In southern Ecuador, a women-led agricultural program offers valuable lessons on sustainable farming methods, but also how to end violence.
SARAGURO — Here in this corner of southern Ecuador, life seems to be like a mandala — everything is cleverly used in this ancestral system of circular production. But the women of Saraguro had to fight and resist to make their way of life, protecting the local water and the seeds. When weaving, the women share and take care of each other, also weaving a sense of community.
With the wrinkled tips of her fingers, Mercedes Quizhpe, an indigenous woman from the Kichwa Saraguro people, washes one by one the freshly harvested vegetables from her garden. Standing on a small bench, with her hands plunged into the strong torrent of icy water and the bone-chilling early morning breeze, she checks that each one of her vegetables is ready for fair day. Her actions hold a life of historical resistance, one that prioritizes the care of life through the defense of territory and food sovereignty.
Mercedes' way of life is also one that holds many potential lessons for how to do agriculture and tourism better.
In the province of Loja, work begins before sunrise. At 5:00 a.m., the barking of dogs, the guardians of each house, starts. There is that characteristic smell of damp earth from the morning dew. Sheep bah uninterruptedly through the day. With all this life around, the crowing of early-rising roosters doesn't sound so lonely.
Sunday is an important day for Mercedes. It is time for the fair, where she can sell her products. She knows that she has no time to lose, so she takes her knife to harvest. Mercedes prefers to sow “a little bit of everything”, so the plants, in their variety, will nourish each other without wearing down the soil on which they live. She rapidly identifies which plants are ready for harvest: a bit of lettuce, a bit of rosemary, a bit of parsley.
Rural Women's network
Mercedes Quizphe is president of the Mashi Pierre Foundation and coordinator of the Rural Women's Network. "Mechita" defines herself as a Chasqui Warmi (woman) from the Saraguro people. More than 20 years ago, Mercedes was widowed and left in charge of her eight sons and daughters. Shortly after, her mother, who had also been her refuge, passed away.
Mercedes would have to face a reality many struggle with, according to the last national census, carried out in 2010 in Ecuador. 339,656 (4.7%) women are “single mothers”. Friends and neighbors invited her to grow her own food, and to activities and workshops that, although she did not know it at the time, would get her involved in a life of activism for food sovereignty.
One by one, she cleaned the vegetables so that they look "pretty" for sale. She says proudly that the dried leaves will serve as compost. “Here nothing is wasted," she says.
The ashes of the firewood, the plants that will not be for sale, and the feces of the chickens and cuys (animal native to the region) are used to make natural fertilizer, which makes chemical-free food, as well as a circular production system, which is very different to what happens in the production systems in the rest of the world.
The cost of food waste
Isabel Pazmiño, a member of the Food Bank, says that Ecuador wastes 939,000 tons of food per year. This would feed 1.5 million people, or 8.8% of the population. According to the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), worldwide food waste has reached 1,600 million tons. This also has environmental impacts. “The carbon footprint of food waste is estimated at 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere per year,” the report says.
According to United Explanations, one of the main causes of food waste is the "perfection myth", which emphasizes that the products on the shelves are the "best quality" depending on their appearance. However, the aesthetics of the product is not related to its nutritional value.
At Mercedes' house, the water jet suddenly stops working. She gets down from the bench and puts down her vegetables, quickly but carefully, in three baskets. She cleans the space and recounts all the times she has fallen sick from washing the vegetables in cold water at dawn. She runs to take a shower, changes her clothes and puts on the typical attire of her community. A long black skirt with a sash with gold embroidery, an embroidered pastel pink blouse, a blue poncho, a hat with an inner brim.
She also wears a distinctive necklace of beads that Mercedes herself wove, symbolizing one of the most recognized crafts of her town. For the Saraguro people, it is important to always carry their identity. “They see us in our attire, our elegance, our smile, and with that we show that our identity is very important. That's the pride we carry as indigenous peoples and nations,” Mercedes says happily.
Woman in Saraguro, Ecuador
The road to the fair in the center of Saraguro is long, even more so when the wrists start to hurt due to the weight of the baskets. When the load is too much, Mercedes must take a taxi, which will cost approximately $1.50. That's a steep price, considering that she will earn between 50 and 75 cents for a lettuce that required approximately 3 months of care until it was harvested.
Even so, the value of their produce increases the further it travels. According to the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, products like lentils are sold 117% more expensive after they leave the production site. That is to say, in the cities they can be six times more expensive. However, those who planted and harvested these products do not receive any extra profit. “It's hard to see that you work so much and you don't get paid fairly. You never get paid fairly, and you wear out your body, energy, and mind. We want our work to be fairly recognized,” says Mercedes.
At the market, people offer their products and in the background music plays. There’s a special area in the market for women-led exclusively agro-ecology. “The difference is that the compañeras have a certificate that guarantees that all the products are grown just like in my garden — no chemicals, no fumigation and made by women,” says Mercedes.
The women talk about life, children, rising prices, the farms, the government, love, husbands, caring, violence, fears. Mercedes knows the fear well. "That fear of many compañeras who say: no, I don't want to split from my husband, I'm not going to make it alone. But I've had the opportunity to go through all that and yes, you can get out, you can live."
Mercedes' story is that of many indigenous women who have grown up with the phrase "even if he hits or kills, he's a husband". Many of these women found the strength to leave violent environments through social outreach programmes.
Strengthening the community
The book How We Learned to Fly collects the testimonies of the indigenous women of Saraguro who, through collective and feminist processes, have broken cycles of violence.
In a weaving workshop she leads, Mercedes hears women's stories the violence they have experienced, violence she experienced herself. Mercedes tells them her story. For her, it is not just making a bracelet, but tying knots with the women in the workshop to weave and strengthen each other. “If a neighbor or relative has a need, we lend our hands to help take care of the children, so they can do their paperwork. In our communities, we still maintain that collective support, especially women.”
Mercedes is recognized as a feminist indigenous woman who has participated in sit-ins, protests and has strengthened connections with women from her community. She recounts when she and her compañeras were in a sit-in in the province of Loja to demand justice for a girl who had been raped in Saraguro. They confronted the police who wanted to displace them, but like the necklaces they weave, they linked arms, wove themselves together and couldn’t be separated or moved.
Mercedes and her companions call themselves the Chasqui Warmi Quna. They have held leadership workshops on handicrafts, ecological pesticides, and the patriarchal and capitalist system. "Community tourism is not sweeping the house for the tourist to come, it is sweeping the house for the family and sharing activities together," says Ricardo, Mercedes' son.