Coast and mountains – remembering a 1974 road trip in northern Peru

During the three years that Steph and I lived in Peru between 1973 and 1976, we made several long-distance road trips. In those days, once you turned off the main coastal highway, the Panamericana, you left the asphalt behind and traveled only on graded dirt roads.

We also drove a car—a Volkswagen Variant—that had good clearance, and traveled comfortably on these roads. We had also fitted heavy-duty shock absorbers as well as a good set of radial tyres. So we were never concerned about leaving the paved highways. In fact, we often spent time during the weekends visiting one of our favorite destinations on the eastern side of Lima, climbing route 116 into the Andes mountains in the Santa Eulalia valley near Chosica. We enjoyed hunting for wild potatoes on the higher slopes.

In the Santa Eulalia valley, hunting for wild potatoes

In May 1973 and May 1974 I’d made two trips into the provinces of Ancash and La Libertad, and Cajamarca, respectively to collect cultivated varieties of potatoes to add to the world germplasm collection curated by the International Potato Center (CIP) for which I was working as a germplasm expert and Associate Taxonomist. Steph also worked in the germplasm program as an Associate Geneticist.

Both trips took me through some stunning landscapes, and interesting cities like Cajamarca. So, in June 1974 we made an eight-day trip to visit some of those same places. Joining us on the trip were our friends and fellow Brits, John and Marion Vessey. They were our witnesses when Steph and I married in October 1973, in the Lima suburb of Miraflores.

After our wedding ceremony in the Miraflores Municipalidad, we enjoyed lunch at the Granja Azul near Chosica.

John also worked as a plant pathologist at CIP on the same bacterial wilt disease that I’d spend several years studying when I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976. John’s work often took him to Cajamarca and beyond, almost always by road, a round trip of almost 1700 km.

Anyway, our plan was to visit the Callejon de Huaylas in Ancash province, see the highest mountains in the country, and from there returning to the coast and traveling north to Cajamarca via Trujillo, taking in several interesting archaeological sites on the way both in the mountains and on the coast.

This was a round trip of almost 2800 km or thereabouts, and John and I shared the driving. Setting out from Lima early one morning, our first destination was Huaraz, the provincial capital of Ancash, in the heart of the Callejón de Huaylas, with the highest mountains of the Cordillera Blanca on the east side (including Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán) and the lower Cordillera Negra on the west (or coastal) side.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards Nevado Huascarán.

The gallery below shows Cordillera Blanca mountains at the southern approaches to the Callejón de Huaylas, near the turn-off to Chavín de Huántar. The last image in the gallery shows the Cordillera Negra on the western side of the Callejón de Huaylas.

The Callejón de Huaylas runs north-south, parallel to the coast, and was the site of a major earthquake in May 1970 that destroyed the towns of Ranrahirca and Yungay north of Huaraz, and killing tens of thousands of inhabitants. The gallery below shows where the landslide fell from Huascarán, with boulders the size of houses, obliterating Yungay and Ranrahirca. In Yungay, just a few palm trees and a statue of Christ at the cemetery were all that remained of the town in 1974.

We spent three nights in the Turista hotel in Huaraz, traveling on the day after our arrival to Yungay, and then higher still to a lake nestling in a valley beneath Huascarán, Laguna de Llanganuco at 3850 m above sea level.

The day after we made a side trip of just under 100 km each way to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to visit the ruins at Chavín de Huántar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by a pre-Inc culture at least 3000 years ago.

On the journey to Chavín (I was driving at the time), and only a few km short of the town, I was coming round a blind bend, and found myself facing some difficulty to avoid a rather large rock in the middle of the road. So I attempted to straddle it, but was unsuccessful; some part of the chassis connected with the rock. It sounded bad, but a close inspection underneath the vehicle showed no visible damage, so we carried on. The next morning we loaded the car and set out due west from Huaraz to cross the Cordillera Negra before dropping down to the coast near Casma, where we planned to stop at the archaeological site of Cerro Sechín.

As we climbed out of Huaraz, I could hear unnerving creaks and groans emanating from behind me. So after about 30 minutes we stopped to make another inspection underneath. To my horror I saw that there was a visible crack in one of the shock absorber mounts. I could see daylight! I hadn’t realised just how hard I’d hit that rock the previous day.

Well, we couldn’t continue with that sort of damage, so I carefully reversed the car and we returned—slowly—to Huaraz and found a repair shop alongside the road. When the mechanic jacked up the car, the absorber mount gave way. In such a remote location there was no chance that any dealer would have the exact mount in stock. However, all was not lost, and with great skill the mechanic welded a piece of steel around the fracture, taking less than an hour to make the repair. And we set off, much relieved with a vehicle almost as good as new, although we’d lost about 4 hours in total, putting back our destination for the night at Trujillo further up the coast until after dark.

Cerro Sechín, a few km inland from the Casma, is a very unusual site. Excavations began there 80 years ago, and the site has been dated to almost 4000 years. Its outstanding features are the stone bas-reliefs depicting victorious warrior-priests and their dismembered victims. What do they all mean? Some suggest that this is the site of a battle, others that it commemorates the vanquishing of a rebellion. Perhaps we’ll never know. What I can say is that I never saw any other archaeological site in Peru with any similarity to Sechín.

After spending a night in Trujillo, we took a morning to visit the extensive ruins of Chan Chan just west of the city, whose mud walls and reliefs have survived the ravages of time in this extremely arid desert. Dating from the mid-ninth century AD, it was the capital of the pre-Incan Chimú, who were defeated by the Incas in the fifteenth century. Chan Chan is now a UNESCO World heritage Site.

Along the coast, and even in some of the valleys heading into the mountains, there are mud brick pyramids, known as huacas standing proudly in the landscape, reminders of ancient pre-Incan cultures that once thrived there.

Huacas erected in coastal valleys.

In 1974, the highway to Cajamarca diverged from the Panamericana just north of Trujillo. It climbed along a fertile valley with rice cultivation alongside the river, then crossing over into the valley of Cajamarca at around 2500 m or so.

I’ve visited Cajamarca three times. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite cities in the whole of Peru. Located in a broad and fertile valley, it has an agreeable climate. No doubt it has expanded considerably since I was last there in about 1988.

Cajamarca (from the north) in the early morning light. You can see the steam from the Inca baths on the east of the city.

The beautiful Cathedral of Saint Catherine (Santa Catalina) occupies the northwest side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas. Begun in the seventeenth century, it has the appearance of a half-completed building. But this does not take away anything from the exquisite construction and carving of white stone on the entrance facade.

The Plaza de Armas, with the Cathedral of Sant Catherine on the left.

To the east of the city, by about 3 km lie the Baños del Inca, a site of geothermal hot springs where we luxuriated in the spa’s deep and soothing waters.

It was also in Cajamarca that the army of the last Inca emperor Atahualpa was defeated by Francisco Pizarro and his band of adventurers. Captured and imprisoned by Pizarro, Atahualpa was executed in July 1533 bringing an end to the illustrious Incan culture, and the subsequent colonisation not only of Peru but much of South America by the Spanish.

I’m sure we must have stayed at the turista hotel in Cajamarca close to the Plaza de Armas. Around the square were many small restaurants where, as in so many Andean towns and cities, you could enjoy an excellent and reasonably-priced meal. But Cajamarca is famous for one dish, and a sweet one at that: leche asade (crème caramel), one of my favorite desserts. There was one restaurant on the northeast corner of the Plaza renowned for its leche asada.

After a couple of nights in Cajamarca, we headed back down to Trujillo on the coast, and made it back home to Lima the next day. Quite an eventful trip, taking in some breath-taking sites and landscapes. As I reflect on all those magical Peruvian experiences, I realise more than ever, just what attracted me to want to visit all those years ago when I was just a small boy. Ambition fulfilled, and beyond expectations!

Has global warming changed the landscape?

During the three years Steph and I lived in Lima, working at the International Potato Center (CIP) at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally enveloped by it), one or the other of us had to travel almost on a weekly basis between December and April from Lima to Huancayo. At an altitude of more than 3000 m above sea level (over 10,000 feet), Huancayo was the location of CIP’s highland experiment station.

During the first season I worked there (between January and April 1973, and before Steph joined me in Peru) most of the potato hybridization work I did was carried out in the garden of the parents of one of my colleagues, Dr Maria Scurrah. CIP didn’t have any facilities of its own during that first year, and also rented land north of the city to grow its large germplasm collection of indigenous potato varieties.

It was only after I’d moved to Costa Rica to become CIP’s regional leader in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in 1976 that permanent laboratories, greenhouses, and a guesthouse were constructed (put in jeopardy by the rise of the terrorist organisation Sendero Luminoso in the late 1980s and 1990s).

A distance of almost 300 km by road on the Carretera Central, the journey would take around six hours. Usually we’d leave CIP before mid-morning, and aim to reach San Mateo (about 95 km) a couple of hours or so later, in time for lunch. Sometimes we’d drive as far as La Oroya on the eastern side of the highest point of the road. La Oroya, a town dominated by ore smelters and awesome pollution is one of the most depressing places I have ever visited. The fumes from the smelters have blasted all the vegetation from hillsides for miles around.

The road to Huancayo crosses the Andes watershed at the highest point, Ticlio, at 4843 m. From there the road drops quickly towards La Oroya before flattening out along the Mantaro River, and southeast into the broad Mantaro Valley.

We usually travelled, after 1974, in a Chevrolet Suburban (like the one illustrated below) that carried about four passengers plus driver, or in a pickup.

In early 1974, when I took the photo on the left, snow covered the ground at Ticlio. Two decades later during a meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, there was hardly any snow to be seen.

One of my colleagues at CIP, and Head of CIP’s Outreach Program from 1973-76 or so, was Richard ‘Dick’ Wurster who had spent some years with a potato program in East Africa (Uganda I believe) before being recruited to join CIP. Dick was independently wealthy, and a licensed pilot. He brought his own aircraft with him! And CIP took advantage of that to use it to ferry staff to Huancayo, landing at the unmanned airstrip in Jauja, now the Francisco Carle Airport served by scheduled airlines. It was a six-seater I believe, maybe a Cessna O-2 Skymaster. Anyway, CIP had a full time pilot. A year or so later, CIP purchased its own aircraft, a much more powerful model with a longer range.

To fly to Jauja safely, the flight path had to cross the Andes at around 22-24,000 feet. Dick’s plane was not sufficiently powered to climb directly from Lima over the mountains. So it would take off from Jorge Chavez Airport (Lima’s international airport) on the coast, and climb inland, more or less following the Carretera Central, before turning around and heading back to the coast, climbing all the time. Then it would head east once again, having gained sufficient height in the meantime to cross the watershed, and miss all the mountains that stand in the way.

Flying on a cloudy day was always a tense trip, because the pilot had to dead reckon where he was, then, seeing an opening in the cloud cover, dive down to come in over the Mantaro Valley, making at least one pass over Jauja airstrip to check there were no human or animal obstacles blocking the runway.

That’s looks like Dr Parviz Jatala (one of CIP’s nematologists) alongside the pilot.

Anyway when I recently came across the photos below (taken around 1974), on a clear day crossing the Andes, I was struck by the amount of snow and ice cover, glaciers even. And that made me wonder, in these times of global warming, how that phenomenon has affected the snow cover on these Andes peaks today.

A serious decline in snow and ice cover would have considerable knock-on effects in terms of water availability east towards the Mantaro Valley, and more seriously to the west, down the River Rimac to Lima that depends so heavily on this source of water from the mountains.

In a corner of Pueblo Libre, Lima . . . one of the most important buildings in Peru

In a corner of the Lima suburb of Pueblo Libre, on one side of Plaza Bolivar, the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú (the National Archeological, Anthropological and History of Peru Museum) is arguably one of the most important buildings in Lima. Peru, even. When Steph and I lived in Lima, we visited the museum on several occasions. It looks as though it has had a major face-lift since the 1970s.

It houses one of the finest collections of pre-Columbian artefacts. Anywhere. There are more than 70,000 pieces of ceramic alone. Many must be priceless. These reflect the various indigenous cultures that grew up in Peru (over hundreds and thousands of years) along the coast and in the mountains, before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century and destroyed them.

As a student of the origins and evolution of crop plants I’m particularly interested in what these fine ceramics can tell us about the crops that dominated ancient cultures. I would relish the opportunity to return and, on this occasion, more carefully document what I saw.

Most of the plants we eat were domesticated from wild plants by farmers thousands of years ago, who developed agricultural systems to grow them and provide food for their families and communities. Peru is the home of many crops important in world agriculture, not least, of course, being the potato. When we begin to look at the origins and evolution of crop plants, we examine the distribution of indigenous crop varieties and where these overlap with the wild species from which they were originally derived. We study their genetic variation patterns, make experimental crosses (pollinations) between crops and wild species to see how inter-related they might be, and compare the offspring with existing varieties. My own research on potatoes, grain legumes, and rice has followed this pattern.

But we also want to be able to track when things happened. And that’s where archaeology and anthropology come into play. In many famous archaeological sites in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East (one of the earliest cradles of agriculture), carbon-dated remains of cereals are associated with the earliest stages of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago, at a time that is often referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. Archaeologists can tell from these plant remains whether human communities were collecting grains from wild plants or whether they were growing a crop (domesticated cereals, for example, have lost the ability to disperse their seeds, and there are clear anatomical and morphological characteristics that differentiate these from wild plants). Here is an example of such remains (of several crops) from a Central Eurasian site.

The second millennium BC carbonized domesticated crop remains from Central Eurasian seasonal campsites. Tasbas: (a) naked six-row barley, (b) barley rachis, (c) broomcorn millet, (d) green pea (arrow pointing to hilum), and (e) highly compact free-threshing wheat; Ojakly: (f) broomcorn millet, (g) free-threshing wheat, and (h) barley rachises. From: Robert Spengler, Michael Frachetti, Paula Doumani, Lynne Rouse, Barbara Cerasetti, Elissa Bullion, Alexei Mar’yashev (2014) Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published 2 April 2014.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3382

But an additional source of information about pre-Columbian cultures and their agriculture in Peru for example can be found in the exquisite ceramics (or huacos) that so many coastal cultures—Chavín, Nazca, Moche, Chimu, among many—left behind, and which have been recovered from graves in the vast cemeteries along the coast.

Many pots have the form of crops grown at that time, 1000 years ago or more, such as potatoes, cassava, lima bean, and many more. There are also representations of animals such as llamas and monkeys. Some ceramics of fruits and vegetables have even taken on human form!

An anthropomorphic potato ceramic

My inspiration was Professor Jack Hawkes, my mentor and PhD supervisor, potato taxonomist extraordinaire! He was fascinated by archaeology, and pre-Columbian archaeology in particular, an interest that he had developed following his first visit to Peru in 1938-39. In this photo, Jack is describing to CIP colleague Jim Bryan, a particularly fine Hauri (Wari)ceremonial urn – just look at the size – decorated around the rim with portrayals of different crops. Can you recognise any? There’s certainly potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and chili peppers (Capsicum spp.). Maybe even peanuts (Arachis hypogaea).

On a second pot, there’s oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and maize (Zea mays).

If I had been more assiduous 40 years ago I would have carefully noted the details of each pot. But I didn’t. In the gallery below, the brightly painted pots are from the Nazca culture I believe, and the others from the Moche/Huari cultures.

Then there are the ‘other’ ceramics, in a discreet section of the museum (or at least that was the case in the 1970s) of the rather explicit ceramics related to fertility rituals presumably. My, he’s a big boy!

Many of the ceramics were found wrapped inside so-called mummy bundles, buried in the sand of the coastal desert. Bodies were quite well-preserved because of the very dry conditions, and wrapped in beautiful textiles.

On display in the museum there are examples of skull distortion practised by some of these ancient cultures, as well as head surgery or trepanning.

There are also examples of the famous Incan counting string or quipu, and some gold artefacts that I remember, like this solid gold tumi, a ceremonial axe or knife.

In this post I have just lightly touched on the splendour and interest of pre-Columbian Peru.

Peru justly has a proud heritage, both human and crop, that must be cherished. In a small way, and over the decades I have been able to experience these at first hand. No visit to Lima should miss a visit to this national museum.

There are many fake ceramics around for tourists to buy. This is a ‘Mochica’ one that Steph and I purchased while in Lima. Yes, we knew it was a fake, and paid a token amount.

But we liked it, and it has graced a shelf in our homes in Peru, Costa Rica, and the UK ever since.

What if it were genuine? It would be worth a pretty penny.

 

Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.

 

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Colombia . . .

Not quite the ‘Road to Rio . . .’
I have just returned from one of the most hectic work trips I have taken in a very long time. I had meetings in three countries: Peru, Colombia, and Mexico in just over 6½ days.

And then, of course, there were four days of travel, from Birmingham to Lima (via Amsterdam), Lima to Cali (Colombia), then on to Mexico City, and back home (again via Amsterdam). That’s some going. Fortunately the two long-haul flights (BHX-AMS-LIM and MEX-AMS-BHX) were in business class on KLM. Even so the journeys from Lima to Cali (direct, on Avianca) and Cali to Mexico (via Panama City, on COPA) were 12 hours and 11 hours door-to-door, respectively, the former taking so long because we were delayed by more than 5 hours.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am leading the evaluation of the program to oversee the genebank collections in eleven of the CGIAR centers (known as the Genebanks CRP). Together with my team colleague, Marisé Borja, we met with the genebank managers at the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, in Cali), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in Texcoco near Mexico City).

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A drop of cognac.

It all started on Sunday 24 July, when I headed off to Birmingham Airport at 04:30 for a 6 o’clock flight to Amsterdam. Not really having slept well the night before, I can’t say I was in the best shape for flying half way round the world. I had a four hour stopover in Amsterdam, and managed to make myself more or less comfortable in the KLM lounge before boarding my Boeing 777-300 Lima flight sometime after noon. There’s not a lot to do on a long flight across the Atlantic except eat, drink and (try to) sleep. I mainly did the first two.

It never ceases to impress me just how vast South America is. Once we crossed the coast of Venezuela and headed south over the east of Colombia and northern Peru we must have flown for about three hours over rain forest as far as you could see. I wish I’d taken a few pictures of the interesting topography of abandoned river beds and oxbow lakes showing through all that dense vegetation. At one point we flew over a huge river, and there, on its banks, was a city, with an airport to the west. I checked later on Google Maps, and I reckon it must have been Iquitos in northern Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Over 2000 miles from the Atlantic, ocean going ships can sail all the way to Iquitos. I once visited Iquitos in about 1988 in search of cocoa trees, and we crossed the Amazon (about two miles wide at this point) in a small motorboat.

Then the majestic Andes came into view, and after crossing these we began our long descent into Lima, with impressive views of the mountains all the way and, nearer Lima, the coastal fogs that creep in off the Pacific Ocean and cling to the foothills of the Andes.

We landed on schedule at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima around 18:00 (midnight UK time) so I had been travelling almost 20 hours since leaving home. I was quickly through Immigration and Customs, using the Preferencial (Priority) line reserved for folks needing special assistance. My walking stick certainly gives me the edge these days on airlines these days.

Unfortunately, the taxi that had been arranged to take me to my hotel, El Condado, in the Lima district of Miraflores (where Steph and I lived in the 1970s) was a no-show. But I quickly hired another through one of the official taxi agencies inside the airport (necessary because of the various scams perpetrated by the cowboy taxi drivers outside the terminal) at half the price of the pre-arranged taxi.

After a quick shower, I met up with old friends and former colleagues at CIP, Dr Roger Rowe and his wife Norma. I first joined CIP in January 1973, and Roger joined in July that same year as CIP’s first head of Breeding & Genetics. He was my first boss!

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They were in the bar, and we enjoyed several hours of reminiscences, and a couple of pisco sours (my first in almost two decades), and a ‘lite bite’ in the restaurant. It must have been almost 11 pm before I settled into bed. That was Sunday done and dusted. The work began the following morning.

All things potatoes . . . and more
I haven’t been to CIP since the 1990s. Given the tight schedule of meetings arranged for us, I didn’t get to see much more than the genebank and dining room.

CIP has a genebank collection of wild and cultivated potatoes (>4700 samples or accessions, most from the Andes of Peru), wild and cultivated sweet potatoes (>6400, Ipomoea spp.), and Andean roots and tubers (>1450) such as ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

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Native potato varieties.

Although potatoes are grown annually at the CIP experiment station at Huancayo, some six or more hours by road east of Lima, at over 10,000 feet in the Mantaro Valley, and sweet potatoes multiplied in greenhouses at CIP’s coastal headquarters at La Molina, the collections are maintained as in vitro cultures and, for potatoes at least, in cryopreservation at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The in vitro collections are safety duplicated at other sites in Peru, with Embrapa in Brazil, and botanical seeds are safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

With a disease pressure from the many diseases that affect potato in its center of origin—fungal, bacterial, and particularly viruses—germplasm may only be sent out of the country if it has been declared free of these diseases. That requires growth in aseptic culture and treatments to eradicate viruses. It’s quite an operation. And the distribution does not even take into account all the hoops that everyone has to jump through to comply with local and international regulations for the exchange of germplasm.

The in vitro culture facilities at CIP are rather impressive. When I worked at CIP more than 40 years ago, in vitro culture was really in its infancy. Today, its application is almost industrial in scale.

Our host at CIP was Dr David Ellis, genebank manager, but we also met with several of the collection curators and managers.

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L to R: Ivan Manrique (Andean roots and tubers), Alberto Salas (consultant, wild potatoes), Marisé Borja (evaluation team), me, René Gómez (Senior Curator), David Ellis.

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Alberto Salas, now in his 70s, worked as assistant to Peruvian potato expert Prof. Carlos Ochoa. Alberto’s wealth of knowledge about wild potatoes is enormous. I’ve known Alberto since 1973, and he is one of the most humble and kind persons I have ever met.

Prior to our tour of the genebank, René Gómez and Fanny Vargas of the herbarium had found some specimens that I had made during my studies in Lima during 1973 and 1974. I was also able to confirm how the six digit germplasm numbering system with the prefix ’70’ had been introduced and related to earlier designations.

It was great to see how the support from the Genebanks CRP has brought about so many changes at CIP.

Lima has changed so much over the past couple of decades. It has spread horizontally and upwards. So many cars! In the district of Miraflores where we used to live, the whole area has been refurbished and become even smarter. So many boutiques and boutique restaurants. My only culinary regret is that the famous restaurant La Rosa Nautica, on a pier over the Pacific Ocean closed down about two months ago. It served great seafood and the most amazing pisco sours.

All too soon our two days in Lima were over. Next stop: Cali, Colombia.

Heading to the Cauca Valley . . . 
Our Avianca flight to Cali (an Embraer 190, operated by TACA Peru) left on time at 10:25. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seat belt sign, and I headed to the toilet at the front of the aircraft, having been turned away from the one at the rear. Strange, I thought. I wasn’t allowed to use the one at the front either. It seems that both refused to flush. The captain decided to return to Lima, but as we still almost a full load of fuel, he had to burn of the excess so we could land safely. So, at cruising altitude and as we descended, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps to create drag which meant he had to apply more power to the engines to keep us flying, thereby burning more fuel. Down and down we went, circling all the time, for over an hour! We could have made it to Cali in the time it took us to return to Lima. We could have all sat there with legs crossed, I guess.

Once back on the ground, engineers assessed the situation and determined they could fix the sensor fault in about a couple of hours. We were taken back to the terminal for lunch, and around 15:30 we took off again, without further incident.

But as we waited at the departure gate for a bus to the aircraft, there was some impromptu entertainment by a group of musicians.

Unfortunately because of our late arrival in Cali, we missed an important meeting with the CIAT DG, who was not available the following days we were there.

CIAT was established in 1967, and is preparing for its 5oth anniversary next year.

Daniel Debouck, from Belgium, is CIAT’s genebank manager, and he has been there for more than 20 years. He steps down from this position at the end of the year, and will be replaced by Peter Wenzl who was at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn until the end of April this year. Daniel is an internationally-recognised expert on Phaseolus beans.

The CIAT genebank has three significant collections: wild and cultivated Phaseolus beans (almost 38,000 accessions), wild and cultivated cassava (Manihot spp., >6600 accessions in vitro or as ‘bonsai’ plants), and more than 23,000 accessions of tropical forages. Here’s an interesting fact: one line of the forage grass Brachiaria is grown on more than 100 million hectares in Brazil alone!

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Me and Daniel Debouck.

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Bean varieties.

The bean collections are easily maintained as seeds in cold storage, as can most of the forages. But, like potato, the cassava accessions present many of the same quarantine issues, have to be cleaned of diseases, particularly viruses, and maintained in tissue culture. Cryopreservation is not yet an option for cassava, and even in vitro storage needs more research to optimise it for many clones.

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QMS manuals in the germplasm health laboratory.

Like many of the genebanks, CIAT has been upgrading its conservation processes and procedures through the application of a Quality Management System (QMS). A couple of genebanks (including CIP) have opted for ISO certification, but I am of the opinion that this is not really suitable for most genebanks. Everything is documented, however,  including detailed risk assessments, and we saw that the staff at CIAT were highly motivated to perform to the highest standards. In all the work areas, laboratory manuals are always to hand for easy reference.

An exciting development at CIAT is the planned USD18-20 million biodiversity center, with state of the art conservation and germplasm health facilities, construction of which is expected to begin next year. It is so designed to permit the expected thousands of visitors to have good views of what goes on in a genebank without actually having to enter any of the work areas.

On our first night in Cali, our hosts graciously wined and dined us at Platillos Voladores, regarded as one of Cali’s finest restaurants.

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We had the private room for six persons with all the wine bottles on the wall, which can be seen in this photo above.

Arriba, arriba! Andale!
On Saturday afternoon around 15:30, we headed to Mexico City via Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Cali’s international airport is being expanded significantly and there are now international flights to Europe as well as the USA. This must be great for CIAT staff, as the airport is only 15 minutes or so from the research center.

After takeoff, we climbed out of the Cauca Valley and had great views of productive agriculture, lots of sugar cane.

  

Tocumen is lot busier than when I was travelling through therein the late 1970s. With several wide-bodied jets getting set to depart to Europe, the terminal was heaving with passengers and there was hardly anywhere to sit down. On our COPA 737-800 flight to Mexico I had chosen aisle seat 5D immediately behind the business class section, so had plenty of room to stretch my legs. Much more comfortable than had I stayed with the seat I was originally assigned. I eventually arrived to CIMMYT a little after midnight.

CIMMYT is the second oldest of the international agricultural centers of the CGIAR, founded in 1966. And it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in about 1 month from now. IRRI, where I worked for 19 years, was the first center.

Unlike many of the CGIAR centers that have multi-crop collections in their genebanks (ICARDA, ICRISAT, and IITA for example), CIMMYT has two independent genebank collections for maize and wheat in a single facility, inaugurated in 1996, and dedicated to two renowned maize and wheat scientists, Edwin Wellhausen and Glenn Anderson. But CIMMYT’s most famous staff member is Nobel Peace prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, ‘Father of the Green Revolution’.

Tom Payne and Denise Costich are the wheat and maize genebank managers. CIMMYT’s genebank has ISO 9001:2008 accreditation.

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Ayla Sençer

Tom has been at CIMMYT in various wheat breeding capacities for more than 25 years. In addition to managing the wheat genebank, Tom manages the wheat international nurseries. One of the first curators of the wheat collection was Ayla Sençer from Turkey, and a classmate of mine when we studied at Birmingham in 1970 for the MSc in Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources. The CIMMYT wheat collection is unlike many other germplasm collections in that most of the 152,800 samples are actually breeding lines (in addition to landrace varieties and wild species).

Denise joined CIMMYT just a year or so ago, from the USDA. She has some very interesting work on in situ conservation and management of traditional maize varieties in Mexico and Guatemala. A particular conservation challenge for the maize genebank is the regeneration of highland maizes from South America that are not well-adapted to growing conditions in Mexico. The maize collection comprises over 28,000 accessions including a field collection of Tripsacum (a wild relative of maize).

In recent years has received major infrastructure investments from both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New laboratories, greenhouses and the like ensure that CIMMYT is well-placed to deliver on its mission. And the support received through the Genebanks CRP has certainly raised the morale of genebank staff.

On our last day at CIMMYT (Wednesday), we met with Janny van Beem from the Crop Trust. Janny is a QMS expert, based in Houston, Texas, and she flew over to Mexico especially to meet with Marisé and me. When we visiited Bonn in April we only had opportunity to speak by Skype with Janny for jsut 30 minutes. Since the implementation of QMS in the genebanks seems to be one of the main challenges—and success stories—of the Genebanks CRP, we thought it useful to have an in-depth discussion with Janny about this. And very useful it was, indeed!

On the previous evening (Tuesday) Tom, Denise, Marisé, Janny and I went out for dinner in Texcoco, to a well-known tacqueria, then into the coffee shop next door afterwards. No margaritas that night – we’d sampled those on Monday.

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L to R: Janny, me, Tom, Marisé, and Denise.

But on this trip we did have one free day, Sunday. And I met up with members of CIMMYT’s Filipino community, many of them ex-IRRI employees, some of who worked in units for which I had management responsibility. They organised a ‘boodle fight‘ lunch, and great fun was had by one and all.

Hasta la vista . . .
At 6 pm on Wednesday I headed into Mexico City to take the KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was a 747-400 Combi (half passengers, half cargo). I haven’t flown a 747 for many years, and I’d forgotten what a pleasant experience it can be. It’s remarkable that the 747 is being phased out by most airlines; they are just not as economical as the new generation twin engine 777s, 787s, and A350s.

With the new seating configuration, I had a single seat, 4E, in the center of the main deck forward cabin. Very convenient. I was glad to have the opportunity of putting my leg up for a few hours. Over the previous 10 days my leg had swelled up quite badly by the end of each day, and it was quite painful. The purser asked if I had arranged any ground transport at Schipol to take me from the arrival to departure gates. I hadn’t, so she arranged that for me before we landed. The distances at Schipol between gates can be quite challenging, so I was grateful for a ride on one of the electric carts.

 

But after we went through security, my ‘assistant’ pushed me to my gate in a wheelchair. I must admit I felt a bit of a fraud. An electric cart is one thing, and most welcome. But a wheelchair? Another was waiting for me on arrival at Birmingham. Go with the flow!

  

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I was all alone in Business Class from Schipol to Birmingham. We were back at BHX on time, and I was out in the car park looking for my taxi home within about 20 minutes, and home at 6 pm.

Now the hard work really begins—synthesising all the discussions we had with so many staff at CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT. For obvious reasons I can’t comment about those discussions, but visiting these important genebanks in such a short period was both a challenging but scientifically enriching experience.

 

 

 

 

Plant Genetic Resources: Our challenges, our food, our future

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Jade Phillips

That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.

Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.

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Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.

Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.

Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham)
Introduction to PGR conservation and use

Ruth Eastwood (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Wakehurst Place)
‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ project

Holly Vincent (PhD student, University of Birmingham)
Global in situ conservation analysis of CWR

Joana Magos Brehm (University of Birmingham)
Southern African CWR conservation

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

Maria Scholten
Natura 2000 and in situ conservation of landraces in Scotland: Machair Life (15 minute film)

Aremi Contreras Toledo, Maria João Almeida, and Sami Lama (PhD students, University of Birmingham)
Short presentations on their research on maize in Mexico, landraces in Portugal, and CWR in North Africa

Julian Hosking (Natural England)
Potential for genetic diversity conservation – the ‘Fifth Dimension’ – within wider biodiversity protection

I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.

The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.

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Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.

Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.

Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.

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Seeds cannot be sold because they are not on any official list of seed varieties. What is interesting is that one variety of scarlet runner bean has become so popular among gardeners that a commercial seed company (Thompson & Morgan if I remember what he said) has now taken  this variety and selling it commercially.

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Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).

So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.

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Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.

Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.

On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

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¹ See the full 22 minute video here.