Zenón Porfidio Gomel Apaza thought he knew all about farming in 1994 when he packed up his books and returned from his university studies in agronomy to his village in the Peruvian Andes, 60 kilometres north of Lake Titicaca, where his ancestors had tilled the fields for generations. Yet in the harsh Altiplano, almost 4,000 metres above sea level, he realized that the modern agricultural methods he had studied so diligently had often produced a legacy of failed crops, depleted soils and dysfunctional communities. "That was a turning point for me. My professional education didn’t match the reality of the Altiplano," Gomel Apaza says. "So I decided to unlearn everything in order to let the daily experience of Andean life teach me where to go."
As he listened to his Quechua neighbours and walked with them through their fields, Gomel Apaza became aware that much of what he needed to know to improve crop yields was present in their ancient culture. This belief was confirmed when he gave courses for Chuyma Aru, an indigenous organization near Puno, and realized that agriculture could be based on local knowledge. In 1995, in his home village of Pucará, he launched the Asociación Savia Andina Pucará to promote the cultivation of a wider variety of potatoes and other native plants.
Strength in Biodiversity
For a decade, Gomel and his neighbours demonstrated that diversification of seeds and tubers, along with traditional methods of preparing the soil, enhanced crop and grassland yields. Although the region is economically impoverished, he showed that by reviving the diversity of their natural heritage, rather than resorting to imported chemicals and technology, all farmers could produce enough to feed their families.
Gomel, aged 37, has been selected as an Associate Laureate in the Rolex Awards for an ambitious project to encourage more than 500 families in the areas around Orurillo and Pucará to broaden the genetic variety of their crops. More than 100 village gatherings and other public events will be held for Gomel and his team to share information with farmers. Encouraging agrodiversity, Gomel explains, is a key to combating hunger: "A diversity of plants has more possibilities of surviving adverse environmental conditions. We have very extreme weather in the highlands, and if it gets very cold and you only have one type of potato, you could lose everything. But when there is diversity, some types may die, but not others."
Dangers of Modern Specialization
For example, while most varieties of potato grown around the world belong to a single species (Solanum tuberosum), in the Andes — the potato’s birthplace — about 10 different Solanum species are cultivated, and wild potatoes provide over 200 additional species. About 5,000 potato varieties have been identified by the Peru-based International Potato Center, and scientists say no other major food crop enjoys such genetic diversity. Behind the sturdy tuber’s multiplicity lies the ingenuity of Andean farmers, whose intimate knowledge of mountain agriculture has constantly produced new diversity, allowing them to plant potatoes chosen for the soil’s quality, temperature, inclination, orientation and exposure. For more than 10,000 years, they enriched their genetic stock by swapping seeds. Yet the same farmers who used to harvest several dozen varieties have for years been pressured by agricultural technicians and agribusiness to reduce the types they cultivate. The 'Green Revolution’ of the 1960s, with its focus on pesticides, machines and high-yield hybrids increased the vulnerability of Andean people by narrowing the genetic base of once self-sufficient farming communities.
Sustainable Food Production
For many years, Gomel Apaza’s father grew dozens of potato varieties, some for baking, some for soup, still others for medicinal purposes. But, Gomel says, he embraced the "fad of modern technology and the Green Revolution" and cut back, cultivating only five varieties. Gomel is undoing the damage of recent years by diversifying what is cultivated, as well as by setting aside natural reserves containing plant varieties, many of which may one day cure diseases.
Like the potato, other tubers such as ocas, izanos and ollucos, as well as grains such as quinoa and cañihua, are also being researched in the Pucará and Orurillo regions, and the project will protect 22 hectares of microhabitats of native plants. Hillsides eroded by inappropriate agricultural techniques will be recovered for use in traditional, environmentally sustainable ways. Gomel is helping to restart regional fairs where farmers gather to exchange seeds and discuss their crops.
Besides promoting agrobiodiversity in farmers’ gatherings, Gomel is extending his advocacy into other public realms, using radio spots and working with educational institutions to promote agriculture suitable for the Andes. He is pushing primary schools to expand class curricula and to synchronize their school calendars with the long-established agricultural calendar.
Gomel Apaza’s work has attracted support from organizations that are enthusiastic about his use of traditional methods to solve pressing problems. Heliodoro Díaz Cisneros, a former director for Latin American and Caribbean programmes of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which supported Gomel’s project in Pucará, says that by encouraging farmers to rely on the knowledge inherited from their ancestors, Gomel "encourages cooperation with neighbours and respect for the environment".
Embracing the lessons of the past will, Gomel Apaza is convinced, produce more than just more potatoes — it will transform how communities are governed, as neighbours relearn the respect for the earth and each other that local culture emphasizes. "Andean agriculture is not a substantial modification of the landscape, but rather a kind of beautification of it," Gomel Apaza explains, adding that, for him, "the relation between people and nature exists within a framework — based in caring and ritual — of feeling that you belong to all that exists."
Published in 2006