The Guardian of the Native Potatoes
A Conversation with Fausta Callupe Álvarez
I was recently delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Señora Fausta Callupe Álvarez, a 70 year old potato producer from Peru.
Señora Fausta, who is from Bellavista, in the district of Paucartambo, within the region of Pasco, Peru has worked her whole life cultivating potatoes and is now known as the Guardian of the Native Potato. Her title is not an exaggeration. She and her family cultivate nearly 400 types of potatoes.
Señora Fausta, who is from Bellavista, in the district of Paucartambo, within the region of Pasco, Peru has worked her whole life cultivating potatoes and is now known as the Guardian of the Native Potato. Her title is not an exaggeration. She and her family cultivate nearly 400 types of potatoes. Señora Fausta, who is from Bellavista, in the district of Paucartambo, within the region of Pasco, Peru has worked her whole life cultivating potatoes and is now known as the Guardian of the Native Potato. Her title is not an exaggeration. She and her family cultivate nearly 400 types of potatoes.
We recently were able to connect with Fausta on a Zoom call, and it was an honor to learn more about her and meet her family too. Although we spoke with her and her daughter Ana Micaela in Spanish, their native language is Quechua, of which Fausta taught us a few words.
A Typical Day in the High Plains of Peru
“We wake up at 5 every day and have breakfast by 6 and then we work and we don’t stop for lunch until 2 pm. We work outside all day until about 4 or 5 pm,” Señora Fausta told us of a typical work day
Potatoes grow well in the high plains of Peru. The region where Señora Fausta lives is quite high, 3700 meters (12,140 feet) above sea level. It’s never too cold or too hot. In the winter, the temperature is around 9-12 degrees celsius (48-53 F) and in the summer it reaches around 15-20 degrees celsius (59-68 F).
While rich in varieties of potatoes, Fausta has always lived in a situation of extreme poverty. She has an extensive knowledge of potato cultivation but she never learned to read or write.
“I have worked my whole life with potatoes. I started working with my father when I was 9 or 10 years old, and now I am 70. I have 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren and we all work together. My daughters work with me and support me, because I am not as strong anymore. My grandchildren work with me too. They are so courageous.”
Helping to facilitate our conversation with Señora Fausta was her daughter Ana Micaela and friend, Carlos Espinal. Ana Micaela gave us a bit of detailed information about planting and harvesting potatoes.
Potato Farming is Hard Work
“We spend our time working on the farm. We choose the seed potatoes, the ones with the most little eyes are the ones we choose. After choosing the seeds, we carry them in big bags and sometimes we use animals to carry them to the farm, sometimes it is close where we plant them, and sometimes farther away. We plant the seed potatoes by making holes and then we place one seed in each hole. We plant in September and harvest potatoes in May. It takes a lot of dedication to the potatoes.”
Carlos also told us about some of the social programs in their region. Pension 65, a state-run social program for elderly people who live in extreme poverty. Often elderly people in poverty are abandoned by society, and this program seeks to include them. One of the objectives is to offer support for entrepreneurship. In addition to Fausta for example, there is a woman who makes essential eucalyptus oil.
Ancestral Activities & Product Exchanges
“This is an ancestral activity where we exchange products without the use of any kind of currency,” Carlos explained. “For example, they may exchange potatoes for corn. More than 100 elderly people come from 29 districts to participate in the exchange. First they do a virtual exchange. Then they meet in a central location.”
“I used to go from town to town selling my potatoes, and nobody knew me. Now, thanks to the Pension 65 program, I have some support, and more people know me.”
The ancestral exchange activities take place every other month. There will be one this year in March and then again in May. May is when they will harvest, so that’s when it is possible to see all 350-400 varieties of potatoes.
“These events are a beautiful way to get to know our elderly people and hear their stories,” says Carlos.
Fausta’s lifelong hard work farming potatoes has recently rewarded her with more than just the sale of potatoes. Fausta won a prize for cultivating and conserving the most varieties of native potatoes, which earned her the title of Guardian of the Native Potato and 5,000 soles, which is equal to around $1300. The farming that Fausta does is more than just impressive, it is critical to conservation. Fausta and other farmers like her are actually working to conserve and promote biodiversity.
Ana Micaela shared with us what she would like the world to know about their work. “We would like them to listen to understand that the work we do caring for native potatoes is not easy. We would like them to continue and to be preserved.”
And we asked Fausta about her favorite potatoes. “My favorites are called papa galleta and papa yuca. This is a variety of potato native to Peru that is different from the yuca root.”
Even though I have tried very few varieties of potatoes, I can confidently say that I want to live in a world where as many potatoes as possible exist. I hope to one day taste a papa galleta or another variety grown by Fausta and her family.