Keep Chiloé Free of Transgenics, Say Activists
By Daniela Estrada*
Chilean island is a birthplace of the potato, and ecologists say
there are about 200 varieties that must be protected from genetic
contamination from transgenic varieties of the tuber.
SANTIAGO - Environmentalists are demanding
that Chilean authorities declare the southern archipelago of Chiloé
-- 1,190 km south of Santiago -- a transgenic-free zone, and recognize
it as a birthplace of the potato (Solanum tuberosum), alongside
Bolivia and Peru.
Cultivation of genetically modified foods is not permitted in Chile,
but transgenic seed production for export is allowed. In 2005 there
were 12,928 hectares of farmland dedicated to that practice: 93.7
percent maize, 4.85 canola and 1.28 percent soy.
In Chile's 10th region, Los Lagos, where the Chiloé archipelago
is located, there is some land dedicated to production of transgenic
potato seed, but this biotechnology has not yet been brought to
the main island of Chiloé or its surrounding islets.
María Isabel Manzur, of the non-governmental Sustainable Societies
Foundation (FSS, Fundación Sociedades Sustentables), told Tierramérica
that the principal risk of releasing genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) in this insular territory is the potential genetic contamination
of its autochthonous products, especially the potato, threatening
varieties that are thousands of years old.
The potato was domesticated 10,000 years ago, and introduced to
Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Today it
is the fourth leading food crop in the world, with annual production
of around 300 million tons.
"Potatoes are the basis of the culture of Chiloé, and many of its
varieties were improved in European countries," Carlos Venegas,
director of the Chiloé Technology Center (CET), told Tierramérica.
Knowledge about the potato has been passed down through generations
of "Chilotes", as Chiloé's people are known, most of whom follow
the related rites and superstitions. Many potato farmers will only
plan during the waning moon, believing this will ensure better crops.
Furthermore, "there is such a great diversity of potatoes, of different
shapes, colors and tastes, that it's possible to prepare endless
different potato dishes," said Venegas, who advocates a government
policy to promote Chiloé's gastronomy as a boost to tourism and
the local economies.
Tonta (foolish), colorada (red), guapa (handsome), clavela blanca
and azul (white or blue carnation), zapatona (big shoe), noventa
días (90 days), cabeza de santo (head of a saint) and cachimba are
some of the curious names of the local potato varieties. Some are
used for food, while others are used as medicine, with potato-based
recipes helping relieve problems related to the liver or gall bladder.
Seminars are being held Oct. 17-18 -- "Transgenic Crops and Native
Potatoes of Chiloé" -- organized by FSS and CET in Castro and Puerto
Montt, both located in the 10th region.
Manzur said the objective is to raise citizen awareness about the
importance of native potato varieties and to gather signatures to
pressure the authorities to declare the Chiloé archipelago a GMO-free
Environmentalists warn that no legal tool exists that can be used
to establish this category, but they say it is a citizen demand
that must be heeded by the government and lawmakers.
The residents of Chiloé's big island have reinforced their appreciation
of their native potatoes, thanks to efforts by various groups in
the area, like CET, which in 1987 set up a potato species bank that
today maintains more than 200 varieties.
The seeds are gathered by the farmers themselves, who exchange the
different types to plant in their fields, which generally are no
larger than 15 hectares, said Venegas. This approach has been so
successful that farmers have set up three more such banks.
In April, The Austral University of Chile launched a project sponsored
by the government to recuperate, protect, and commercialize varieties
of potatoes native to Chiloé, and includes official description
and registration of the Chiloé varieties in the potato registry
of the government's Agriculture and Livestock Service.
CET and other local institutions have set aside three sites in the
archipelago for the "Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems"
(GIAHS), launched in 2002 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) and other development agencies.
According to Venegas, CET's proposal was approved and should be
implemented late this year or early 2007. The aim is to promote
social, economic and environmental sustainability through the creation
of local capacity-building, promotion of its values and dissemination
of traditional knowledge.
According to data from the International Potato Center, since the
1960s, the area in developing countries planted with potato has
expanded more rapidly than that of any other food crop.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.