“…And the Sun fertilized Pachamama and after four days a child was born. Pachacamac, jealous that a son of the Sun could take away from him the veneration of human beings, took the newborn, dismembered and buried him. From the child’s teeth the corn was born, all the roots and tubers sprung from his ribs and bones, and from his flesh came the trees and fruits; thus, there was abundance and hunger disappeared”. (Andean Narrative).[**]

new york times
The New York Times. Juan Karita/Associated Press. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/world/what-in-the-world/andes-incas-chuno.html

Quinoa, chia, yacon, amaranto (amaranth), camote (sweet potato), oca, maca, … all these words sound distant, exotic and even poetic; nevertheless, they have become a part of the global north people’s diet. Quinoa became a fad in Europe and USA in the last few years, chia (seeds) is currently one of the most trendy superfood and maca (powder), the latest ‘nature’s Viagra’, is added to any healthy smoothie. But, there are other traditional and ancients crops from the Andean region that are doing a sonorous appearance in the food market: native tubers and potatoes.

Starting in their respective local and national markets, this renaissance of traditional products, and the ancestral knowledge coming along, is interesting because it allows to rescue native know-hows, expands the food base of the communities where they are grown (mainly indigenous), improves their nutritional status and food security, and generates new income for rural households; at the same time, it encourages the agrobiodiversity, using highly valuable but under-valorised crops and species which helps to build a sustainable food future[1]. However, in the flourishing of those products there are also some challenges that should be taken in account in order they do not become victims of their own success and end up harming the communities that pretend to benefit. 

The rainbow and the shadows of Andean potatoes and tubers

Source: International Potato Center. http://www.cipotato.org

Even if in today’s world potato is one of the most known food, being the third most important food crop in the world after rice and wheat in terms of human consumption[2], and it is growing in countries as different as Bangladesh and Belarus; this crop is original from the Andean region. Tubers and potatoes have been historically a fundamental part of the diet of the Andean aboriginal communities due to their nutritional contribution, their adaptability to very severe environmental conditions and their easy cooking and storage. Because of the world importance of this food, the Food and Agriculture Organization –FAO- declared the 2008 as the international potato year and in 2010 launched a cookbook high-lightening the traditional Andean cuisine and food products.

The International Potato Center[3], as well as FAO, estimates that there are over 4,000 varieties of native potatoes and tubers grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. They come in numerous shapes, sizes and colours and farmers generally produce these native varieties in traditional ways with minimal or no use of agrochemicals. Most of these varieties never see a market; they are traded among communities in the area. Nevertheless, with the boom and fame of some Andean foods, these traditional potatoes and tubers start to have a new market. It is interesting in terms of rescuing ancestral knowledges and enhancing the income for peasants and indigenous people living in those regions; but it could, eventually, exclude them of their own source of nutrition, increasing their food insecurity[4].

bogota post
Source: The Bogota Post. https://thebogotapost.com

For example, in my last foodie readings while still living in Colombia, I realized that in some of the poshest restaurants in Bogota it was the more and more common find some special preparations with colourful ‘new’ potatoes and tubers. The restaurants high-lightened the native origin and value of the ancestral traditions of those products, which was directly proportional to the price of those fancy preparations. In Lima also, the largest food festival which intends to bring together various native and traditional foods, doesn’t necessarily bring together all people. The festival is targeted at Peru’s elite because it’s too expensive for a working-class family to attend.

Therefore, for some specialists as Raul Matta the biggest criticism of the growing popularity of traditional Andean food is that it is being sold like a development project, like as it is going to solve different historical and social problems. Instead, it sweeps those problems under the rug and generates others. This kind of gentrification and flourishing of certain foods can also affect country’s agricultural future, as it happened with quinoa, which for long time was considered as a food for peasants and lower-class people, before it became a fashionable food trend in wealthy Western countries.

The international boom of that grain helped to improve living conditions for growers (indigenous people mostly) and the United Nations declared the 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Nevertheless, this economic bonanza generated some controversy because pushed farmers in Peru and Bolivia to specialize in that crop, reducing country biodiversity and endangering farmers’ food sovereignty. Therefore, the renaissance and boom of Andean products could be, if not the solution, a great help, to fight against regional and world food insecurity; but only if it is well handled and inclusive and not only a foodie tendency of branding and marketing for Western and/or wealthy consumers.

papas y manos
Source: El Comercio Perú. http://www.elcomercio.pe

[**] Free translation of a section of the book: Pachacamac y el Senor de los Milagros: Una Trayectoria Milenaria. Rostworowski, M., (1992). Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, (serie historia Andina). Pp. 27. Lima, Peru.
Pachamama: Goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Also known as the earth/time mother. In Inca mythology, Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting, embodies the mountains, and causes earthquakes.
Pachacamac: In the Andean (specially Quechua) mythology, Pachacamac is considered the ‘Creator of the World’. He was believed to have created the first man and woman. It was the deity worshipped in the city of Pachacamac (current Peru).
[1] Zimmerer, K.S. and de Haan, S., (2017). Agrobiodiversity and a sustainable food future. Nature plants, 3, p.17047. Munzara, A., (2007). Agro-biodiversity and Food Security. In UN/Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity and Ecosystems. 28th October, 2007. http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e01.htm
[2] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/world/
[3] https://cipotato.org/
[4] As per FAO, currently the indigenous population represents more than 30% of the inhabitants of the Andean countries. Of these, 90% find economic and nutritional sustenance from traditional agricultural production. Poverty affects more than 80% of the population and keeps more than 45% of infants in conditions of chronic malnutrition.