The Potato Guardians

In the Peruvian Andes, Indigenous potato farmers are working with researchers to develop climate-smart spuds.

I’M HEADING INTO THE SACRED Valley, to heart of potato country in the Peruvian highlands, in a truck with agronomist Jessica Villacorta. About an hour northeast of Cusco, at 3,000 meters above sea level, we pass the town of Pisac. We continue climbing into the mountains, stopping to pick up several men who have been waiting for us by the side of the road. They are Quechua potato farmers, part of a long tradition that stretches back thousands of years to the first time someone cultivated a potato, somewhere in southern Peru.

One of the men, Mariano Sutta Apacusi, a soft-spoken 42-year-old farmer who lives in Pampallacta, some ten miles northwest of Pisac, gestures to the trees and lush undergrowth around us as we lurch up a steep dirt road. “Ten years ago, this is where we could grow potatoes,” he says. “Now it’s maize and other crops.”

Blight, caused by a fungus-like pathogen, and pests like moths and weevils are increasingly damaging potatoes grown across the Andes. Every year, the pests creep further up the mountainside, diminishing the amount of suitable land available for farming. Droughts, frosts, and extreme rains, more common and less predictable in recent years due to rising temperatures, have also wiped out some harvests.

Apacusi, his family, and his neighbors are subsistence farmers. The region’s unique, colorful potatoes, served boiled or naturally freeze-dried outdoors and preserved, make up the majority of their diet. Growing hundreds of different varieties of potatoes, then, is essential for both culinary and nutritional variance. “I’m worried,” Apacusi says. “If there’s no place to grow our potatoes, the diseases will take away our food.”

It’s because of these growing threats to their staple crop that farmers in this region are working with scientists to develop more resilient varieties of potato — varieties that can withstand the warmer temperatures, unpredictable precipitation, and emboldened insects of a climate-disrupted ecosystem. The goal is not only to preserve the rich biodiversity of tubers here, but also the Indigenous culture and traditional expertise that is inextricably linked to it.

photo of the Sacred Valley
Farmers in Peru’s Sacred Valley have been growing potatoes for thousands of years. Pests are becoming a growing problem in the region as they expand into higher elevations with warming temperatures. Photo by Emmanuel DYAN.

We have to drive to 4,000 meters above sea level to find healthy tubers. As we make our way up there, expansive views open up. Andean peaks jag up into the cloud-laden sky. It’s February, the growing season, and everything is green. Purple and white flowers bloom from the knee-high potato plants growing in scattered plots around a small lake that we stop by.

Eight farmers have gathered at the edge of the lake to play me a traditional Andean tune. One man plays the qena, a flute. Another pounds a two-sided drum and a third blows through a conch shell. It’s their way of welcoming me to the Parque de la Papa or “Potato Park,” a sprawling 9,200-hectare agroecological region. Six local Quechua communities here first set up a communal governance system in 2002 to preserve native potato varieties and protect them from biopiracy by multinational biotech and agricultural corporations, as well as to conserve their traditional culture, knowledge, and livelihoods. The Cusco nonprofit Associacón ANDES (ANDES) soon began bolstering those efforts with outside funding and scientific expertise.

The park is now home to some 7,000 people who work together to develop medicinal plants, participate in weaving and cuisine cooperatives, boost tourism, and contribute to cutting-edge potato research. As self-declared papa arariwa, or “potato guardians,” they incorporate traditional spiritual values and practices into the park’s everyday operations. “We believe the spirit of the potato is sacred, and it exists in the entire potato, down to its skin,” Apacusi tells me.

“The Potato Park is not just a potato park. It’s the landscape, the clothing, the traditions, the medicinal plants … ” adds Aniceto Ccoyo Ccoyo, the park’s main interpreter. “It’s all an ecosystem. It’s all our heritage.” The ultimate goal, Ccoyo explains, is “sumaq kausay,” or well-being, for everything in the region. The farmers strive towards harmony between three “ayllus,” which he translates as “communities”: the biological realm, the people, and the sacred mountains.

THE HISTORY OF THE cultivated potato can be traced to Peru, where the Incans domesticated wild varieties more than 7,000 years ago. Since then, farmers across Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile have developed more than 4,000 unique native varieties, or “landraces,” through traditional agricultural practices. Only a handful of these incredibly diverse varieties ever make it to market in big cities, and hardly any are known abroad.

Though modern potato cultivation is dominated by market favorites like Yukon Gold, Russett Burbank, and Red Bliss produced on an industrial scale in countries like China, Russia, and India, within the boundaries of the Parque de la Papa, farmers have embraced the region’s rich tradition of agrobiodiversity, growing a variety of potatoes in plots scattered across the rugged mountainside. Overall, these farmers grow more than 1,340 potato landraces, including 461 unique native varieties that were developed by their ancestors.

Ricardina Pacco Ccapa, a local leader, performs a ceremony seeking fertility blessings for the potato plants being grown in Parque de la Papa. Photo by Camille von Kaenel.
Ricardina Pacco Ccapa, a local leader, performs a ceremony seeking fertility blessings for the potato plants being grown in Parque de la Papa. Photo by Camille von Kaenel. Photo by Camille von Kaenel.

To show off the diversity, Apacusi takes me to a storage room where rows of earthenware bowls filled with hundreds of potatoes line floor-to-ceiling shelves. Some hold other Andean tubers, like oca, ulluco, and mashua. Apacusi slices a potato open with a pocket knife. The flesh is stained pink. Another has purple blotches. The diversity is not just for show. These potatoes are genetically more complex than the Classic Idaho potato popular in the United States. And with a lower water content, they are packed with nutrients.

Apacusi, who grew up farming potatoes with his grandparents and parents near Pampallacta, one of the communities in the park, points to some particularly gnarled tubers.

“There’s the Puma’s Fist, and that’s the Llama’s Nose,” he says, using the local nicknames for the tubers. He shows me two other potatoes, one long and one more triangular in shape, and tells me their origin according to a story his mom passed down to him. One day, two young people were stomping through the potato fields and got caught. As punishment, they were put into a temple. The next morning, they were gone — replaced by the two potato types. “Just in my head, I can hold at least 100 varieties, and each has a story,” Apacusi says.

“We believe the spirit of the potato is sacred, and it exists in the entire potato.”

Outside, he brings me to a patch of grass littered with alpaca dung. Nazario Quispe Amao, another local farmer, scans the area at our feet before pulling out a low-lying plant with rounded leaves and fingernail-sized tubers that look a little like unripe olives clinging to its roots. They’re inedible. Like most wild members of the nightshade family, they contain toxins that can be poisonous to humans, though some people use them in traditional medicine. Amao calls the species the “grandfather” — a wild species of potato from which many other local native varieties are descended. “These are the ones that are more resistant, to sun and rain, to disease,” he tells me.

This resistance to pathogens and ability to survive under harsh conditions is what interests scientists in wild potatoes, along with the fact that wild species have more genetic variation than cultivated species. Of the 156 species of wild potato plants in the world, three can be found in the park.

In recent years, scientists and collectors have been racing to identify and conserve wild potato species around the world as part of a $50 million program by the Crop Trust, an intergovernmental organization based in Germany, with the goal of preserving these desirable traits.

For good reason. Since the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first transported the tubers to Europe, the energy-rich potato has traveled far and wide. Potatoes are now a staple for nearly 1.3 billion people across the world. But modern agricultural practices have shrunk the potato’s genetic diversity, leaving it vulnerable to pests, disease, and climate change. Hence researchers are hoping to identify traits from the crop’s wild relatives that make them more resilient and breed those into domesticated varieties.

Among those eagerly cataloguing potato diversity are the scientists from the Lima-based International Potato Center, or CIP. Under a special 2004 agreement that forbids patenting of any genetic knowledge, the Potato Park communities have shared much of their living library of native landraces with CIP scientists, facilitating experiments to cultivate new hybrid potato varieties. This agreement, which preserves community control over their sacred crop while making room for scientific research, is widely seen as a model for culturally appropriate collaboration.

FAR FROM THE GREEN mountains of Cusco, at a vast campus in Lima, CIP has one of the largest collections of potato germplasm in the world. More than 140 wild potato species are held in the organization’s headquarters. CIP also has samples of over 4,200 cultivated potato varieties, mostly from the Andes, and tens of thousands of samples of other roots and tubers.

In one onsite facility, behind big glass panes, laboratory assistants excise infections from diseased tubers. Potato farmers typically use pieces of actual tuber, confusingly called “seed potatoes,” when planting their fields. This kind of vegetative reproduction yields identical plants year after year. It also means once a potato catches a disease it can get passed down generation to generation. Removing these diseases is a painstaking process involving applying heat to kill viruses and growing plantlets in vitro. It can take several generations before a particular tuber is rid of a disease.

This has been the work of Rene Gomez, a cultivated potato curator with CIP, who has been studying the genetics of native potatoes for decades. His work has focused largely on cleaning potatoes of diseases and giving them back to highland communities to grow on their farms. The repatriation effort has extended to more than 1,200 varieties in 89 communities in Peru. In the Potato Park, more than 400 native varieties, many of which were lost to pests and diseases, have been restored this way.

The restoration effort was a major boost to local resilience, but it’s no longer enough. “This entire way of life that we’ve been supporting is threatened” because climate-related changes are overwhelming the ability of native landraces to adapt, Gomez says.

Now, Gomez’s work has extended to identifying varieties, both wild and domesticated, that carry the most desirable climate- and disease-resilient traits. To do this, he collaborates with the farmers in the Potato Park for in-situ breeding experiments, seeking to locate among the thousands of varieties grown there at least a handful that will be strong contenders for lower-altitude, warmer-climate planting.

Once the preferred traits are identified, the goal is to breed them into domesticated varieties. Gomez goes about the process the old-fashioned way, by cross-breeding different potatoes and then testing them directly in the fields. “You could go grab a gene from some Arctic fish, or you could do it this way,” Gomez says. “We’re trying it this way.”

This cross-breeding procedure, however, is even more tedious than cleaning potatoes of disease.

Breeding new potato varieties is done through sexual reproduction, that is, by hand-pollinating selected potato plant flowers to produce berries that contain “true seeds,” which in turn produce new offspring that might be vastly different from its parents.

“Potato breeding is just kind of a slow, inefficient process,” says David Douches, a professor who leads the Michigan State University Potato Breeding and Genetics Program. “With conventional breeding, you can’t take a variety that the farmers have right now and give it back [to them] with an extra trait,” says Douches, who is not involved with the research in Peru.

Part of the difficulty is that potatoes are genetically complex. Most varieties are tetraploids, which means they have four copies of each of their twelve chromosomes. (Humans, by comparison, are diploid, that is we have two copies of each chromosome.) This means breeders may have to create thousands of seedlings to end up with the combination of traits they are looking for in a single plant.

Additionally, a new variety can take years to perfect because potatoes are very “plastic” and respond to the slight changes in growing conditions, like soil, water, nutrients or timing, Douches says. That means there are a lot of variables to account for when evaluating whether a new variety will show desirable traits or not. Getting desirable genes from wild species into cultivated ones is even more complicated because wild potatoes also carry many unwanted traits, such as toxicity, which can carry over through generations.

That’s why the traditional knowledge of potatoes and their wild relatives is so valuable, says Natalie Kirkwyland, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University who is researching host plant pest resistance in potatoes. Potato varieties handed down from generation to generation become part of the family narrative, so growers, especially traditional farmers in the Andes, keep to their sometimes-obscure favorites, she says. “If you know the family story, you know the best management practices to get the best yield out of that variety,” Kaiser says.

Gomez is pulling from traditional methods to manage his experiment because he thinks it will get him the best results. For example, the farmers here traditionally rotate land every eight years, letting the soil regenerate between plantings and hopefully allowing the bacteria, pests, and viruses that can stay active for years in the soil to die off. That means most of the land in the valleys of the Potato Park lies fallow.

At one point during my visit to the park, I bring up the option of using herbicides and pesticides to reduce the threat of potato diseases, as some farmers have done in other parts of the Andes. I’m met with blank faces. “It would kill the earth,” Apacusi finally responds. “The soil would be gone within a few years. We just can’t afford that.”

Gomez’s experiment starts at 3,950 meters, right next to the lake where we stopped for the welcome ceremony. A white plastic barrier sets apart a few rows among the scattered family plots. Four other experimental plots are located every 100 meters or so up the mountain, mimicking traditional rotation. They stand out like white flags among the green.

Farmers are growing native and new potato varieties at experimental plots throughout the park to help researchers identify landraces that are particularly resistant to drought and pests. Photo by Camille von Kaenel.
Farmers are growing native and new potato varieties at experimental plots throughout the park to help researchers identify landraces that are particularly resistant to drought and pests. Photo by Camille von Kaenel.

Since 2012, the team has selected 17 of the most promising native potato varieties. Eleven of them show strong tolerance to extreme drought and rain. The rest produce well when supplied with extra calcium. These 17 are being grow in the experimental plots to test their resistance to various environmental factors, especially the spread of the weevil.

CIP, which operates not only in Peru but in countries around the world, has had some success with increasing tuber climate resiliency in the past. In 2017, for example, the organization released four new potato varieties in Kenya, the result of crosses with established Kenyan breeding lines. In field trials, the new potato plants maintained good yields and resistance to viruses, late blight, and heat tolerance.

Gomez hopes the Potato Park will have similar success, and that the close collaboration with local potato farmers will facilitate a smooth transition to use of more climate-resilient potato varieties in the Andes.

JESSICA VILLACORTA, the agronomist for ANDES who accompanied me to the Potato Park, was there to check on the progress of another new research project. The Indigenous communities here have particularly high rates of anemia, so ANDES is working to plant more varieties that are high in iron. These are identifiable by their rich red and purple colors, and called “rainbow potatoes.”

Villacorta meets up with Lino Mamani Warka who manages one of the local greenhouses. Mamani tells me some of the rainbow potatoes are native varieties and some were developed and shared by CIP.

“The entire way of life that we’ve been supporting is threatened.”

Mamani is part of the team effort to scale the Potato Park up. He spends time teaching other farmers, particularly younger ones, how to preserve native varieties year-after-year in the several onsite processing centers. Each of the park’s six communities have greenhouses where tubers are grown for distribution. ANDES is also building field schools in nearby towns where the farmers can teach what they’ve learned to others from around the region.

Parque de la Papa isn’t officially recognized by the Peruvian government, but local farmers aim to change that and have it declared a legally protected area. Meanwhile, ANDES is working to set up a second Potato Park in collaboration with five Indigenous communities farther north, in Peru’s Lares district.

Beyond Peru, the Potato Park is part of a global effort to preserve diversity of crops and their wild relatives. Last year, the potato farmers here, in cooperation with CIP, sent 1,500 seed samples to the global seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, which holds the largest collection of seeds in the world.

Apacusi shows me the storage facility in the park where the tubers and seeds came from. Cool air seeps in from outside, providing natural refrigeration. During peak season, the facility is packed from floor to ceiling with plants, tubers, and seeds. Apacusi pinches open a potato fruit from one of the plants, spilling sticky seeds over his fingers. This, he said, is one of the descendants of the “grandfather” wild species I saw outside. Its seeds were sent to Svalbard, along with the hundreds of other native varieties farmers have developed in the fields nearby.

“We’re proud of not only helping ourselves, but helping the world, the future generations,” Apacusi says. “In the case of a disaster, when we’re all gone here, the potatoes seeds will still be there, and people will be able to eat.”

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