Potatoes at Pisac market, Peru ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

Guardians of the Potato at Parque de la Papa

1024 758 Cyndie Burkhardt

“Papa” is a Quechua word that simply means tuber (a.k.a. potato). You probably don’t want to call your dad a tuber but the word connotes deep respect in Peru. The Quechua people predate the Inca and shaped the agricultural backbone of Andean civilization. They have a long history of cultivating diverse potato varieties and a deep understanding of the local species, ecosystems, landscape, and climate conditions. The Quechua understand that all elements of the earth are alive, have spirits, and are interconnected: humans, animals, crops, and Pachamama (Mother Earth). Sumaq Kausay or “buen vivir” (good living) is their way of life based on relations of respect and reciprocity to create a harmonious existence. Potatoes are, of course, a central element of Quechua, and Peruvian, culture. 

Parque de la Papa is the Potato Park in the Pisac region of the Sacred Valley of Peru. It’s the central point of the Andean highlands and potato growers. The Papa Arariwa, Guardians of the Potato, are dedicated to preserving native Andean potatoes, maintaining the integrity of traditional Quechua eco-diversity, and ensuring their food security.

All photographs ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.

A park, a farm, and a museum

Nassario Kispe’ Amoco welcomed me at the entrance to Parque de la Papa wearing traditional Quechua clothes and a warm, friendly smile. I’ve been looking forward to visiting this Pampallaqta community, one of six neighboring indigenous Quechua communities that make up the park. His introduction began with several facts: 

  • Potato Park consists of 9,270 hectares of land
  • The altitude ranges from 3,150 to 4,619 meters above sea level (10,334 to 15,154 feet)
  • The population is 7,444, spread across six communities

We went to a small room in the main building where hundreds of potato varieties are on display along with maize, beans, and a few grains including quinoa and wheat. Everything is specifically arranged from top to bottom according to the level at which it’s grown. Quechua farmers in the Andes highlands maintain ancient practices of planting on terraces and here they’re divided into three levels. Numerous vertical microclimates exist at different altitudes, often very close to each other, and crops are planted according to their ideal growing conditions. Different potato varieties grow at every level but quinoa grows better in the middle while maize and beans grow better at the bottom.

More than a snack

Potatoes have been a staple of the Andean diet for something like 10,000 years. Their value comes in part from growing at high altitudes under difficult environmental conditions. Over 4,500 varieties grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where potatoes originated. So many potatoes! Roughly 3,000 are camote (sweet potatoes) and roughly 1,500 are native Andean roots and tubers. They vary in size, shape, color, skin, texture, and of course taste. There are roughly 180 wild potato species and although they’re too bitter to eat their importance is their natural resistance to pests, disease, and climate conditions. Diversity is a highly valued heritage.

Potato Park, Peru

Pachamanca, from the Quechua words pacha (earth) and manca (pot), is an Andean cooking style. At the end of a harvest farmers dig a hole and build a fire to heat up rocks. Potatoes, meat, lima beans, and spices are layered with the hot rocks and buried. The food cooks underground and is then eaten in celebration of Pachamama (Mother Earth) as thanks for giving life to the agriculture.

Seed bank

The Papa Arariwa at Potato Park document different varieties of locally grown native potatoes and they’re proud keepers of the traditional knowledge of cultivation, seed selection, and storage. Potato Park holds the largest in-situ diversity of potatoes in the world: approximately 1,400 varieties. The International Potato Center (CIP), headquartered in Lima, has copies of the seeds in its world potato bank where thousands of seed varieties are stored in a secure vault.

Walking to Potato Park’s seed bank, Nassario stopped short of the entrance to wipe his feet. I followed his lead. This seemed more a gesture of respect than cleanliness—the door and windows were open and the floor is concrete. He explained the building’s ventilation, natural light, and water system and he showed me a few seed types with their identification. A poster on the wall showed a Quechua celebration with potatoes. Nassario pointed to it and burst into a little dance and laughed. “Alright!,” I said, laughing along and joining in with a head bob.

Standing inside the bank, Nassario spoke about agricultural and ecological diversity, animals, stars, the Inca, and Pachamama. All of the food is grown organically and traditionally, there are no chemicals. Everything is considered.

Climate change

Maria Bellida, who I met twice in Lima and is with CIP, told me the organization works to determine which seeds grow best at which microclimates. The goal is to help farmers get the best seeds for their land. CIP breeds native Andean and wild potatoes (non-GMO) to develop “improved” varieties that can withstand climate change.

Climate change is impacting crop planting, rotation, and yields in the region. Too much sun, unpredictable rain patterns, and early frost are complicating the terraced fields and farmers have been forced to plant at higher altitudes.

Nassario explained further: there are three opportunities during the fall planting season, based on the highest part of the mountain getting three times the amount of sun. In September the sun is highest, in October it’s at the middle, and in November it’s at the lowest, if something fails at one of the levels, they have the other crops to fall back on.

Multi-purpose products

Given the abundant variety and reverence for potatoes I assumed nutrition would be a driver in the celebration of this valued crop. But it’s not part of our conversation. When I asked Nassario he gave a basic answer—potatoes are good for anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, the head (headaches), and the skin. Adding that the traditional ancestors used them for medicine but not elaborating any further. Incidentally, the Quechua rely on numerous native medicinal plants that grow wild here, a few of which we saw in the field. Potatoes and herbs combined may be their nutritional powerhouse. Potatoes are of course an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, low fat carbs, and fiber, especially when eaten with their skin.

Nassario is clear however that every potato has a specific preparation and he mentioned four common varieties:

  • Papa Amarilla (yellow)—you mash
  • Papa Blanca (white)—you fry
  • Papa Roja (red)—you boil
  • Papa Purpura (purple)—you put in the oven

Different potato varieties have different and specific practical uses—for ceremonies and rituals, for trade among Peruvian communities, and some very special varieties are given as wedding gifts.

Potatoes in Pisac market
Potatoes in Pisac market
The next generation

CIP provides science and resources to help preserve the Andean potato varieties and Potato Park is committed to protecting seeds, farming, and cultural traditions. But the best insurance for safeguarding the Quechua heritage, lifestyle, and food security lies directly with the people. 

Inter-generational wisdom is prized and elders share their extensive knowledge about the connection between food, people, the land, family, community, and culture. Nassario learned from his grandfather, who learned from his grandfather, and so on. A small, round brick building is under construction near the entrance to Potato Park, specifically to pass on knowledge and educate the next generation of farmers.

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