Ernesto Benavides / AFP / Getty Images

Peru’s indigenous preserve biodiversity in Andes Potato Park

As world meets in Lima to negotiate global climate treaty, native groups say global warming threatens food security

As climate negotiators gather for two weeks of talks in Lima, Peru, indigenous communities living in an Andes Potato Park dedicated to preserving biodiversity warn that global warming is forcing them to change centuries-old agricultural practices.

Located near the Sacred Valley of the Incas, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, Parque de la Papa is a conservation site dedicated to safeguarding native crops. The indigenous Quechua community of about 6,000 people even has a potato bank that holds over 1,000 varieties of the vegetable, according to Scidev, a website dedicated to science-related news.

But effects from climate change are threatening the generations-old tradition, according to park residents.

“First of all, there’s too much sun,” said Lino Mamani, who manages the potato bank’s storeroom. “And rain comes too early. So we’re receiving rain before we’re ready, and we’re also seeing the frost come earlier.”

Mamani said farmers have started experimenting by growing potatoes at higher and lower elevations in an attempt to adapt to climate change. And science is complementing traditional knowledge, as the community has begun cross-pollinating existing potato strains in search of varieties more resistant to global warming.

Climate scientists are increasingly highlighting the potential for mass plant and animal extinctions posed by a warming world, according to Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club. The global wildlife population has decreased by over 50 percent since the 1970s, according to a recent report. Biodiversity, along with carbon dioxide levels, ocean acidification and polar ice melt are among the nine "planetary boundaries" that, if pushed over the threshold, could cause catastrophic changes to the earth, the report said.

“When you look at Parque de la Papa, it shows the real, firsthand effect of what impacts these types of extinctions will have,” Perera said.

Past global climate summits have focused largely on what leading economies can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming’s worst effects.

But indigenous participants are increasingly offering their traditional knowledge to these meetings — know-how that often allows them to live in balance with their environments. In September global indigenous leaders attended the United Nations climate summit in New York City in great numbers, and native participation has been encouraged at the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima this month. 

COP 20 features an Indigenous Pavilion, where native peoples from Peru will host indigenous representatives from all over the world. Together they will participate in certain climate negotiations, announce proposals to mitigate and adapt to climate change and share traditional knowledge on the environment, according to the U.N.

Underscoring the importance of traditional knowledge, Mamani points to two resilient strains of potatoes the Quechua community cultivates that could mean the difference between eating and starvation.

Moraya, a bitter-tasting potato grown at 13,500 to 15,000 feet above sea level, can withstand harsh weather conditions. Chuno is a lower-elevation strain. Both are dehydrated in a way that allows them to be stored for long periods, he said.

“Chuno and moraya, for us, mean food security,” Mamani told Scidev. “We have reasons behind preserving all these varieties.”

ANDES, a local NGO, began working with the Potato Park community in the 1990s with the goal of protecting the environment. When ANDES realized that the people have guarded native potato strains for centuries, it began working to preserve that biodiversity.

Potato Park is in one of the most diverse areas in the world in terms of plant and animal species, said Perera. She lamented the threat to such successful biodiversity and warned that as that diversity decreases, so will food security — a problem that will likely affect places around the globe as the climate changes.

“I think that diversity has enabled them to be resilient when there have been changes, but I fear this level of change might be such that they can’t keep up,” she said. “We should all fear for what this means for mankind and biodiversity on the planet.”

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