Learning To Value Mother Earth
By Suzanne Fisher-Murray
29 August, 2013
Reducing waste and eating foods that have less of an impact on the environment is this years’ World Environment Day theme. We can all learn lessons from communities living in the Andes.
Men and women of the Andean wisdom networks map out their local area and sources of food.
Antonio Pineda has learned many things in his life. He grows his crops, including more than 65 potato varieties, high up in the Andes on the Peruvian altiplano at around 3,800 meters altitude. In fact he grows them so successfully that he is very well respected in his community and in the Andean region. He also herds llamas and alpacas for making clothing, rope and twine. But he never forgets where all these gifts that his family lives on come from.
“Our Holy Earth lives, only she does not talk”, says Pineda. As a result, he and other farmers living in the village of Aymaña cultivate the land with manure and follow rituals, “so we do not destroy Mother Earth.”
For Antonio, and many Aymara and Quechua communities living in Bolivia and Peru, Pachamama, or Mother Earth, is bountiful year after year, because of the devotion and respect she receives from farmers.
Sometimes she provides her own blood – rock salt – called puka cachi – and other times she offers clayish soil – called chajo. The soil’s high mineral content is so good for nourishing human beings that it is eaten with the potatoes.
This is why Antonio makes offerings to Pachamama and other spirits of rivers and lakes, and to Apus, the mountain gods. Food comes from the Earth and should be respected, and this is why he thinks the storage room where his food is stored should be entered barefoot and perfumed with incense.
Since 2007, IIED has been part of a global initiative to create spaces for farmers like Antonio and other citizens to decide what type of agricultural research is needed to put the individuals who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than corporations and market institutions. This process, was carried out as part of a project called Democratising the Governance of Food Systems: Citizens Rethinking Food and Agricultural Research for the Public Good, and has been carried out in West Africa (Mali), South Asian (India), West Asia (Iran) and the Andean region in Latin America (Peru).
A traditional Altiplano custom of remembering, imagining and dreaming to influence outcomes in the future – called alasitas – was used as a device to encourage community members to “dream” about how they saw food production and agricultural research in the future on their farms and in their local communities.
A farmer named Presentacion shares her “dream” in this video [left] where she shows us around a model of her fields and house to show people how she grows and prepares her food by – for instance by grinding the quinoa with a ‘qola’ or stone mill.
She is proud that she is self-sufficient in producing her family’s food from her garden, hens and guinea pigs and her garden. “All the food comes from my fields, I do not go to the market to buy anything,” says Presentacion.
The dialogues between scientists and farmers from the wise elders network of the Andean Programme for Food Sovereignty, referred to as the ‘Wisdom Dialogues’, led to a confirmation of the rich and detailed traditional knowledge held by the Quechua and Aymara communities living in areas such as the Carabaya and Puno provinces in Peru. This detailed knowledge is shared in this video [right] with Lydia and Andres who speak of the signs or indicators, “important for our fields”. They list examples such as how certain plants are growing, or the size and shape of animal droppings. They watch these signs to know how and when to plant crops, and how they will fare: “we want to continue watching to improve our fields, and to eat well”.
Antonio worries that this rich knowledge is not being passed on to future generations. He says the young people can’t read the signs – such as the call of the fox – for when it is right time to plant their crops. “Even the grown-ups have forgotten the potato names” he says. But, there is still hope as “others want to follow, they want to recover the knowledge, and they ask.”
Fostering dialogue and influencing agricultural research
The project aimed to foster greater dialogue between scientists and researchers and farmers, and for farmers to have a greater say in future agricultural research being carried out.
Don Rufino Chambi, 63, who has been a farmer all his life, spoke about his ‘dream’ of greater collaboration and dialogue between the scientists and farmers, where they become compañeros or friends, sharing ideas. But the present model he describes is one where the scientists think they know best: “We know that the scientists of the agriculture ministry want to provide seeds, then they explain which fertiliser they use, that they want to donate, and we think no, they should not donate to us” says Chambi, because the potato varieties they are providing only last for two years, “and then the seeds will disappear”.
In the video Chambi says he hopes the scientist [when he visits their community] will put his notebook down and talk to them. He says they plant potatoes only after they produce their kintu [an offering of three coca leaves arranged in a fan shape] and wine. “We know how and when to plant by looking at [signs such as] the lily [a plant often planted close to people’s houses], the mountain ridges, moon and sun...and the families are teaching the children how to cultivate,” says Chambi.
Despite his reservations, the project did develop a respect on both sides for the knowledge held by both the indigenous communities and also by the scientists: “The sincere, attentive and mutual respect between the scientists and farmers when focusing on their knowledge differences was a pleasant surprise for both parties; this has set the terms of engagement for a common agenda in the future,” (pg 162, Voices and Flavours from the Earth: Visualising food sovereignty in the Andes)
And it resulted in surprising and unplanned outcomes. For example, some members from communities located near Lake Titicaca, a lake located high up in Bolivia and Peru’s alitplano, were surprised by the high number of male scientists, which suggested a lack of gender equality in terms of how knowledge was shared and held in the scientific community.
“They were surprised by the high number of male scientists, whereas in the communities most knowledge is shared between men and women, with the exception that women are the guardians of seeds and food storage. Wise men and women realise that their knowledge is not private property, it cannot be sold nor bought or stolen.”
One participant said: “We have learned from our wisdom. We have recalled how we were before, now we will not forget what we are and that is how we want to continue to be in the future.” (pg 156, Voices and Flavours from the Earth: Visualising food sovereignty in the Andes)
In the end the project reflects the rich and detailed knowledge held by the local communities and their world view of the Earth as a living, sacred Mother Earth, and of everything as inter-connected. The food produced and the animals living off the land cannot survive without Pachamama, who needs to be protected and sustained through organic, and non-mechanised farming practises.
“We would say [to the scientists] that we plough our fields with oxen, not with tractors,” says Chambi. “We won’t use a tractor because the worms living in the soil will be thrown out and the birds will eat them and there is nobody to sustain Mother Earth. This is what we defend.”
Respect for the food they eat and devotion to Mother Earth, from where it comes, shines through the interviews. “Today the youngsters are running after money, only money. …Will they eat the money?” asks Antonio Pineda. “The money will be piled up, just the same as the minerals. But we cannot eat this. We will eat the food from our fields and we will live with this food.”
Download 'Voices and Flavours from the Earth: Visualising food sovereignty in the Andes', a multimedia document with further information about the project and links to more video interviews. Available in English and Spanish.
About the author
For over 12 years I have been telling stories through radio, online and print to bring about positive social change. With over 12 years communications experience, I’ve conceived and managed radio drama series, reported from African countries in the midst of civil war, including Sierra Leone, Burundi and Liberia, and Nigeria, where I traveled alone to produce a radio documentary series for the BBC World Service. I've worked as a writer, an editor, a radio producer, a communications manager and researcher and a web editor. I am now the web content manager at IIED, communicating online about our work.
Contact details for further information
Maruja Salas: Author of Voices and Flavours from the Earth, facilitator, documenter and advisor for farmer-scientist dialogues.
Michel Pimbert: Project leader and Director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University.
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