As multinational biotech and agricultural corporations have sought to appropriate the seeds and genes that have been managed as commons for generations, Peru has become a prime target of enclosures.
To prevent such appropriations of shared wealth, the indigenous peoples of the Cusco Valley joined with the nonprofit group ANDES1 in the 1990s to develop an ingenious legal innovation, the Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Area (IBCHA), a sui generis legal regime to preserve and promote native potato varieties and protect the fragile ecosystem. The agreement affirms the role of Quechua societies in the region in managing their indigenous “biocultural heritage” practices. Under the IBCHA, they have authority to conserve traditional culture, knowledge and livelihoods in over 12,000 hectares considered essential to the agrobiodiversity of the Pisaq region.
The Potato Park is an ethnobotanical landscape in Peru managed by six Quechua indigenous communities under a sui generis legal regime, the Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Area (IBCHA).
The Park was launched in the year 2000 to preserve and promote the enormous biodiversity of native potatoes in Peru -- more than 900 varieties -- and to protect the fragile ecosystem by recognizing the role of indigenous "biocultural heritage" practices.
"When a Gourmet reporter asked a waiter to cut into one of the potatoes to see the color inside, she declined, explaining that cutting a potato without eating it is an insult to pachamama. Such reverence, which may appear irrational to the modern mind, is a key reason why the Quechua have been able to maintain the integrity of their biocultural traditions and fragile ecosystem." --David Bollier, 2015
# Legal Status & Location
# Which Core Dimensions of Commoning are enacted?
Although the Potato Park does not have state recognition within either Peruvian national law of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the the Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Area agreement is legally compatible with existing systems of national and international law. Certain aspects of the Potato Park are enforceable in conventional ways, such as its scientific study agreement wiith the International Potato Center (CIP) and the Potato Park database.
# How do they work?
Potatoes are a central element of Quechua culture. They play a role at baptisms, wedding, funerals and many other occasions. It is not uncommon for a single farmer's field to produce hundreds of different varieties, many of them quite rare.
As Alejandro Argumedo and Bernard Yun Loong Wong write in their profiles of the Potato Park (2010; 2008):
The six Quechua communities see themselves as living in reciprocal relationship with the land, each other and the spirit world. The approach has been called ayllu – a political and socioeconomic system in which “individuals with the same interests and objectives [are] linked through shared norms and principles with respect to humans, animals, rocks, spirits, mountains, lakes, rivers, pastures, food crops, wildlife, etc.” In the Potato Park, people strive for a balance between the ayllu of the Runas (humans and their domesticated crops and animals), the Sallaka (wild plants and creatures) and the Auki Ayllu (sacred beings, including mountain protector spirits).
In this cosmovision, the Earth is seen as giving potatoes, other crops, animals and the living landscape to the people – gifts that must be reciprocated through the giving of pagos, or offerings, in return. The spiritual engagement with pachamama, or Mother Earth, is not incidental, but a key factor in the Quechua’s deep respect for the earth’s limits, generativity and agrobiodiversity. “The main objective of the ayllu,” Argumedo and Loong Wong explain, “is attainment of well-being, which in Quechua societies is defined as Sumak kawsay.” The term refers to living a harmonious and healthy relationship with pachamama.
The point of agriculture in Quechua societies is not to raise maximum crop yields for market sale and profit. It is to faithfully implement the principles associated with the ayllu, which lies at the core of the Quechua’s stable, regenerative agroecological practices that have evolved within the Andean landscape – a region that has a variety of different “vertical” microclimates at different altitudes, often at short distances from each other. (Argumedo & Loong Wong 2010).
# When did it start?
The indigenous practices of stewarding the agro-ecological landscape through traditional practices reaches back millennia.
While potatoes may not be sold to outside markets, the IBCHA system does authorize communities to selectively share their "living library" of potential genetic knowledge with scientists and others, and to prevent patenting of such knowledge.
The Potato Park hosts socially and ecologically sensitive forms of development such as agroecotourism, “nutraceuticals,” (dietary and nutritional products) and pharmaceuticals. The Potato Park has a processing center for natural medicines and soaps, a network of local pharmacies and a video communications center. It has a formal registry of the Park’s biological diversity and uses “geographical indicators” (legal rights for place-based products) and trademarks to protect its stewardship authority over local genetic diversity (Argumedo and Pimbert 2005:11).
Women play a key role in many of the economic activities of the Association of Communities of the Potato Park (the formal name of the project). There is, for example, the Sipaswarmi Medicinal Plants Women’s Collective, which sells natural medicine and soaps, and the Tijillay T’ika Women’s Audio-Visual Collective, a women’s co-operative that makes videos in the native language about local resources.
The Potato Park enacts most of the Dimensions of Commoning. In a familiar pattern among indigenous peoples, the Quechua seek to Cultivate Shared Purpose & Values through a variety of cultural practices involving the planting, care, and harvesting of potatoes. This process naturally serves to Strengthen the Nested-I and Honor Care. The potatoes may not be sold as a commodity, which ensures that they and the landscape are treated with respect. The Quechuas' agroecological practices serve to Deepen Interdependency on Nature, and show evidence of Trust Situated Knowing & Being Creatively Adaptive.
Argumedo, Alejandro. 2008. “The Potato Park, Peru: Conserving Agrobiodiversity in an Andean Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Area,” in Amend, T., Brown, J., Kothari A., Phillips, A., Stolton, S. editors. Protected Landscapes and Agrobiodiversity Values. Vol. 1 in the series, “Protected Landscapes and Seascapes.” IUCN & GTZ. Heidelberg, Germany: Kaspareg Verlag.
Argumedo, Alejandro and Bernard Yun Loong Wong. 2010. “The Ayllu System of the Potato Park, Cusco, Peru.” Satoyama Initiative, United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, March 5, 2010, available at http://satoyama-initiative.org/en/the-ayllu-system-of-the-potato-park.
Argumedo, Alejandro and M. Pimbert. 2008. Protecting Indigenous Knowledge Against Biopiracy in the Andes. London. IIED.
David Bollier, "The Potato Park of Peru," in David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning (Off the Commons Books, 2015) html .
Guardians of Diversity: International climate exchange in the Potato Park, Peru [video], at html