Peasant farmers in Peru’s central highlands grow hundreds of varieties of potatoes. Now they’re being encouraged to sell them to high-end consumers. But potatoes are more than just food in the Andes – they’re part of a complex spiritual, biological, and cultural universe. Will the market change that?
The anthropologist Richard Chase Smith describes indigenous culture in the Americas as “a tapestry woven from the vicissitudes of history, place, and daily life.” In the Andes, where daily life sometimes seems like it has been stripped to its bare essentials, that tapestry is far more intricate – and far stronger – than it may first appear.
Andean culture is a dense weave of the ancient and modern, the mystical and scientific. When planting or harvesting, farmers pay close attention not just to the weather, but also to the moon and stars. They say prayers to Catholic saints and make offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother. They consult with wise persons qualified to read the signs of nature. They listen to visitors: travelers, aid workers, scientists, pesticide salesmen. They watch to see what farmers in other communities are doing.
And before they make any major decisions, they meet with their neighbors and talk.
The system is extraordinary both for its complexity and its stability – and biodiversity is at its heart. Farmers in the Andes grow as many as 3,000 different kinds of potatoes, and hundreds of types of other crops. Diversity is not just a source of variety, or testimony to the staggering range of microclimates and ecological zones – it’s also a proven tool against diseases, pests, and other scourges.
Indeed a major reason for the great famine in Ireland in the 19th century was the fact that farmers there planted only one potato variety, which offered no resistance to phytophthera infestans, the “late blight” pathogen. The Irish disaster remains a powerful metaphor for the dangers of monoculture, both biological and human.
Lately the world has come to appreciate the value of agricultural biodiversity, as well as of the traditional knowledge of those who maintain it. Not surprisingly, there has been much talk within development circles about how to convert those assets into cash. But many farmers in the Andes are wary.
“They fear the possibility of losing their portfolio of native varieties,” explains Peruvian economist Manuel Glave. “Because they feel – and they know it is a fact – that the market does not demand 50 varieties. The market tends to demand a more homogeneous product.”
The market can also be fickle. For decades, Andean farmers were advised to replace their native potatoes with more marketable “improved” or “modern” varieties, particularly at lower altitudes. Tens of thousands did as they were told, then watched the prices fall so low that some years they can’t afford to harvest what they’ve sown.
But peasant farmers know that standing still is not an option. Even the most isolated Andean communities are fast becoming incorporated into the cash economy. How they manage the transition may determine whether their ancient tapestry will be torn to shreds, or made even more resilient and lovely.
– Jonathan Miller