In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I’ve already been to Ecuador, my finale country in this year of travel forHeifer. But because with 12 x 12 I’m going to places nobody ever goes (the farms in poor, remote valleys and small fishing villages in risky ports on the coast), I’m actually seeing every country for the very first time– whether I’ve been there before or not.
Ecuador is an awe-inspiring country in a whole bunch of ways. Although it’s rather small by South American standards, it’s one of 17 countries that biologists like to call “mega-diverse” (and how much do you love that phrase?)
The gigante petrino tree — cousin to the mighty ceiba!
In fact, it’s got the most biodiversity per square mile of any country on earth – including these parrots.
Ecuador is on the equator (duhhh!) but because it’s in the Andes and has the world’s highest active volcanoes (Cotopaxi is rumored to be due for a new blow-out), it’s not really sweaty-hot tropical.
But it is one of the biggest producers of tropical crops – specifically shrimp, cocoa, sugar cane, coffee, and yes, bananas.
Ecuador has a handsome, youngish President Rafael Correa who is progressive in the mold of Latin America’s dynamic new crop of politicians who are bringing courage, cajones and change to their people…. and that gives me cause for great optimism, despite the challenges of poverty and hunger in the rural provinces.
Quito, a beautiful colonial city that I remember as being rather run-down, is now hip, urbane and downright glossy.
It’s amazing to come back 15 years later and see so much changed. However, the real glory of Ecuador, to my mind, is the charm of its people – particularly the indigenous people who live in La Sierra (as opposed to La Costa or La Amazonia)… although in truth, all Ecuadorians are pretty irresistible.
I’ve got such stories to tell about what I saw (and ate)! Stay tuned ..
Although I used to embroider and do crewelwork in a past life, I have never been known to Stitch without Bitching, and nobody has ever accused me of having any real talent in fiber handicrafts. However, I do know art when I see it, and the day I spent with Heiferat Ocongate, Peru in the presence of the Six Stars of Bacchanta weavers was nothing short of magical (quite possibly because there was a lot of shopping involved).
The Six Stars setting in the Ausangate Andean Range... not bad, right?
This Heifer/AEDES project is part of Heifer’s Cusco umbrella project to help 4,333 families in 22 Highlands communities close the value chain of breeding alpacas: raising, shearing, spinning, and weaving the precious fiber… then going all the way to the final step of producing knit goods that will maximize their income. After all, when the Highland families do all the hard work of producing the fiber, wouldn’t it be great if they got the major income that comes from making stuff from that fiber??
Master weaver Francisco
To that end, Heifer and its local NGO partner AEDES are helping the 120-member Six Stars organization, with the super-charismatic Francisco at the helm, to learn advanced methods to clean, dye, categorize, create and execute uniformly beautiful designs that can then be sold in local and regional markets (like in nearby, tourist-laden Cusco) at a highly profitable price point.
The women demonstrated “phusca” (Quechua for spinning), which the Highlands women do incessantly, walking around with balls of alpaca fluff that they relentlessly twist and refine to convert fleece into thread.
There are 31 different categorizations of alpaca fiber, from thickest to most desirable thinnest (31) and with Heifer trainings, Six Stars participants have become adept at both breeding their animals to produce fibers of a higher category, and learning to knit with these super-fine fibers.
Up close & personal with an alpaca's fleece --unbelievably thick & luscious!
Natural alpaca fiber in all hues, particularly blacks and browns, are hugely in vogue –particularly the darker colors (and Heifer is providing those alpacas for breeding). But for the sheep’s wool that is used in many other handicrafts, natural dyes are all the rage. Victoria showed us the flowers and herbs that produce the yellows, purples and blues for their wool weavings, as well as the scales from insects who live in cactus (!!) and produce a rich,vibrant red.
Felting (rolling tight little balls made from the short neck hairs of the hirsute alpaca) makes use of every bit of the precious fiber, and is used in necklaces, earrings and bracelets with a modern whimsical twist. But one of Francisco’s favorite claims is that Six Stars is bringing back ancient and forgotten Incan designs, with its plethora of birds, spiders, chicanas (the Incan cross) and condors that revere the past.
In the future, however, it’s all about these trainings empowering the Highlands people to stand up for their own food sovereignty, land security, and the right to the profits from their incredible hard work. One of the oddities of Peruvian commerce is that every organization needs to be legally registered with the government in order to be recognized, enabled to work with other organizations, and to sell its wares. Heifer has helped Six Stars to register (a lengthy and expensive process) so now the group can work with the Ministry of Tourism, export its beautiful fibers, and participate in the trade economy.
Softer than soft ...super-premium baby alpaca fur is the most valuable of all.
What can I say but … coming soon, to a store near you!
As we drove up and up, from Cusco to Marcapata through the Ausangate Range of the Andes, the air got markedly thinner, and the scenery got wilder and more spectacular. There were five of us in the truck: me; Lidia, the adorable Director of Heifer Cusco; Rosaluz, my Heifer translator; Carlitos, our jovial driver; and Kristen, an enthusiastic American volunteer working in the Cusco office. As we blasted Edith Piaf on the CD player (in complete & wonderful incongruity), they tried to explain to me the intricacies of Heifer’s Alpaca Bio-Diversity in High Andean Communities program. I was trying hard to follow, but I kept getting distracted by the amazing views of llamas, alpacas, glaciers and peaks out the window….and La Vie en Rose.
Beautiful and pristine, this part of the Central Highlands is inhabited almost exclusively by llama and alpaca herding communities in one of the few remaining pastoralist societies in the world. The wet season runs from October – May, when the pastures soak up water like a sponge, and fluffballs of grazing alpacas dot the hillsides. In the dry season, May- October, life gets a lot more challenging, as pastures shrivel and the grazing is sparse. It’s a never-ending struggle for survival, and the 22 Andean communities in Heifer’s program are far-flung, small indigenous villages that are almost exclusively dependent on the alpaca for income, meat and sustenance.
The Highlanders’ hard-wrung existence is further threatened by climate change, with disappearing glaciers leading to scarcity of water and diminished pasture; food insecurity (only potatoes grow at this rarefied altitude and 45% of children under 5 are malnourished), and the low quality of the alpaca herds.
In past years, white alpaca fur was by far the most valuable, so breeders began to kill their brown, black and tan alpacas. Before you could say “genetic disaster,” the 22 natural shades of alpaca became 90% white, and in-breeding caused a multitude of weaknesses in the animals.
Pretty blue eyes, but that's not a good sign in alpacas.
So Heifer is making an investment in these 4,333 alpaca-raising families to help them not only survive, but thrive. Working in partnership with AMADARES, a local NGO, Heifer is providing robust bulls in non-white alpaca colors, seeds and materials, as well as funding 2 veterinarian/technicians. In monthly workshops in each community, the techs teach the breeders better methods of reproduction, animal care, pasture maintenance, shearing, categorizing the fiber, and making alpaca handicrafts.
The alpaca rainbow coalition -- how beautiful!!
We met Claudio Pacco, one of the vet/techs, when we finally reached Marcopata at dusk, a sweet little town huddled in a valley between two giant mountains. Claudio lives in Puno and drives 9 hours every month to Marcopata to begin a 20-day stint where he rises daily at 4:30 a.m. to ride his motorcycle (brrrrrr!) to the remote villages so he can get there before 6 a.m. when the alpacas are put out to pasture.
Claudio at work, with a storm coming in.
Claudio is 31 and both his parents and grandparents were alpaca breeders, so he feels it was his destiny to be a vet. “I have a very inner feeling about alpacas,” he tells me shyly, “and I love working with them, even though they have lots of problems.”
Alpacas do have lots of problems – which I’ll be telling you about at length in my next post – but lack of love from Claudio isn’t one of them. I’ve rarely met anyone whom I felt was more committed, gentle and self-effacing (he wouldn’t even translate comments that praised him) – although I worried that he was never going to get married with a killer schedule like he’s keeping.
As we all walked back to our rustic hotel that night, getting ready for a big trip to the communities the next day, I looked up at the Ausangate Range and remembered that in Andean culture, the mountains are considered gods (“apu”), as protector and creator of the people, and source of water. Those sacred beliefs have held fast for six centuries — but now that gold has been found in the Ausangate, the mountains themselves are at risk of being torn apart, as well as the way of life of the alpaca farmers. The Heifer/ADAMARES teachings and trainings in community organization, empowerment, and building a sustainable economy are laying some great groundwork for a different outcome. Let’s just hope it’s in time for the next generation!
She's got her lasso and she's ready to go!
And just in case you’re longing for a bit of La Vie en Rose, here ya go!
First, a bit of a disclaimer: this is your unapologetically turistica introduction to the beautiful land of Peru!
Right now I don’t quite have the perspective or internet bandwidth to post about all the deeply moving stories I’ve experienced so far in this amazing country. So I’m just going to give you the view from 15,000 feet .. which is approximately how high I am today in Pasco City, the highest city in Peru. (And yes, that is the sound of my heart pounding, trying to pump oxygen to my brain.)
Peru is severely beautiful .. with miles of ocean shoreline and the Andes (sierra) and the jungle (selva). It’s bordered by Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile and is packed with silver, gold, copper and zinc – making it well-nigh irresistible to mining interests that never saw a mountain they didn’t want to level.
Although the country’s economy has improved dramatically over the past decade, the indigenous people in the Highlands (where Heifer does most of its work) are still overwhelmingly poor, ferociously independent, and definitely know how to rock a hat.
In the center of Marcopata, we saw a statue that pretty much captures the Highland spirit. The bull represents the Spaniards who colonized Peru. The condor tied to its back is the indigenous people, who claw and fight to be released from bondage – literally drawing blood.
These proud descendants of the Inca Empire are going to need every shred of that irrepressible spirit today to resist the triple threat of mining companies, urbanization, and climate change. Almost one-third of the country’s 30 million inhabitants now lives in Lima, yet you know it must kill something inside these proud people to leave their mountains and ancient traditions to descend to the arid pull of the city.
Heifer’s projects are mostly in the high central plateau, where it is developing programs that support the Highlanders’ traditional pursuits of raising alpaca and llama, growing potatoes, and making handicrafts – working with communities to make these pursuits economically viable, entrepreneurial, and sustainable.
Which means that more children can grow up with a future in the countryside they love, and preserve the land and traditions that are under siege.
I can’t wait to share those stories… just as soon as I can breathe properly again. It’s gonna be epic!