Asociación para el Desarrollo Alternativo de los Pueblos Indígenas (ASODAPI)

Shaucha Wuata is a project that seeks to preserve traditional agricultural techniques and five native varieties of potato in order to consolidate food security of the Indigenous Pasto communities of the Gran Cumbal region. It sponsors the development of three pilot centers, each with a native seed bank. The use of ancestral knowledge is encouraged, as is communal work that promotes reciprocity and gender equality.

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Chiles, Gran Cumbal, Panam / Nariño / Colombia
+ 3,000 m
27,000 ha

The Indigenous Pasto communities are located more than 3,000 meters above sea level. Cold weather is predominant in Colombia’s western mountain range. The area is volcanic due to a significant number of orographic and coastal accidents. The region is characterized by a variety of thermal floors caused by its proximity to both the Pacific Ocean and the Andean peaks.

The shagra and the potato
Chiles, Gran Cumbal, Panam / Nariño / Colombia
PHOTOGRAPHY  Carolina Navas
TEXT  Jorge Varela

At more than 3,000 meters above sea level, amidst Andean moorlands, volcanoes and lagoons in the south of Colombia, live the Indigenous Pastos. The community divides itself into the three territories called resguardos, or safeguards: Panan, Chiles and Gran Cumbal. Other Pasto communities live across the border in Ecuador. “In spite of being divided by the border, our culture is present in both sides of the territory”, says Luis Aníbal Puenayan Naza with pride, the Autoridad Tradicional (Traditional Authority, a position of leadership within the community) of the Panan safeguard, and a cultural promoter and researcher of Pasto culture and society.

For this Indigenous Community, as for many others in the continent, existence and cultural continuity are constant struggles against forces that threaten their way of life. The Pasto People, however, have had two crucial historical tools of resistance: The shagra and the potato.

“Thanks to the shagra our elders learned how to manage time and space. They also learned that the interrelation of man and nature is coexistence.”

“What our elders have taught us was taught and transmitted through the shagra. This is where we learn about the interrelation of nature,” says Aníbal, who has centered his research on this traditional institution. Much like the milpa system common in Mexico and Central America, shagra is based around harvesting crops that grow symbiotically with one another. It is also a central pillar for the Pasto worldview.


(3) La Cortadera, Chiles.   (4) Luis Aníbal Puenayan, cultural promoter and researcher, in La Puerta, Chiles.   (5) Laguna La Colorada, Chiles.   (6) Daniela Canacuan at the hot springs, Chiles.   (7) Volcanic lagoons in La Puerta, Chiles.   (8) Maira Puenayán practices traditional medicine. She is an expert in native plants and recipes.   (9) Anibal Puenayan.   (10) Mónica Alexandra Puenayan is an agricultural engineer. She contributes work to the Shaucha Wuata project.   (11) Edison Puenayan, architect.   (12) Ana Lucía Puenayan has deep knowledge of native seeds and the shagra.

“The shagra is a small part of nature,” says Luis Aníbal. “Thanks to the shagra our elders learned how to manage time and space. They also learned that the interrelation of man and nature is coexistence.” Nature gives life, but it also provides norms, showing the care it needs and its limitations.

120,000 people who identify as Pasto currently live in the border region between Colombia and Ecuador. Their language is officially extinct.

Around 60% to 70% of the families in Gran Cumbal cultivate a shagra in small plots next to their houses. This stimulates a kind of internal market where members of the community exchange products according to their needs, creating an effective safety net of food security and sovereignty. Out of all the crops found in a shagra, among them broad beans, onions, and medicinal herbs, none is more important than the potato. “The potato is our main source of food; it is what feeds us and allows us to live. Without it there is nothing,” Luis Aníbal says.


(13) Luis Aníbal Puenayan and Jaime Panacuan at the central plaza, Panan.   (14) Karen Ipial celebrates her 15th birthday, Panan.   (15) Nelly Cumbalasa after competing in the women's football tournament, Panan.   (16) Central plaza on a Sunday afternoon, Panan.

Yet in the last few years even the life-giving potato and the shagra have faced powerful threats. Within the region, agroindustry now occupies the fertile  lowlands that previously belonged to the indigenous safeguards, supplanting the cultivation of native potato varieties with a monoculture of imported seed varieties. The extensive use of agrochemicals has sterilized the soil, rendering it dependent on continuous use of these products, which, in turn, makes the harvest more expensive. This has made potatoes an unprofitable crop, discouraging its cultivation, and led to a reduction of acreage devoted to traditional varieties. 

As a result, communities have turned over their land to dairy cattle. Milk is more lucrative than potatoes and, today, 90% of the community lives off its sale.

“The potato is our main source of food; it is what feeds us and allows us to live. Without it there is nothing.”

The decline of the shagras and of heirloom potato varieties together represent a serious threat to Pasto food security and sovereignty. Together with the Association for the Alternative Development of Indigenous Communities (ASODAPI) and the support of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) and the financial support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) through its Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility (IPAF) fund, Luis Aníbal, has launched a research project to identify and recuperate varieties of native potato.


(17) Panan seen from Bella Vista.   (18) The sickle that Doña María Cuaical has used for years in her shagra.   (19) Nubia Alpala is a political leader, former representative at the community council of Gran Cumbal and current candidate for Governor.   (20) The Puenayan family at the Koleto Experimental Center developed by the Association for the Alternative Development of Indigenous Peoples (ASODAPI).   (21) Antonio Nazate has knowledge of ancestral medicine and provides his services at the Gran Cumbal health post (IPS).   (22) The Shaucha Wuata project aims to preserve five native potato varieties to ensure food security for the Pasto communties.   (23) Doña María Cuaical Tapie.   (24) Edison and María walk towards the Koleto Experimental Center.   (25) Álvaro Silvio Guadir, participant in the Shaucha Wuata project.   (26) A hen at María Cuaical's shagra.   (27) Panan Cemetery.

The process took the researchers to family shagras all over the region in order to gather traditional knowledge on potato varieties and their cultivation, specifically those that might adapt to the changes that local soil has already undergone. Out of a total of 36 varieties of potato, researchers identified five as particularly promising. Luis Aníbal Puenayan and his team are now recuperating sustainable farming techniques and developing tools for adapting them to the current context.

The research phase has concluded. Now, they are seeking to disseminate the seeds and their harvest techniques amongst 60 families from the region and trying to find ways of integrating some of this knowledge into agroindustry.

To recover native varieties of the potato means to solidify the communities’ food sovereignty and security as well as to assure the continuity of knowledge and worldviews that are priceless in the era of climate change. “We have to rediscover our past in order to understand what is happening to Mother Earth. We, as indigenous cultures, have the answers to many of those questions and we can contribute,” says Luis Aníbal, “from practice and action, to the reconstruction of life on the planet.”

Chiles, Gran Cumbal, Panam / Nariño / Colombia