On the trail of an ancestral treasure in Peru | CIAT Blog

Was that, a sloppy beanstalk? Is that the treasure?

I know; I owe them an explanation. So here it goes.

There was once a plant. We are talking about about 8 million years ago, in what we know today as Mexico. This "protofríjol" - long extinct - is the first ancestor of the beans that, today, feed 400 million people. Yes, the same as the British put on the toast and the Mexicans refry themselves for consumption.

5 million years ago, the protofríjol had already generated several genetically distinct progenies. Responding to natural variations in climate, some of these new plants began to spread southwards, at a terribly slow rate of nearly five meters per year - the result of falling and regrowth of seeds, fall and regrowth. Little by little they adapted to the environments through which they spread.

Over the course of a few million years, this slow-moving route to the south took them through Central America and reached many parts of South America, including the Peruvian Andes. Daniel can even point to the direction from which they sneaked into the Sacred Valley (northwest).

Moving rapidly to about 15,000 years ago - experts differ at the exact moment - the first hunter gatherers came to the Andes. They ran into several kinds of wild beans while they were looking for food. However, these seeds were small, bitter in taste and - the real deciding factor - poisonous. That is why even today the beans should be soaked and cooked for consumption.

When they saw that it survived, they pulled some of the beans out of their natural environment and began to cultivate them - a process known as domestication. Daniel's research suggests that for common beans, this happened around 6-7,000 years ago in the Apurímac region of Peru, not far from where we are in the Cusco region.

With the time, these early farmers noticed that some of the domesticated plants produced larger seeds than others. Being easier to harvest and more consumed, they discarded the smaller seedlings and changed them into larger seedlings. For centuries, domesticated beans have tripled in size; soaking and cooking became the norm, and became a staple food.

The common bean that once was wild had been tamed.

Moving quickly to the present, we see that human activity has devoured many of the wild bean habitats. But well, in any case, they were small and poisonous. What a relief.

On the trail of an ancestral treasure in Peru | CIAT Blog

Fortunately, the story does not end there.

This is because there are still small areas where wild beans survive. These ecological niches have managed to either repel, escape or adapt to the forces of modernity. They are often modest wastelands, and the beans are little more than undergrowth. Plants that simply lie there and look inert.

Magnificent. But the treasure? Well, the fact that wild beans have survived so long means they probably have some kind of evolutionary advantage. And here, in the environs of Lamay, a particular fortress is clear: to 2,940 meters on the level of the sea, the height is considerable. And height means cold. Currently, cultivated beans can hardly survive above 2,000 meters.

And this is the reason: if you cross cold tolerant wild beans with large seed types and high yields, you could produce beans for farmers in colder climates. Or some that can grow at different times of the year. For a crop that is already the most important source of vegetable protein in mankind, this is a promising prospect.

It also means that such a bean should really be kept in a germplasm bank somewhere. And fortunately, it is. The wild bean G40725 was collected in 1987 on the same side of the road, by Daniel Debouck himself. Things were quite different back then. He tells me that at one point he was looking for beans at the bottom of the valley while government troops, above him, exchanged shots with Shining Path rebels.

Decided, he and his Peruvian colleague took samples of the plants to the National University of San Marcos in Lima and deposited the seeds in the germplasm bank of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, also in Lima. According to an agreement between CIAT and Peru's National Institute of Agricultural Innovation (INIA), duplicates of the seeds were kept at the CIAT bank in Colombia, where Daniel continues to work. In 1988, Daniel returned, looking for more wild beans.

Going back to his footsteps today - in a much more peaceful Peru - is an expedition to see how resilient it can be or just how lucky an ecological niche can run. Many things can happen in three decades: an uncontrolled fire could destroy it; invasive plants could drown it; the man could build a hamburger bar there. Remember the song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell.

So why has this particular niche in Peru survived? Daniel notes that it is unlikely that the rocky area could be used for construction or agriculture. The absence of goats that do away with the vegetation is also a blessing.

I wonder how he knows where to look for these little nooks of legume delight.

"That's my trick," he says with a smile. But as we begin to look for the number two wild bean, it becomes clear that he does indeed have several tricks.

Daniel can read the landscapes, sensing signs of nature . The presence of certain shrubs; the type of soil; the proximity of water, all this whispers that he is on the right track. When the whispers converge in a choir of clues, it is only a matter of making a stop along the way and looking closely.

More news: Mr. and Mrs. Z's New House: August 2009

  • Adam Floyd