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The ‘Phoenixes’ in our food systems: Women farmers in Peru safeguarding the survival of potato biodiversity

The article below was written by Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D., Principal and Independent Consultant at HarvestLAC and is republished here with permission and thanks. The original article is titled “Women Custodians Safeguard the Future of Our Food“.

The Andean region is the center of origin of many nutritious, diverse foods, including native Andean potatoes and grains such as quinoa, now popular in the growing global gastronomic scene. Chefs feature such native foods in creative, colorful dishes in upscale restaurants in the Andes and worldwide.  Yet, many consumers are unaware of the source of these foods and the struggle involved with growing and harvesting them.

Over 4,000 varieties of native potato are grown in the Andean region, ranging in color from white to yellow, blue to black, and pink to magenta. They are good sources of energy, fiber, protein and vitamins and grow well in a range of mountain environments. Yet threats to this biodiversity increase each decade, from loss of producer knowledge, rural to urban migration, and a changing climate.

Women farmers are key leaders in the survival of potato biodiversity. During a research trip to Peru hosted by the International Potato Center (CIP) in September 2019, I observed how they live and labor in terraced fields at extremely high altitudes, cultivating crops that face threats from frost and pests. They play a central role in native potato conservation, like that played by many women for other crops and foods around the world. Meanwhile, they have less access to land, resources, and opportunities than men, as well as limited access to decision-making power.[1]

In Peru, the gender roles around potato production are clearly delineated. Seed potato management has traditionally been the domain of women, who have knowledge of the cooking quality and agronomic or storage characteristics of different varieties. Women make decisions regarding the selection, storage and use of seeds at planting time, as well as sale of seed or home consumption, and their knowledge is critical to the preservation of the thousands of varieties that exist today.[2],[3]

Photo credit: Margaret M. Zeigler, PhD

Native potato farmers who conserve high levels of agrobiodiversity have become known as potato custodians. These custodians conserve and grow varieties inherited from their parents, and they add to their collections by trading or purchasing new varieties at agrobiodiversity fairs or regional markets and events.  Their work is important because it conserves the genetic diversity of potato, much of which has been lost outside its center of origin in the Andes.

Research has shown that when women attend these fairs and events and receive recognition for their efforts, they become highly motivated to continue conservation of potato biodiversity and become custodian leaders.  Yet they may find it more difficult to attend these important events since they must care for young children and manage many household duties.  Gender norms often prevent women from achieving the same level of visibility as men, or benefit from the same opportunities and recognition, despite their deep knowledge of native potatoes.[4]

Today women like Espirita Guerrero are changing this situation and are inspiring other women to continue conserving native potatoes.  In a visit with her to her farm outside Huancayo, Peru, I learned how Espirita became a leader in AGUAPAN (Association of the Guardians of the Native Potato from Central Peru), a farmer-led association supported with private-sector partnership to benefit those who conserve biodiversity of native potato in Central Peru.

AGUAPAN is innovative because a direct link is made between users of potato diversity – breeding and seed companies – and conservers of genetic resources without intermediaries so that rural farmers can receive benefits for conserving genetic diversity of their crops.  As more women participate in associations such as AGUAPAN, they strengthen one another and develop their cultivation, conservation and business skills.

The model of partnership between AGUAPAN, private sector partners like HZPC and AGRICO, CIP and civil society organizations like Grupo Yanapai and the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA) has potential to be replicated and scaled to reach other crops and women crop custodians around the world as they safeguard the future of our food.

As the leading global research-for-development institution focused on potato, sweet potato, roots and tubers, CIP has worked for 50 years to ensure that the rich biodiversity of these crops can be improved and shared with the world. Recently CIP has catalogued the stories of many women custodians in Peru and is exploring the gender roles of women in the native Andean potato system. 

By understanding the different motivations of men and women to engage in biodiversity conservation, CIP scientists can contribute to gender sensitive design of projects, policies and services for farming families and ensure women’s full participation and benefit.

 *The author acknowledges and thanks Bettina Heider and Stef de Haan of the International Potato Center (CIP) for their contributions to this article.

Author: Margaret M. Zeigler
Cover photo: Espirita Guerrero, a leading native Andean potato custodian, displays some of her collection. Photo credit: Margaret M. Zeigler PhD
About the author:
Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), private sector voice for agricultural productivity growth throughout the value chain to sustainably meet the demands of a growing world. Margaret has dedicated her career to addressing global hunger and food security for 18 years, most recently serving as deputy director at the Congressional Hunger Center.
[1] Meinzen-Dick, R. et al. May 2010. Engendering Agricultural Research. USA; IFPRI.
[2]Heider, B. et al.  Gender roles and in situ conservation of native potato agrobiodiversity in the highlands of Peru. Forthcoming publication, International Potato Center (CIP).
[3] Sarapura Escobar, S.; Hambly Odame, H.; Thiele, G. 2016. Gender and innovation in Peru’s native potato market chains. In: Njuki, J.; Parkins, J. Kaler, A. (eds). Transforming gender and food security in the Global South. New York. Routledge; International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
[4] Tapia Núñez, M.E. and Torre, A.  1998. Women farmers and Andean Seeds. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute; Smithsonian Libraries.

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