As co-instructor for Sterling’s  winter intensive course, Mountain Ecotourism and  Sustainable Development, I was joined in Peru by Outdoor Education faculty member Josh Bossin and a group of  Sterling students. There we visited agricultural  organizations,  pastoralist landscapes,  farming communities, and  food  markets in one  of Nikolai Vavilov’s  eight  centers of  global crop origin  and  diversity.

A high altitude potato field in Huascaran National Park.

A high altitude potato field in Huascaran National Park.

One of our earliest such visits was to the Lima-based offices of PRATEC (the Proyecto Andino de Technologias Campesinas/Andean Project of Peasant Technologies). There we met with Grimaldo Rengifo Vasquez, who founded PRATEC in 1987, along with two other friends who shared a common vision. This principally revolved around PRATEC’s grounding in an alternative   development model that sought not to impose universal, external blueprints for agricultural and socio-economic modernization, but rather to observe an autochthonous model based on the affirmation of indigenous and peasant farming techniques and knowledge. This work of “cultural affirmation” not only elevates traditional agricultural systems and technologies, but acknowledges the centrality of the Andean cosmovision that lends larger meaning to rural lives and relationships. The spirit of PRATEC’s larger mission and vision—one grounded in a distinctly Andean view of the world—is captured in the Spanish phrase “criar y dejarse criar,” or “to nurture and let oneself be nurtured.”

Traditional irrigation system in the high Andes.

Traditional irrigation system in the high Andes.

Grimaldo spoke with great pride of the area’s status as a global agrobiodiversity hotspot, a superlative easily lost through decades of international development preoccupied with the “modernization” of Peru’s agricultural economy. As the center for the domestication of potatoes, some 3,000 – 4,000 varieties can still be found in the Andean highlands, each adapted to local microclimates and soil conditions. While maize was domesticated in Mexico some 8,000 years ago, the Andes became a major center of secondary diversification, boasting as many as 1,500 distinct maize varieties. Peru and the Andean highlands are also a diversity center for chili peppers, with remains of the country’s beloved Aji peppers dating back to 8,500 BCE in the Guitarerro Cave archaeological site. This diversity is also a living diversity, an example of in situ conservation as traditional producers steward the evolutionary processes of adaptation in highland agricultural fields, known in the Quechua language as chacras.   While in Peru, students were afforded the opportunity to experience some of this diversity and ingenuity directly. Our activities  included regular visits  to local vendor  and  street  markets,  where the region’s astonishing food  and  agricultural diversity is on  display, as well as a visit  to the  local Sunday food  fair  in the  highland hub city of  Huaraz. Here students  and  faculty  shared  a  meal of  pachamanca  (meat  and  vegetables  marinated  in spices and cooked  in the  ground),  patasca (a savory soup),  and  other  staples of  Andean  cuisine. On day-hikes to glacial features in the Huascaran National Park, a protected area that accommodates traditional indigenous uses of the park’s resources, we encountered millennia-old agricultural and pastoral landscapes in the high-elevation grasslands known as the puna. On a day visit to the Quechua community of Vicos, we toured mid-elevation agricultural systems (which by Andean standards, means around 10,000 feet), thus seeing firsthand the vitality of the region’s “vertical livelihood” strategies — a reference to agro-pastoral systems finely tuned to elevation-specific ecological niches.  

Student Robb Milks tries out a Peruvian hoe as we help hill potatoes in a field near Huaraz.

Student Robb Milks tries out a Peruvian hoe as we help hill potatoes in a field near Huaraz.

The cultural and agricultural resources that we were so privileged to glimpse in a pre-COVID context have proven to be a central referent in the rural Andean reckoning with the pandemic. Writing for a COVID-specific online collection curated by the medical anthropology department at the University College of London, Lucia Stavig notes that amid the pandemic, a massive urban-to-rural exodus has occurred, as many seek to return to the food security of their natal rural communities. This motivation is also accompanied by the same persistent Andean cosmovision that has informed the work of PRATEC and others. As Stavid Explains, eating from the chacra and embracing ancestral foodways is understood as a cultural bulwark against COVID-19. As a people with a 500 year history of survival and resistance in the face of colonial atrocity, Stavig writes that “the coronavirus is already being woven into story [in] the Andes. Many people I have spoken to have said that even though they are afraid, they are glad that the whole world has had to stop.” Continuing, she observes: “Several people in the community have explained to me that coronavirus is a result of human’s mistreatment of Mother Earth. They do not see it as a punishment, however, but as a reminder of human’s reciprocal relationship with pachamama (Mother Earth) . . . They argue that what we are living through is a pachakuti, the end of one age and the beginning of another. These moments, they tell me, are always painful, like a birth.” Looking back now on our experience in Peru, I am so grateful we got the chance to visit before COVID-19, but I also find myself in general agreement that the pandemic has forced a societal slow down that allows us to contemplate what kind of future we want, and how we get there from here. 


Filed Under: Blog Outdoor Education Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems

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