Bolivian farmers reclaim old tradition to meet new challenges

Growing hardier, native varieties of potatoes helps Bolivian farmers withstand a changing climate

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Lidia Chambi and other representatives of potato growing associations met with staff of MCC Bolivia and PRODII to talk about native potato production in remote mountain communities. At this altitude, producing more delicate vegetables like onions and carrots isn't possible, so a key element of PRODII's work responding to the effects of climate change is preserving and cultivating native potato varieties that are adapted to the harsh conditions, like the ones visible in the background.

Lidia Chambi recalls stories from generations ago when farmers in her community grew hundreds of potato varieties. But as decades passed, the names, shapes and colors of potatoes got lost. Lidia’s 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, they cannot produce delicate vegetables like onions and carrots. So hearty potatoes have become a staple.

In addition to farming, Lidia is also the vice president of the Association of Organic Agricultural Producers Qayanas. She brings members of the organization together, asks partners what area of farming they will work on and requests help from government institutions. Farmers recognize that preserving native potato varieties that can adapt to harsh weather conditions is critical in their climate. Potato recovery ensures food security for their families for generations to come.

A view from the community of San Pedro as staff of MCC Bolivia and partner PRODII travel to a community visit. The communities PRODII works in are very remote and at very high altitudes–up to 4500 meters, or almost 15,000 feet, above sea level. At this altitude, communities are limited in the types of crops they can grow. Hardy native potato species are a staple.

MCC partner Programa de Desarollo Integral Interdisciplinario (PRODII; Interdisciplinary Comprehensive Development Program) noticed the community’s efforts and has been supporting Chiro Kasa’s 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 surrounding communities, PRODII is helping farmers bring back native plants and seeds and providing them with micro tunnels to keep vegetables safe.

Gabriel Acarapi Chuca, a PRODII technician, explains that seeds are harvested from the potato’s fruit that grows above ground. They transplant the fragile seeds into soil protected by greenhouse-like tunnels made of wood and plastic. He says, “… as it grows we find at least 17 varieties from this one plant. They come 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.”

But climate change has complicated revitalization practices. As the climate becomes more extreme and unpredictable, communities need help to protect their crops.

Valentin Aguilar Ordanez, from the community of San Pedro, met with staff of MCC Bolivia and partner PRODII to talk about native potato production. At this altitude, producing more delicate vegetables like onions and carrots isn’t possible, so a key element of PRODII’s work responding to the effects of climate change is preserving and cultivating native potato varieties that are adapted to the harsh conditions.

Valentine Aguilar Ordañez from 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.”

Hail also has become detrimental, bringing the potential to instantly wipe out revived potato varieties.

“The hail is bigger,” says Luis Mamani. “Last year it was the size of those potatoes, and we had not planted, which was lucky. 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.”

PRODII provides micro tunnels to protect seedlings during incubation. As a community leader, Lidia has been trained by PRODII to use these tunnels and now shows others how to protect their vegetables.

While nurturing seedlings may seem small, the impact is no small potatoes. Without Lidia, her community association and PRODII’s assistance, more varieties of potatoes may be lost. By rebirthing new and old varieties, farmers are working towards food security for their families and communities.

The success of these activities is also reducing seasonal migration and increasing community investment. During a good harvest season, communities sell remaining food for extra profit in local markets. Children do not migrate to cities, allowing them to live healthier lives with their families.

Luis Mamani shows potato seeds. Potatoes can be grown either from seeds harvested by a fruit that grows from the flowers on the part of the plant that grows above ground, or by directly planting parts of the potato (the root).

Lidia Chambi says, “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.”

Rachel Watson is an MCC staff person serving in Bolivia.

MCC News Service
Mennonite Central Committee is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. MCC is committed to relationships with their local partners and churches. As an Anabaptist organization, they strive to make peace a part of everything they do.

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