Reclaiming an old tradition to meet a new challenge
Growing hardier, native varieties of potatoes helps farmers in Bolivia withstand a changing climate
Lidia Chambi recalls stories from generations ago where farmers in her community grew hundreds of potato varieties. But as decades passed, the names, shapes and colors of these abundant varieties got lost along the way. Growing up, her family could only grow a few types of potatoes.
Lidia and her family live in the remote mountain community of Chiro Kasa in Norte de Potosí (North of Potosí), Bolivia. At an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, producing more delicate vegetables like onions and carrots isn't possible. So hearty potatoes have become a staple part of the diet for this community and a necessity for survival.
Lidia is not only a farmer but the vice president of an organization called the Association of Organic Agricultural Producers Qayanas. She is responsible for bringing members of the organization together, asking each partner what area of farming they are going to work on and makes requests to government institutions to receive help. This community recognizes that preserving and recovering native potato varieties that can adapt to the harsh weather conditions is a critical part of farming in their climate. Potato recovery ensures food security for their families for generations to come.
MCC partner Programa de Desarollo Integral Interdisciplinario (PRODII), noticed this community’s efforts and has been supporting their work for years. PRODII is dedicated to reducing the effects of climate change and guaranteeing food security for the most vulnerable Indigenous rural farmers. In Chiro Kasa and the surrounding communities, PRODII is helping farmers bring back native plants and seeds and providing them with micro tunnels to keep vegetables safe.
But how is this recovery done? Gabriel Acarapi Chuca, a technician of PRODII explains that seeds are harvested from the fruit of the potato that grows above ground. They transplant the seeds into tunnels that keep them safe during this fragile stage. He shares, “…as it grows we find at least 17 varieties from this one plant. It comes in every color: some are black, white or purple. The bees pollinate and carry the seeds from one to the other. With this, we can produce potatoes from generations ago. There are even some that we cannot know. There is one that is blue, I've never seen this before, we don’t know the name."
But climate change has brought complexity to these practices of revitalizing older potato varieties. As the climate becomes more extreme and unpredictable, the communities need more help in protecting their crops from the harsh elements.
Valentine Aguilar Ordañez from the community of San Pedro says, “When I was younger, the weather was different. Now, it rains anytime and very strongly. When I was younger, the rain was softer and very regular and throughout the territory. We don’t know what's going to happen next year. That is a concern that we have. Because we live on what we produce. If there is no produce, we don’t know what will happen.”
The arrival of hail has also become detrimental to these communities’ livelihoods. In an instant, hail could wipe out all their hard work reviving these potato varieties.
“The hail is bigger. Last year it was the size of those potatoes, and we had not planted which was lucky,” Luis Mamani says. “But we’re worried that that may happen again. It doesn't only affect one family; it affects the whole community. When it burns because of the cold, the potatoes come out very small. And the tuber is not healthy. But we must eat it anyway. We don’t like to go to the cities, so we eat what we have. We won’t have as much to sell; we’ll just have enough to eat.”
One of the ways PRODII is helping during these turbulent times is by providing micro tunnels to keep seedlings safe from harsh weather conditions during the incubation period. As a community leader, Lidia has been trained by PRODII to use these tunnels and now shows others how to keep their vegetables safe despite harsh weather conditions.
While the act of nurturing and protecting seedlings may seem small, the impact is no small potatoes. Without Lidia, her community association and the assistance of PRODII, more varieties of potatoes may be lost. By rebirthing new and old varieties from long ago, these farmers are working towards food security for their families and communities.
The success of these activities is also helping to reduce seasonal migration and increase community investment. During a good harvest season, these communities can sell whatever food remains for extra profit in the local markets. They are also keeping their children from migrating to cities, which means they can live healthier lives alongside their families. Lidia Chambi shares, “We realized that life in the cities gets very fast. Here, we produce our own food, like potatoes. It's healthier. We don’t use any chemicals, only the manure from cows. And that’s why we think we live longer, because we have healthier food.”
As more potatoes are recovered, Lidia is helping guarantee food and extra income for families including her own. “I and my family continue to work, looking for better days, producing our food for self-consumption.”
Top photo caption: Lidia Chambi, is a farmer and community leader from the Chiro Kasa community in, Norte de Potosí (North of Potosí, Bolivia) Bolivia.