By Olivia Nolan
Cuenca’s supermarkets are a thing of wonder. Their convenience is unparalleled, and if you squint, they might as well be your local Stop & Shop or Safeway. For a peanut-butter addict like myself, I was thrilled to discover that they carry Jif, and that I could introduce my host family to the mystical PB&J.
I’m Olivia, and I just graduated high school in a small Massachusetts town. Eager to improve my Spanish and learn more about the famed Outside World, I decided to take a gap year and landed here, in Cuenca. I was placed with a lovely host family, who was as thrilled to learn about American sandwiches as I was to try chirimoyas and granadillas.
One of our first excursions together was to my host aunt´s farm, where I encountered a recently-born foal, some cuyes ready for slaughter, and a full-size pig being sterilized. But surprisingly, this wasn’t the most eye-opening part of my visit. As we watched our aunt wash heads of lettuce in the outdoor tap, my host siblings explained how difficult life is for small farmers like her. If they want to sell their produce to a grocery store the food must pass through several intermediaries, after which the original farmers receive a menial payout. And to even enter a contract like this, farmers must compete against large commercial farms, which use expensive agrochemicals to protect their hybrid, high yield crops. Farmers are forced into dependence on exploitative food chains and to use dangerous and ecologically harmful chemicals (with minimal training)—all for a barely-livable wage. After piecing this together from their patient Spanish explanations, my enthusiasm for Jif faded.
A few weeks after this farm outing, I began my internship in the provincial government office. There I became familiar with AgroAzuay, an organization that works directly with Azuay’s rural farming families. They help small farmers to effectively commercialize their agroecological practices by providing technical support, material donations, and training workshops to more than 8,400 families. AgroAzuay also provides secure locations in which families can sell produce in Cuenca´s city center, without any middle men. As I helped to deliver seedlings and saplings to villages across the province, I learned just what is being threatened by big agribusiness.
Small farms are Ecuador’s lifeblood. They power local economies, bring food to those who need it most, and maintain indigenous crops and techniques central to the country’s environmental wellbeing, nutrition, and culture.
Stabilize Communities and Economies
While commercial farms accumulate profit from export crops and supermarket sales, small farmers return their incomes directly into the rural economy. This lifts communities up by creating jobs and wealth on a local scale. In areas like Cuenca, where levels of migration are increasingly high, reducing unrest and pressure to migrate is crucial.
We´re frequently told that in order to combat world hunger, our only course is to increase productivity by investing in large-scale companies. But in reality, 70 percent of globally consumed food is produced by rural families and Indigenous communities (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch, 2016). And this food—grown on a small scale, largely in the Global South—is better able to reach the rural areas which struggle most with hunger. When operation costs become too great for small farmers to keep their land, or they cede to the market pressure and buy into export food chains, communities suffer.
Protect the Environment
Over the 20th century, there was a 75% loss of plant genetic diversity worldwide. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 2004) Monoculture farming is a huge contributor to the world’s dwindling biodiversity, and poses a threat to climate security as well as individual crop resilience. Though large scale farms tend to be more efficient, this production comes at environmental cost: they utilize massive monocrops, harmful agrochemicals which exhaust the soil, and often cause pollution to groundwater and the surrounding community.
And to compete with these ultra-efficient farms, many rural families are driven to use the same certified high-yield seeds and chemicals. They enter contracts to obtain these expensive, regulated materials on credit, and then become trapped in cycles of dependence. What’s more, untrained use of these chemicals poses a serious health risk, and can increase the renewal time of land. When afforded the security to opt out of these ecologically harmful options, farmers can use traditional knowledge about biodiversity, symbiotic relationships, and healthy soil microbiomes to produce sustainable, organic produce.
While the loss of biodiversity contributes to climate change, it also accelerates another crisis: poor nutrition. In communities the world over, traditional food is being replaced by processed diets rife with sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats. In Ecuador, micronutrient deficiency and overweight are most common among the rural indigenous population, who are experiencing perhaps the most severe diet shift. How do small farms combat this? A diversified selection of produce leads to diversified diets, which ensure that people receive the right nutrients. By prioritizing traditional and varied food types, small farmers provide healthier alternatives.
When farmers abandon their traditional cultivation practices, they lose an important element of indigenous culture. In 2008, Ecuador’s electorate approved a new Constitution. Written with input from a constituent assembly, the constitution includes the indigenous concept of Buen Vivir, or Sumak Kawsay in the Kichwa language. Buen Vivir ties wellbeing not to economic prosperity but to relationships with the greater community, natural world, and ancestors. Practically, indigenous farmers who practice this worldview seek to protect biodiversity and practice traditional agroecology techniques, as mentioned in the previous section. The threat of agribusiness to small farmers represents a colonial erasure of indigenous ways of life.
How AgroAzuay Supports Small Farmers
The systemic obstacles faced by small farmers are overwhelming. I, for one, am overwhelmed. But we all have our own little spheres of influence, and AgroAzuay offers a pretty simple way to support the rural families in our community.
AgroAzuay runs two permanent farm stores in the center, where more than 150 families sell an array of fresh and fair-trade goods. They have fruits, vegetables, legumes, dairy products, granola, chocolate, coffee, honey, chili, bread, trout, and much more. Or, AgroAzuay hosts open-air farmers markets each Friday, where you can buy all these things from the producers themselves. If you don’t want to make the trek into Cuenca´s center, you also have the option of shopping online and having produce shipped straight to your door.
More information and resources
Simón Bolívar y Vargas Machuca
Jorge Isaac Street y Av. Pumapungo
Hours: Monday through Friday from 8am to 7pm, and Saturdays from 9am to 6pm
Casa de la Provincia (Simón Bolívar y Tomás Ordóñez)
Hours: Fridays from 8am to 1pm
Feria Kennedy (Panamericana y Joaquina Galarza)
Feria Talleres (Av. Max Uhle, in front of Empresa Eléctrica)
Hours: Saturday and Sunday from 6am to 1pm
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