Promoting Cultural and Biological Diversity: An Educational Program for Rural Communities in Peru

Project Contributor: Jorge Ishizawa with Grimaldo Rengifo

Credit: Jorge Ishizawa

Teaching the children in the Upper Amazon region of Peru Credit: Jorge Ishizawa

The Peruvian Andes are recognized as a major site of biological diversity in the world. The Andes have 82 of the planet’s 103 life zones, that is, 80% of the ecoclimatic zones existing on the planet (Valladolid, 1998). These range from the coastal desert area to the arid western slopes, to the inter-Andean valleys, to the mountains. As well, the central Andes are one of the eight centres of origin of agriculture, the domestication of plants in this region dating back at least 8,000 years (National Research Council, 1989). The region also exhibits the highest inter- and intra-specific agrobiodiversity in the world. This diversity is found in the peasants’ chacras or cultivated fields, and is due to the care, protection, affection and respect with which peasants nurture their plants. Among traditional societies in the region, an attitude of respect is central to life and is essential for nurturing diversity, both biological and cultural. Respect is expressed in relations between Andean communities and their deities, between human beings and natural entities, and between humans. Andean peasant culture and agriculture are inextricably linked. One cannot be understood without understanding the other.

At present, the major characteristic of Andean rural life is the peasant community and small farmer production. According to the 1994 agricultural census, 84% of the 1,764,666 agricultural units were peasant farms of less than 10ha. No other economic sector in Peru incorporates as large a population – over 7 million people. However, peasant communities own only 10% of the total agricultural land. As of 1998, peasant communities numbered almost seven thousand and were located in diverse ecosystems of the coastal area, the highlands and the Amazon region. Andean Amazonian peasant agriculture is based on local practices and inputs, and still produces a major part of the fresh food that reaches urban markets. Over time, however, there has been a general loss of respect among people in the region, and this has come to constitute a threat to biodiversity conservation.

In 1969, General Velasco’s government decreed an agrarian reform, one of the most radical changes in the rural property regime of the Peruvian Andes. This reform had the explicit aim of promoting industrial development through rural modernization. Throughout the Andes, large haciendas were transformed into cooperatives and associative firms, owned by the former hacienda workers or by communities. Eventually these firms went bankrupt and the lands were distributed to individuals or communities. The results of four decades of “development programmes” were already evident by the end of the 1980s. Peru had not only become more dependent on import substitution as a result of the industrialization process, but the agricultural indices for production and productivity had also decreased. The country had joined the roster of net food importing countries in the world. Development had not fulfilled its promise, and development had been predicated on the eradication of the native cultures as the price to be paid for progress.

The “Andean Project for Peasant Technologies” (Proyecto Andino para las Tecnologías Campesinas, PRATEC) is a Peruvian NGO founded in 1988 and devoted to the recovery and valorisation of traditional agricultural practices and associated knowledge. PRATEC participates in the efforts of Andean Amazonian peasant communities to counter the socially and ecologically destructive effects of industrial agriculture and governmental agrarian policies. By using local knowledge and the practice of traditional “ritual agriculture” and through adopting a non-dualistic, eco-centric worldview, PRATEC supports the resurgence of local approaches to agriculture, which it sees as radically opposed to Western industrial agriculture. The Andean peasant practice of ritual agriculture embraces kinship-oriented visions of the land and encourages empathetic actions that illustrate respect for all living entities of the biosphere. Agricultural activities include ritual actions, utterances, and offerings that express both a deep respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth) and communitarian aspects that characterize the worldview of the Andean people (

During the decade of the 1990s, PRATEC’s institutional efforts were devoted to the documentation of peasant agricultural practices and training through an annual course on Andean peasant agriculture. Around 140 university teachers and technical personnel of rural development projects were trained. The unexpected outcome was the formation of community-based organizations, called “Nuclei for Andean Cultural Affirmation” (NACAs), small NGOs that presently support rural communities in six regions of Peru. The NACAs work with families, who traditionally nurture biodiversity in their chacras to help them remember the ways in which their ancestors learned respect for the land. An initial six-year program with six NACAs made clear that, beyond increases in production and productivity, campesinos see biodiversity conservation as intimately related to the maintenance of a worldview, or cosmovision, based on respect and affection. Agricultural practices in the Andes, including soil preparation, seed diversification, sowing, harvesting, storage, and food preparation, can only be understood in the context of such cosmovision. The idea of the annual course was to train people to understand and interpret this cosmovision. The goal of PRATEC’s programs with the NACAs has been to recover the respect for biodiversity among all members of the local communities.

An in-situ conservation project carried out in 2001-2005 aimed to stop the genetic erosion in the diversity of native cultivated plants and their wild relatives in the central Andes. The extraordinary inter- and intra-specific diversity of plants and animals that has been nurtured for millennia by campesino communities was threatened by the modernist spread of monoculture. Consequently, the project’s overall objective was to conserve agrobiodiversity in the chacras of campesinos in fifty-two locations in Peru. The project addressed six areas of intervention: (1) the chacra and its surrounding space, (2) the social organization of in situ conservation, (3) awareness of the importance of maintaining the diversity of native cultivated plants and their wild relatives, (4) policies and legislation to promote in situ conservation, (5) market development for agrobiodiversity, and (6) an information system for monitoring agrobiodiversity. The project found that agrobiodiversity is the result of Andean Amazonian agricultural practices. Here, as in other original agricultural areas, making chacra is not a “way of making a living” but a way of life. Campesino Don Humberto Valera, from the Upper Amazon region of San Martín, clearly expressed this in talking about making chacra: ‘It seems that we will never finish harvesting this porotal (bean chacra). You produce a lot when you know how to endear yourself to the chacra. Several different varieties appear, some others return.’ (PRATEC, 1998, p. 4).

Don Cristóbal Ramos Rosa from the community of Calacoto, Corcori in Yunguyo, Puno understands in situ conservation in the following way: ‘For the paqalqus (groups of families) who nurture diversity, making chacra is a permanent concern. It has always been this way and will continue being so. To adapt to difficult circumstances we make offerings to all uywiris (nurturing deities). We converse with the pacha (local world, including deities, humans and natural entities) very affectionately and ask our deities to prevent the ispallas (ritual name for tuber seeds) leaving us because of our mistreatment. Likewise, we make offerings to the spirits of frost, hail and drought who nurture us. Our authorities (past and present) are the ones who are concerned with making us converse, and the Andean priests convoke the human communities to the top of the mountains to ritually ask our seeds, Pachamama, mountain deities, for forgiveness… When we have attained peace among ourselves and with the whole pacha, the chacras become vigorous and happy. We return to our places to continue nurturing our chacras, respecting and obeying our authorities. This is the way we do it, always with affection and with all our hearts, with rituals, festivals.’ (PRATEC, 2006, pp. 37-38).

Centring on the recovery of respect in the communities involved in the in situ project, the NACAs endeavoured to recover and/or strengthen the traditional authorities of the chacra and the sallqa (the wild). This was attained through the strengthening and/or revival of rituals and festivals in the agricultural cycle. Visits between communities for seed and knowledge exchange were also instrumental in the mutual learning that led to the recovery of community memory about how their ancestors lived in sufficiency based on diversity ( The project was successful, especially in showing that vigorous practices of in situ conservation were still widespread in many places in the Andes and the Upper Amazon region, and even if the spectacular increases in agrobiodiversity in the participating communities may not prove sustainable without external intervention in the long run, the threat of genetic erosion does not appear to be imminent. A more immediate result has been the growing national awareness and pride in being a mega-centre of biodiversity, which is expressed in the international recognition of the excellence of Peruvian cuisine based on the diversity of native plants.

During the period 2002-2007, PRATEC conducted a program called “Children and Biodiversity”, coordinating the fieldwork of six NACAs located in the Andean highlands. The program had an important educational component that sought to incorporate local knowledge into the school curriculum and to involve parents in school activities. The focus of the program was to explore the possibility of the community nurturing its school. It also aimed at restoring the autonomy and authority granted to children in the traditional system of governance, as in the past children were able to exercise control within the community, for instance taking care that animals did not enter the chacras and sanctioning those who let their animals trample their neighbours’ crops.

These initial aims were in accordance with the traditional authorities in the communities, who had been unanimously pointing to “loss of respect” as the main obstacle for community well-being. The educational system was identified as a major threat to the conservation of the diversity of native plants because respect and affection among entities of the pacha had been eroded by the imposition of a system that disparages local traditional worldviews. The signs were clear: “Children no longer greet their elders.” This was after 50 years since these same communities had demanded that the educational system help transform their children and equip them with skills so they could migrate to the cities and to a life of “progress”. Children were to be transformed so they were prepared to live in a future of “progress” instead of a present that was regarded as backward and inferior.

In discussion with parents in 2004, it was made clear what the traditional authorities wanted from the school. This was expressed as Iskay Yachay in Quechua and Paya Yatiwi in Aymara. They both translate into “two kinds of knowledge” – their own and the school’s. The documentation of the local knowledge of conservation practices included in local traditions became the basis of the school curriculum. The project adopted an intercultural approach allowing the coexistence of diverse “educational cultures”, that is, modes of intergenerational knowledge transmission of a given community (Rengifo, 2005). This concept is particularly useful in order to go beyond the dualism between home-based vs. school-based local/indigenous knowledge transmission. The project strategy included the training of rural teachers as cultural mediators, capable of integrating local knowledge into the school curriculum, as well as the consolidation of orality as a basis for literacy. The central finding of the Children and Biodiversity Project is that Paya Yatiwi / Iskay Yachay has three interrelated components: a) the recovery of respect in the community (towards their deities and nature and among the community members themselves); b) learning to read and write while respecting and valuing the local oral traditions; and c) teaching the skills to allow people to live a good life (,

The Children and Biodiversity project has been successful in clarifying the challenges that must be faced by intercultural education. The incorporation of local knowledge into the school curriculum and the adoption of the local agricultural calendar have become a national policy. The three components identified in the case of rural education have inspired other institutions, especially in the southern Andes, to initiate training programs for rural teachers. Networks of rural teachers have been formed in the localities where the program was active and provide the surest guarantee of the sustainability of the program results. This process of cultural “regeneration” takes time since the communities themselves must find them relevant to their own life world. Meanwhile, training of educators continues, as this process requires not only a new attitude and conceptual framework, but also an alternative to training by mainstream “rural development experts”. Since 2002, PRATEC has offered three versions of a two-year Masters’ program on Biodiversity and Andean Amazonian peasant agriculture, in cooperation with the Universidad Nacional Agraria de la Selva (UNAS), a state university based in Tingo María, in the upper Amazon region. Almost sixty university graduates have participated in the program. Under the same agreement, versions of an annual diploma postgraduate course on Intercultural Education and Sustainable Development are being offered to rural teachers and rural development workers of the Andean region including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina.

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