Keepers of the Seeds

The village lies at 10,800 feet above sea level, an hour's hike up a dirt path from the Cusco-to-Pisac road: A cluster of adobe houses with straw, tile, or corrugated metal roofs; a chapel, a community center, a shared storage barn; the "27th of November" playing field; the cemetery. Creeks fence it. A canal cuts its lower edge. The mountains known as "Old" and "Young" Picol, Machu Picol andHuayna Picol in the local Quechua language, define its horizons and give it a name. A grove of imported eucalyptus trees marks the entrance to Picol, Peru.

Below are Picol's irrigated plots—both communal and family-owned. Onions grow there, the town's major cash crop; also carrots, cabbage, lettuce, and other vegetables.

Above are the secano fields, the dry or "rainfed" fields, scattered on the sheer, steep slopes, some higher than 12,000 feet—fields that leave visitors with no doubt that they have entered the Andes.

"I couldn't breathe," remembered Mariela Bianco, a graduate student in rural sociology who interviewed farmers in Picol for a month in 1995. "My head was exploding."

"We'd put on our hiking boots to go out to their fields," said her adviser, Penn State professor Carolyn Sachs. "We felt like we were going on the hike of our lives—and they were just going out to work in the fields."

Bitter potatoes will grow on the highest plots. Other varieties—and there are many, both native and "improved," here in the country that domesticated the potato—thrive lower down. These are planted in an intricate rotation, a rotation through both space (plot to plot) and time (year to year), with the Spanish-introduced barley (sometimes sold to a nearby brewery) and the colorful Incan crops referred to as tuberculos menores or "minor tubers": the oca, ulluco, and mashua.

"It's not spread this way," said Sachs, waggling a hand back and forth to describe the common layout of American agriculture, "it's spread this way"—the hand flapped up and down, gesturing what ecologists call verticality. "It's hard to imagine. In this incredibly difficult ecological situation, they've found niches for everything."

Verticality was perfected by the Incas, whose empire of 10 to 12 million people was centered 12 miles away at Cusco (the name means "navel"), still the largest city in the southern Andes. "The Inca walls there," Sachs said, "are a remarkable architectural feat. Some of the rocks are as big as these two bookcases"—she motioned toward the 6-by-8-foot set covering her office wall—"and they fit together perfectly. You can't fit a piece of paper between them." On top of the Inca ruins, Sachs continued, "are the Spanish buildings, which are okay-looking. Then there are the modern buildings, which are of even less quality. It's really in your face how advanced the Inca were. It puts you in your place. You look at these agricultural systems that are so complex and so thought through . . ."

And so long lasting? Bianco wrote in her 1996 master's thesis, "A common reflection of the farmers is that the land is tired after so many generations."

They are growing fewer varieties of potatoes in Picol these days. Seeds for the minor tubers are harder to obtain. Storage is a weak point, rot a problem. Then there's the gusanera, a weevil that's started to attack the oca and ulluco crops. "People all the time were asking us, "What can you do?'," Bianco said. "Are you going to give us seeds?' "What's the problem with this weevil?'"

yellow seed pod with indents and red markings

Bianco needed to learn who in Picol was planting what—and where and why—to begin a many-year study of oca, ulluco, mashua, and other Andean root and tuber crops. Led by Hector Flores at Penn State and Rolando Estrada-Jimenez of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, who had earlier worked on the Peruvian National Potato Program, biologists, agronomists, anthropologists, sociologists, and agricultural economists from Penn State and from Peruvian universities in Cusco, Ayacucho, and Lima hope to renew interest in these "forgotten foods" that once fed the Incan empire.

"At the present time, these crops constitute the major staple for some of the poorest subsistence farmers in the world," Flores wrote in a proposal. "The fragility of the current situation cannot be underestimated." Cash crops. Out-migration. That the crops persist at all Flores attributed to "the wealth of agricultural knowledge" of the indigenous Quechua-speaking people—and to something else:

"Here's a typical family picture." Flores held a slide up to the light. Mother, father, grandfather, three children, and a dog stand by a sunny stone wall, the angular Andean landscape opening out behind them like successive stage backdrops—hills, fields, far-off cliffs. At their feet are piles of potatoes. Father holds up a knuckle-shaped tuber. Grandfather and two of the children grasp green stalks. "They love for us to take pictures of them," Flores said, "but they never have their pictures taken without their plants."

Images of the pre-Columbian fertility god show the deity with arms outstretched, potato plant in each hand.

"I've seen it on a pot—on a postcard," Flores said. "It shows how ancient the link is. It shows how tightly the people here relate to their germplasm."

Another slide: a tumble of reds, pinks, purples, browns, oranges, yellows, whites. Shapes like buttons. Pinecones. Eggs. Joints. Some tubers are wrinkled, some are smooth, some waxy, others dull.

South American village woman in brown skirt, red sweater with blue trim, hat

"This is not an artistic representation," Flores said. "You'll get all these from a single plot."

Sweet-tasting oca is in the same family as the shamrock. Ulluco, gummy until cooked, but good in soups and stews, is from the little-known family, the Basellaceae. Mashua, sharp-flavored and with medicinal uses, is a nasturtium. None is related to the potato; each has hundreds of varieties. According to Bianco's thesis, "The pool of tuber varieties a family holds is associated with the degree of security it enjoys."

For the environment is extreme. "Most inhospitable," Flores tagged it. "The steep slopes of the Andes are constantly prone to erosion, subject to extreme fluctuations in rainfall and temperature, and contain poor soils. Crops grown in this environment," he wrote, "must cope with long periods of drought, frost damage, and high UV irradiation."

Yet even better-off farmers in Picol, Bianco found, in 1995 seemed to be growing only five varieties of ulluco (the long and round yellows, the white, the pink, and the purple), three kinds of oca (red, white, and yellow), and two of mashua. In the northern Andes town of Cajamarca, Flores noted in a grant proposal, a farmer named Maria Apalin grows 28 varieties of oca. (And, as opposed to Picol's ten varieties of potato, a farmer elsewhere in the Andes has been quoted as saying, "All the 56 varieties of my potatoes are good. We only need to find the appropriate spot to grow them.")

From her interviews, Bianco found that "Picol farmers value genetic diversity . . . but obtaining different variety seeds was increasingly difficult."

For outsiders, merely telling apart Picol's few strains of oca, ulluco, and mashua is difficult enough. "If we can recognize four to five different morphologies in a pile of tubers," Flores said of his research group, "the farmers will tell you it's not five, it's ten. This one is resistant to this pest. This one is more acidic. How do they learn to recognize these things?"

Such questions lead to others. "How do they decide which ones to set aside to eat? Which ones to plant? How do they discard some varieties? How do they introduce others? How do they decide which variety to plant at which altitude? The difference in yield can be day and night between 9,000 and 11,000 feet," Flores noted. "Then there's the problem that the germplasm is very dirty. They get infested with viruses very easily, and that reduces the yield.

"Each community maintains its own varieties," he continued, "but they also exchange with each other. They have something like a farmer's market. People from a number of communities will meet in the towns. One woman will come in and display her stuff, another will come along with her bag full, and they'll exchange. It's completely a barter system. There's no exchange of money. It's just tuber for tuber, tuber for vegetable—both to eat and to plant. Usually they exchange different things, but they also exchange varieties within a species. That's what we want to understand. Why are they keeping one variety and not another?"

The questions, for Flores and Estrada's team, have a very real purpose: "If I, as a researcher, take some of these tubers back to an agricultural experiment station," Flores began, "and, using my own criteria for improvement, make the "improved' variety—" he smiled, "and it's always called the "improved' variety when it comes from an ag experiment station—how will this variety be accepted? What will be the impact on the genetic diversity of the crop?"

And will this "improved' tuber even grow? "In an experiment station, almost by definition, the soil will be very homogeneous," Flores noted. "I don't know of any agricultural experiment station in the Andes, for instance, that plants on a slope. But a typical community like Picol will span a range of 2,000 to 3,000 feet of altitude, with numerous types of soils in a very small area. They have to select the variety best for each altitude level. How do they do that?

"The only way to understand is by working with the farmers and learning from them. That's the only way we'll be able to address their needs in a controlled experiment station environment."

Hector Flores and Rolando Estrada studied biology together at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru. "It's the oldest university in the Americas," Flores noted. "Founded in 1565." Estrada was one year behind Flores, in the same class as Flores' wife, Marleni Ramirez, now an anthropologist also working on the Andean Roots and Tubers project.

red seed pod with indents and yellow marks

"Ten or 15 years ago, he was working at the Potato Center," Flores recalled. "He had a mandate to preserve and collect germplasm. Potato germplasm. But he wanted to collect germplasm other than potato. He wanted to collect these odd tubers. When I saw this request for proposals from the McKnight Foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program, I told him we should apply."

Estrada's germplasm collection at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos now holds over 210 clones or varieties of oca, 441 of ulluco, and 110 of mashua. With it as a resource, he and his collaborators at Penn State and at the universities of Lima, Ayacucho, and Cusco are characterizing the genetic diversity of the plants, developing methods to conserve the many varieties in gene banks, analyzing the plants' nutritional value, and studying their viability in different soils, altitudes, and planting regimes. At Penn State, for instance, graduate student Teresita Flores is investigating the quality of the protein in oca; Erika Barreto, the biochemistry of mashua; and Jorge Vivanco, a protein from an Andean root crop that, sprayed on a potato plant, protects it from viruses.

A major goal of Flores' lab is to develop virus- and disease-free plants in vitro, so that seeds for "improved" varieties (once the criteria for "improvement" are decided upon) can be easily grown in quantity. "You've seen my lab," Flores' commented. Indeed: his Root Biology Program is well-known to readers of Research|Penn State for growing roots in test tubes without shoots, leaves, or blooms. "Well, now we've got micro-potatoes." Like little green pearls. "Soon my students will have little ocas and little mashuas."

Other Penn State students, directed by Sachs, Ramirez, or agricultural economist Steve Smith, are working with their Peruvian counterparts on sociological, economic, and anthropological questions. For instance, undergraduate Andrea Meyer studied the nutritional role of the tubers in the villagers' diet, while Robert Torres looked at the impact of electricity, which had come to Picol one month before the Penn State researchers arrived. Among graduate students, Carolina Trivelli analyzed the villagers' efforts to market minor tubers and David Dominguez began social and economic comparison studies in the larger village of San Jose de Arizona near Ayacucho. A student from the university in Cusco, meanwhile, is attempting to document the "flow" of seeds. Explained Ramirez, "The pool of diversity is not static in Picol. They go to weddings, funerals, visits; they work on another farm, and they come back with seeds. You ask them how many varieties they have, and they won't be able to tell you. It's like asking, How many cups do you have in your house?"

"The lead in all these studies," Flores said, "is taken by our Peruvian counterparts." Only one member of the Penn State team, economist Smith, speaks any Quechua, the native language of Picol (he learned it in the Peace Corps in Bolivia). Spanish, the villagers' second language, was adequate for most purposes, but, as Bianco noted, communication was sometimes difficult with the elderly women, "who did not speak fluent Spanish and would either speak only Quechua or constantly switch from one language to the other." In these cases, local students working on related projects helped to translate. It was Ramiro Ortega of the Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad in Cusco, an agronomist who had been working in Picol for several years, who introduced the Penn State researchers and their study to Picol and garnered the villagers' agreement to participate.

"There's an effort to internationalize the curriculum at Penn State," Flores noted, "but how do we facilitate something like this? How do we facilitate all of us learning Quechua?"

Sachs, who was a beginner even in Spanish when she joined the study, noted, "A lot of the project is training students to work in interdisciplinary ways between countries: It's doing research that's both interdisciplinary and multicultural."

Bianco, who is a Fulbright student from Uruguay, began her 1996 master's thesis on farming in Picol with an Andean myth:

"I'm a sociologist," Bianco explained when she described her study at the 1996 Graduate Research Exhibition. "I'm interested in the sociological aspects of farming indigenous crops. So I looked at the rationale the farmers in Picol had for planting these tubers—to see if there was any difference among the families."

"The interesting thing," said her advisor, Sachs, "is that these communities are traditional—but also they're not. The Spanish were here. The haciendas were here . . ."

Following agrarian reform in 1969, seven families living on a former Franciscan hacienda decided to purchase the land and found a community; by 1987 they had reached the legal number of residents to become Picol. They elected a president, secretary, treasurer, and lieutenant (to settle disputes). They appointed an irrigation committee and, more recently, an electricity committee. They set aside two-thirds of a hectare of irrigated land and a full hectare in the secano fields as communal land: each member would contribute labor; the produce would be sold to pay for community-wide projects; or distributed among the families. They built a communal storage room and appointed a caretaker.

Within this well-ordered structure, there is a great deal of variety among Picol's 22 families. Bianco's thesis introduces the two, their identities hidden under fictitious names.

yellow seed pod with deep red indents

Among the better-off residents are Jeronimo and Valentina. Jeronimo "was the first farmer to grow onions in Picol almost 20 years ago," Bianco noted. His family owns two houses, one at 11,400 feet, where they live until the potato and tuber harvest is over, and a main homestead with "three separate chambers, a corral for the animals, and a room to store their products" in the village. Of their six children, one daughter is married and living in the city of Arequipa, where another daughter attends high school; one son attends high school in the town of Ccorao; two children walk to elementary school in the nearby village of Matinga; the 4-year-old stays home.

"Jeronimo and Valentina own six secano plots and two irrigated fields. They are the only family in the community who have an irrigated plot in the upper lands of the territory, over 11,400 feet. Jeronimo enjoys trying new agricultural practices in his plots. Three or four years ago he experimented with planting onions in his higher irrigated plot, with very good results." Valentina sells the onions, and some carrots, in the market. "She usually takes the bus to Cusco," Bianco wrote, "but when they have too many onions and carrots they rent a truck to take them to market." Some of the money they use to buy chemical fertilizer.

"Jeronimo has also tried intercropping potatoes and mashua in the dry land. He says that mashua is the minor tuber with the best yields. He likes to plant different varieties of minor tubers, so he can learn about different yields and characteristics of each type. He explains that the best oca seeds are found in the town of Pisac, while the best ulluco seeds come from Paucartambo to the market in Cusco."

On the other end of the scale of affluence in Picol is 33-year-old Maria. Maria's husband died of stomach pains eight years ago, "and since then she has been taking care of the fields and the children," Bianco wrote. Two older daughters have married and left Picol; three children (11, 10, and 7) walk to school every day in nearby Matinga; the youngest child is still at home. They live in a one-room, straw-thatched adobe house "with a wooden door and no windows." They have two beds. "Under the large bed, the dirt floor is covered with grass for the five guinea pigs which are kept in the house." (In another section of her thesis, Bianco explained that guinea pig was the preferred meat for birthdays and other celebrations.) Along with a radio, a bare lightbulb, a cookstove, a skillet, two pans, and a teapot, are "several sacks" of potatoes, ocas, and ullucos. In an improvised corral out front are one hen, two cows, three sheep, and four pigs.

"Maria owns five plots of secano land on which the family grows potatoes, ocas, ullucos, and barley. Because they do not have much labor, they farm just one plot each season. Sometimes Maria gets help from other community members, especially at sowing time. With some help, the plot can be sowed in one day, but if she does not get help from outside the family, sowing takes three days." Half of her harvest, said Bianco, is often lost in storage. Some of it she trades for corn. On her small irrigated plot, Maria grows barley and fava beans, earning extra beans by threshing for another family. "Maria says that she does not grow fresh vegetables because she does not have money to buy the seeds." The barley she sells to buy clothing and school supplies for the children, and to pay the electric bill. (She sold a sheep to pay for installing the electricity.) When there is "nothing left in their storage place" she buys noodles. Even though they now have electricity, she told Bianco, "she will never be able to save enough money to buy a TV."

Picol's richer families, in Bianco's summary, have six members, farm six secano and more than one irrigated plot, have 44 sheep and five cows, and a house with a tile or metal roof. The poorer families have fewer members (averaging four), farm five secano and one irrigated plot, keep 11 sheep and two cows, and live in houses with straw roofs. Yet no matter their status, Bianco wrote, "no family in the community passes through a season without cultivating some minor tubers. Potatoes and minor Andean tubers are what all families eat during most parts of the year."

Most Incan foods, with the exception of potatoes and maize, remain restricted to the Andean highlands. Even in Peruvian cities, oca, ulluco, and mashua are considered "lower class foods." The early Catholic colonists condemned them as "devil's roots" because they were grown underground (somehow the potato was exempt). The Church forbade the celebrations that linked the crops to indigenous gods. And yet, in communities like Picol, potato, oca, ulluco, and mashua account for 70 percent of the villagers' diet.

How has their cultivation persisted, in the face of pressure to grow wheat, oats, barley, or the new cash crops like onions?

"The villagers really like these tubers," Bianco said, explaining her work at the Research Exhibition. "They don't need to be peeled, they say, so nothing is wasted. Some of them are really sweet—they bake them and use them for dessert.

"But these tubers also serve another function," she added. "The women exchange them for maize from the communities at lower altitudes."

Maize, a staple in the Andean diet, "just doesn't grow at 12,000 feet," explained Sachs. "We'd imagine they couldn't grow anything at 12,000 feet," she smiled, "but they can grow these tubers. And the farmers at lower altitudes can't. So the women from lower villages bring maize to Picol and exchange it for tubers. They especially want the sweet oca."

In his research proposal, Flores had written, "These studies will be gender-oriented, since women farmers play a key role in the maintenance of Andean genetic resources. We will study the practices of the semilleras, the safekeepers of the seeds, and a novel initiative, the Feria de Semillas (Seed Fair), during which varieties are exchanged and knowledge is shared."

He has slides of the Seed Fairs: Andean women in distinctive hats, some flat, some high crowned, their wraps bright in the sunny day. But the women's role? "It's not as clearcut as we thought," Flores said. "What Marleni has found is that there seems to be a role also for the men."

"I put that word in the proposal," said Ramirez, "semilleras. At one point I was really excited, thinking of ways of conveying how important these women were as keepers, as curators. But is it just women? We don't know. The literature says women are the ones who have maintained the diversity. In Ayacucho, at the other village we are studying, there was a paper from the 1980s saying that once the tubers got home they belonged to the women. The men wouldn't have anything more to do with them. That's not the case in Picol.

"What I mean by we don't know," she added later, "is that it does not appear that only women are knowledgeable about seeds in Picol. It is beginning to emerge, however, that the women may have specialized knowledge about their tubers that the men don't. But this needs to be further documented."

There is no Maria Apalin, with her 28 varieties of oca, living in Picol. No semillera to whom others deferred, although a woman Ramirez code-named "Eusebia" has "beautiful ocas." Said Ramirez, "Unlike the others, that had lost water in storage, hers looked like they had been taken out of the ground just then—even though they had been in storage for four months."

Indeed, Ramirez's most recent research results, from a survey she conducted between May and June of 1996, found "that Picol farmers maintain a greater tuber diversity than we originally thought. For example, a farmer with one of the most diverse collections had an assemblage of nine ocas, five mashuas, and three ullucos, for a total of 17 varieties of minor tubers." On the other hand, "a farmer with one of the least diverse collections had two ocas, one mashua, and two ullucos."

As she writes in a memo, "Although we are only beginning to scratch the surface in trying to understand the factors that affect the maintenance of tuber diversity in Picol, it is interesting to note that there appears to be a positive correlation between what could be called "tuber literacy' and high tuber diversity. Thus, the farmers who provided more details about the growing habits or ecological requirements, the production performance, the culinary properties, etc., of their tubers had the greatest diversity. Also, some of these knowledgeable farmers, such as Eusebia, seem to have better quality seeds and to manage their collections more closely."

As Sachs noted, "We expected to find key people in each village with the knowledge of how to keep the seeds. For the crops grown on the communal lands, there is someone who's designated the Keeper of the Seeds. But we found in Picol, that's not the major way these tubers are kept. Each farm would store its seeds in their homes. Usually it was the women who separated the crop into different piles, depending on if the tubers were to be used for eating soon, stored for the long run, or kept as seeds. In each household there was one person—again, usually a woman—who was the main keeper of the seeds. But it wasn't a highly specialized knowledge."

Sachs, Bianco's adviser, was brought into the project as the specialist on women in agriculture. From Zimbabwe to Vietnam, and now for the first time in Latin America, she engages in "participatory" development—introducing new ideas, techniques, or crops in a way consistent with local tradition. Often this means obeying the gender rules and restrictions of the culture. "In other places I've worked," she said, "there's a much clearer gender division. Here, both men and women are very much involved in who plants and who harvests."

As Bianco described it, the women of Picol take care of housekeeping, cooking, and childcare, and drive the sheep and cows to pasture on weekdays (children herd the animals on weekends). Men's chores include clearing the fields and building and repairing the homes. The sexes cooperate on planting and harvesting: the men preparing the land, the women setting the seed; the men digging the crops, the women collecting them.

Yet it's the women, generally, who spread the crop on the soleado, a platform that runs the length of the house, so that the mashua stays in the shade all day, but the oca gets a few hours of sun—sunshine breaks down the tuber's oxalates and turns its starch to glucose, resulting in the prized "sweet potato" taste.

If the harvest is large enough, the women will preserve some of it by an ancient freeze-drying technique: Spreading the potatoes or tubers on dry ground to freeze overnight, then stamping on them when they thaw the next day to squeeze out the moisture. After a few freeze-squeeze cycles, the crop is completely dehydrated an