From Inter Press Service News Agency

Potato Capital of the World Offers Up New Recipe

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Jan 18 (IPS) - Peru gave the world the potato, and the potato now offers indigenous people around the world a new recipe for securing their rights. A new agreement between six indigenous communities and the International Potato Centre in Cusco, Peru, heart of the old Inca civilisation in the Andes mountains of Latin America, recognises the right of these communities over the unique potato strains that they have developed and grown.

”No, this does not mean that these communities will now procure patents over these varieties of potato,” Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES), a Cusco-based civil society group led by indigenous peoples, told IPS.

”These indigenous people are against patents,” Argumedo explained. ”They represent a model of property that does not fit into their worldview. Indigenous people are used to exchanging and sharing information in open ways. But this means a legal agreement that no one else can claim intellectual property rights over their knowledge.”

The implications can be far-reaching, Argumedo said. Whether it is varieties of corn in Mexico or basmati rice in India, the agreement over these potatoes ”is a first legal sign of the restoration of rights that indigenous people once had.”

Peru would of course use potatoes to break new ground; it is the official centre of the world of potatoes. ”Potatoes are important for us as food but also as a cultural symbol,” Argumedo said. ”We have co-evolved with potatoes. Peru gave the potato to the world, they are so important in marriage and religious ceremonies. They mean so much in Andean culture and iconography that goes back thousands of years.”

The Andes region in and around Peru has more than 2,000 varieties of potato, among more than 4,000 varieties around the world. A potato park in Cusco produces about 700 varieties of potato.

ANDES helped broker the agreement with the International Potato Centre, one of 15 consultative groups for international agricultural research centres responsible for the world's largest agro-biodiversity gene bank collections. The eminent reputation of the centre gives strong international weight to the agreement. Although it does not involve a government, it is legal under Peruvian law. The new agreement ”means that Andean communities can unlock the potato gene bank and repatriate biological diversity to farming communities and the natural environment for local and global benefit,” ANDES said in a statement Tuesday.

Though excluded and often oppressed, indigenous peoples are the traditional custodians of biodiversity, and this agreement recognises that ”the conservation, sustainable use and development of maximum agro-biodiversity is of vital importance in order to improve the nutrition, health and other needs of the growing global population,” ANDES says.

Several policy analysts and civil society campaigners are preparing to push for similar initiatives at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Bangkok next month, and at a World Intellectual Property Organisation meeting to be held in Geneva in June.

The new agreement, called the ”agreement on the repatriation, restoration and monitoring of agro-biodivisity of native potatoes and associated community knowledge systems”, will challenge the trend of ”privatising genetic resources and indigenous knowledge which has seen seed gene banks swallowed up by unaccountable research bodies and corporations, threatening local livelihoods and cultural ways of life,” ANDES said in its statement.

ANDES campaigned for the agreement with considerable support from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the government of the Netherlands.

”Civil society groups, particularly those led by indigenous peoples, should not be dictated to, but they do need greater support from the rich countries,” Dr Michel Pimbert, director of the sustainable agriculture and rural livelihoods programme at IIED, said in a statement.

”Groundbreaking agreements, like this example in Peru, require negotiation with all parties on an equal footing,” he said, ”which means boosting the capacity of local indigenous communities to argue their case for access to the genetic resources they helped develop in the first place.”

* International Potato Centre