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BEST PRACTICES:

Cataloguing potatoes and traditional knowledge in Peru

Experience from Peru shows that the seed quality and performance of farmers' varieties can be superior to that of certified propagating material. During farmer field school demonstrations of certified propagating material, farmers' material has often proven equally good as or better than the certified material. This shows that genetic diversity is particularly important for livelihoods in rural areas, and with it the traditional knowledge on its background, growing conditions, uses and traditions. However, the seed laws of Peru prohibit the sales of non-certified seed and propagating material, and the requirements for certification are generally not applicable to indigenous varieties. Thus, in practice it is not allowed to sell such propagating material on a commercial basis. This constitutes a threat to crop diversity in the Andes, a major centre of potato genetic diversity.

Andean indigenous knowledge is also eroding, for various reasons: government laws such as compulsory schooling, which takes the children off the farms; food aid that changes eating habits and thus actually increases malnutrition; aid in the form of agricultural chemicals, and the distribution of improved propagating material.

How can the erosion of traditional knowledge related to crops be halted? Such knowledge is typically oral, with many aspects concerning practices that are hard to record. Farmers often have unique and highly diverse seed mixtures adapted to the specific environmental conditions, creating crop resilience for biotic and abiotic stresses. They can make minor adjustments in their practices for each field, for changing situations, from year to year. All this is difficult to put down in documentation. The best way to protect indigenous knowledge is thus probably to preserve it alive and in practice, strengthening the aspects that make it viable.

The Peruvian Potato Catalogue. Photo of book cover.On the other hand, cataloguing genetic diversity can serve as a means of strengthening the living traditional knowledge. In Huancavelica, Peru, a unique project has been carried out in close collaboration with farmers, to document their potato varieties and related knowledge. The project has resulted in an impressive catalogue co-published by Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP International Potato Centre) and La Federación Departamental de Comunidades Campesinas, under the coordination of Stef de Haan (Centro Internacional de la Papa, 2006). The catalogue takes as its point of departure the communities of participating farmers, and describes the geographical and cultural contexts. It gives due recognition to the participating farming families, presenting them with names, brief interviews and photos. The uniqueness of the catalogue (in addition to its exemplary participatory approach and its beauty in terms of photos and descriptions) lies in the methodology of describing farmers' varieties. As these varieties are highly heterogeneous genetically, it is often a great challenge to fit them into classical taxonomy and reveal their distinctness. The initiators have designed a method in the interface between farmers' own descriptions and modern molecular fingerprinting technology (which is considered a relatively simple technology). This approach grasps both the living knowledge around the varieties and the specifics of their genetics.

The federation of Andean communities of Huancavelica has signed a clause of 'Informed Consent', by which the farmers have agreed to put their varieties in the catalogue, knowing that this then makes the knowledge 'public'. This is a legal clause which the farmers consider extremely important, as it follows the Peruvian law that protects indigenous knowledge (Law No. 27811). Once in the catalogue, a variety cannot be misappropriated by third parties, due to this clause. Cataloguing in this way is a highly promising approach to protecting traditional knowledge from extinction and ensuring its further use.

As such, the method is in itself a major achievement. Probably equally important is the fact that such a process and the catalogue itself empower farmers considerably. They had central responsibilities in the project, and they see that their varieties and their knowledge are being recognized and valued. This is an important contribution to increasing the appreciation of traditional varieties and knowledge among the farmers themselves and in the region.

The success of this project is first and foremost a result of farmer/scientist collaboration, where scientists respected the local knowledge to the extent that they became involved in searching for genuinely new methods to record it. Also, it was important that a legal expert was involved (Manuel Ruiz Muller, Director of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, SPDA), in order to establish the legal clause preventing misappropriation.

Important lessons for others are probably also that participatory cataloguing can contribute to strengthening traditional knowledge, and enabling it to be shared more widely among farmers.

(This text is based on information derived from a contribution by Maria Scurrah de Mayer, President of the Groupo Yanapai in Peru, at the Lusaka Consultation on Farmers' Rights (Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, 2007: 89, 25-26 and 29))



Pages in this sub-section:
   SUCCESS STORIES ON TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE RELATED TO AGRO-BIODIVERSITY
   Cataloguing potatoes and traditional knowledge in Peru
   In situ conservation in Switzerland
   Community registry in the Philippines
   Rediscovering traditional knowledge in Norway
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 In this section:
  BEST PRACTICES
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal