Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Keep Chiloe Free of Transgenics, Say Activists

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Oct 17 2006 (IPS) - Environmentalists are demanding that Chilean authorities declare the southern archipelago of Chiloé – 1,190 km south of Santiago – a transgenic-free zone, and recognise 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 raps 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” – organised 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 zone.

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 commercialise 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 Centre, 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. Originally published Oct. 14 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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