Written by Lindsey Charles William

p_highlandsThe summer solstice in the high valleys of the Andes is approaching. Purple and yellow flowers topping potato plants dazzle small patchwork fields, beautifully terraced, but underground the tubers are thirsting for rain. The sun now circling directly overhead fuses its’ utmost light into the green leaves below.

Ancient wisdom, once again, permeates this year’s planting. Just after the winter solstice festival, in late June, a worrisome sign was posted in the night sky. The Quechua, for centuries, have looked just above the horizon to the northeast to find when to plant their potatoes. In one of the oldest and most sacred rituals, small groups of Indian farmers throughout the Peruvian Andes ascend to high ridges and even mountain tops in the middle of the night. Huddling together, on one of the coldest, longest nights of the year, they wait anxiously for Pleiades in the constellation Taurus to appear above the horizon just before dawn. If high cirrus clouds place a veil over Pleiades so that individual stars are dim, then the farmers know that El Nino is coming and the rains will be later and fewer in the summer months. If the stars are clear and bright, rains will come early and be plentiful. Gradations between these extremes are noted. While this may seem like the astrological equivalent of Groundhog Day in America, scientists have recently determined that there is scientific rationale behind these ancient observations that produce remarkably accurate forecasts. The indigenous farmers may not have been able to describe the details of the climate phenomenon taking place, but they were able to astutely connect cause and effect for great benefit to their Incan civilization. Although the sign in the sky, last June, was a bit worrisome, portending later and lesser rain, the Quechua farmers know how to adjust their planting practices to adapt, as they have for centuries.

The beautiful facial images on the site below give you an indelible sense of who these farmers are.  http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/28/finding-the-faces-of-farming-a-peruvian-potato-harvest/

Their ancient wisdom with Pachamama extends to the practice of biodiversity, evolving into over 3000 types of tubers in the high regions of the Andes. Its’ inhabitants are credited with originating the fourth most widely grown staple in the world. Researchers agree that the potato brought back to Europe from the Incas by the Spaniards played a major role in quelling the worst famine in centuries in Europe in the 1590s.

potatoes

Photo by The International Institute for Environment and Development.

Nutrient rich cultivars through centuries of experimentation by the highlanders have resulted in potatoes that can grow well in a wide variety of conditions. Teaming up with Pachamama, some varieties were made to grow deeper to withstand the freezing nights in the higher elevations (up to 15,000 feet). Some were created for the warmer, dryer reaches closer to the coast and some flourish in the warmer wet regions near the Amazon to the east. Some tubers were crossed with other roots creating varieties that do better in full sun, others in mostly shade. The giant shadows of the sacred mountains, cast directly east and west in the height of the growing season, dictated such innovation. Today, some of the most ancient potato seeds are closely guarded, some endangered, some extinct. But many, many, many thrive throughout the world.

Additionally, indigenous wisdom sought to live in harmony with mother earth, cultivating varieties that use slightly different quantities of various nutrients to maintain the soil’s richness as well as employing crop rotation with an understanding that the ‘great mother’ needs her rest. Not only did they learn that leaving a field fallow (sometimes for up to seven years) enriches the soil, it reduces pests and disease in these regions. A fallow field is counter-intuitive during droughts, but necessary for long term sustainability, a concept the Indians of the Andes learned early on through trial and error and the unforgettable wisdom of harsh consequence.

As populations slowly grew in the Peruvian Andes, culminating with the expansive Incan Empire, effective use of arable land was a must. During the height of the empire, a system of agrarian society emerged that used crops (especially the potato) as currency to pay the state for roads, temples and the like and to maintain the political class (royals). The Inca discovered how to freeze dry potatoes into a kind of flower for improved shelf life and easy transport and storage. Crops were (and still are) grown communally among the local Allyu. The Royals held frequent regional and national festivals and ceremonies to create comradery and a sense of union throughout the Empire. The hard working Quechua still engage in similar ceremony and celebration focused on their agrarian life. Such traditions show gratitude to Pachamama and honor their heritage.

“Ritual ceremonies marked by singing, dancing, and drinking still take place throughout the year to ensure a successful harvest. Young men playfully drag young women across potato fields to make the land fertile. Cow horns and flutes are played to cheer on the plants and bring rains.”   link to source National Geographic

Modernity, however, has crept its way into these remote mountain valleys. Climate change, civil unrest, mining devastation and poverty have made life hard enough on these subsistence farmers that many of the youth are leaving for a less harsh life. However, there are efforts underway to ameliorate some of these stressors so that the farmers’ ways of ancient wisdom and ceremony can be maintained.

The UN Conference on Climate Change in Lima, Peru just concluded a week ago. Attendees were exposed to some of the organizations (see below) that are working to help the farmers of the Andes by adapting to 21st Century realities while maintaining Indigenous values and culture. The Potato Park in the Cuzco Region of Peru is particularly worth noting. Despite formidable challenges the indigenous farmers of the high Andes are persevering. Let us pray that they succeed as a testament to cultural longevity, ecological sustainability and the understanding that we are all truly one with the great mother.

The warmer, wetter, longer days of summer are almost at their apex; the potato plants are soaking up moisture and sunlight aplenty; a colorful array of tubers are hiding just below the surface…life is looking up in the high Andes. Soon a plentiful harvest will be underway, digging up potatoes from rows made by hand with the traditional hoe-like Tacla. These hard working inhabitants will begin to make chuno (a type of freeze-dried potato) and pachamanca (earth pot), an elaborate dish usually made for celebration. Ritual filled with Ayni will mark each step along the way, showing their gratitude to Pachamama…as it has for centuries. Aho

 

NON GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATIONS IN PERU DEDICATED TO PRESERVING AND ENHANCING SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES AMONG INDIGENOUS ANDEAN FARMERS

The International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIP) is a research-for-development organization with a focus on potato, sweetpotato, and Andean roots and tubers. CIP is dedicated to delivering sustainable science-based solutions to the pressing world issues of hunger, poverty, gender equity, climate change and the preservation of our Earth’s fragile biodiversity and natural resources. CIP is a member of CGIAR, a global agriculture research partnership for a food-secure future. cipotato.org

Asociacion ANDES is a small Cusco-based international non-profit organisation focusing on independent research to provide support to indigenous peoples in their struggles for locally-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems and endogenous development based on their core values. andes.org

POTATO PARK:
http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/the-thriving-biodiversity-of-peru-potato-park

FURTHER READING:
CLIMATE CHANGE AND KNOWLEDGE FROM PERU’S INDIGENOUS ROOTS:
http://www.scidev.net/global/agriculture/multimedia/climate-change-knowledge-peru-indigenous-roots.html

SAVING THE POTATO IN ITS ANDEAN BIRTHPLACE:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/06/0610_020610_potato.html