by Henk Hobbelink and Miges Baumann | 20 Feb 1991

Henk Hobbelink and Miges Baumann

The home of the potato is to be found in the Andes, where many wild species grow alongside the indigenous varieties developed by local farmers. Throughout this majestic mountain chain, the potato is also the basis of the local diet. While farmers grow an impressive mosaic of different varieties, that diversity is under threat from several angles. The governments are pushing mainstream monoculture, but the people are working on other alternatives. GRAIN associates Henk Hobbelink and Miges Baumann travelled through Ecuador and give a firsthand report.


While our jeep fights its way up a dusty dirt road higher into the mountains, we see the valley where we came from far below and long behind us. The main road to Quito is clearly distinguishable, and so are the huge irrigated fields of the large landowners and the cattle grazing on fresh green grass. Up here, at an altitude of some 3700 meters above sea-level, it is cold, foggy and the farmers ' fields are dry. Like an intricate patchwork along the mountain slopes, they vary in size but most of them are very small. As one farmer put it, you can easily throw a stone across them. Most of the fields are planted with potatoes, which is about the only crop that manages to thrive up here.

Traditional varieties under pressure

When we arrive in the Saquisili village, there is a lively community meeting going on, but some farmers are eager to take us aside and show us their potato fields. One farmer named Belisario, who has several holdings, hesitates to tell us which varieties he grows. Later we find out why. Like most farmers in this region, he grows none of the modern varieties developed and promoted by the National Agricultural Research Station (INIAP). Nor is he spraying any of the pesticides that the agricultural extension services prompt farmers to use each morning over the 5 o 'clock radio programme. He is not the "modern" farmer which the government would like to see all over Ecuador.

However, he knows exactly which potatoes he is growing "That is a 'Chola ' variety," he points out, "and this one we call 'Leona '. Those two plants are 'Papa Negra ', and the ones beside them are 'Cunu Papa ' and 'Papa Castilla '." Belisario leads us through one of his tiny potato fields while our amazement over the tremendous diversity in his field deepens. We count at least ten different varieties in a plot not larger than GRAIN's office. One potato type is more resistant to blight (the major potato disease) while another can withstand soil insects better. Several of them show tolerance to the heavy frosts that cover Belisario's fields in the morning, while others can survive long periods without rain.

Belisario warms up to our enthusiasm. "In the past, we used to grow many more different varieties," he says. "Only recently we found 'Allco Chaqui ' again in a neighbouring village. I had been looking for that one for a long time, as it tastes excellent in our soup." In his little house, Belisario stores "Allco Chaqui" in a small basket for next year's sowing. In fact, most of the varieties we have seen in the field are to be found in some corner of his house.

Later, when we have a delicious lunch (of no less than four different potato varieties) with the other farmers, we discuss why these types are preferred over those provided by INIAP. Taste features immediately as an important reason, but so do the agronomic qualities needed for the low input agriculture that the farmers practice here. Also, everybody agrees that the varieties promoted by the government need a longer cooking time, which apart from costing extra fire-wood is a nuisance, as they cannot be cooked together with other varieties. For these and other reasons, the potatoes eaten at the farmers ' home are almost always the local ones.

However, apart from producing enough food, farmers also try to make a living. "Our own varieties have a much better price on the local market, as the people know and appreciate them. But the people in the cities only know the new varieties and don 't want to pay for the local ones." This pressure to produce modern potatoes for the urban markets turns out to be one of the main reasons behind the genetic erosion that takes place in the Saquisili area.

Pesticides: the "modern" solution

A few days later, when we travelled to another part of Ecuador, we encountered quite a different picture. In Malillo, potato production was virtually wiped out by severe frosts several years ago. Rather than reintroducing local potatoes from neighbouring villages, the government extension services were quick to move in with their improved varieties. As a result, farmers are now planting nothing but the three or four varieties offered by the government - and all of them in monoculture. At the same time, farmers sold most of their livestock in order to be able to buy more land, thus losing an important natural fertilizer in the form of dung.

The result is devastating. Local varieties are hard to find in the Malillo area. Because of the genetic uniformity and the general susceptibility of the INIAP varieties, pesticides are much more widely used. This is increasingly becoming a problem as the price for potatoes on the market has dropped steadily while the cost of agrochemicals has risen sharply. Added to this is the extra money spent purchasing the seed potatoes, which apart from being expensive are often not available at the right time and in the right quantities. Farmers are especially worried about the impact of chemicals on the soil. "The plot on which I use chemicals are dusty in the dry season, while the soil structure is retained in the plots where I don't," we often heard.

Banking on seeds

This situation has led to several initiatives from community organisations to establish independent seed supply systems. For example, in Malillo, the farmers have set up a local seed bank with support from the Swiss development agency SwissAid in order to assure a continuous seed supply. The system is as simple as it is effective. Farmers get their seed potatoes from the local bank under the condition that, at harvest time, they replenish the seed bank with the same amount, plus an additional 20%. An agronomist, hired by the community, provides the farmers with technical support and advice. The system was set up five years ago as a response to the desperate need for seed potatoes, which were either too difficult or too expensive to obtain elsewhere.

But because of the urgency of the situation at the time, the bank got going with seed potatoes from INIAP. Now, the farmers are facing the consequences: after five years of multiplication, the INIAP potatoes have started to deteriorate and are producing less harvest each year. A major cause for this seems to be that the potatoes have increasingly become infected with virus diseases. However, others say that, when re-used over and over again, the INIAP varieties simply lose their vigour more quickly than their local counterparts. When we sat down with the community leaders and raised the possibility of re-introducing indigenous varieties from other villages into their local seed bank, they immediately jumped on the idea. All farmers agreed that their own varieties would not only serve better for long term on-farm multiplication, but they also thought it would help to bring down the use of expensive agrochemicals. Also, despite the tremendous loss of genetic diversity in the Malilla region during the past five years, farmers recognise the need to conserve and develop what they consider part of their own Andean heritage. As one farmer said, "Our Indian culture is not only our music or the dresses our women wear, it is also the way we produce our food and the plants we and our fathers have developed for that."

Local gene-technology

While discussing the practicalities of the new seed bank set-up, the farmers presented a brilliant example of how indigenous technology can help to solve some major problems in crop production. Perhaps the most important problem with growing potatoes is the accumulation of virus diseases in the tubers. Viruses are generally transmitted by aphids, and as the potato reproduces vegetatively, the disease passes on from generation to generation. Genebank scientists have recently developed tissue culture techniques to overcome that problem, but the farmers in Malillo have been using a simpler one for hundreds of years.

The farmers often grow potatoes at different altitudes, across their patchwork holdings. High up in the Andes, insects - and the viruses they transmit - have a hard time surviving, while in the lower areas they are an extremely serious threat. Farmers, then, reserve part of the harvest from the higher altitudes to sow it in the plains, thus assuring that the propagating material is relatively virus-free. When we talked about this in Quito with Dr. Guillermo Albornoz, probably the most renown potato expert in the country, he agreed that this technique indeed decreases virus problems for the farmers. But he also asserted that little official support is given to recognise and disseminate it. Scientists prefer to rely on their laboratories and tissue culture techniques.

With such promising farmer-based initiatives to conserve and utilise the locally available genetic diversity, one might expect that the official agricultural extension services would be keen to promote them. But in Ecuador, as in many other countries, this is far from what actually happens. As David Guiterrez, an agronomist very much involved in grassroots technology, told us, "The INIAP varieties only work well with the chemical package that is provided with them. INIAP and private companies organise many courses at the local level to teach farmers how to spray pesticides and apply chemical fertiliser. In all cases, the end result is an increase in the use of chemicals."

Indeed, when we spoke with one farmer about his potato production, he showed us what was probably the only printed piece of paper in his little house. It was an invitation to attend a course on pesticide spraying to be held later that day in the neighbouring village. The lushly printed letter was signed by the extension officer of Bayer Company, one of the biggest chemical pesticide producers in the world.

Against the drive by chemical companies and governmental institutions to expand people's reliance on ill-adapted seed and toxic agrochemicals, farmers ' initiatives to set up their own seed-saving systems come as promising alternatives that desperately need support. The same is true for the projects of development NGOs that are trying to promote these more sustainable approaches. GRAIN is currently in the process of collecting concrete information about grassroots initiatives to conserve genetic diversity and develop sound seed supply systems at the local level. In the course of 1991, we will publish a small book about the issue, as well as regular reports in "Seedling". To help us, we would like to ask all "Seedling" readers who have information on, or experience with, such initiatives to please contribute to our efforts and send in your accounts and materials.

Author: Henk Hobbelink and Miges Baumann