Atilio Pérez Nahuelhual (39) was born and raised in Ranquilhue, an area near Lleulleu Lake where he witnessed Mapuche traditions ever since he was small. At one point in his life he left home to study, but could not continue because he lacked the resources. So he returned to the place he was raised to begin working the land.
Today Atilio has been farming for more than 16 years. He goes to work every morning producing potatoes, one of the most popular and cultivated foods in the south of Chile. Known as “poñi” in Mapudungun, the potatoes grown in Tirúa are different from other ones in different fields because of their flavor and texture. Additionally they are grown in a pest-free zone, which helps maintain the special characteristics of the soil where this tuber is planted, earning a name for itself in the coastal area of the Province of Arauco.
Atilio has carried out his trade using the knowledge of various generations, harvesting the potato every season and then selling it in the city. Although he acknowledges that in recent years it has grown more difficult to get large harvests.
His situation is not very different from the rest of his peers. This is why in mid-2018, farmers in neighboring communities decided to form the Pérez Kume Poñi Agricultural Cooperative. This is when they began taking the potatoes to Tirúa, giving them an added value and a heightened role as a product from the Bío Bío Region.
Poñi, potatoes from Tirúa
Although ancestral knowledge has made it possible to set potatoes apart from other crops, Atilio Pérez, representative of the cooperative, reports that soil erosion and the limited supply of fertilizers in nearby towns made it impossible to continue producing large quantities. It was at the end of 2019, when farmers were harvesting about 40 tons of potatoes annually that they began to work with CMPC to market their products under the name “Poñi, potatoes from Tirúa”.
The “Poñi” brand’s purpose is to provide a recognizable seal to products coming out of Arauco. CMPC’s multiproject agronomy advisor Francisco Fuentealba explains that 13 families are working with the cooperative, with the aim of “being able to carry out the dream that farmers have harbored for many years of increasing production.”
The initiative is part of the “Lleulleu Project”, a set of programs that support neighbors in the area. It consists of providing technical advice for farmers to use technological tools in the seed planting process and also supports various inputs such as fungicides, fertilizers and infrastructure. This made it possible to increase production to nearly 200 tons and increase the cultivated surface area from 5 to 19 hectares.
Seal of origin
Atilio Pérez says that learning new techniques has changed the way he works. “We realized we had to analyze the soil and do a bunch of other things to get the results we have today,” he said. He added that it has not been easy because the community had to get trained and grow concerned about soil erosion and climate change.
Francisco Fuentealba of CMPC explained that the Tirúa cooperative has made this transition and verified the results in situ. In the last year this cultural change led to a production increase of 70 percent with not only greater volume, but also better quality.
Along with planting potatoes, the Pérez Kume Poñi cooperative also gained access to safe seeds, which ensures that farmers can get quality genetic material that does not harm future harvests. “They have already produced their own seeds for next season, which also means they can provide for the area and other neighbors as an alternative way for small producers to get very good seeds,” says Fuentealba.
In addition to increased production, the work that goes into Poñi also seeks to complete the denomination of origin process for its products and seeds, thus raising the Tirúa potato to the same level as the Juan Fernández lobster, the Paine watermelon or the Pica lemon. “We are preserving the love of the countryside, because maintaining and enhancing quality especially with all the complicated things going on in this area, shows that good things happen here, too. We are also exporting quality potatoes,” said Atilio Pérez.
After having improved the conditions that potatoes are grown in in Tirúa, the Poñi project has a next stage, which is to include these harvested potatoes in sales chains and to produce higher income for the communities. “We hope that in two years time Poñi will be positioned in supermarkets, corporate cafeterias, and anywhere else potatoes are consumed. We want it to be recognized as a regional product of Tirúa and LleuLleu”, said Mauricio Parra, head of Public Affairs at CMPC. He also hopes that in the near future there are potato-based products made in the area.
Meanwhile, the Tirúa communities dream of continuing to develop agriculture in the area, mixing legacy traditions with technical support to protect the potato harvest for future generations. “A person is a part of the land. We respect nature and want to keep growing while respecting her wisdom,” said Atilio Pérez.