There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.


So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.


¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.

The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!


[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.


Taking in the central sierra . . .

September 1973. One of our first road trips in Peru, a circular route taking in Pisco on the coast south of Lima, before heading up into the Andes to Ayacucho, before heading north to Huancayo, and then back down to Lima. I’m sure the trip today is much easier than 43 or 44 years ago.

On the first day we drove south just as far as Pisco, spending one night there before attempting the next stage over the mountains to Ayacucho. Apart from the coastal Panamerican Highway and the road from Huancayo back to Lima, which were paved, the others were dirt roads in various states of repair. At the highest point on the road between Pisco and Ayacucho, we encountered one particularly stretch of muddy road that I thought we just might halt our trip. But with some expeditious maneuvering, I managed to extricate us from mud almost up to the axles.

The road up from Pisco.

If I remember correctly, the road dropping down to Ayacucho seemed to last forever, a long and relatively gentle decline. It was above Ayacucho where I took this photo, one of my favorites in all I took during our three years in Peru.

Staying at the turista hotel just off the main square, we spent a couple of nights in Ayacucho, and enjoyed its pleasant climate, lying as it does in a wide, fertile valley, just below 2800 m above sea level.

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North from Ayacucho the road crosses a wide, high altitude plain, dotted everywhere with cacti. Further north, it follows the steep-sided valley of the Mantaro River, and is carved into the side of the mountain. Maybe it has been widened today, but back in the day, it was so narrow that traffic flow was one-way only on alternate days. This had to be factored into our road trip planning of course.

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It was an easy day’s drive between Ayacucho and Huancayo, and we spent a couple of nights there. As the International Potato Center (CIP) had its highland experiment station close to Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, and Steph and I would travel there almost every week during the potato growing season between November and May, we took the opportunity of passing through Huancayo to check a few work-related items before passing through on our way back down to Lima along that familiar road that crosses Ticlio at almost 5000m.

This trip must have lasted about seven days, maybe eight. With the others we made, as well as the various potato collecting trips that I made as part of my work, we were fortunate to explore many parts of this beautiful country.

Here is a list of those trips:


Wishing I was in Cuzco . . .

The 10th World Potato Congress takes place in the southern Peruvian city of Cuzco at the end of May this year. I wish I was going.

It would be a great opportunity to renew my links with potato research, and revisiting one of Peru’s most iconic cities would be a joy.

I like this quotation from the Congress website: Potatoes are the foundation of Andean society. It shaped cultures and gave birth to empires. As the world population explodes and climate change places increased demands on the world’s farmers, this diverse and hearty tuber will play an instrumental role in feeding a hungry planet.

Cuzco lies at the heart of the Andean potato culture. The region around Cuzco, south to Lake Titicaca and into northern Bolivia is where most diversity in potatoes and their wild species relatives has been documented. When I worked for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru during the early 1970s I had several opportunities of looking for potatoes on the Peruvian side of the border, and made three (possibly four) visits to Cuzco. I see from a quick scrutiny of the street map of Cuzco on Google maps that the city has changed a great deal during the intervening years. That’s hardly surprising, including many fast food outlets dotted around the city. The golden M get everywhere! Also there are many more hotels (some of the highest luxury) in the central part of the city than I encountered 45 years ago.

At Machu Picchu in January 1973

I visited Cuzco for the first time within two weeks of arriving in Peru in January 1973. The participants of a potato germplasm workshop (that I described just a few days ago) spent a few days in Cuzco, and I had the opportunity of taking in some of the incredible sights that the area has to offer, such as Machu Picchu and the fortress of Sacsayhuamán on the hillside outside the city.

Steph and I were married in Lima in October 1973, but we delayed our honeymoon until December. And where could there be a more romantic destination than Cuzco, taking in a trip to Machu Picchu (where we stayed overnight at the turista hotel right beside the ruins), Sacsayhuamán, the Sacred Valley, and the Sunday market at Pisac.

In the early 70s, the Peruvian airline Faucett flew Boeing 727s into Cuzco. In January 1973 I’d only ever flown three times: in 1966 to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland on a BEA Viscount turboprop; from London to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines to attend a scientific meeting in Izmir; and the intercontinental flight from London to Lima with BOAC.

Flying into Cuzco was (is) quite an experience. There’s only one way in, and out! It is quite awesome (if not a little unnerving) dropping through the cloud cover, knowing that some of the highest mountains in the world are just below, then seeing the landscape open as you emerge from the clouds, banking hard to the left and follow the valley, landing at Cuzco from the east.

The city has now expanded eastwards beyond the airport, but in 1973 it was more or less at the city limits. The main part of the city lies at the western end of the runway, and hills rise quite steeply just beyond, thus the single direction for landing and the reverse for take-off. Maybe with new, and more highly powered aircraft, it’s now possible to take off to the west. Those attending the World Potato Congress should have a delightful trip from the coast. By the end of May the dry season should be well-established, and the skies clear.

So, what is so special about Cuzco? It’s a city steeped in history, with Spanish colonial buildings blending into, and even constructed on top of the Inca architecture. That architecture leaves one full of wonder, trying to imagine how the stones were brought to the various sites, and sculpted to fit so snugly. Perhaps the best example is the twelve-sided (or angled) stone in the street named Hatun Rumiyoc (a couple of blocks east of the Plaza de Armas). This is taken to an even greater level at Sacsayhuamán, with an enormous eleven-sided stone.

My first impressions of Cuzco were the orange-tiled roofs of most buildings in the city.

All streets eventually lead to the main square, the Plaza de Armas in the city center, dominated on its eastern side by the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, and on its southern side by the late 16th century Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (a Jesuit church).

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One of the finest examples of the Inca-Colonial mixed architecture is the Coricancha temple upon which was constructed the Convent of Santo Domingo. The Incan stonework is exquisite (although showing some earthquake damage), and inside 16th/17 century paintings have survived for centuries.

Another aspect of Cuzco’s architectural heritage that caught our attention were the balconies adorning many (if not most) buildings on every street, at least towards the city center.

In the early 1970s steam locomotives were still in operation around Cuzco and, being somewhat of a steam buff, I had to take the opportunity of wandering around the locomotive shed. During our trip to Machu Picchu, our tourist diesel-powered train actually crossed with another pulled by a steam locomotive.

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Outside the city, to the north lies the Inca fortress citadel of Sacsayhuamán, the park covering an area of more than 3000 hectares. Steph and I spent a morning exploring the fortress, viewing it from many different angles, and pondering just how a workforce (probably slave labour) came to construct this impressive site, with its huge stones so closely sculpted against each other that it’s impossible to insert the blade of a knife.

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Among the most commonly visited locations by many tourists is the small town of Pisac, some 35 km from northeast of Cuzco at the head of the Sacred Valley, where a vibrant market is held each Sunday. We took a taxi there, and joined quite a small group of other tourists to wander around, bargain for various items (including an alpaca skin rug that we still had until just a couple of years ago). This is not a tourist market, however—or at least it wasn’t in December 1973 when we visited. As you can see in the slideshow below, it was very much a place and occasion frequented by people coming from the surrounding communities to sell their produce, and meet up with family and friends. Whenever I look at these photographs I always feel quite sad, as it’s likely that many who appear have since passed away.

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It’s no wonder that Cuzco and surrounding areas have been afforded UNESCO World Heritage status (as so many other treasures in this wonderful country). So, as I think about the opportunities that potato scientists from all around the world will enjoy when they visit Cuzco at the end of May, I can’t help but feel a tinge of envy. However, they’d better take advantage of the odd cup of coca tea, or maté de coca, if offered. An infusion of coca leaves (yes, that coca!), it really does help mitigate the effects of high altitude and the onset of so-called ‘altitude sickness’.


And pigs might fly . . .

Steph and I made two road trips together to the small town of San Ramón (see map), that lies at just over 800 m on the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Department of Junín.

Nothing particularly special or interesting in that, you might ask, especially if you know the region. The International Potato Center (CIP) opened an experiment station there in the 1970s, as somewhere it could evaluate potato breeding lines against several pests and diseases that appeared more regularly at this site than at higher elevations. But also for testing potatoes in their ability to grow under higher temperatures than usual for potatoes, a temperate crop that evolved in the Tropics. This emphasis on adaptation to high temperatures, with the aim of potentially expanding potato production worldwide into less favorable environments, was work I would continue once I moved to Costa Rica in 1976.

San Ramón today has a population of 30,000 inhabitants but was very much smaller when we first visited. It was not normally on our itinerary, since Steph’s and my work only took us to Huancayo high up in the central Andes, at over 3000 m.

Our first trip, in August 1973 (with CIP plant pathologist John Vessey and physiologist Ray Meyer) was just a few weeks after Steph joined me in Peru. This was our first experience of the hot and humid lowland tropics. Little did we imagine that just a few years later (from 1976) we would spend almost five years in Costa Rica living under those conditions in Turrialba, nor that almost two decades later we would move to the Philippines for 19 years.

Our second and short vacation trip was in September 1974.

I’ve been back only a couple of times, once in early 1976 before we headed off to Costa Rica, and another¹ in the mid-1980s when, working at The University of Birmingham, I had a research project with CIP, and took the opportunity of a visit to Lima to travel from Huancayo to San Ramón.

Dropping down to San Ramón the only road passes through the town of Tarma, famous for its flower production. What a delight. Higher up, the road sweeps round broad valleys with it patchwork of fields, one of the most attractive views I think I’ve seen in all my travels across the Andes.

Below Tarma, the valley narrows, and winds its way beside a fast flowing river (that becomes the Chanchamayo River beyond San Ramón), with numerous tunnels carved through the rock, and barely wide enough in places for two vehicles to pass. There are steep precipices into the river below at numerous locations.

And given that the San Ramón region and beyond is (was) a particularly important fruit-growing one (especially for papayas), there was always a constant stream of lorries loaded with fruit grinding their way out of the valley to climb over Ticlio (at almost 5000 m) before dropping rapidly to Lima on the coasts.

Steph’s first trip to Huancayo (and San Ramon) in August 1973.

On the second morning of our September 1974 trip, we set off after breakfast along the Chanchamayo River towards La Merced, stopping frequently to look at the vegetation, explore the river bank, and take photos. It’s hard to imagine that La Merced now has a population approaching 170,000. Beyond La Merced we had thoughts of eventually reaching Oxapampa, but as the road deteriorated so did our expectations of being able to travel there and back in a single day. With some regret we turned around. Oxapampa was (is) an interesting community, founded in the 19th century by German immigrants, and retaining much of that influence today.

Our trip on the third day was much more eventful. Following a suggestion by John Vessey, we decided to take advantage of the local light aircraft flights from San Ramón servicing communities further out in the lowland areas (the ‘jungle’) and visit one such beside the Pichis River, Puerto Bermúdez (some 550 m lower in altitude than San Ramón). Today, Puerto Bermúdez is connected by road to La Merced and San Ramón, a drive of some 176 km, and about four hours. There was no road in 1974, and flights were the only option. From satellite images, the town does not appear to have an airstrip anymore. What looks like a former airstrip is flanked by buildings and criss-crossed by streets. Maybe with the road now reaching the town, an air bridge to San Ramón or other towns is no longer economically viable.

Having purchased our tickets, we arrived at the airfield early the next morning, and found ourselves squeezed into the rear seats of a single engine plane (probably a Cessna) for the 45 minute flight to Puerto Bermúdez. We were scheduled to return mid-afternoon, and had decided that we’d try and rent a boat for a trip along the river.

In 1974, Puerto Bermúdez was a very small settlement, and the area is home to one of Peru’s largest indigenous communities in its Amazon region, the Asháninka².

We soon found somewhere to buy a quick cup of coffee, and someone who would rent his boat to us for several hours for a trip along the Pichis, a river that flows north to join the even bigger Ucayali River south of Pucallpa, being some of the headwaters of the River Amazon.

In this gallery of photos, you can see the type of dugout canoes that are common along the river, with their long shaft outboard motors. In the distance along the river you can also see the Andes rising in the west. And also some of the communities we observed along the riverbanks, and the rafts carrying fruits. This was our first experience of an environment like this, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Everyone was most friendly.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch, we headed back to the airstrip for our mid-afternoon flight back to San Ramón.

And that’s when we had our next surprise. There was an aircraft waiting for the return flight. We were the only passengers. But the aircraft had no seats for us. There was some ‘freight’ to take: several dead pigs that were loaded along with empty beer crates that we were to use as seats. No seat belts!

Communicating with base back in San Ramón, the pilot told us that the weather had ‘closed in’ and that our departure would be delayed. And there we sat, looking westwards towards the Andes and wondering when we would be able to take off. After about an hour, the pilot told us that there was still ‘weather’ along the proposed return route, but ‘bugger it’ or words to that effect in Spanish, he said we should leave, and we’d better climb aboard if we wanted to return to San Ramón that same day.

With some trepidation—that I can still feel after all these years (I’ve never been the world’s best flier)—Steph and I climbed aboard, settled ourselves on our respective beer crates (or maybe they were cases of beer), and held on for dear life to anything we could as the plane hurtled down the runway and took to the air.

All was well for the first half of the flight. We gained height easily (after all the plane was carrying quite a light load  and I was very much lighter than I am, unfortunately, today). We could see the foothills of the Andes approaching, with rain squalls across our path. Needless to say things became rather more uncomfortable as we crossed that weather system, and bounced our way into San Ramón. But we lived to tell the tale.

Given the chance to make a journey like that again, I’d probably decline. The enthusiasm of youth, the risk taking. In any case one might hope that today, safety regulations are much more assiduously applied. The only time I’ve ever shared a flight with three dead pigs.


¹ The 1980s were the Michael Jackson years. The singer, not me. Arriving at our hotel in San Ramón, it didn’t take long before a very large crowd of children had assembled outside the hotel and chanting ‘We want Michael Jackson‘. Some mix-up!

² Puerto Bermúdez’s Asháninka suffered during the years of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla insurrection of the 1990s, and many inhabitants of the town were massacred.

He had the patience of Job

21 December 1972. How 45 years have flown by.

I’d left my apartment in Birmingham, said goodbye to many friends in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, and headed the 60 miles north to Leek in Staffordshire to spend what would be my last Christmas in the UK for almost a decade with my parents, my elder brother Ed who had arrived from Canada. Then after Christmas, I spent a couple of days in London with my girlfriend, Steph; we married in Lima later in 1973.

I’d turned 24 a month earlier, and two weeks hence on 4 January 1973 I would be on a flight from London to Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. I can’t deny that I faced that journey and joining CIP with a certain amount of trepidation. I’d only been outside the UK on one occasion (to Turkey in early 1972). My horizons were definitely limited.

Furthermore, I spoke hardly a word of Spanish. Now that was my fault. And it wasn’t. I’d had ample opportunity while at Birmingham once I knew I’d be working in Peru to make an effort to learn some basic Spanish. But I was rather dilatory in my approach.

On the top of the university’s Muirhead Tower, a language laboratory was open to all staff and students to improve, at their own pace, their existing language skills or ones that they wished to acquire. The laboratory was equipped with a number of individual audio booths where you could listen to classes on tape, and follow along with the standard text from which the classes had been developed.

I started, and really intended to continue. Then the only copy of the text book went missing. I gave up.

So, my language skills were essentially non-existent when I landed in Lima on Thursday 4 January 1973. Staying at the Pensión Beech on Los Libertadores in the Lima suburb of San Isidro, I couldn’t even order my breakfast the following morning. Fortunately, Mrs. Beech, the formidable British-born proprietor, came to my rescue. Thereafter I quickly gained enough vocabulary so I didn’t starve. But it was a month or two before I plucked up enough courage to visit a barber’s shop (peluquería) to have my hair cut.

The secretarial and some of the administrative staff at CIP spoke English, and I was indeed very fortunate to receive great support from them, particularly in my first months as I found my feet and started to pick up the language.

All expat staff were offered Spanish classes, provided by freelance teacher Sr Jorge Palacios. And it was that gentleman who had, in my opinion, the patience of Job, listening, day after day, to our pathetic attempts to make sense of what is a beautiful language. Some long-term CIP staff never really did become that fluent in Spanish. I’m sure my old CIP friends can guess who they were.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photo of Sr Jorge*. Yesterday, I placed a comment on a Friends of CIP Facebook group page asking if anyone had a photo. An old and dear friend from my very first days at CIP, Maria Scurrah replied: I certainly remember that thin, never-aging but already old, proper Spanish teacher. And that’s how I also remember Jorge. It was impossible to tell just how old he was, maybe already in his 50s when I first knew him in January 1973.

It was arranged to meet with Sr Jorge at least a couple of times a week; maybe it was more. We agreed that the most convenient time would be the early evening. He would come to my apartment (in Los Pinos in Miraflores), and spend an hour working our way through different exercises, using exactly the same text that was ‘lost’ in Birmingham! Anther colleague who joined CIP within a week or so of me was German pathologist Rainer Zachmann. He also took an apartment in the same building as me. I was on the 12th floor, he on the sixth. So Sr Jorge would call on me, then descend to spend an hour with Rainer, after which we would all go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Through these Spanish classes, and dinner conversation, Jorge introduced me to the delights of Peruvian Chinese cuisine, and there was a good restaurant or chifa just a block or so away from our apartment building, perhaps further along Av. Larco.

It didn’t take long, however, before my classes became intermittent. I was travelling to and spending more time in Huancayo, and in May that year, my germplasm colleague Zosimo Huaman and I spent almost a month exploring for potato varieties in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. With the basics that I’d learned from Sr Jorge, and being put in situations where my companions/co-workers did not speak English, I was ‘forced’ to practice—and improve—my rudimentary Spanish.

End of the road – getting to walk into several communities, May 1973

During that trip to Ancash, Zosimo and I found ourselves in a remote village that had been very badly affected by the May 1970 earthquake that had devastated many parts of Ancash. I don’t remember the names or exact locations of the two communities we walked into, except that they were deep in the mountains beyond Chavín de Huantar. It was their fiesta day, and we were welcomed as auspicious visitors, particularly me, as once it was revealed that I was from England, I became a representative of La Reina Isabel (Queen Elizabeth II).

The schoolmaster and his wife and son, with Zosimo Huaman on the right.

A ‘town meeting’ was quickly called and organized by the rather inebriated schoolmaster. Zosimo and I were the guests of honor, and it became clear during the schoolmaster’s speech of welcome that I would have to respond in some way. But what about my lack of Spanish? The schoolmaster explained that the community felt abandoned by the Peruvian government, and even three years on from the earthquake had still not received any material assistance. He implored me to bring their plight to the attention of the British Government and, as the ‘Queen’s representative’, get assistance for them. What was I to reply?

I was able to follow, more or less, what the schoolmaster was saying, and Zosimo filled in the bits I missed. I asked him how to say this or that, and quickly jotted down some sentences on the palm of my hand.

It was now my turn to reply. I congratulated the community on its festive day, stating how pleased Zosimo and I were to be there, and taking note of their situation which I would mention to the British ambassador in Lima (my position at CIP was funded through the then Overseas Development Administration, now the Department for International Development, and I would regularly meet the ODA representative in the embassy, or attend social functions at the ambassador’s residence).

As I sat down, everyone in that room, 150 or more, stood up and each and everyone one came and shook my hand. It was quite overwhelming.

I found that trying to use what little Spanish I had was more useful than having continuous lessons. Nevertheless, the solid grounding I received from Sr Jorge stood me in good stead. When we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, I had to speak Spanish almost all the time. Very few of the persons I worked with in national programs spoke any English; my two assistants in Turrialba none at all.

By the time I left Latin America in March 1991 I was pretty fluent in Spanish. I could hold my own, although I have to admit that I have never been any good at writing Spanish. During the 1980s when I had a research project with CIP, I travelled to Lima on several occasions. By then, Sr Jorge was no longer freelancing and had become a CIP staff member. We always took time during one of those visits to having lunch together and reminiscing over times past. By the time I visited CIP once again in the mid-1990s he must have retired, as I never saw him again.

My Spanish still resurfaces from time to time. I can follow it quite easily if I hear it on the TV, and during my visit to CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT in 2016 (as part of a review of genebanks) I was able to participate in the discussions easily enough that took place in Spanish. My Spanish teacher had obviously given me a very good grounding of the basics.

Sr Jorge Palacios – a real gentleman, with the patience of Job.


*  If anyone who reads this post has such a photo, or knows how/where to get hold of one, I’d appreciate hearing from you and receiving a copy. Thank you.

Heading south to the highest lake in the world

At 3812 m above sea level, Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is the ‘highest navigable lake in the world’. It’s more than 1200 km south from Lima by road, and was the destination of a trip that Steph and I made in November 1974. Our first idea was to drive to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, some 256 km southeast from Puno. However, we decided that would be one sector too far in the time we had available.

Most of the drive follows the Panamericana Sur for 850 km through a coastal desert, one of the driest in the world.

The highway crosses the Nazca Plain about 450 km south of Lima, and is the site of the world famous Nazca Lines (yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru!), ancient geoglyphs that can only be appreciated from the air. Sadly, we never took the opportunity for a flight over the Lines¹.

The Nazca monkey. Photo taken by renowned archaeologist Maria Reiche in 1953.

Much further south, at Camana, the road branches north towards the southern city of Arequipa, some 180 km away, and at an altitude of around 2330 m. Puno is reached from Arequipa after a climb to well over 4000 m before dropping to 3800 m on the shore of Lake Titicaca, crossing (among other locations) the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca (and its flamingos).

We had already decided to drive ourselves just as far as Arequipa, then take a colectivo (a communal taxi) for the rest of the journey to Puno, and use taxis to move between the various sites we wanted to visit around Puno. On reflection we could have taken our VW the whole distance given some of the other trips we made around Peru and the state of some of those roads. From Arequipa to Puno we left the asphalt behind, travelling on a graded dirt road.

We spent the first night in Nazca, traveling on to Camana and its turista hotel on the second day. Like most of our travels there were frequent stops to admire the landscape, take photos, and investigate the local flora, especially the various cactus species, a particular hobby of Steph’s at that time.

This cactus, possibly an Echinocactus species, was less than 3 inches in diameter.

The highway crosses quite a number of rivers that flow down from the Andes. In the desert, and along the valleys themselves, irrigated rice cultivation is quite important. I had no idea when looking at these rice paddies in the 1970s that I’d be working on that crop across the other side of the world two decades later².

In Arequipa, we found a garage where we could leave the car safely for a few days while we traveled on to Puno. And then spent the next day and a half walking around the city to enjoy some of its sites.

Arequipa, founded in 1540, is (was) an elegant city, with a skyline dominated by the symmetrical cone of the Misti volcano, rising to over 5800 m. It is seasonally snow-capped, but with the effects of climate change affecting so many mountain ranges in the Andes today, I wonder to what extent Misti now has any snow cover at all during the year.

There were two sites we wanted to visit: the Basilica Cathedral, located on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa’s central square. It has a facade of beautifully carved white stone, like the cathedral in Cajamarca that we visited in June 1974.

It was constructed over more than two centuries beginning in the 1540s. Progress was interrupted many times by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the church had to be reconstructed several times. As recently as June 2001, one of its towers was toppled by a powerful earthquake that shook southern Peru. It is a building of great beauty, and dominates the Plaza de Armas.

A short distance north of the Plaza de Armas, the 16th century Dominican Convent of Saint Catherine (Monasterio Santa Catalina) is a quiet haven among the bustle of a busy city, and open for tourists to visit. Well, that was the situation four decades ago, so it must be even more so today. It has the feel of a small Spanish village, with winding streets, open doorways off to the side, and colonnaded hidden courtyards. And all decorated in a glorious umber.

The nuns could not receive visitors inside the convent, but could communicate with the outside world through grills. Natural light brightens the visitors’ corridor through skylights hewn from rock crystal. Inside the convent there are beautiful murals dating from as early as 1516. That’s interesting, because in the article about the convent on Wikipedia linked to above, the founding date is given as 1579, and Arequipa was not founded until 1540. Maybe some early buildings were incorporated into the convent. Nevertheless, there are some date inconsistencies I need to check further.

In Puno, there were three attractions we wanted to visit: the harbour and its large steamships; the floating islands made from the local totora reeds (Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. tatora), and home to a community of indigenous Urus; and the pre-Incan archaeological site of Sillustani, some 32 km northwest from Puno towards the airport town of Juliaca.

Some of the vessels that ply (or used to ply) Lake Titicaca are remarkable for their size. So how did they come to be sailing around the lake? The SS Ollanta was built in 1929 in Kingston upon Hull in England, in kit form, and sent out to Peru in pieces. The original Lego! Transported from the port of Mollendo to Puno by rail, it was riveted together on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and launched in 1931. It is still sailing today, but no longer on any scheduled services.

Tourism was, and must still be, a significant source of income for the Uru community that lives on the totora reed islands just offshore from Puno. Steph and I took the short motor boat trip from Puno to spend a couple of hours there. It is quite a remarkable community, seemingly self-sufficient, and getting around on their beautifully-crafted reed boats (the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition).

Given my interest in potatoes, I was fascinated to come across this brilliant example of potato hydroponics. Now that’s a good use for an old totora reed boat. Ingenious!

Although we didn’t make it into Bolivia, we did head out along the south shore of the lake towards the border, as far as Juli, just over 80 km southeast from Puno. As with so many small communities in the Andes, the town is dominated by a Catholic church, that we took the opportunity of visiting. The opulence of its interior was quite unexpected.

Our final visit in the Puno area was to the pre-Incan cemetery of Sillustani constructed by the Qulla people on the edges of Lake Umayo, and comprising a series of round towers called chullpas. The stones making up the chullpas are smooth and regular is shape, and one is left, yet again, with a sense of awe, at how such beautiful pieces of architecture were actually constructed. Interestingly, the Qulla are an indigenous people of western Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Chile. Sillustani must have been at the northern limit of their territory and range.

And then the vacation was over and we were headed back to Arequipa, to pick up our car and drive to Camana on the coast for an overnight stop. I think we made it back to Lima from there is one very long day of driving.

Besides this visit, I’d been in Puno on two previous occasions. One of my abiding memories was to seemingly acquire a taste for the algarrobina cocktail, made with Pisco. While I love a delicious Pisco sour, the thought of this rather sweet concoction now sends shivers down my spine. Happy days!


¹ The Greenpeace delinquents who staged a protest on and defaced the Lines in December 2014 should have faced the full force of the law.

² In about 1996, the then President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori (now disgraced and serving a prison term for various human rights crimes, among others), visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. I showed him around the genebank, and then joined discussions with IRRI’s Director General George Rothschild about rice production in Peru. Peru grows a number of IRRI varieties that have fallen out of favor in other parts of the world because of their susceptibility to pests and diseases. These, including IR43 and IR48 were less affected in Peru.