It was mid summer and the rain was unremitting as I landed on the small island – I sought sanctuary in a small café – they were serving fish and chips. A common occurrence at times when we have been on holiday in Britain at times and the weather has become inclement. But this wasn’t in Britain it was in the small island of Chiloé half way down the coast of Chile a green landscape partially covered with temperate rainforest and dotted with its characteristic unpainted wooden shingle houses. Although domesticated potatoes originate from the Andes the potato from Chiloe have played an important role in increasing biodiversity of the global potato crop. How come? When potatoes were first introduced into Europe from the Andes they were adapted to produce tubers under short day conditions rather than our long summers. It took a long time to select out potatoes that tuberised from those original potatoes that were brought to Europe and by the time suitable material had been selected the gene pool had been much reduced. So potatoes grown in Europe were highly vulnerable to attack from the late blight fungus that struck in the 1840’s contributing to famine in Ireland. Potatoes from Chiloé had an important attribute for breeders later in the 19th century; unlike their relatives from the Andes the potatoes from Chiloé were adapted to tuberise under long summer day conditions. The biodiversity of potatoes in Chiloé and the associated cultural traditions have been eroded over the years. – It was heartening to learn at Slow Food’s Terra Madre event in Turin about the activities of the Centro de Educacion y Technologia in Chiloé in relation to community participation in conservation of potato biodiversity. Potato production is the most important farming activity in Chiloé along side vegetable and cereal production. There are reputably 3,000 varieties in the islands against about 100 varieties grown in Europe. Women in Chiloé have played an active role in saving their traditional potato varieties. They created a seed bank and conserve local varieties and the traditional knowledge associated with them. Collaboration is developing between farmers and universities to conserve ecologies. There are concerns about the threats of Genetically Modified Organisms in Chiloé and farmers have signed a petition to fight against them. The different varieties grown are used for a variety of dishes. Efforts are underway to allow farming communities to have a fair income. Without the participation of the community it would be difficult to protect these varieties that have had an impact on potato varieties all over the world.
Typical house found in Chiloe and the Chilean Lake District