United Nations decision prompts potato celebration in Peru

Peruvian farmers are celebrating this month’s UN decision to declare 2008 the International Year of the Potato by planting the world’s largest collection of different varieties of the crop to showcase a novel approach to conservation that benefits and respects local communities.

News, 31 October 2007

They want to highlight the importance of conserving traditional crop varieties in the ground and keeping this biological diversity in the hands of the communities who have nurtured it over generations. And they say their approach could be replicated across the world with other highly diverse crops that are important for local food security.

The farmers are planting a new collection of native potato varieties at the ‘Potato Park’, an innovative collaboration between indigenous communities and the International Potato Center, a globally funded research institute.

By the end of October, when the work is done, the park will have 1,324 varieties of potato.

The park was created in 2005 to protect the genetic diversity of the region's many potato varieties, and the rights of indigenous people to access and use them. It involves six communities in the Sacred Valley of the Incas near the city of Cusco.

"We are very happy with the UN decision and the Peruvian government’s support for it as it recognises the fruits of Mother Earth and our work in protecting her," says Cristóbal Banda Mamani, president of the Potato Park.

The idea that the United Nations is dedicating a year to potatoes may seem bizarre but the crop is one of the four most important in the world. It has 5,500 distinct varieties - 4,000 in its centre of origin, Peru, alone - and is a source of food security and employment for 800 million people worldwide.

The local communities in Peru hope that the International Year of the Potato will prompt efforts to preserve and repatriate from research centres and gene banks the potato varieties that Andean communities developed over more than 8,000 years.

They says this is key because intellectual property rights, neoliberal development models, climate change and genetically modified crops all pose threats to the culture, ecology and livelihoods of Peru’s indigenous communities for whom the potato is more than just a staple crop.

"It is important to repatriate of seeds to their places of origin and return them to the communities who can use them to support local adaptation systems," said Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociacion ANDES, a nongovernmental organisation that works with indigenous communities in Peru.

"The United Nations has honoured the humble potato in recognition of its global importance as a source of nutrition and livelihoods," he says. "We want to highlight the importance of traditional knowledge systems and customary laws that have allowed this crop to exist and to flourish around the world."

"By not only conserving the genetic variety of the potato, but also conserving the traditions, innovations and knowledge that led to this diversity - what we call bio-cultural heritage - we hope to maintain the unique ecological, social and cultural characteristics of the Andean region."

Michel Pimbert, director of the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods programme at IIED agrees: "The Potato Park is a living example of a system which could inspire a fresh approach to conserving genetic diversity in a dynamic way, that is based on justice and equity, and which respects, protects and preserves the biocultural heritage of communities."