Farmers Without Borders

Climate change is now a fact of life, and one all humans must increasingly confront on a daily basis. Yet climate change is particularly hard for traditional small farmers who live in the most affected zones and lack high-tech tools to insulate themselves against the changing climate. But today, small food producers are calling on ancestral knowledge to find ways to adapt, as well as some transnational networking to share that information. One of those efforts, an exchange between Ethiopian and Peruvian small farmers, could become a model for the future.

A song wound through a small agricultural village. “Hemes, hemes,” one woman called, “He cares for us.” “Hashou Hemes,” “Yes, he does,” the chorus answered. Beyond a bamboo fence and down a steep path, six women in cotton shifts gathered to sing and work. Their clothing was dotted with white stains from a large, banana-like plant, and as they sang, they chopped, scraped, wrung, and splashed, giving the work its own rhythm. The plant they were preparing is called outsa in the Indigenous Gamo language, enset in Amharic, and “false banana” in English.

These women live in the village of Doko in the Gamo Highlands of southern Ethiopia. Doko lies at an elevation of 10,000 feet, on a bluff above the Rift Valley. The highlands are home to more than 50 communities that speak an Omotic language also known as Gamo. And these interconnected communities, as well as nearly 13.5 million rural inhabitants in Ethiopia, depend on the enset plant for their survival.

“Enset is incomparable with any other crop,” said Halimbe Soazo, the eldest woman of the group and head of this household. “It’s used for everything: fences, curtains, seat cushions, bags, string, rope, animal feed. We can’t think of our lives outside of enset.”

Enset is a staple. It’s prepared in many forms and in many contexts—from a nutritious gelatin mothers eat after childbirth to the ground, boiled root served to funeral mourners. And the plant is naturally drought resistant, with one fully mature plant able to support five people for two to three months. No academic record exists to document such matters, though the villagers in the Gamo Highlands say this area has never experienced famine, and they believe enset is why.

But this ancient survival strategy is no longer a sure bet. During the past 10 years, community members and local agronomists have reported a drastic fall in enset production; crops have declined, and plants are growing weaker, thinner, and more susceptible to disease. The cause is a familiar refrain worldwide: climate change. And like traditional communities around the world, the Gamo are being forced to adapt—a fate that will eventually hit even the most developed spots on the globe.

In the case of the Gamo Highlands, rising temperatures and disrupted rain cycles are already disrupting growth and causing seedlings to stunt, wilt, and or simply drown. Farmers are scrambling to address the unprecedented rain patterns, experimenting with new planting times and other variables, but disruption of enset crops still has serious repercussions here. Which is why, next door to the women’s work party, a contingent of Doko’s elders has gathered to discuss the village’s enset problems.

“When I was a youth, enset was very dense in everybody’s yard,” said Shagre Shano Shale, an elderly head of the compound. He was dressed in the region’s white gabi robe, as were most of the men. Shagre was animated about the enset of his childhood: “It was big, fat! Nowadays I can’t even see a fraction of the rich enset from those times.”

Eager to find a solution, Shagre Shano had recently returned from a journey of thousands of miles, which took him from the Doko compound to Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Twenty-seven-year-old Julian Quispe has lived in the Quechua community of Paru Paru his entire life. He has a house made of adobe and wood, the walls packed tight, snug, and smooth—and painted in shades of ochre, rose, and pale blue, mixed from plant dyes. Each day, Quispe and his wife, Serufina, rise around five-thirty, breakfast on a porridge of ground fava beans and milk, and head to their fields, where they grow the favas, the corn, and the region’s staple: potatoes. The latter, which will be the base for lunch and dinner, are known here as the daily bread of the Andes, and Julian and Serufina are two of many villagers working to preserve native potato varieties in this area.

“The entire system is changing,” said Julian Quispe. It was a damp spring morning, and he sat on a low stool by the indoor hearth, peeling potatoes and keeping an eye on a pan of corn. His six-year-old daughter, Yoli Irma, knelt next to him playing jacks with a handful of eucalyptus pods. “We’re planting a full month later than before, and the potatoes are moving to higher altitudes,” he said. “The amount of rain isn’t the same, nor is the amount of sun. Everything about the growing cycle is different. For the sake of our daily lives, we had to find a way to respond to it.” These are the same problems that increasingly confront villages like Shagre’s in Ethiopia and around the globe. But Paru Paru is one of six local communities that have developed a strategy that aims to adapt to climate change, while protecting not just the potato, but the entire area, its people, and their way of life. The communities have declared all their land—in a sense, their lives—a park: the Potato Park. The land has been officially registered and granted park status by the Peruvian government, which means it’s protected from mining, logging, and other private business interests.

In addition to daily work and family duties, Julian and Serufina lodge visitors and tourists in their home and participate in the park’s efforts to preserve native potatoes. In late September, which is spring in the southern hemisphere and the start of the planting season, Shagre and four Ethiopian academics arrived at the Potato Park to discuss how to deal with climate change. The Ethiopian delegation was hoping to use the park model to develop a similar space for enset in the Gamo Highlands, in Shagre’s village of Doko.

On a clear, windy morning they assembled in park headquarters, a bright adobe and glass structure in the village of Sacaca. And after spending the morning discussing climate change experiences in each community, the group sat around a large table for morning snack. The Ethiopians were dressed in zippered jackets and hats with wide brims, and the Quechua Potato Park residents in ponchos and knit hats embellished with embroidery and beadwork.

The snack was the core of what these farmers had discussed all morning. And it was a feast: sliced boiled potatoes in a thick sauce of farm cheese and garlic; new potatoes baked and covered in the Andean herb huacataya; brown bread made with local wheat; bananas and mandarins traded from a lower, warmer part of the valley, and more potatoes. The spread was prepared by a group of local women who run a small restaurant in the park. Shagre sat quietly, a light brown fedora on his head and his wiry grey beard trimmed short and neat. He regarded the food and the farmers around him for several minutes, and began to speak with the help of his friend and interpreter, Feleke Woldeyes Gamo, a botanist who specializes in enset.

“The most impressive thing for me so far is the way they respect traditions and culture here, in every way,” Shagre said. “In my culture, in the past we had the same relationship, but it’s diminished recently.” Shagre said a community-run restaurant could be incorporated into the Enset Park they envision in Gamo Highlands. And Feleke added that resource-generating tourism projects are an important incentive for locals to invest in adaptation to climate change. “Creating a park and finding ways to adapt to climate change is just one aspect of this project,” he said. “We must find a variety of ways to make this project appealing and profitable to the people in Shagre’s area, and this [restaurant] is ideal, because enset enters into all kinds of food. Even just wrapping bread in the enset leaves during cooking adds a wonderful herbal flavor.” Both Feleke and Shagre took second helpings of the young potatoes with huacataya. “I must say, this is a truly impressive snack,” Feleke said. He smiled at his potatoes.

According to the women who run the Potato Park restaurant, Papamanka or “potato pot” in Quechua, local tradition hasn’t always been appreciated. “We’d fallen into the habit of selling all our native products and eating mostly rice and pasta in our own homes,” said Rufina Cruz, who helped prepare the meal. “Now we’re proud to eat this food again, and we’re recovering old ways of preparing it.” Cruz is one of the original members of Papamanka, which started in 2004 with a competition to see who could cook the best mirinday, a local dish of guinea pig, tortilla, meat, cheese, snails, fava beans, peas, and the slender, slightly sweet cousin of the potato, papalisa. It’s a dish for parties and special occasions like the spring planting, a hearty concoction fit for the groups of people who help sow each other’s fields. Like Indigenous communities throughout the Andes and the world, these Quechua communities value reciprocity, or ayni.

Still, the Potato Park is more than just pure ayni. Here, Indigenous tradition has been combined with the Western world of NGOs and small business. Since the park’s beginnings in 1998, the Cusco-based nonprofit Andes Association has worked with the communities on the construction and realization of the park, which grew out of an inventory of native potato varieties in Chawaytire, one of the other six park communities. That original registry, funded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, eventually became part of collaboration with Peru’s world-renowned International Center for the Potato, or CIP for its Spanish acronym.

“In our conversations with people about the potato registry, we realized that it could be much bigger,” says Cesar Argumedo, director of the Andes Association. “We say that the entire area could be a reserve, that we could use the concept of a protected area to protect more than just land, but agriculture, Indigenous culture, and an entire way of life. We realized this isn’t just about potatoes, but the entire world that exists around the potato.” The park’s founders had decided that the potato could become a symbol of nourishment, resilience, and cultural sovereignty. “The struggle to preserve the potato,” said Argumedo, “is connected to the struggle of communities all over the globe to protect their agricultural biodiversity and continue feeding themselves, in spite of climate change.”

The project has come at a critical time. Due to rising temperatures in the region, cold-loving potatoes are growing at elevations up to 600 feet higher than normal, in some cases so high that growing zones approach mountain summits, threatening to eventually disappear altogether. Intense hail, frost, and drought are more common. And rain even falls in unprecedented patterns, sometimes flooding away topsoil and leaving unusually moist conditions. That moisture favors the notorious Phytophthora infestans blight, which has been increasing in both incidence and intensity.

Steeped in traditional knowledge, the villagers knew that the greater the diversity of varieties, the more likely that one or more would survive the new climate. As Argumedo says, Potato Park isn’t about teaching people how to adapt to climate change. “These communities already have the knowledge to do so, and have been adapting for centuries,” he points out. “This is about supporting them in that process.” It’s just the sort of process Shagre and the cadre of Ethiopian academics hope to emulate—not just to respond to climate change, but to preserve their land and culture. “The Potato Park concept is to use one crop—in this case, the potato—as a flagship,” said Tesema Tanto, a quiet, intensely polite Ethiopian plant geneticist who was part of the delegation. “In preserving the flagship, you preserve the rest of the environment as well.”

Francesca Bayona was one of the local authorities who received the group at the park’s potato warehouse, a humble adobe building in Paru Paru. Bayona is one of the papa arariwas, or “guardians of the potato,” a community member respected for her potato knowledge. As Bayona opened the doors of the warehouse, she explained that it now holds more than 410 varieties of native potato—from peruana, known for its ruddy skin and substantial, golden flesh, to the knobby qachun waqachi, which prospective daughter-in-laws must successfully peel before marrying into a family.

Shagre and Feleke wandered through the warehouse, along with Dr. Zerihun Woldu, an Ethiopian professor of plant ecology who led many of the discussions. Inside, the air was cool and smelled of wood smoke, the thin, high-altitude light only slightly illuminating the shadowy interior. The space was lined with rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves full of paper bags of potatoes in stacks. Other potatoes sat in loose piles, some labeled with handwritten tags. It was a decidedly informal arrangement, compared to what the stock at CIP in Lima must look like, yet it’s also the careful product of more than 20 years of work. “This is involved, but simple; it’s extremely feasible,” said Woldu as he surveyed the space. “It’s exciting to see this warehouse in the community itself, being managed in such a way that local people are not only participating, but actually administering the space.”

The group moved to a nearby greenhouse, recently constructed for potato seedlings. Working in collaboration with CIP scientists, park residents have begun to selectively breed indigenous potatoes for resistance to climate change, isolating plants with the ability to continue adapting to the higher elevations and to withstand unprecedented drought, heavy frost, and the too-abundant rain that nurtures blight. The residents are using these samples to create more resilient varieties.

Below the greenhouse, the Sacred Valley stretched to the horizon. The Ethiopian delegation often remarked that the rolling hills and patchwork of green fields looked startlingly like the mountains of their own Gamo Highlands. And, as they spent time talking and interacting with the Quechua park residents, they increasingly believed that the Potato Park model could succeed back home. “An important thing is that this is being done with the participation of farmers themselves; it is not something upside down, but starts from the grassroots level,” said Feleke about the Potato Park. “This is a good approach we can make use of.”

The following morning, park farmers and representatives from the Andes Association brought the Ethiopian delegation to the town of Lares, to see a key part of the system of agriculture in the Andes: a trueque market. In trueque, products from different altitudes are exchanged using a system of barter, and Lares is one of the oldest trading posts.

The market started early, while the mountains were just inky silhouettes against the sunrise. Vendors met to drink cups of hot chocolate from a lower part of the valley and roasted corn from the higher altitudes, and then the market quickly got underway: potatoes and favas swapped for papayas, oranges, and avocados; mustard- and burgundy-colored ears of corn traded for plastic sacks of untoasted coffee and raw cacao. Many of the participants have limited access to hard currency, and this exchange is their main economy.

The visitors circulated around the market with a sack of potatoes; Shagre was especially intent on collecting some Andean corn, so unlike the varieties he’s accustomed to in Ethiopia. Before the market, Shagre and the rest of the delegation had been having breakfast in a small restaurant. They were set to return to Ethiopia in a few days time, and were beginning to contemplate just how they would begin to build an enset park. While many spoke of funding and planning, Shagre was concerned about how to introduce the idea itself. “My main worry in constructing a park for the enset is youth. The elders are always concerned about our traditions, but the youngsters, they want to forget it, they want to flee away,” said Shagre. “But we have to find a way to involve them, or we won’t be able to preserve the enset.”

The next day, 29-year-old Ricardo Paccu Chipa pointed out that the Potato Park changed a similar trend in the Sacred Valley. “We youth have been a challenge here too,” said Paccu between meetings, playing with the ribbons of his ch’ullo hat while he thought. Below a vibrantly colored poncho, he wore plain trousers and running shoes. “I started working with the park project when I was 23,” he said. “Back then, tradition didn’t mean much to me; if anything, I was a bit ashamed of it. Now, I’m directly involved in recovering and appreciating our customs and values. I travel abroad in traditional dress, and I feel truly proud of where I’m from. Surely this is something that will translate into the experience of the Ethiopian communities,” said Paccu. “And I hope we can continue to support them and exchange experiences as they continue with their park.”

Shagre echoed Paccu, clearly intent on bringing all the information gleaned by the delegation back to his community. “When I go back, I will first confer with the elders; through them [the news] can go through society, and hopefully that will make the youth feel concerned about their tradition and culture,” says Shagre. His thirty-two grandchildren are among dozens of youth in Doko.

On his first day back at home, Shagre kept his word. Sitting in the courtyard in Doko, he described his trip to an eager audience. The other leaders in attendance—including Meresho Megaro, a village hudouga, or senior community leader, and Endala Tilbe, an ade, or spiritual leader—flanked Shagre as he spoke. They deferred to Shagre, who was visibly tired, still recovering from the long trip, and they were excited by his initial reports. “We have no more than two varieties of enset [in our fields] in Doko,” said Ade Endala Tilbe, noting that about a dozen regional varieties have fallen out of use. “But Shagre saw about 300 varieties of potatoes in Peru. If we make an inventory and see who has what type, we [could] re-establish the inventory of enset types that existed on the land.”

For now, the idea of emulating Potato Park is a dream. But down a nearby dirt road, at the regional government’s agronomy center in Chencha, scientists have now preserved nine traditional types of enset from the area. And nine hours away in the capital Addis Ababa, the scientists who traveled with Shagre are busy working on the logistical and financial parts of the enset park proposal. Like any other ambitious plan, this one must deal with a host of external variables; but its success will depend on community members like the people assembled here in Doko.

Next door to the discussion, the women continued their work party. On the ground sat a pan of grey sediment derived from enset; it’s the makings of itema, whose many uses include the gelatin served to new mothers. A top layer of water had been removed to make laundry detergent. Leftover fibrous material would be mixed with the root to make ountcha, the base for bread, fried dumplings, and many other dishes. The coarse stems would be used in building materials and other products. Later, some of the women would fill a biodegradable enset-chord backpack with manure and straw fertilizer, which they carried to the fields. Their male counterparts, singing their own work songs, then ploughed this mixture into the earth to plant hatso, enset seedlings.

“Climate change has gotten worse in my community,” said Shagre. “But if we work harder, it won’t be that difficult to regain [enset varieties] and preserve their seeds, their type,” he said. “I am ready to practice what I saw in Peru.”

Peru Photos by Luis Pilares. Ethiopia Photos by Nicolas Villaume.

Laird Townsend, who was based in Ethiopia for this story, is a Massachusetts-based freelance journalist specializing in Indigenous issues and climate change. A former editor at Orion magazine, he now directs the media nonprofit Project Word, a project of the Tides Center.

Annie Murphy, who traveled to Peru for this story, is a freelance journalist based in South America. She regularly contributes to National Public Radio, and her writing has been published in The Nation and The Virginia Quarterly Review.

Support for this piece was provided by The Christensen Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation focusing on biocultural resilience and Indigenous issues. The foundation was also one of the sponsors the intercultural gathering described in this story.

For a related photo essay on enset preservation, see

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