Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1 potato, 2 potato, 3 potato, 4...

Having decided on a quiet day close to home (which, miraculously, was devoid of any fireworks, chainsaws or marching bands, an almost constant, daily presence in the courtyard outside of our home), Jeff and I wandered over to the nearby Inka Museum. We had already seen the museum about Hiram Bingham's "scientific discovery" (quotes used abundantly and mercifully throughout the display) of Machu Picchu, and the Seattle Art Musuem's "Kingdom's of the Sun and the Moon" exhibit with its heavy emphasis on the Catholicization of Perú, so I was more than ready to hear about Incan civilization as it existed before Columbusing.

One of the rooms that stuck with me the most was a small, dim room in a corner of the frigid upper floor. It was an exhibit about the horrific massacres of the Pizarro regime. While unable to read many of the signs describing the scenes painted before me — "steal", "torture," and "enslave" not yet in my "Top 1000 Spanish Words to Learn for Travel" flashcard set — I was able to piece together what I was seeing with what I knew, and which the Center for Justice and Accountability lays out well here:
"Modern day Peru was once the seat of the Quechuan civilization, whose empire in the high Andes covered a terrain the size of the eastern United States. A brutal civil war and the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1532 led to the collapse and subjugation of the Inca dynasty. Violence and the introduction of the smallpox virus decimated the native population, which declined in the ratio 58:1 during the years 1520-1571. [2] By the 20th century, many of the indigenous people of the Andes,  who had once produced the marvels of the Incan empire, were reduced to what some describe as “Fourth World” poverty. [3]" 
(The Center for Justice and Accountability, "Peru, The Struggle for Accountability: Civil War Atrocities," n.d.)
(Andrien, K. 2001. Andean Worlds Indigenous History, Culture, and
Consciousness Under Spanish Rule, 1532-1825
. pp. 1-2)
Theodor de Bry's illustrations for A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Enslavement of Indigenous populations continued into the 20th century.
(Castillo, B. 2004. Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Peruvian Amazon,
Their Struggle for Survival and Freedom
. pp. 53)
And with the destruction of the empire came the dissolution of their culture, religion, and cities. Temples were torn down and replaced with Catholic churches; cultural objects were banned; religious statues smashed and beheaded, their pieces shipped triumphantly back to Spain; paintings, commissioned by surviving descendants of Incan royalty to celebrate their heritage, were ordered seized and burned. In place of their history, they were given rosaries.

The other display that stayed with me was a colorful celebration of a staple crop that had originated in the Andes and been cultivated and honored for 3,000-8,000 years: The potato.

Potatoes: Kind of a Big Deal
More than 2,800 varieties of potato originated in the high Andes, coaxed from the earth, tested and preserved, in every form possible, by women. These Guardians of the Potato have been selecting seeds, experimenting with soils, trading knowledge between communities and passing that knowledge on to their daughters for 1,000's of years. The seeds are selected and stored for a variety of traits: "organoleptic properties that confer taste, color, palatability and texture; resistance to pests and diseases; adaptation to soil and agro-climatic conditions and so on," used not just for nutrition, but for healing; conferring not just antioxidants, but intergenerational and intercommunity bonding and trust, women's high status, historical knowledge, cultural pride. One Quechuan woman proudly stated that her community does "not have many illnesses because there are different types of potato for every sickness." And what may prove more important in the coming years, the vast diversity of the high Andean communities' potatoes has meant that they have never suffered a major agricultural disaster like the late 19th century Irish Potato Famine.

This vast history of planting, testing, sharing, and perfecting, was partnered with one of the most sophisticated farming systems in the world, the Incan terraces, whose remnants you can see snaking across the mountainsides everywhere you look in the Peruvian Andes.
"The stone retaining walls heat up during the day and slowly release that heat to the soil as temperatures plunge at night, keeping sensitive plant roots warm during the sometimes frosty nights and expanding the growing season. And the terraces are extremely efficient at conserving scarce water from rain or irrigation canals, says Kendall. 'We’ve excavated terraces, for example, six months after they’ve been irrigated, and they’re still damp inside. So if you have drought, they’re the best possible mechanism.' If the soil weren’t mixed with gravel, points out Kendall, 'when it rained the water would log inside, and the soil would expand and it would push out the wall.'" 
(Cynthia Graber, "Farming Like the Incas," September 6, 2011)
As climate change creates rapid and unpredictable changes in the weather patterns in the mountains, these ancient techniques are being strengthened and revived. Cusichaca Andina is reviving ancient crops that can be stored for several years and are resistant to drought, harsh rain, frost, and hail. This small development organization is also unearthing and rebuilding abandoned agricultural terraces, long disregarded and purposefully forgotten by Spanish conquerers. Parque de la Papa in Pisaq, Cusco, is an organization run by 6 different Quechua communities. They have cultivated over 1,100 different potato varieties using ancient techniques, incorporating traditional Andean cosmovision of reciprocity and respect for Mother Earth, the knowledge of elders and institutions, and familial practices of planting and harvesting. Indigenous women have begun sending their seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway to protect themselves against climate change and the possible encroachment of GMO's.

When members of the Association of Communities of Potato Park heard that Peru was pushing the use of GMO's in Peruvian markets, they travelled to Peru to protest, eventually securing a temporary moratorium on the use of GMOs, citing the need for further long-term studies. It was a hard-fought battle, and one that could not have succeeded any sooner:
"As elsewhere, there are strong links between the GM lobby and the economic and political elites in Peru. Indeed, Alan Garcia, who was president twice (1985-1990 and 2006-2011), was renowned for his hostility towards environmental causes, because he considered them an obstacle to economic development. In May 2011 the newspaper, El Comercio, discovered that the main pro-GM lobbyists in his last government – including advisers to the Minister of the Economy and even the then Minister of Agriculture, Rafael Quevedo, himself – had economic interests in either the seed industry or the poultry sector, both of which were pressing for GM crops to be legalised, arguing that GM crops would reduce production costs and make maize less vulnerable to disease. Not surprisingly, the Garcia government had repeatedly postponed the vote on a moratorium and had ceded more political space to the pro-GM lobby." 
(Sue Branford, "Peru: a 10-year ban on GMOs," June 13, 2013) 
And of course, the U.S. government had its own say in the matter:
"...the US ambassador to Peru, Rose M. Likins, sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Molton von Hesse, in which she also claimed that the moratorium would have a “negative impact on Peruvian consumers and producers”. She said that the moratorium infringed the Free Trade Agreement between Peru and the USA and then, in a somewhat convoluted argument, she warned that the area under maize cultivation would decline by 60,000 hectares, threatening the country’s food security. This, she said, was because seed importers would reduce their imports of maize for fear of being fined if the imported maize proved to have been accidentally contaminated by GM maize. So far, there was been no indication that this somewhat alarmist prediction has been vindicated." 

Part of what these Indigenous farmers were fighting for was protecting their crops against biodiversity loss and vulnerability to disease brought on by genetic uniformity. But what they were also fighting against was a long, blood-soaked history — one all too present in today's Peruvian society — of blatant disregard for their knowledge, the shunning of techniques developed over centuries, and another lop-sided power dynamic that sees their cultural traditions denigrated as an outsider forcefully claims their own practices right and superior. Indigenous women, especially, risk losing roles and prestige handed down through generations, hard-won prestige and protections in a highly machismo society. The arguments for and against GMO's hardly ever hold the voices of those who will be impacted the most; the conversation, on either side, is all too often monopolized by a fraction of the world's population, seen from a very narrow set of paternalistic eyes. And in 2016, when Incumbent President Ollanta Humala must step down due to constitutional restrictions on his term, the general elections may once again see the tides turn against the will and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

A Call to Certain Academics, José María Arguedas,
Translated from the Quechua by William Rowe  
They say that we do not know anything
That we are backwardness
That our head needs changing
for a better one
They say that some learned men are saying this about us
These academics who reproduce themselves
In our own lives
What is there on the banks of these rivers, Doctor?
Take out your binoculars
And your spectacles
Look if you can.
Five hundred flowers
From five hundred different types of potato
Grow on the terraces
Above abysses
That your eyes don't reach
Those five hundred flowers
Are my brain
My flesh

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