ARS Helps Preserve Indigenous Crops in Ecuador
August 3, 2009
An Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
scientist is working with an international group of researchers on a project to
improve the livelihoods of people in rural Ecuador by promoting the
conservation and use of indigenous crops.
People in and around Cotacachi, in the northern Andean highlands, have been
farming for thousands of years, and the result is a stunning diversity of
crops, some of them little known outside the Andes. But many people now work
away from their farms, prompting concerns that some of the crops, along with
the associated cultural traditions, may be lost, according to
A. Williams, a botanist in the Plant Exchange Office of the ARS
Germplasm Resources Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
Williams, who has been working in Ecuador periodically since 1995, helped
set up and now advises the Cotacachi project. As part of that project,
scientists at Ecuador's National Department of Plant Genetic Resources have
saved samples of much of the crop diversity in their genebank. Farmers also
have exchanged seeds at fairs and worked with the scientists to evaluate crop
varieties. A food-processing plant was built to package products made with crop
varieties provided by a farmers' cooperative.
The project also has promoted tourism. Tourists stay with local families,
participate in traditional farm practices and sample local foods. At the
community-run ethnobotanical garden, visitors and school children learn about
the extensive variety of traditional crops and the importance of conserving
The project has been funded mainly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service.
Partners include the Union of Indigenous and
Peasant Communities (UNORCAC), an indigenous community organization;
an international organization with a mandate to advance the conservation and
use of genetic diversity; and the Ecuadorian National Agricultural Research
Institute, the ARS equivalent in Ecuador.
The project was in large part responsible for the
United Nations Development Program awarding
UNORCAC the Equator Prize in 2008 for its efforts to conserve and utilize
ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of