world’s food supply. Erratic weather patterns and an increase in pests and disease are affecting the global food supply at a time when the world population has surpassed 7.5 billion.

With more than 4,000 varieties of potato landraces spanning the Andes, the genetic potential of the tubers preserved by the Guardians could fuel new varieties required to meet the challenges of a hungry world.

Members of AGUAPAN share their thoughts on what motivates them to cultivate native potato varieties.

Preidesvenida Borga Beteta
480 varieties
Quisqui District, Huanuco

“When you try to sell potato in my region, no one will buy it because potato is very abundant there. The most you’ll get out of it is 80 to 90 céntimos ($0.24-$0.27 a kilo). But when you go to the capital, in Lima they sell like hotcakes!

For people (in Lima) seeing native potatoes is a novelty. It’s not like the white variety of potatoes, such as the Canchan. Those potatoes are full of chemicals. They fumigate them every eight days, so people go for the bigger potatoes; they don’t look at the smaller ones. But now that we’ve brought our native potatoes to Lima, we’re quickly sold out. Thanks to native potatoes I can educate my children. I live better because I plant and preserve my native potatoes.

(AGUAPAN) gives us some support, and thanks to that I have been able to go to different places with my native potatoes. We exchange ideas. We exchange seed.  You meet new people. You take your potatoes. You exchange them, and every year you increase the number of varieties you have.

I had just a few, and through seed exchanges, I have reached 480 varieties in just two years. Sometimes they won’t have what I have, and I don’t have what they have, so we exchange.”

Victoriano Fernández Morales
More than 500 varieties
Quisqui, Huánuco

“I’ve always said that native potatoes, my potatoes, are like my children. I give the best care to my potatoes. It’s just like your child. If you love your children, you want to have your potatoes.

You do things you like with a lot of care and dedication. When you harvest your potatoes you’re so inspired you don’t even get hungry, because you see an infinite number of varieties, colors, and shapes. What we mustn’t do is monocrop.  For example, with native potatoes, you should also plant other Andean tubers like oca, olluco, and mashua; also quinoa and tarwi. In the case of tarwi, it acts as a repellant against potato pests.

It’s my belief that conserving the soil, water, and seeds is one of the great things that we can give to the land. If we don’t conserve all this, what will future generations find of us? They will say we were bad people that destroyed nature. And, indeed, man is destroying nature. We can’t blame God, because God gave us a grand legacy and we are the ones who destroy it. This is our grand legacy because this is the food security of Peru, the future of Peru, and not only Peru but the whole world.”

Ruth Cueva Brañes
76 varieties
Laraos, Lima

“My grannie planted these potatoes.   And now that she’s passed on, I tell myself that as her granddaughter I ought to follow in her footsteps. That’s why I’m still growing and preserving these potatoes. Now that we are in this association, AGUAPAN, I feel even more encouraged to collect more varieties of potatoes.

Here we plant as a community. You cannot get ahead of the harvest. We have to have an assembly and set an exact date for when we will start harvesting. That’s how we work together as a community. That day everyone prepares for the harvest, and we’re all there at the harvests. Because otherwise people sometimes go before the communal harvest and they don’t just harvest what’s theirs, they’ll take some from one person and some from another. That’s why we all get together. The community has a spot where we all plant together, we all harvest together, and we all divvy it up amongst ourselves. These days, things are changing. Now young couples don’t feed their children like we did. They don’t nourish them. They prefer to buy ready-made food. They work, and they live off that work. They don’t like to plant; they don’t like agriculture. Their children will say, “Mami, I want this.” They‘re not being taught to eat healthy food. It’s always a trip to the store to buy them cheese puffs and sugary juices.“

Gerardo Castillo
150 varieties
Paccho Molinos, Acubamba, Huancavelica

I cultivate between 3,800 (12,467 feet) and 4,200 meters (13,779 feet). The earth itself decides that native potatoes will grow there better than anything else. We do organic farming. The improved varieties turn green right away.  It’s the effect of the altitude on the improved varieties.

We are used to planting our potatoes in a mixture, just like our ancestors.  Planting separate varieties is better but you need a large expanse of land, and it’s more work. This year we planted one-and-a-half to two hectares with a combination of potatoes in chaqru (a traditional way of cultivating different native potatoes in random mixtures in a single plot, rather than solely concentrating on planting a single variety). When we harvest we select what we’re going to eat and what will go to market.  Chaqru is highly prized. We have all sorts of different varieties here.  People like the different tastes. There is one variety with a pink skin and yellow flesh, the Huirapasña (the large woman). It cooks quickly, and it bursts (its skin) quickly.Our land is on slopes. You can’t use machinery. To prepare the land we have to turn the earth.  Ichu (a coarse Andean grass) grows on the fallow land, and there are thorn bushes.  It’s hard work. We have to weed the plots and open up furrows.  Land that has rested has not been cultivated in a long time.  When you use the land for a long time, it no longer produces well.  We let the land rest for six to seven years. When the land is covered in ichu it is ready to be cultivated. You turn the clods with the ichu upside down and that fertilizes the potato.  Rotation is important. The land has to rest. When the land is tired not much grass grows. When you take potatoes to the rested lands at a high altitude, they change color. It’s a cleaner potato, but it’s waxier if cultivated at altitudes above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).

Juana Adela Segama Belito
300 varieties
Angaraes, Huancavelica

I harvest 300 varieties of (native) potatoes.  I used to have more but now there aren’t quite so many because of late blight. The rains have affected us. That’s why I have fewer potatoes this year. My grandparents and my mother conserved 120 potato varieties. The native ones are planted in layme  (communal land).  Before, we never had any problems with the potato weevil.

Things have changed a lot since I was a girl because now we have frosts and the potatoes have become very delicate. I have to take care of them. There’s a lot of rain, and when there’s so much rain, late blight takes hold. The stem itself begins to rot. That never used to happen.  Now we have to cure it by soaking cow, sheep and chicken excrement to use at planting time.  We also spread guano from the corral on the potato fields, as a way of fumigating. That’s why we are the potato guardians.

Sometimes there is rain, sometimes not. The varieties are getting lost. I have to care for my potatoes, if not, I don’t know how many varieties I would have lost already.

Before I had more than 360, and now I have around 300. Few farmers in my community grow native potatoes.  I’m the only one. I have three sons. None of them cultivate potatoes. I’m sad to think that when I die, that will be the end of my potatoes.

Sebastián Alanya Sotocuro
More than 70 varieties
Castillapata, Yauli, Huancavelica

I inherited planting native potatoes from my ancestors. My grandparents and great-grandparents grew them. For the same reason, they once traded with the Sallqa, the people who live in the highlands. They would bring llama meat, and we would barter. We would hand over native potatoes, and they would give us meat. Now we are promoting the sale (of native potatoes). Before, we just kept them for the family to eat.  Now I’m taking my native potatoes to fairs. I have large extensions of land, and I want to plant more if sales increase.

Native potatoes are more important than improved varieties.  They’re very important for the children because they have a lot of vitamins.  They have medicinal properties that are good for us. I’ve eaten potatoes for 82 years, and I’m healthy. I’m walking normally. I’m full of strength and the desire to keep going. When we plant native potatoes in chaqru, every potato has a different flavor. All together they are like medicine. Some are delicious. Some are dry. They are all different from each other. Eating them all together is like medicine. When we have a cough, we drink the water where we boiled our chaqru, all the water that is left from the potatoes. It’s medicine for us.

My sons, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren all eat native potatoes. They are studying at the university and in other institutions, and they are getting well educated, as it should be, with native potatoes.

Maria Cosme Mandujano
130 varieties
Huachón, Cerro de Pasco

Let’s suppose I harvest in May and I store this potato. We put straw down, and on top of that straw, we place our potatoes. That lasts for about a year. Then you eat those potatoes like figs because they are very sweet. When they are sweet, we eat them for breakfast with coffee.

There are a lot of different potato qualities. We separate the potatoes for cooking, and then we also have potatoes for chuño (a naturally freeze-dried potato product made by exposing a particular type of potato to the freezing night temperatures of the Andean highlands and the fierce daytime sun). Sometimes we use them in meals, or if there are a lot of them, we’ll bury them in a hole, in water. We make a hole then we gather the ichu (Andean grass) like a bed, like a mattress, and then we put the potatoes on it. After that, we cover it with straw again, like a double mattress so that soil won’t get in. Then we put sacks on top, and we crush it with rocks. After about eight months, or up to a year, we take out tokosh (a form of natural antibiotic), and we dry it out. That tokosh will last for years. It’s useful for many things. We use it for gastritis, also for people who have been operated on because it has a lot of ampicillin. People convalescing from an operation take a lot of tokosh.

When the tokosh is dry this is how we use it. In the mornings you prepare the tokosh, raw and dry.  You dissolve it in a little bit of lukewarm water that has been boiled. You take a half-cup up to a cup, depending on how much you want.  Every morning for approximately a month, a month and a half, or if you want to be completely cured you’ll take it for three months straight. That is how you cure gastritis.

Marcelo Tiza
More than 260 varieties
Quilcas, Huancayo, Junín

We are always promoting the sale of mixed potatoes, and that way we achieve different flavors and tastes. It’s like a decree from within our association. What we plant needs to be a mix. The production and selection of potatoes for the Mistura Fair (a culinary festival held in Peru each year) needs to be impeccable. Our goal is to build a brand, something surprising. The Miski (“delicious” in Quechua) is delicious. It’s sweet.

Many consumers want potatoes in defined colors, just some varieties. I tell them that our custom from the beginning up until now is to sell a mix of potatoes. Sometimes when you offer a tasting, you can see their reactions. It’s like when you buy a hat. If you put the hat on and it’s good, you buy it. In that way we are trying to promote the fair, making sure that there is a potato tasting. Everyone impressed by our potatoes, needs to take their mesh bag of potatoes.

It’s our duty to conserve the diversity of the potato that has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors. If the market is demanding and demands two varieties, under no circumstances will we lose this diversity. We will carry on cultivating with or without support, perhaps because it is a very important aspect of our diet. Our children don’t have to keep going to the health post. They don’t get sick. We profit off a lot of things. One of those things is that I don’t look like I’m 56 years old. None of the farmers are fat. The potatoes aren’t fattening; they’re good for us.

AGUAPAN was formed through the generous funding of HZPC, a Dutch potato breeding company, which recognizes the importance of the conservation and selection work done by Andean farmers for centuries. It is made up of 50 custodian farmers from five Peruvian departments (Cerro de Pasco, Huánuco, Huancavelica, Lima, and Junín). Guardians meet each year to exchange ideas, best practices, and seed potatoes to cultivate on their farms. The project is supported by the Peruvian non-profit Yanapai, together with the International Potato Center (CIP), The National Institute for Agricultural Innovation (INIA), and the Peruvian Society of Environmental Rights (SPDA).

This research was undertaken as part of, and funded by, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.