The municipality of Morochata in Bolivia has a predominanthly temperate climate and a mountainous terrain with steep hills. It's at the head of the valley, almost two and a half hours from the city of Cochabamba, travelling by road.
In Morochata, a unique Bolivian place, there is a small community known as San Isidro, Piusilla, where Juan Ruiz López was born 53 years ago. His wife Dionisia Katari is a kind woman from Cochabamba with whom they have three children: Tito, 30 years old, Bismar, 27 years old and Kalef, 17 years old.
Juan is a farmer specializing in potato production. He tells us that life in the fields is very demanding, but at the same time exciting. Among the challenges he faces is climate change, which makes it necessary to face adversity. "In the past, where our school and our community headquarters were located, we used to make chuño and it would freeze. Now it's no longer possible to make chuño, because the bitter potatoes that were planted to make chuño no longer exist; and the rivers and springs are drying up" he says sadly.
Learning in times of pandemic
Perhaps the biggest impact was the arrival of COVID-19. Juan states that "this pandemic has caused the organization to fail a lot in marketing, because before that we worked very well on a weekly basis. We used to deliver potatoes twice a week, but now we deliver only once a day. The volume of sales has gone down".
When Juan talks about the organization, he's referring to the Andean Producers Association (APRA), an institution created in 2004 in the San Isidro community, with the support of PROINPA. This organization has worked tirelessly to increase production and sales. Their specialty is small potatoes, called gourmet potatoes. "Before, we used to deliver 500 kilos of gourmet potatoes and 250 kilos of native potatoes to supermarkets every week. Now weekly with COVID-19 we are delivering 200 kilos of gourmet potatoes and 80 kilos of native potatoes. Business has been greatly reduced, that's why we are worried," he nods, while an air of concern is in his eyes.
The pandemic has meant a halt in multiple actions developed by APRA members, because the tasks have become uphill and the results are increasingly uncertain. However, in this institution, women have also given new impetus to the action, because with the support of the Native Potatoes project of HELVETAS Bolivia, they have received potato seeds to overcome the times of COVID-19. "The women were happy with the seed potatoes. In the case of production there were advantages and disadvantages, because there are families that received good fruits from planting seed, but others have not fared so well, because they have planted in places where it has not rained and the drought has been hard. But we have learned anyway, so now we are going to plant and produce potatoes under irrigation to ensure production," says Juan. This view reflects Juan's leadership, who observes both sides of the coin, recovering the learning especially from that experience that presents problems and imperfections.
Gourmet potato, from the canchón to haute cuisine
The favorite of all potatoes and the specialty at APRA is the gourmet potato, the one that years ago, according to Juan, was not valued, "we used that potato for chuño, it ended up wormy, voted on the ground and finally we gave it to the pigs". But now the story is different because this delicious potato is not only part of haute cuisine dishes, but it is the main character in local fairs, national and international events.
Attending fairs and events such as FEICOBOL and EXPOCRUZ has allowed us to show our product with recipes, presented for tasting, showing the goodness of our potato where it was impossible before," says Juan smiling. "We are proud to know that the native potato is appreciated by important companies such as Zweifel in Switzerland. We want to recover what was being lost from our grandparents and parents, because they planted them to eat in special dishes, at parties, on birthdays. We, the children of today, were no longer taking into account the native potatoes. Now is the time to show the world that we have many varieties of potatoes, more than 1,500 varieties, all of them nutritious and reminding us of our cultural identity".
However, reaching these spaces of visibility has not been easy; it is passion and determination that have given producers like Juan the impetus.
"The work in the field is very different than in the cities, sometimes we do not sleep, especially during the irrigation season, even though now we use technological irrigation with sprinklers, before we used to water the potatoes by gravity, we work men, women, children and the elderly, we hardly rest. We have to get up at three o'clock in the morning and arrive at ten o'clock at night. So, working in the fields is very different. Even so, we don't stop producing to feed the cities," says this unique character who feels a special sense of affection and commitment to the Organization.
Association for joint action
With total conviction, Juan affirms that "the organization's progress depends on its members" and life in APRA has been complex, especially in the face of the vicissitudes that have hit the institution hard, putting its existence at risk.
"Our organization is well consolidated. We have regular meetings, accountability, regular elections according to the Statute, we have implemented social control actions to market our products and we have a market in place to sell our gourmet potatoes and native potatoes," explains Juan.
Supermarkets such as Fidalga in La Paz, Hipermaxi in Santa Cruz, and Ice Norte in Cochabamba, have opened their doors for APRA to incorporate its products, but unfair competition and smuggling from Peru and Argentina have had a negative impact, causing APRA to withdraw from some of these commercial spaces that have been obtained through effort and tenacity.
Dreams that are being built
"We must diversify our products, we must transform our potatoes, such as potato chips, pre-frozen, pre-cooked, we must continue working. We can also open the way with goose and other products", with these words Juan explains the dreams of innovation that mark the course of his actions. For him, partnerships with institutions such as PROINPA, HELVETAS Bolivia through the Papas Nativas project, are an excellent opportunity to act with resilience at a time when the context of the pandemic demands transformation, innovation, motivation and progress.
The Native Potatoes project is implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in Bolivia and aims to generate business models and value propositions from key actors in the value chain in the municipalities of Colomi and Morochata in Cochabamba.
Susana Mejillones, Project Coordinator Papas Nativas, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation - Bolivia
Rigliana Portugal, Knowledge Management and Communication Specialist, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation - Bolivia
Photos: Simon Opladen, Juan Ruiz, HELVETAS Bolivia.
This document was elaborated in the framework of the project Papas Nativas of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation - Bolivia.