Definition after definition, no matter where you look or who you ask, states the word island as land surrounded by water. By constricting this word to its physical characteristics we lose an important aspect. The key to an island is not what surrounds it but what is inside, what is isolated. We first used the term island when visiting Smith Island, which was fully surrounded by water and fits the technical definition. While in Peru we also spent time in Punta San Juan, a peninsula separated from the outside world, isolated by a wall instead of water. It wasn’t until our travel to Parque de la Papa that we realized how broad the word island could be used. While not surrounded by water, the community set 14,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains, is completely isolated in every other way. No different from the separation of the citizens of Smith Island, they are economically and culturally removed from the rest of the modern world around them. These visits redefined the word island to not as a section of land surrounded by water but isolated culturally and economically.
Parque de la Papa, also known as Potato Park, is originally isolated by its location, set an hour from Cusco, up steep and winding roads barely navigable by motor vehicles. Due to this original separation, the community was able to form its own economy, minimally influenced by the rest of the country. Except by trading for fish, the community spent generations removed from the changing cultures of the nearby city. Due to this their technology, building and farming techniques continue unchanging for years. Living in a first world country we wonder how these isolated communities survive without modern medicine, technology and machinery, and rarely take the time to look at these thriving cultures.
This cultural separation is most distinctly seen in the interactions of the members of the community and the way in which they conduct business and work amongst themselves. Instead of each member growing up and moving out of the household, buying land and working it to maximize profits, they take a very different approach. After marriage each couple is given a piece of land in which they are able to live and harvest food. Since different foods come in different seasons and different places, each member helps everyone as their crops are ready to be harvested. This form of citizen interaction is a prime example of the main principles that the community is based on, equity, reciprocity and duality. This balance in a culture is rare throughout the world today, obviously minimally influenced from the surrounding materialism and capitalism. Sadly this part of the culture reveals a stark difference from our daily lives and shines light on the negativity of our constant progression and development. Not only have we destroyed the environment and created a world of competition and tension, but we have also lost the key selfless human interactions that we can barely imagine having. While their lives are physically harsh and difficult, they contain an innocence of love and community for each other and the environment that we are far from experiencing.
Through this way of living they also continue an extremely sustainable form of living that allows them to survive in such a harsh environment. They are able to feed, clothe and shelter themselves in an area of unbelievable cold and high altitude, almost unheard of in other similar areas. Much of their culture and religion is focused on the earth and the land and they therefore continue to plant crops, weave clothing and build shelters in a way that could continue for hundreds of years.
Unfortunately the future is not completely unscathed for this community. They, similar to Smith Island, are suffering from a loss of population due to children growing up and moving away from their traditional upbringing. Many continue into further education or other jobs and do not move back to this difficult lifestyle after moving into the modern world. They are also threatened by environmental issues such as global warming. While Smith Island deals with erosion and sea level rise, Parque de la Papa also suffers from global warming. The thousands of varieties of potatoes that they are most well known for, are being forced to be planted further up the mountain or at different times of the year. If the global temperature rises significantly it could disrupt the food cycle that they heavily rely on for survival. The melting of the nearby glacier has also lead to a possible future difficulty for fresh water access. Sadly, these issues do not mainly stem from this earth worshiping community. As isolated as their culture is from the rest of the world, we are indirectly influencing them by the environmental degradation affecting their ability to survive. With horror we are able to realize that these islands, no matter what they do, are not safe from the destruction that the rest of the world has created.