As co-instructor for Sterling’s winter intensive course, Mountain Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, I was joined in Peru by Outdoor Education faculty member Josh Bossin and a group of Sterling students. There we visited agricultural organizations, pastoralist landscapes, farming communities, and food markets in one of Nikolai Vavilov’s eight centers of global crop origin and diversity.
One of our earliest such visits was to the Lima-based offices of PRATEC (the Proyecto Andino de Technologias Campesinas/Andean Project of Peasant Technologies). There we met with Grimaldo Rengifo Vasquez, who founded PRATEC in 1987, along with two other friends who shared a common vision. This principally revolved around PRATEC’s grounding in an alternative development model that sought not to impose universal, external blueprints for agricultural and socio-economic modernization, but rather to observe an autochthonous model based on the affirmation of indigenous and peasant farming techniques and knowledge. This work of “cultural affirmation” not only elevates traditional agricultural systems and technologies, but acknowledges the centrality of the Andean cosmovision that lends larger meaning to rural lives and relationships. The spirit of PRATEC’s larger mission and vision—one grounded in a distinctly Andean view of the world—is captured in the Spanish phrase “criar y dejarse criar,” or “to nurture and let oneself be nurtured.”
Grimaldo spoke with great pride of the area’s status as a global agrobiodiversity hotspot, a superlative easily lost through decades of international development preoccupied with the “modernization” of Peru’s agricultural economy. As the center for the domestication of potatoes, some 3,000 – 4,000 varieties can still be found in the Andean highlands, each adapted to local microclimates and soil conditions. While maize was domesticated in Mexico some 8,000 years ago, the Andes became a major center of secondary diversification, boasting as many as 1,500 distinct maize varieties. Peru and the Andean highlands are also a diversity center for chili peppers, with remains of the country’s beloved Aji peppers dating back to 8,500 BCE in the Guitarerro Cave archaeological site. This diversity is also a living diversity, an example of in situ conservation as traditional producers steward the evolutionary processes of adaptation in highland agricultural fields, known in the Quechua language as chacras. While in Peru, students were afforded the opportunity to experience some of this diversity and ingenuity directly. Our activities included regular visits to local vendor and street markets, where the region’s astonishing food and agricultural diversity is on display, as well as a visit to the local Sunday food fair in the highland hub city of Huaraz. Here students and faculty shared a meal of pachamanca (meat and vegetables marinated in spices and cooked in the ground), patasca (a savory soup), and other staples of Andean cuisine. On day-hikes to glacial features in the Huascaran National Park, a protected area that accommodates traditional indigenous uses of the park’s resources, we encountered millennia-old agricultural and pastoral landscapes in the high-elevation grasslands known as the puna. On a day visit to the Quechua community of Vicos, we toured mid-elevation agricultural systems (which by Andean standards, means around 10,000 feet), thus seeing firsthand the vitality of the region’s “vertical livelihood” strategies — a reference to agro-pastoral systems finely tuned to elevation-specific ecological niches.
The cultural and agricultural resources that we were so privileged to glimpse in a pre-COVID context have proven to be a central referent in the rural Andean reckoning with the pandemic. Writing for a COVID-specific online collection curated by the medical anthropology department at the University College of London, Lucia Stavig notes that amid the pandemic, a massive urban-to-rural exodus has occurred, as many seek to return to the food security of their natal rural communities. This motivation is also accompanied by the same persistent Andean cosmovision that has informed the work of PRATEC and others. As Stavid Explains, eating from the chacra and embracing ancestral foodways is understood as a cultural bulwark against COVID-19. As a people with a 500 year history of survival and resistance in the face of colonial atrocity, Stavig writes that “the coronavirus is already being woven into story [in] the Andes. Many people I have spoken to have said that even though they are afraid, they are glad that the whole world has had to stop.” Continuing, she observes: “Several people in the community have explained to me that coronavirus is a result of human’s mistreatment of Mother Earth. They do not see it as a punishment, however, but as a reminder of human’s reciprocal relationship with pachamama (Mother Earth) . . . They argue that what we are living through is a pachakuti, the end of one age and the beginning of another. These moments, they tell me, are always painful, like a birth.” Looking back now on our experience in Peru, I am so grateful we got the chance to visit before COVID-19, but I also find myself in general agreement that the pandemic has forced a societal slow down that allows us to contemplate what kind of future we want, and how we get there from here.