Ecuador's women farmers reap rewards of joint work

By Irene Caselli
Apahua, Ecuador

image captionFabiola Quishpe wants to share her experiences to help other women

As Fabiola Quishpe stands in a field wearing a bright red shawl and black hat, there is little that sets her apart from the other indigenous women in her small community in the Ecuadorean Andes.

But she is far from typical.

At 43, she is divorced, has no children, and has flown more than once.

And for the women in Apahua, a small Quechua settlement, Ms Quishpe is more than a sister to laugh with: she is a model to look up to.

After being married to an abusive man for several years, Ms Quishpe left him, went back to her parents' home and started dedicating herself to her community.

"There used to be a lot of sexism," she says. "Husbands were not letting their women out - we were not allowed to participate in public meetings.

"We were already in charge of the home, of raising our children and the animals, we were in charge of the fields and of food.

"We started thinking, why can't we women also participate in public events and get organised?"

image captionLocal women have traditionally tended the flocks and grown the crops

What started as a group of 38 women pushing for more female participation in the community is now an organisation recognised for its environmental work.

Two-hundred women are now involved and several non-governmental organisations have come here to provide training and technical support.

When Ms Quishpe and other women first got together in 2003, they realised that the environment around them was changing.

"We started noticing that there was less water available in the community," she says.

Native seeds

Water capacity in the Andean highlands depends on a delicate ecosystem known as paramo, a sponge-like grassland that absorbs water from rivers and rainfall and releases it gradually.

Some organisations say that up to 30% of the paramo has been destroyed nationwide in recent years.

"People in the community used the paramo to let their animals graze," says Ms Quishpe.

"There were a lot of animals - goats, llamas, cows, and pigs - and they would destroy the grasslands."

"When there is paramo, there is water," says Ms Quishpe.

"When there is no paramo, there is no water."

Apahua is an isolated place, some four hours south of Ecuador's capital city, Quito, and located some 4,000m (13,000ft) above sea level.

Given the scarce job opportunities in the area and the high levels of poverty, most men have left for Quito or other cities to find work and send money home. It was the women who were left to tackle the water problem.

They stopped animals grazing and decided that no trees should be planted there. They also started a conservation scheme to recover and preserve native seeds.

They now grow 30 varieties of potatoes, as well as different species of broad beans and local root vegetables.

image captionFarming together allows the women to share the work - and the fun

As she walks around her plot of land, Maria, another organisation member, is very proud of how productive her fields have become - at a very low cost.

"In the past we used chemicals," she says. "But now we use guinea pig manure. It's our own compost, we don't have to buy it."

Ms Quishpe adds that their new awareness is also helping to improve the community's diet.

"If you want to buy something in the city, you can do it only if you have money," says Ms Quishpe.

"But if you work in your own fields, you always have something to eat."

Getting an education

In December 2009, she flew to Copenhagen to participate in the United Nations climate change negotiations.

It was the first time she had left Ecuador, and the first time she had flown.

"I was scared," she says. "I was amazed. I asked myself, how did I end up here?"

image captionThe project is allowing the women to produce better and more varied food

She says her community involvement started when she was 14 and travelled with missionaries to teach people about Catholicism.

Her participation in the climate change meeting reminded her of that work, Ms Quishpe says, because she was able to share her knowledge with other women from around the world.

"In the past we always knew when it was summer, and when it was winter. Now, we don't know anymore," she says. "We women need to be prepared to face climate change."

Every week the women gather for a minga - a Quechua word meaning collective work. They tend to a small community garden to grow vegetables which they they cook and eat together. Every new step is discussed at meetings.

As Ms Quishpe tells her story, sitting on a patch of land by the side of a road, some women listen with admiration, while others knit and laugh, gossiping about the cars that drive by.

Some changes are evident, says Ms Quishpe, as she encourages the others to explain how the organisation has influenced their lives.

Some older women say they learnt how to read and write. Others say men are slowly becoming less aggressive.

"There aren't many cases of rape anymore," says Maria Josefina. "Earlier men always used to beat us up, and call us names.

"We were always scared and we kept to ourselves."

"We have a good time together," says Marta. "Every time we come here we can laugh together."

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