What is there on the banks of these rivers, Doctor?
Take out your binoculars
And your spectacles
Look if you can.
Five hundred flowers from five hundred different
types of potato
Grow on the terraces
That your eyes don't reach
These five hundred flowers
Are my brain
My flesh. —José Maria Arguedas, Peruvian poet
from "A Call to Certain Academics"
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.
Lucia Villa Astucuri and her son in front of the tent
where they stay during the harvest. Villa grows 70 varieties
of potatoes on her plots.
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
The system is extroardinary 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 Irish disaster remains a powerful metaphor for the dangers
of monoculture, both biological and human.
potatoes on display at a biodiversity fair in Llapai,
Biodiversity and the market
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
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 millennia-old tapestry will be torn to shreds, or
made even more resilient and lovely.