The potato was originally domesticated around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and the Andes are still home to thousands of potato varieties. Potatoes here come in a rainbow of colours: red, pink, purple, yellow, orange, black, blue. This invaluable wealth of genetic diversity is at risk from increasing agricultural standardization and climate change, but a farmers’ cooperative in Argentina is working to save ancestral Andean crops like the potato, as well as amaranth, quinoa and maize.

The Cooperativa Agropecuaria y Artesanal Unión Quebrada y Valles Ltda, known as Cauqeva, is based in the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley in Jujuy Province, Argentina. Currently 109 small-scale farmers belong to the cooperative, mostly indigenous, with an average agricultural area of 1.5 hectares each. They produce and farm Andean crops, vegetables, fruit, flowers, small livestock and dairy products.

Founded in 1996, the cooperative works to help the farmers improve their cultivation of Andean crops, providing mechanized services for tilling, reproducing and supplying native seeds, offering training and technical assistance and processing and promoting products. A museum, the Museo de la Vida Campesina Quebradeña, and a small restaurant run by the cooperative help communicate the traditional crops and the way of life of the indigenous farmers.

In 2002, Cauqueva won a Biodiversity Award from Slow Food, and in 2004 the Italian association set up a Presidium to protect and promote Quebrada de Humahuaca Andean Potatoes. The project identified a number of varieties farmed at altitudes ranging from 2,100 to 3,800 metres above sea level, giving a tiny snapshot of the diversity of varieties: sweet, dark blue Papa Azul; irregularly shaped, pinkish-yellow Papa Señorita; dark-skinned Tuni Morada, perfect for mashing; pink-skinned, white-fleshed Cuarentilla; and Chacarera, with white flesh that develops violet streaks when farmed above 3,000 metres.

As well as helping farmers grow the potatoes, the cooperative also processes them, making dehydrated mashed potatoes, pre-cooked vacuum-packed potatoes and potato sweets. The cooperative also makes flour, cookies and noodles from Andean maize, quinoa and amaranth, which are marketed locally but also in larger cities as gourmet products. Cauqueva has brought its products to many national and international fairs, including the Salone del Gusto in Torino, Al Gusto in Bilbao and Caminos y Sabores in Buenos Aires.

This kind of international marketing would be impossible for an individual small-scale farmer. Javier Rodríguez, a member of the cooperative’s coordinating team, explains some more advantages: “For small producers in very marginalized areas, organizing themselves into cooperatives creates spaces and opportunities for democratic participation, which promotes shared development.” He said this meant knowledge and learning could be shared, the scale of production could be increased and investments could be made. The sector can also be more easily represented institutionally.

Rodríguez also mentioned the network Tejiendo Esperanzas (Weaving Hopes), sponsored and led by Cauqueva, a grouping of 65 organizations and public-private institutions that co-manage a microcredit fund, financed by the federal government of Argentina, which can provide loans to the farmers.

Plans for the future include consolidating the network, stabilizing the cooperative’s economic structure and opening a Cauqueva Information Centre in Buenos Aires to help promote the rich heritage of Andean crops, the ancient farming culture of the indigenous people and the incredible biodiversity of Andean potatoes.