Under a punishing Andean sun, Nazario Quispe digs his plow into the soil where he is growing dozens of different potato varieties — uncertain when he will be able to afford the seeds and supplies to sow them again.
Farmers like Quispe are responsible for the food that lands on 70% of Peruvian dinner tables, officials say, but months of pandemic lockdown and a souring economy have left many bankrupt and questioning whether to plant again.
“If my savings dry up, how will I sustain myself?” asked Quispe, a father of five who grows 150 types of the tuber native to Peru from the Sacred Valley highlands.
Across this South American nation an estimated 7 million farmers like the 51-year-old Quispe toil small plots of land to feed their families and earn a living.
Strict quarantines early in the pandemic made transporting beans, potatos and other crops to markets difficult. Prices plummeted as demand dropped.
Official data shows the price for potatos dropped by at least 30% between March and July. In rural Pampamarca in southern Peru, one kilo used to be worth about five loaves of bread. Now it sells for the equivalent of just one.
Not wanting to let the crops go to waste, farmers like Nemesio Quispe — no relation to Nazario Quispe — have opted to sell for whatever they could.
Peru has been severely battered by the pandemic, experiencing both a crushing economic contraction and one of the world’s most lethal coronavirus outbreaks.
For months Peru ranked first globally in per capita COVID-19 deaths. The International Monetary Fund projects a 14% decline in GDP this year.
Though farmers have been somewhat shielded by the virus since many live far from other families and major cities, the recession has been costly.
Several farmers said they are not able to put certain foods like fruit on the table anymore, because they are too costly. Instead, many subsist on a diet of root vegetables.
Last May, a national survey by the Institute for Peruvian Studies said 90% of those living in rural areas were eating less food than usual.
Fifty nine percent said that between March and April they had often gone hungry because they couldn’t afford three daily meals. Many said what they did eat was of poorer quality.
People living in cities have returned to family ancestral lands after losing jobs and being unable to afford rent.
Some have gone back to planting their own food, hoping to grow at least enough to eat.
“Having less food the main impact is going to be food security… add to that as well that there is a lot of unemployment and that the levels of poverty have increase,” said Giovanna Vásquez, a sociologist who is the manager of the National Convention for Peruvian Agriculture, a network of unions.
The government has provided millions in aid to large exporters — a tiny percentage of all producers — but small farmers have been left out.
Inequitable access to tax credits, water and favorable trade deals have long existed in Peru but are now exacerbated by the crisis.
Former President Martín Vizcarra, who was removed from office by Congress earlier this month, allotted $42 million to various large agricultural companies.
New President Francisco Sagasti has said he intends to support small farmers with access to land, technology and markets, though he hasn’t shared any details.
This year has also been unusually dry in some agricultural regions of Peru. The lack of rain, combined with frigid overnight temperatures, has many farmers worried their crops will go bad if the weather doesn’t improve soon.
That could force the government to import food the country usually produces itself. Already, imports of basic foods like sugar, rice and powdered milk rose this year.
“I hope that things recover once this illness passes,” said Herlinda Marca, a farmer who lives off her meager potato sales at the almost empty Huancaro market in Cusco.
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