The Cooked is the Kept: Factors Shaping the Maintenance of Agro-biodiversity in the Andes


This study examines farmers’ agro-biodiversity decision-making through an Andean case study, and expands upon earlier approaches in two ways. First, it incorporates cultural variables into an econometric analytic framework encompassing the influence of demographic, farm physical and market factors on agro-biodiversity. Second, it encompasses a suite of different richness measures of inter- as well as intraspecific agro-biodiversity. Data are drawn from interviews with the heads of 89 farm households in Cotacachi, Ecuador. ANOVA and poisson regressions are used to analyze the relations between explanatory variables and agro-biodiversity measures. Results show that culture and subsistence play key roles in fostering diversity maintenance; those who strongly identify with local Kichwa cultural traditions and those whose production is mainly subsistence-oriented grow the most diverse fields. The findings indicate that initiatives supporting cultural revitalization and agriculture oriented at home consumption will likely enhance in situ diversity maintenance.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    One forage species, alfalfa (Medicago sativa), was also registered. It is used for feeding guinea pigs and rabbits and is typically grown on a small scale in home gardens together with vegetables. For the purposes of the current analysis it is therefore included with vegetables.

  2. 2.

    For this study a modern variety is defined as a crop variety which has been bred in the formal breeding sector and a landrace as a crop variety which has not been bred in the formal sector.

  3. 3.

    Number of potato varieties was summed across the species Solanum tuberosum subsp. andigena, Solanum chaucha and Solanum sect. Petota.

  4. 4.

    The vegetable count differentiated between several crops belonging to the species Brassica oleracea, and is as such a crop count, not a species count.

  5. 5.

    The anaku costume of Cotacachi consists of dark and white wrap-around skirts, white, embroidered blouses, woven ribbons, in addition to other complements. It is related to, but different from the traditional dress of other regions of Andean Ecuador. Whereas men typically only wear their traditional clothing (consisting of white trousers and shirt, and a dark, woolen poncho) on special occasions, women maintain this tradition to a larger extent. In the case of single male-headed households where the man formerly had been married, the clothing habit of the former wife was recorded.

  6. 6.

    Original categories for small and medium proportions were combined due to low frequencies in each.

  7. 7.

    A Kendall’s rank correlation analysis of the three variables (using the categorical variable for food consumption) yields positive bivariate correlation coefficients ranging in size from 0.46 to 0.66, significant at the p < 0.0001 level.

  8. 8.

    In order to further test the reliability of this choice, separate sets of poisson regression analyses were run with inclusion of each of the three categorical cultural variables, as well as composite measures. These produced results similar to those for the continuous variable (not shown here).

  9. 9.

    For instance, in the larger dissertation research project of which this study forms part, the author collected recipes for 30 different maize dishes (Skarbø unpublished data).

  10. 10.

    Introduction of a term for age squared in the full regression model for total variety richness did not improve the significance of age and only improved the explanatory power of the model to a minuscule degree (Δ pseudo-R 2 = 0.0003), and was therefore omitted.

  11. 11.

    I would like to note, however, that to my knowledge no econometric analysis, the present included, has examined possible differences between men and women in shaping decision-making about agro-biodiversity in relation to other explanatory factors. While the great majority (89 %) of the surveyed households are jointly headed by both a female and a male, making it difficult to detect variation between households due to different gender composition, research from Mexico has noted differences between males and females from the same households in terms of knowledge and perceptions related to agro-biodiversity (Chambers and Momsen 2007). The large extent of the crop diversity documented in connection with the present study might in part be related to the fact that 74 % of the interviewees were women, who in the study area typically carry the main responsibility of seed management, and therefore are highly knowledgeable regarding the area’s agro-biodiversity (see also Skarbø 2006).

  12. 12.

    A t-test shows that households where one or two spouses work off farm cultivate significantly less land in comparison with those with where both stay on the farm (means 0.74 [SD 2.35] ha vs. 1.82 [SD 1.31] ha, p = 0.01).

  13. 13.

    Examination of the data supports this interpretation; as much as 50 % (16 of 32) of those with land above 0.7 ha market a large part of their crop production, while only 7 % (4 of 57) of those with less land do so.

  14. 14.

    Seventy-three % (8 of 11) of the farms in the sample with livestock assets over $1,500 sell a medium to large part of their agricultural harvest. Fifty-five % (6 of 11) are farms located in the high zone.

  15. 15.

    If climatic conditions continue to change in the Andes and Cotacachi as predicted (Urrutia and Vuille 2009), this relation may be altered in the future, as irrigation may actually allow farmers to maintain more diversity not adapted to lengthened periods of dry conditions.

  16. 16.

    However, the sample of Major’s team was small (N = 16), and the difference was not found to be statistically significant.


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I am grateful to the many farmers who participated in this project, to the Unión de Organizaciones Campesinas e Indígenas de Cotacachi for facilitating the research, and to Rosa Ramos and Aida Guandinango for able research assistance. I thank Virginia Nazarea, Bram Tucker and Ricardo Godoy for guidance in the design and analysis of the study, and two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0921859 and an Andrew E. and G. Norman Wigeland Fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation.

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Correspondence to Kristine Skarbø.

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Skarbø, K. The Cooked is the Kept: Factors Shaping the Maintenance of Agro-biodiversity in the Andes. Hum Ecol 42, 711–726 (2014).

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  • Agro-biodiversity
  • Andes
  • Crop diversity
  • Ecuador
  • Farmer decision-making
  • In situ conservation