Indigenous communities in Peru embrace traditional ways of knowing striving for sustainable agriculture and ecotourism
Julio Hancco – known as the “Potato King” – looks over his farm high in the Andes of Peru. Hancco grows over 400 varieties of potatoes, helping to preserve the biodiversity of one of the world’s most important crops. PHOTO: MADISON MCCLELLAND
Julio Hancco – known as the “Potato King” – looks over his farm high in the Andes of Peru. Hancco grows over 400 varieties of potatoes, helping to preserve the biodiversity of one of the world’s most important crops. PHOTO: MADISON MCCLELLAND

Julio Hancco Mamani raises a can of beer over dozens of small bags of potatoes carefully arranged on seven red and orange blankets. The display has been laid out on the ground just outside his rustic home high in the Andes, near the town of Pampacorral in the Sacred Valley of Peru. He sprinkles the Cusqueño over the potatoes and prays, an offering to the “apus,” the mountain spirits, as an expression of gratitude for the crops. Through two translators, from his native Quechua to Spanish, and then Spanish to English, Hancco explains his tribute: “The mountains around here, they are living creatures,” he says. “If [you] don’t offer anything to the mountains of life, bad things can happen.” The potatoes he’s brought out come in a multitude of shapes and colors. Two generations ago, Hancco’s grandfather grew 80 different varieties in the same nearby fields. Hancco has expanded that to over 400. His deep knowledge of potato horticulture has earned him the title “Potato King” in Peru. No one understands the biodiversity of potatoes quite like Hancco. 

Today Hancco is sharing his traditional, ancestral knowledge of agriculture with about 20 Canadian university students on a cool, overcast morning, detailing the work he’s done, offering baked samples of his crops, and even steaming bowls of a potato-based stew to his guests. His knowledge of weather, soil conditions, and crop pests and diseases fits neatly under the umbrella of organic farming, but there’s much more to his approach than composting. In fact, all through Peru, Indigenous farmers (campesinos) and entrepreneurs are pushing back against colonial-based practices and relying on traditional ways of knowing to combat climate change, protect the environment, harvest healthier crops in greater abundance, and increasingly thrive financially. These approaches extend to ecotourism in Amazonia, as well as agricultural production throughout the Andes, including coffee and potato production.

One of Peru’s many gifts to the world is the now ubiquitous potato. Scientists have confirmed that potatoes were grown by the people of the Andes over 8,000 years ago and are still a key component of Peruvian life. Spanish conquistadors brought the tuberous vegetable to Europe, though the famous Irish passion didn’t really take hold until the 1780s. In Peru, Hancco is regarded as a guardian of potatoes, his efforts to preserve the biodiversity through his seed saving efforts have been acknowledged with major awards. Some of the hundreds of varieties he grows today he’s collected through the community. Some have come from mutations that instead of discarding, he’s preserved and even named. Developing new varieties allows genetic material to be passed on and create new potatoes that are resistant to certain plagues, pests and even climate change. Julio does not have to write down the names of all the types of potatoes he grows; he’s committed them all to memory.

“We need to spend more time listening to these
communities here, and less time trying to change them.”

—Aaron Ebner 

Rows of organic crops thrive in the fields of Ecohuella, near Calca in Peru’s Sacred Valley, where Indigenous and modern farming practices are combined to maximize benefits for producers. The operation features a seed bank, a cuy (guinea pig) barn, greenhouses, and extensive vegetable plots, serving as an educational resource for campesinos. 

Hancco’s potatoes are featured in high-end restaurants in Cusco and Lima, but his lifestyle remains modest, living with his wife Rosa in a tiny earthen house with a sheet metal roof. At 69, he’s grateful to be able to still work the fields and get around, though he admits he’s slowing down. Others are mindful of the wealth of knowledge he’s accumulated over a lifetime, channeled through his grandparents, parents, people in his community, and his own life experience. It extends well beyond simply avoiding the use of pesticides and chemicals. Aaron Ebner has produced a documentary (with his brother Eric) about Hancco, Opening the Earth: The Potato King.  He’s also the executive director and co-founder of the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD), a nonprofit based in the Sacred Valley, offering support and education to campesinos. Ebner shares an example of Hancco’s expertise. “There’s a certain flower that blooms in the Potato King’s community and when that flower blooms, they know it’s going to be a bad season for a certain type of worm, like a pest,” He explains. It’s not simply folklore, he adds. “There’s a level of humidity in the ground that causes that flower to bloom, which means that it’s also going to be the right environment for this worm to live in, which means it’s going to affect the potato crops.” This is the type of knowledge the rest of the world can benefit from, according to Ebner. “They understand the changes in their environment, and the people are very humble about it. They’re not talking about.” 

Listening to campesino communities is the approach AASD has taken over its 12-year history. The organization collaborates with farmers throughout the region to find sustainable ways to grow everything from potatoes to corn to coffee. It works closely with Escuela Agroecologica Ecohuella, combining Indigenous and modern farming practices to maximize benefits for the producers. As an experimental farm, Ecohuella features a seed bank, a cuy (guinea pig) barn, greenhouses, and extensive vegetable plots. “It is an amazing Indigenous-run organization that benefits Indigenous communities,” Ebner says. As an educational body, Ecoheulla uses a “campesino a campesino” format tapping into “agroecology, bio-intensive farming, permaculture, greenhouse growing, local soil fertility methods, and more,” according to the website. “All methods utilize local, low-cost resources, making innovative ecological cultivation techniques accessible to local farmers.” 

Any revenue generated through the coffee sold gets reinvested back into the project  — that’s the social enterprise model.”

— Adam Stieglitz

Ecohuella was founded by siblings Julio, Yesi, Richard and Yanet Nina Cusiyupanqui. It offers hands-on trainings for local farmers “that respect the Quechua language, local learning styles, and traditions.” Julio says they’re also trying to change the attitudes of people — including the campesinos themselves — towards farming as a livelihood. Through an interpreter, he pointedly asks, “Why should campesinos be poor? If we want more people in the fields, we need to show them that agriculture is a profitable business,” he argues. His mission has been to help farmers make a better living often by utilizing traditional approaches, supporting themselves, their families, and their communities. “Kids see their parents exhausted from farming all day and it discourages them from wanting to farm.” Adam Stieglitz, director of operations and co-founder of AASD, says both his organization and Ecohuella are trying to change perceptions of the Indigenous farmer. “There’s racism around here. They are ‘poor’ or ‘uneducated’ or ‘just farmers.’ There’s a lot of [negative] dialogue toward the campesino communities,” Stieglitz says.

Ancestral knowledge challenges both the stereotypes and conventional agricultural practice. Julio draws on Indigenous ways of knowing in pointing out that diseases and pests don’t always have to be a bad thing, they can indicate what the plant needs. His sister, Yesi, stresses the fundamental importance of soil health, explaining that’s what makes for healthy crops, boosting their resistance to the problems conventionally targeted by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. As with the Potato King, their seed saving program provides an insurance policy against agricultural calamities, especially in the face of climate change, as some species will be more adaptive and resistant. All this work is based on what Yesi calls “cultural labour,” preserving a range of plant species, as well as cultural practices.


In the last few years AASD has turned its attention to organic coffee production high in the Andes. The organization took the expertise developed in other projects in the region and began to work with coffee farmers. “They had a big problem,” Ebner says. “They’re losing 70 to 80 per cent of their crop to pests and plagues. And Julio [Cusiyupanqui] happened to be a freaking expert in dealing with this stuff. So it made natural sense for us to do that at the end of the day.” AASD has formed a farmers co-operative of coffee growers, adapting a direct-trade model that ensures producers get paid first and receive a good price for their crops.  “Any revenue generated through the coffee sold gets reinvested back into the project; that’s the social enterprise model,” Stieglitz says. It’s also a model consistent with the ancestral ways of knowing re-emerging after the worst aspects of European colonialism.

The home of the Maranura Coffee Co-operative near Quillabamba is a sprawling complex with ornate, carved double doors, arched windows, stone staircases and even the remnants of an old bell tower. Peru’s oldest coffee co-operative, founded in 1959, is housed in an old hacienda, the former residence of rich Spanish landlords, a symbol of the oppressive system of land ownership campesinos fought against for decades.  European landlords were given large areas of land, taken from the local Indigenous peoples, and essentially operated a feudal system of agriculture. Indigenous communities demanded reform throughout the 20th century, and by the 1960s Peruvian leaders began to enact legislation to turn the land over to the people, expelling the hacienda owners. The hacendados were compensated by the government, and many fled to Europe. The Maranura co-op uses the old hacienda for much of its operations, including roasting and packaging its coffee. Over 200 producers belong to the co-op. Petronella Alberto, the chief engineer with the co-op, suggests the communal nature of the co-op fits well within the culture of the local communities. “The co-op was founded by producers who wanted a better [return] for their coffee,” she says through an interpreter. “When they work together they can better reach national markets and international markets.” Maranura exports its organic, fair trade coffee to Japan, the United States and Germany, Alberto says.

Petronella Alberto (second from left), the chief engineer with the Maranura coffee co-operative, offers an overview of her organization’s history. Maranura represents over 200 organic coffee farmers and is Peru’s oldest coffee co-operative.

Organic coffee production is consistent with the ancestral values of many campesino growers. Just up the road from the Maranura operation, Natalia Moscoso and Jesús Quispe run a family farm known as Stone Table. They are dedicated organic farmers, building on all they learned from their parents and grandparents. A small flock of turkeys run free feeding on the pests that target the coffee plants. Compost provides additional nutrition, instead of chemical fertilizers; they won’t use fire on their land, and they won’t do anything that contributes to deforestation. They pay close attention to the levels of shade among the trees, ensuring a proper balance against too much sun, which in the face of climate change can cause overheating and split the coffee cherry. That means they spend a lot of time on ladders pruning. Moscoso credits their ancestors for much of their approach. “[From them] we learned how to love the farm, how to work the farm, and how to appreciate living in these surroundings,” she says. While they are practicing Catholics, like most Peruvians, she says they pay tribute every August to Pachamama, Mother Earth, a goddess revered by the Indigenous people of the Andes, a deity responsible for fertility and crops.

But Muscoso adds they’ve also learned important techniques from the coffee co-ops and companies they’ve worked with over the years. For example, she explains they used to plant their tree vertically, in rows going up the hillside. Now they arrange their crops horizontally, which she says is much better for preventing soil erosion. Nonetheless, these newer approaches fit well within the organic model, and Muscoso says she’s proud of the techniques they’ve learned and bring to farming. 

Julio Hancco’s potatoes come in all shapes, colours and sizes. His efforts to find and develop new varieties allows genetic material to be passed on and create new potatoes that are resistant to certain plagues, pests and even climate change. 

Moving east from the Andes into the jungle lowlands of Amazonia, the focus of economic activity is less on sustainable agriculture and more on sustainable tourism. Ecotourism has emerged in Peru and around the word in response to the increase in waste, energy consumption, and high-density crowding as the human population has increased. The model is based on “pillars” of minimizing environmental impact, respecting the host culture, maximizing the benefit to the local community, and maximizing tourist satisfaction. In Manu National Park, east of the Sacred Valley, there’s an ongoing tension between economic activity and preserving the natural beauty and culture of local Indigenous communities. Much of the transportation through the park is by riverboat, but there is considerable debate over proposed roads. Improved access would make it easier to get education and health services, but would also bring more people, more tourists, and more development into the region.


The tension is evident between resource development and ecotourism. At least one oil company has set its sights on extraction at a future date, while restricted, legal logging is permitted in the park, a source of income for local communities. For example, members of the Boca Manu Craftsmen Association collect trees that naturally fall into rivers during storms or from bank erosion, and then make cedar boats in compliance with the conservation efforts of Manu National Park and the Peruvian government. But illegal logging is prevalent in one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. Gordy Llaqui worries about opening the jungle up to more economic activity, sanctioned or not. He’s a guide with ecotourism company Bonanza Tours. Llaqui and the family behind Bonanza, the Huamanis, are Indigenous, Quechua-speakers whose family have lived in the jungle for generations. Llaqui says people don’t understand the importance of the jungle. “This is virgin jungle, huge jungle,” he says. “Many people do not know why it’s important to keep [it] green. What gives us all of this is nature. People think day by day, only in the moment.”

“This is virgin jungle, huge jungle. Many people do not know why it’s important to keep it green…”

—Gordy Llaqui

Bonanza and other tour companies operating in Manu do all they can to minimize their impact on the surroundings, and work with the local Indigenous peoples to preserve the flora and fauna, as well as the culture. According to the Manu National Park Service, 30 per cent of Manu National Park tourists seek ecotourism services from native Matsigenka communities, Tayakome and Yomibato. The two communities manage accommodations and river transportation and sell crafts to support their livelihoods. The Indigenous women there earn about 40 per cent of their annual income from selling traditional clothing and jewelry. To date, this cautious approach has paid off in the ongoing health of the park.  

Parrots enjoy a clay lick along the banks of the Madre de Dios river in Manu National Park. A cautious approach to conservation has allowed wildlife to thrive and supports eco-tourism in the park. PHOTO: MADISON MCCLELLAND

Llaqui appreciates that people want the “roads, technology, and teachers” associated with development, but need to know it comes with a cost to their way of life, and the environment. “We see many species of animals…even endangered ones.” Resource development, he suggests, could “drive them away. We would miss them all. Maybe they will go away for good.” 

For the time being, ecotourism companies and Indigenous communities in jungle have the opportunity to thrive, at least while their traditional approach to the environment prevails. In the Andes, where the coffee and potato growers rely on the knowledge of their ancestors to produce a range of healthy, distinctive crops, their resilience in the face of climate change is readily apparent. As the AASD’s Aaron Ebner observes, “I think we need to spend more time listening to these communities here, and less time trying to change them.”