Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973

Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.

Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.

The wonder of potato diversity

I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.

Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.

Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.

In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.

In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.


In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.

Richard Sawyer

The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.

While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.

Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri

As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.

I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.


With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.

To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.


After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.

At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village

This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.

We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.

We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.


In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.

What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.

Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.

Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.

One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán

Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.

The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973

This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973


We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.

A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín

The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.

We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.

Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.


On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.

As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.

Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night


Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.


Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.


What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.


In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.


 

One thought on “Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

  1. shaunnmunn says:

    Thank you for the great commentary and photos of Peru! Am fascinated by potatoes being found naturally in Colorado, USA. That I learned it from a non-American shows how much I’m in ignorance about my own country. Do appreciate this enlightenment!

    All those beautiful varieties of spuds – so glad to know such efforts are being made to protect them for future generations. An invaluable service you and your colleagues provide; you’ll probably never receive a modicum of the thanks this world owes you, so I must at least offer my own gratitude. You save lives. You save species. I am humbled.

    Like

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