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One Potato, Two Potato, and a Hundred More!

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Can you imagine chips made out of some of these?!
Here in the Quispillaccta region of Peru in the Central Highlands where Abeja and I have been living, people sure know their potatoes! One family in the village grew 140 different kinds of potatoes (papas) last year alone. Who knew there was more to potatoes than just baking and mashing? A.B.A., the group we've been visiting, (see Abeja's article, "All in the Family") has been working to preserve these different varieties of potatoes, as well as the methods of growing them. "Why is this so important?", you may ask? The different potatoes provide potent nutrients, which have become staples to the diets of the Andean people for thousands of years.

Diversified farming, however, is becoming rare in Peru and in the rest of the world, as farmers adapt to the commercial market by planting only a single variety of crops. For example, 500 years ago in the United States, you could find over a hundred different kinds of corn, each with a distinct flavor and color; but today you would be lucky if you could come across just five different kinds. Unfortunately, most farms today mostly grow single varieties of crops largely as a result of large Agri-business companies that control the sale of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides (see Making a Difference - "Eating Pesticide Potato Chips").

The people of Quispillaccta shake their heads to these contemporary methods and show pity for us because they understand the importance of biodiversity. The effect is lasting. Planting single varieties of crops has caused the soil in the land to deteriorate due to the lack of the different nutrients usually provided by multiple varieties. The earth is accustomed to growing a great diversity of plants, each providing the soil with different nutrients. When only one crop is planted in an area, as is the case in most large-scale farms, the soil is depleted. This leads farmers to use harsh chemicals and fertilizers, thereby creating a chemical dependency. Each year the farmer buys more chemicals to grow the crops, which in turn increases soil depletion and pollutes more rivers.

Here, in Quispillaccta, the difficulty of air and road travel to the remote villages has saved their lands from large-scale commercial farm influences. Families still grow food for their own consumption and survival. They save their own seeds and plant in the same way as their ancestors, without chemicals or pesticides. As a result, the important biodiversity of potatoes, wheat, corn, and other grains and vegetables of the region are preserved.

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A rich crop of papas
In addition to biodiversity, the people of Quispillaccta have preserved traditional planting techniques. Companion planting is an important method that has been used by indigenous cultures around the world. As the Iroquois of North America and the Mayans in Guatemala (read my dispatch from Todos Santos ""Do you know where your broccoli comes from?""), the indigenous people of the Andes plant corn, beans, and squash together in their fields. Corn provide long stalks for the bean vines to wrap around. Beans provide nitrogen, which is important for fertile soil. And squash spread horizontally covering the ground around the vertical growing corn and beans, providing warmth. In a similar way, locals here in the Central Highlands of Peru also grow quinoa, potatoes, and fava beans together.

By growing different varieties of each crop, the people of Quispillaccta have maintained rich and fertile soils, complete and balanced diets, and most importantly, avoided major famines. Different varieties of potatoes, for example, can ward off different pests and can withstand different temperature extremes. Thus, if a year is especially harsh, i.e. too much rain or too cold, part of the crop will still survive. If the Irish had brought with them to Ireland this vast diversity when they brought the first potatoes from South America, perhaps the great Potato Famine of the 1800's could have been avoided.

As roads improve and modern conveniences enter the Quispillaccta region, temptations may arise. To avoid this, the A.B.A. has been helping and urging families to maintain their traditional ways of growing food, and more importantly, to save their seeds from season to season to maintain their rich diversity of crops. With so many of the earth's original species of plants and animals already extinct, it is vital to maintain the biodiversity that now only remains in the hands and knowledge of a few small farmers around the world.


Abeja - All in the Family
Kevin - All that Glitters is Not Gold
Monica - The Belly-button of the Inca Nation
Making a Difference - Eating Pesticide Potato Chips

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