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Cooperation and competition to conserve native diversity in Peru

As part of an incentive scheme in Peru to conserve quinoa biodiversity, farming communities received rewards, such as mattresses and spades, for cultivating priority conservation varieties of quinoa.

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Spades, wheelbarrows, cement and mattresses - just some of the rewards handed over to 6 farming communities for cultivating priority conservation varieties of quinoa– part of an incentive scheme in Peru to conserve quinoa biodiversity that is set to expand into more crops and regions later this year. Adam Drucker and Marleni Ramirez, Bioversity International report:

With 184 native domesticated plant species and hundreds of varieties, Peru is one of the most important centres of crop diversity and domestication in the world. This diversity has a value that goes beyond Peruvian borders. Agricultural biodiversity is the basis of human survival and well-being – safeguarding it is crucial to providing future food growing options for us all.  But its conservation is often carried out by smallholder farmers who receive little recognition or compensation for carrying out what is essentially a service for the public good.

We were very proud to attend a ceremony last month in Peru which marked the fulfillment of a one-year project to incentivize farmers from six communities to cultivate prioritized rare and threatened quinoa varieties through a reward scheme. This event also set the stage for the Ministry of Environment in Peru to roll out the scheme to other crops and regions later this year. We are also seeing interest in this kind of incentive scheme beyond Peru’s borders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Guatemala, and we hope to soon start a similar project in Mexico. 

This event, attended by the Ministry, was the moment when the communities collected their ‘in kind’ rewards after fulfilling contractual obligations to conserve prioritized quinoa varieties.  While it is no easy task to put a price tag on the value of agricultural biodiversity, this tender process aimed to do just that. The scheme involved quinoa-producing communities competing to grow priority varieties on their land for which there is no commercial market. They did this by drawing up conservation offers which involved setting their own levels of ‘in kind community rewards’.  

Some rewards presented at the ceremony were ones that you may reasonably expect, such as wheelbarrows and spades. Some were more surprising – for example, the large number of requests for new mattresses (see photo). Empowering the communities to identify their own rewards in the tenders, an important form of participatory justice, is an essential part of making the incentive scheme work.  I don’t think we would have identified mattresses by ourselves as an incentive for conservation!

The tender process builds on the interest and knowledge of the farmers about quinoa diversity – a crop that has been grown for millennia in Peru.  The first step is to ask the communities where you would expect to find the targeted quinoa varieties if they are willing to participate in conservation activities. If so, we find out how many members, what land they will use, which conservation priority quinoa varieties they will cultivate on farm and what reward they require. Then, with some training about how to put together an offer – for example, how to set the level of reward to being one that is fair while retaining a competitive edge – the communities submit their bid offers. 

Decisions on which communities are successful in their bid offers are not just driven by costs. We can also consider social equity criteria. For example, communities may be selected in order to better target vulnerable groups such as poorer farmers, women farmers or younger farmers.

At the end of the contract, the rewards are handed over and in return some of the seeds from the conserved varieties are deposited in seedbanks, typically held in local national institutions, like universities, so that we know that we have sufficient seed for the following year. 

Peru is really driving this effort through as part of their National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan – with strong commitments from different ministries – including the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Finance – to conserve the country’s rich biodiversity. Vice ministers as well as a large number of local heads of national and regional institutions, along with the press, attended this handover event with the local farming communities, underlying their strong interest and commitment.

It is key to note that this ‘payment for ecosystem services’ type initiative must be part of a wider package of efforts. It is not enough on its own. For example, improved marketing of agricultural products through value chain development can be an effective stimulus, not just to ensure conservation of diversity through use, but also to improve livelihoods in remote farming communities living in rural poverty.  In Peru, the government is beginning to put in place public investment programmes to stimulate agricultural biodiversity conservation and use, as well as to explore the potential for public food procurement programmes in schools, hospitals, the armed forces and prisons to create a sustainable demand for the nutritious crop varieties being conserved. 

But the market cannot be the only answer if we are to incentivize and compensate farmers fairly for conserving biodiversity that may never have commercial value.  There are around 3000 thousand varieties of quinoa, but you may see just 10 or 15 in the national or international markets.  So even if we are able to double or triple that, we still have hundreds of priority varieties to go, and for some of these there will never be a market incentive.  This is why schemes that recognize the value of conserving these non-commercial varieties are needed. If we lose them, we lose their unique genetic diversity which is a vital public good that may be crucial for the future.  

For more information, please contact Adam Drucker or Marleni Ramirez.
View photos of the event here.

This work is carried out through the Peruvian Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Ministry of Economics and Finance's Euro Eco-Trade Programme, and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets.

Photo top: Farmers and community members celebrating during the ceremony. Credit: Bioversity International/A. Drucker
Photo bottom: Some of the rewards given to farmers who completed the programme, including mattresses and dining tables. Credit: Bioversity International/A. Drucker