One seed for all seasons: can old ways sustain food security in the Andes? | Global development


IIn a pastoral scene that has changed little over the centuries, farmers wearing red woolen ponchos gather on a December morning in a semicircle to drink hookah, made from fermented corn, and mumbles an invocation to Pachamama – Mother Earth before sprinkling the lees on the Andean soil.

Singing in Quechua, the language spread along the length of the Andes by the Incas, they climb the soil around the plants in the many small patchwork terraced plots up and down the Peruvian mountain.

The Andes are home to one of the most diverse food systems in the world. Using specially adapted farming techniques, these farmers conserve a wide variety of maize, also known as maize, and other biodiverse crops that could be essential for food security as global warming causes a more erratic climate. Maize has been cultivated in Lares, near Cusco, for thousands of years, in one of the highest farming systems in the world. The Choquecancha and Ccachin communities specialize in over 50 varieties of cereals in a myriad of different sizes and colors.

“In the past, the Incas cultivated these ecotypes and now we are continuing the path traced by our ancestors,” explains Juan Huillca, an environmentalist in Choquecancha, a small village on the mountainside.

On a blanket are corn cobs varying in color from slightly yellowed white to dark purple. All of them have thick cores and evocative names. Yellowish corn cobs with kernels tinged with red are called yawar waqaq (blood crier). White ears speckled with gray, whose toasted almonds are served crispy canchita with Peru’s flagship dish ceviche, are more prosaically called chuspi Sara (small corn).

Historians believe that what is today the most widely cultivated cereal crop in the world was first domesticated by the inhabitants of today’s Mexico around 10,000 years ago and then spread to the south along the Andean spine to reach Peru about 6,000 years ago.

Corn from the province of Lares near Cusco, where the crop has been cultivated for thousands of years. Photograph: Dan Collyns / The Guardian

Long before the climate crisis, the ancestors of these farmers adapted to growing crops in different niche ecosystems, from icy mountain peaks to sunny valleys.

“In this landscape, it would be difficult to produce a single variety of a crop, because in a year you can have frosts, hail, droughts or torrential rains,” says Javier Llacsa Tacuri, an expert in agrobiodiversity which manages an agricultural safeguard project. techniques, which have been identified as one of the few globally significant agricultural heritage systems.

“With a few varieties you couldn’t cope with a crop year, so the answer is to have many varieties. Frosts and hailstorms have always happened and their ancestors coped with them, ”he says.

With over 180 species of domesticated native plants and hundreds of varieties, Peru has one of the richest crop diversity in the world.

Supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the project helps farmers preserve native species, and Llacsa Tacuri and her colleagues help find markets for the colorful corn.

“Peru is one of the eight places in the world considered a center of origin for agriculture, explains Llacsa Tacuri. “The first inhabitants and their descendants – the peasants who are here – began their adaptation to this landscape more than 10,000 years ago.

Huillca says her village and neighbors are already feeling the climate crisis.

“Diseases like stem rust or blight happen, sometimes we have frost or hail. That’s why we have our seed bank so that we don’t lose our corn ecotypes, so that we can recover what we have lost and reseed these varieties, ”he says.

Juan Huillca
“We are continuing the path traced by our ancestors,” says Juan Huillca, farmer and conservationist of maize, Choquecancha, near Cusco. Photograph: Dan Collyns / The Guardian

In a simple farm in Ccachin is the genetic heritage of thousands of years of domestication and crop variation. Dozens of types of dried almonds are stored in plastic containers for rainy days.

“But a lot of young people are migrating to the city because it doesn’t generate a lot of income,” Huillca adds. “What we are doing is not making enough income to support the family, so they move to the city. “

Sonia Quispe, a corn conservationist in Choquecancha, says the harvest is half of what it would normally be.

“With the climate crisis, there is less harvest, but we are replacing our food with potatoes,” she says. “It is important to work with the different varieties of corn for our food security. With global warming, there are varieties that are more resistant to diseases and pests.

Quispe can identify the variety of three-month-old corn shoots from the stems. She explains that those with red at the base will produce red tinted spikes with a bitter taste that repels pests, which move higher up the mountain as the sun gets brighter.

Maize collected for a seed bank in Ccachin, Cusco.
Maize is collected and stored in a seed bank in Ccachin to avoid loss of varieties. Photograph: Dan Collyns / The Guardian

Julio Cruz Tacac, 31, a yachachiq, or an agriculture teacher, who returned to Ccachin after studying in Cusco, saw the weather change.

“When I was little, the sun didn’t shine with such intensity, the temperature was mild,” he says.

“It’s as if we live in an Eden in terms of food products, we have everything at hand,” he says of his childhood home. This contrasts with life in the city, where “everything is money,” he says, and which became even more difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic – Peru had the highest Covid death rate in the world.

The custom of ayni, reciprocal collective work, still exists in these remote villages, but a form of barter exchange, known as true, has been affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.

Genara Cárdenas, farmer in Ccachin, Cusco.
“With the pandemic, people don’t want to barter, they want money,” says Genara Cárdenas, farmer in Ccachin, Cusco. Photography: Jorge De La Quintana

“We go to the market and trade with the fruits and coca of the farmers in the valley,” says Genara Cárdenas, 55, from Ccachin. “But now, with the pandemic, people don’t want to barter, they want money.”

Financial pressures have affected the traditional way of life in the village, but their harvests have helped them remain self-sufficient despite economic challenges.

Nonetheless, the climate crisis presents new challenges, says Victor Morales, a 55-year-old farmer.

“When I was young, the rains, the frost, everything had its time. But today, everything has changed. We had many types of potatoes and corn, now we have varieties that are more resistant to climate change.

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