In Highland Peru, a Culture Confronts Blight Nothing is more important than the potato in the highland villages of Peru. But Peru's potato culture faces its biggest threat yet: Global warming has opened the door to the disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

In Highland Peru, a Culture Confronts Blight

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Our series Climate Connections returns to Peru today to a remote part of the Andes. Farmers there are noticing climate-related problems in their potato fields, perhaps the worst they've ever seen. Anything that hurts the potato crop is especially devastating because Peruvians think of the potato as much more than just a food.

That's what NPR's Joanne Silberner found out as she explored what indigenous farmers in the Andes are doing to cope with rising temperatures.

JOANNE SILBERNER: At an altitude of 13,000 feet in the Andes Mountains in Peru, the air is brisk, thin and pure. Vicente Hermogenes Baca Huaman is hoeing a potato field by hand. His ancestors have hoed this land just this way for thousands of years. But things are changing.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language).

SILBERNER: Baca Huaman says potatoes aren't growing as well as they used to. His sloping field nestles just below green mountain peaks. It's part of a potato park, a preserve, six neighboring villages that have banded together to try and hold on to the old ways, come what may.

Alejandro Argumedo is a plant scientist and social activist. He helped set up the potato park. Argumedo says climate change threatens not just farmers like Baca Huaman, but the whole native culture.

BLOCK: Potato is not just food, you know. Potato is also spirituality; it's culture. There's songs, there's dances, there's ceremonies. And so this is a potato land. This is a culture of potato.

SILBERNER: Potatoes originated in Peru. They fed the Inca Empire. There is a potato god. Other foods grow here - corn and quinoa, for example. But potatoes have special cultural symbolism. They are as important as rice is in China.

BLOCK: These are like living beings, and people treat them like that. They are members of the family for farmers.

SILBERNER: Local farmer Baca Huaman is working on an experimental plot. He's a wiry man with a fierce, lined face and a hooked nose. He's resplendent in a traditional fringed cape, stripes and triangles woven in brilliant colors. He's growing dozens of different kinds of potatoes to find the ones that can tolerate the change in weather. A mountain peak spiked with fir trees rises right behind his field. His face softens as he turns to look at it.

BLOCK: (Through Translator) When I was a boy, I used to go with my father to the mountain, and it will be covered in the snow. We will see snow all over these fields. But there is never snow here anymore.

SILBERNER: In the past 40 years, Peru has lost nearly a quarter of the glaciers in the Andes to rising temperatures. No one has quantified the precise climate change in this little village, but Baca Huaman knows. The weather used to be so regular that he knew just when to plant each variety of potato.

BLOCK: (Speaking foreign language).

SILBERNER: Now, he says, nothing is predictable anymore. It's warmer, yet there are early freezes, and the rains don't come when they should.

This new weather has already encouraged a plant disease that didn't use to be a problem, an infection called late blight. It was late blight that caused the Irish potato famine. Some of Baca Huaman's fields were hit recently, so he's had to move some of his potatoes up the mountain, nearly 900 feet higher, where it's colder.

BLOCK: (Through Translator) We're moving our crops higher up the mountain. They're healthier, and we get a better yield at the higher altitude.

SILBERNER: It's not really convenient - an hour and twenty minutes' climb up from his home. He gets there only two or three times a month. Throughout history, these farmers have nurtured thousands of potatoes because El Niño has always brought changes in the weather, say Alejandro Argumedo of the Andes Association.

BLOCK: They had to adopt their crops to those conditions, and they look for how to, you know, create the conditions in - in every little niche. So the diversity of crops they created is a response to the chaos of the system.

SILBERNER: But climate change is likely to be more chaotic. It's already brought back late blight, and no one is sure where it's heading. Another challenge: Some diversity has been lost as political upheaval and land development have pushed farmers out of the mountains. There's one place that's set on bringing back diversity, making more species available that may be able to withstand the new weather conditions climate change is bringing.

D: First of all, I'd like to welcome to the biggest potato gene bank of the world.

SILBERNER: The gene bank at the International Potato Center is far from the Andes Mountains, on the coast, in Lima. Carlos Arbizu is a plant geneticist at the institute. He can offer farmers any kind of potato they need.

D: (Speaking foreign language).

SILBERNER: There's a potato here that's given as a gift when a parent selects a godfather for a child. Another is eaten when a young boy has his first haircut.

Arbizu holds up a potato that looks like a bunch of fat, purple grapes glued tightly together. A wife-to-be has to pass a test.

D: The lady, the young lady, has to show it to her future parents-in- law that she will be a wife dedicated to her family, peeling successfully these potatoes.

SILBERNER: It must be difficult to peel.

D: It is. It is very difficult to peel it.

SILBERNER: Some of the institute's potatoes haven't been grown widely for years. Up in the Andean village of Paru Paru, farmers are testing some of them now. Two young boys blow into huge seashells carried up from the Pacific Ocean. It's a traditional summons. About a dozen farmers have gathered to discuss climate change. The crisp air carries a warm smell. The meeting starts with lunch - potato soup.

D: Do you want to eat? It's (speaking foreign language). It's Andean food with potatoes, with vegetables.

SILBERNER: Two women are cooking in an open stone room fronting a little courtyard within the village school. One of the cooks says she's got 250 varieties of potatoes to choose from. The Andean farmers turned down new varieties the government offered because the plants would need fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. But they're interested in the institute's varieties, the ones that have been boiled, fried, mashed and poached for centuries.

This is really delicious soup. Very good.

There will more gatherings like this like one as the farmers learn more about the new weather and what grows well where. With the culture in the balance, they're hoping something will work. Meanwhile, each meeting will likely start with soup - potato soup. Because, as they say here, soup without potatoes is like life without love.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Andean Peru is a colorful world, and the highland potatoes are just as vivid. You can see pictures of the village of Paru Paru at

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