Indigenous mountain communities spotlight: René Guzmán


An interview with René Guzmán, Agricultural Research, Production and Extension Center (CIPEA)

1. What is CIPEA and what does your work consist of?

CIPEA is a small NGO based in Puno, Peru, that works with local farmers to strengthen traditional Andean production systems, including local crops such as quinoa, native potatoes and cañihua, and the raising of cuy (guinea pigs). The work areas of CIPEA focus on agricultural innovation, technology transfer, recovery of traditional knowledge and promotion of practices relating to Sumak Kawsay, or "good living", prioritizing subsistence agriculture and access to local markets.

2. Why are mountains important for the local communities and indigenous peoples in the Andes?

Andean cultures are based on reciprocity, not only between human beings but also with nature. In the Quechua and Aymara cultures, farmers consider not only humans, but also the rivers and mountains, as their neighbors. Therefore, they attempt to protect their environment from exploitation and unsustainable development processes, which in most cases have negative consequences for the Pachamama, or mother earth.

3. How do altitude and environment influence the traditional agricultural systems of the Quechua and Aymara communities of the department of Puno?

At 3 800 metres above sea level, the climate of the Peruvian Altiplano presents serious difficulties for family farming, due to the presence of frosts, hailstorms, droughts and other climatological phenomena. In the Altiplano there are two marked seasons: one is rainy and relatively warmer, the other is dry and cold, and marked by extreme frosts.

Indigenous peoples and local communities in the Andes have adapted to the climate of the Altiplano through agricultural techniques that protect against the harshness of the climate. For example, the Waru Warus (also known as ridges) allow a higher density of crops, and protect from frost. These frosts, which are considered a hazard for crops, are also used by farmers to produce chuño and tunta, traditional food items obtained by by freezing the potato and then dehydrating it for conservation.

4. What are the main challenges facing indigenous peoples and peasant communities in the department of Puno?

There are environmental obstacles, such as drought and frost, as well as social obstacles, for example the lack of available labour force in the fields due to the migration of young people to the large cities of the region. In the department of Puno there are high levels of anemia, despite the presence of crops such as quinoa, which contains iron but is produced mainly for export. The prevalence of export-oriented cultivation is connected with the issue of genetic erosion, when farmers stop producing a wide range of varieties of a crop to concentrate on just one.

5. What kind of solutions does CIPEA propose to overcome these obstacles?

By bringing together ancestral knowledge and innovative technologies, CIPEA seeks sustainable solutions that are in accordance with the goals and value systems of indigenous peoples and peasant communities. CIPEA maintains a seed bank to counter the loss of agrobiodiversity, renewing and improving it with the participation of local farmers. CIPEA also seeks to respond to water scarcity, though a water access program based on traditional Andean beliefs.

6. What is the relationship between traditional knowledge and the modern context in which it is applied?

Today, local products such as quinoa are destined for international markets, but small producers are not always able to obtain a fair price. Environmental factors such as climate change and the impoverishment of soils have given new importance to the ancestral techniques of organic cultivation. Traditional food production techniques allow indigenous peoples to respond to these challenges, and knowledge of today’s economic context allows these practices to survive and thrive.

Photo by Lizet Aguilar

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