Fabricio Guamán from Zapalllo Verde writes for Fife Diet.
Under the big ceibo tree, enjoying a rest in the fresh air, I remembered my grandmother’s words at one of those big meetings with the politicians of the moment who were accustomed to come and make offers and tell lies. My grandmother would say to them, with a hint of humour and rebellion, “You’d best remember that in this country nothing happens … until the women decide what’s to happen.”
Another great woman told them, “You come to offer us changes, We know that those changes are necessary, but we also know that the changes you offer us are not the changes that we suggest and make. That’s to say, the changes you suggest don’t change the real problem, which is that there are a few people above, and many below, and those who are above are there at the cost of those below.”
Others dared to go even further, saying, “It’s now completely clear that we can expect absolutely nothing from the political class; that what’s necessary is to do away with the capitalist system based on exploitation, plunder, repression, racism and contempt for the majority, and with the political system that allows capitalism to keep on functioning.”
I also remembered my grandfather’s words, spoken as we walked through the forest: “You and I are opposed beings, but complementarily productive. We Kichwas recognise that the essence of life is the meeting of opposites, the contrasting male and female forces, death and life, this world and the other.”
Ecuador is a small country that has historically followed the paths of the rest of Latin America. For several decades, local populations have been dissatisfied with the impositions of a system which tried in various ways to ignore the future. On the pretext of development, governments have opted for a system of extraction and of exporting agricultural produce. Ecuador has, in fact, always been a country that exports raw materials. During her history she has exported rubber, cascarilla [a medicinal herb], coffee, bananas, shrimps, roses, and, at present, petroleum. Always according to the same plan, production demanding extensive monoculture without respect for either the environment or local populations, with the one aim of exporting and making money for the few.
However, besides her huge agricultural diversity the country has a huge cultural diversity. In Amazonia alone there are ten nationalities each with its own language, its own customs, its own interpretation of reality.
It has been the combination of several factors – historical, cultural and environmental among others – that has made Ecuador the scene of several episodes affecting the history of this little corner of the planet and of this continent.
The struggle against power and its attempts to homogenise all aspects of life has been arduous. Here we include homogenisation of thought: that we should think there is only one way of seeing and living in the world. This has obliged many local populations to renounce their own history and their own destiny while succumbing to the laws of the global market, so leaving to one side, along with much else, that wealth of knowledge and agricultural practice which allowed them to live in harmony with their surroundings, to be able to live in a healthy environment, to enjoy sharing that solidarity and that reciprocity through that wealth of foods and seeds.
Many human relationships are nowadays set against the backcloth of the global market. In other words we relate to each other solely from the starting-point of possession of money. Thus the concepts of wealth and poverty become the bottom line of these relationships.
My grandparents and parents were among the many who had to leave the countryside and look for better times in the city. These streams of migrants, among other factors, have led to urbanisation of the country as a whole while rural areas give way to extensive export-led monoculture. As a result, Ecuador is losing its food sovereignty.
Today, however, many local populations have managed to keep and perpetuate this knowledge and these practices. In spite of many difficulties, the few who remained in the countryside kept up their traditions and their mutual and complementary relationships, exchanging their seeds and sowing hope.
When I arrived in Amazonia in the mid-1990s the scenario was no different from that of the rest of the country. To the capitalist system those territories were no more than wasted land, their population regarded as inefficient. For more than a few decades there were attempts to “put those lands to use” and to set their population to “work”. This was done through “development projects” of international co-operation, government projects funded by external debt, but all without the results expected by the government, the bank, and businesses.
Among so many things that I discovered in the course of my journeys through those warm and caring lands was that reciprocity which was transformed into that complementarity which for many sounds like rebellion. The family or ayllu still maintained those ties of kinship and consanguinity which transcend even rational frontiers. I refer to spiritual relationships woven together over many years – relationships which were strengthened thanks to certain “magical” plants which opened to us the doors to other worlds. Those other worlds enabled us to understand and care for this one, and vice versa. Those families belonged to the community. Its organisation was horizontal; men as well as women took an active part. The decisions, no matter how “unimportant” or “transitory” they seemed, were taken in huge assemblies where all might speak and where their words were sacred and truthful. The whole people, which united the communities, went out to the minga, the communal work, whether to build the school or to clean the channels which take water to farms and houses. They were also organised to hold feasts or football matches. I was able to really live in the community, thinking that my actions were not mine alone; that we ourselves were building this community autonomously and independently; that in spite of many pressures (especially possible extraction of petroleum in these territories) there was hope, and that hope was being constructed, not merely hoped for.
I met people who were constructing that hope, each in his or her own way. Some collected seeds which seemed to have disappeared and been forgotten. Seeds of which our grandparents told us the ways to collect. Seeds which contained those rebellions of more than five hundred years. Seeds wanting to be sown and shared. Seeds which did not forget that the future is sown today.
There were also people who did not have that knowledge and those practices but had others, and were approaching bit by bit, at first with curiosity and then with respect and dignity. City people who did not claim to go beyond its boundaries and possibilities, and who were ready to listen before speaking. People who were building relationships of another kind, more human and more just, with their surroundings as much as with people.
We of those two worlds, those of the country and the city, were meeting and getting to know each other. We were sharing anxieties. We were reflecting together without either imposing or undermining. We were building that hope which we wanted to captivate us. Thus were born small hopes which we baptised one by one. One of them, the smaller, now barely four years old, we called Cooperativa Agroecológica Zapallo Verde [‘Green Pumpkin’] and the other we named Casa del Árbol [‘House of the Tree’].
Today is Wednesday, and we are in the Floresta district of the city of Quito. We go into this brightly-coloured house known by the name of Casa del Árbol, where the Cooperativa Zapallo Verde functions. It is three o’clock in the afternoon and people begin to come and go. People of all sorts, who come from different areas around this city and bring what they have produced. Some with vegetables and fruit, others with their dairy produce, fresh cheese, mature cheese, yogurt, milk. Others with home-made jam from tropical fruits. Others with their bread of many kinds: quinua, maize, amaranth, pumpkin; or cake specialities: maqueño, mora, pineapple; all with their grandmothers’ recipes. Others bring their little bags containing medicinal and aromatic plants, bags containing that thousand-year-old wisdom.
The little market opens with its variety of colours and scents; it attracts dozens of people each week. People who look not only for quality in its wares but also reciprocity. They all know each other to some extent. Many buyers know the fincas, the places where everything offered in this special place is produced.
Today’s market coincides with the projection of a documentary on the history of the Monsanto company. Many remain and find space in the little room where the film will be shown. Afterwards they consider and briefly discuss what they have seen and share their own experiences.
On one of the notice-boards beside the many books that can be consulted or exchanged, there is the announcement of a home bread-making workshop at the coming weekend.
Another poster announces that on Fridays there is food on offer prepared from ingredients from Amazonia. The little-known maito de pescado is offered: fish native to Amazonian rivers, wrapped in leaves and grilled. This Friday there will also be a presentation of the book Historia de una cultura a la que se quiere matar [‘History of a culture that they want to kill’], a two-volume collection of stories, myths and legends of the Amazonian Runa Kichwa culture which they themselves have compiled. One of the authors, we are told, will be there to share his experience and his people’s struggle against oil interests in their territory.
And so, among the comings and goings, the conversations and the tastings, evening descends on us. We bid each other farewell and leave with our baskets and bags full of hope. I rouse myself with the first drops that fall, get up and make my way to my grandparents’ house to continue sharing roads.
From the foot of the mountain