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Fighting hunger with native crops

The following article by the Inter-Press Service (IPS) was published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6821, 24 November 2009 and is reproduced here with permission.

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Peru: Fighting hunger with native crops

Paucara, Peru, 21 Nov (IPS/Milagros Salazar) -- As if he were showing off a treasure, Dionicio Sarmiento holds up his seed potatoes with a smile. "Look how nice they are, all ready to plant. It'll be a good harvest," said the peasant farmer from Huancavelica, Peru's poorest province, where most of the population depends on subsistence farming.

Good seeds can make the difference between going hungry or putting food on the table for your family.

Sarmiento lives in the village of Tinquerccasa, more than 3,500 metres above sea level, where the houses are made of adobe, farmers use simple tools, and food production barely covers the families' needs. Piped water is available here only one hour a day, and there is no sewer system.

Tinquerccasa is in the district of Paucara, where more than 90 percent of the population is poor. In Huancavelica as a whole, where indigenous people make up the majority of the population, nearly 86 percent of people live in poverty, and approximately 45 percent of children in native communities are malnourished.

Despite these grim statistics, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has found fertile ground in the village for fighting hunger and promoting food security through a project aimed at strengthening community organisations, reviving consumption of traditional foods, and connecting farm production with markets, to boost the incomes of local farmers.

While FAO has forged alliances with local, provincial and central government authorities, as well as universities, perhaps the project's most important capital is the traditional knowledge of the local indigenous people and their dreams of getting ahead.

FAO reports that global food insecurity has worsened, and that it remains a serious threat to humanity, due to high food prices in developing countries. The UN agency estimates that the number of hungry people worldwide will increase by 100 million this year, to more than one billion.

BRINGING DREAMS TO LIFE

The project in Huancavelica is attacking the problem of hunger from different angles.

"Planning is very important for local development and to guarantee that local families have food," Hernan Mormontoy, coordinator of the FAO project, told IPS. "And large investments are not needed, just a great deal of ingenuity, energy and commitment."

When Mormontoy, an agricultural engineer from Cuzco with more than 25 years experience in rural areas and excellent people skills, visits the participating communities, he walks from one end to the other, talking to people all along the way.

He says planning is the key, and asks local families to literally illustrate their dreams by drawing on a piece of construction paper, which is called their "future land management plan."

In the drawing, the families graphically lay out their hopes for improvements to their homes and farms, and business possibilities.

"Over here is my organic garden, and a little shed for my guinea pigs," Sarmiento showed IPS. "Right here, I'm going to put a shed for my cows; on this other side will go the pig sty; and in the front, we want to put a restaurant and a hostel for tourists."

His son Bush, who is just five years old, attentively listens to his father's explanation, while his mother, Dionicia, looks on with a smile, holding their six-month-old daughter Zoraida.

"In this project, the whole family gets involved," says Mormontoy.

"I help water the organic garden, where lettuce and beets are already growing," says Dionicia in Quechua, her native tongue. "I also help select the seeds, and prepare the clay for the adobe bricks used to make houses. I help out in several ways."

The project has dozens of outreach workers like Sarmiento, who are in charge of getting other local families involved.

Through the project, more than 50 rustic-looking but effective seed storage units have been built, which have helped guarantee good harvests. The families participating in the project have also cut their food expenses 30 percent, while increasing their incomes 40 percent, FAO reports.

As part of the plan, large plots have been planted with traditional crops like native potato varieties, the Andean root vegetable olluco (Ullucus tuberosus), and tarwi or Andean lupin (Lupinus mutabilis), whose seeds are used in different recipes.

The Lima-based Centre for the Study and Promotion of Development (DESCO) provides the farmers with technical advice, as part of its aim to bolster production and consumption of high-protein traditional foods.

Other nutritional native foods are quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, also known as Inca wheat), oca (Oxalis tuberosa), a root vegetable, and amaranth (Amaranthus), a traditional grain.

But promoting consumption of tarwi and amaranth is a challenge for FAO, because local communities are not familiar with their nutritional qualities or do not know how to prepare and cook them anymore.

"We made tarwi once and it tasted like poison, it was so bitter," 59-year-old peasant farmer Pablo Vargas told IPS.

He has grown the crop but basically just to sell, because he is unfamiliar with the technique for preparing the seeds, which are bitter due to a high alkaloid content. Preparation involves soaking the seeds in water for several days.

To boost consumption of these traditional products, food fairs have been held, where cooks - mainly women - showcase their creative recipes.

There is also an alliance with the National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA) to help diversify crops in the native villages. IPS visited Tinquerccasa when INIA was providing the community leaders with more than 662 varieties of oca, olluco and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), another root vegetable.

The INIA experts plan to observe in situ the productivity of these different varieties and their resistance to different conditions, in order to replicate the experience in other areas.

WITHOUT WATER, LIFE IS NOT POSSIBLE

Food security and improved living conditions among these communities are also related to access to water for farming and consumption. Julian Soto, a dedicated farmer and father of five, and his family are building a water storage tank.

Like in other Andean communities, water is becoming more and more scarce in the area, because climate change has reduced the sources of water as a result of the melting of the glaciers and changes in rainfall patterns.

Mormontoy said this aspect has been taken into account in the project.

Soto is a symbol of rural development despite the adversities he has faced: not only has he managed to increase his farm production, but with the support of his children, he has refurbished and enlarged the family home and founded a small dairy product company run by his wife, Maxima Silvestre.

"I have travelled up north, to Cajamarca, to learn how to make cheese and yoghurt. I'm going to make them myself, and sell them at lower prices to the people in my community," said Silvestre, who did not stop weaving for one second while talking to IPS.

In such a poverty-stricken area, many local residents are in need of support, and the FAO project cannot cover everyone's needs.

Felix Unocc, from the community of Padre Rumi, asked Mormontoy to go with him to one of his plots of land to see if it was possible to build a water storage pond there.

After a walk along a rocky path, the farmer, the agricultural engineer and IPS reached the hill where Unocc's field lies.

Mormontoy looked at the stream and the land, and told the farmer: "We could dig a pond here to collect the water that runs down the hill, to irrigate your crops and those of other families, because the water belongs to everyone."

Unocc nodded and said of course he understood that the water was for the entire community.

"We only want a little orientation and help," he said softly, his response reflecting the urgent need for these remote indigenous communities to receive help from the state to guarantee their survival in the fight against hunger. +

 


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