Promoting local conservation

Soil erosion

by Miges Baumann.

Anibal and Orelina Correo live in the village of Boliche in Simiatug, Ecuador. They tell their story of their use of new potato varieties developed at the National Institute for Agricultural Research…

New methods

‘The agronomists came and encouraged us to set up a co-operative. They brought us new varieties of potatoes and artificial fertiliser and started field tests. At first the new seed potatoes gave a much higher yield with different fertilisers. We believed these were much better than what we used before. But by the next year the yield began to fall. In the third year we had problems with worms. The agronomists brought in fungicides and pesticides to deal with the pests, but the chemicals got more expensive every year. We also had to increase the pesticide dose all the time. The potatoes began to taste bitter because we were spraying so much.’

Artificial fertiliser is very expensive. ‘Six years ago we could buy a sack of artificial fertiliser for a sack of potatoes. Today the same sack of fertiliser costs six sacks of potatoes,’ explains another farmer. Pesticides and new seed potatoes are expensive as well.

Discouraged, Anibal and Orfelina Correo went back to their traditional method of cultivation which had maintained stability for centuries. This meant returning to organic manure, skilful rotation of crops and to the traditional potato varieties. They were lucky to find them as the traditional varieties are often lost when new varieties replace them.

Old methods

Belisario also grows potatoes. But in his field near Atupulo on a 3,700 metre high plateau, he does not plant any of the new varieties recommended by agronomists and the government. He does not need any of the artificial fertilisers or pesticides recommended by the government. Neither does he carry out the recommended mono-cropping of one variety. Instead, he plants his potatoes the way his ancestors did, using more than ten different types of potatoes. He knows each part of his land and each of the different characteristics of the potato varieties he plants. One is more resistant to fungus, another withstands a certain beetle, one copes better with drought while yet another tastes particularly good. In this way Belisario can deal safely with climate and pest problems.

Asked why he plants the old varieties, he answers…

‘They taste better and cook much more quickly. Our traditional varieties also bring a better price on the local market because people know and like these varieties. In the towns though, people are only familiar with the new varieties.’

The disappearing potatoes

Nowadays the farmers who use these techniques are few. The original range of varieties has virtually disappeared. Even in the agricultural research stations in the Andes, researchers (who bred the new varieties) are shocked by the speed at which varieties are disappearing. Indian organisations in many places are becoming aware that the original varieties of potatoes are part of their traditional agriculture and cultural heritage which should be protected.

The Swissaid Coordination Office in Ecuador is now trying to encourage this approach. Sustainable agriculture and conserving genetic diversity are important principles of their development policy. In the face of massive propaganda from the chemical industry they create awareness of alternative approaches and encourage farmers’ groups to have confidence in their traditional experiences so they can make realistic choices.

Miges Baumann works with Swissaid, Jubilaumstr 60, CH-3000 Bern 6, Switzerland raising awareness of local conservation for sustainable development. This article was adapted from the book Growing Diversity, edited by D Cooper, R Vellvé and H Hobbelink and published by Intermediate Technology. (See review on 'Resources page')

EDITOR:The situation in Ecuador is being repeated worldwide as traditional varieties and sustainable agricultural practices are replaced with new commercial varieties (which often require fertiliser and pesticides to yield well) and mono culture. Sorghum, maize, rice, beans and many other crops could be used as similar examples. New varieties may often be of great benefit, but the total replacement of traditional varieties carries considerable risks for farmers in the long term.