At the turn of the 21st Century, indigenous leaders in the Southern Ecuador region of Cañar saw a changing world. Farmers were giving up on the crops and techniques learned and practiced by countless generations. They chose instead to harvest monocultured potatoes, corn and rice, using pesticides and fertilizers that degraded the land and made crops more vulnerable to disease and drought, as well as the disruptions of Climate Change.
Two forces drove this transformation: the popularization of processed foods, which have replaced traditional Andean dishes, and the Ecuadorian government’s subsidization of the cultivation of corn and potatoes. Without incentives to grow traditional grains or the market to sell their crops, farmers in and around Cañar were left with little choice but to abandon the way of life that had made the Andes what it was.
Determined to reverse these trends, and preserve the world that formed him, agronomist and community leader Nicolas Pichazaca set to work on reinventing Ecuador's agro-economic system. To Nicolas, it would be possible for farmers to earn profits cultivating traditional crops such as quinoa, amaranth and barley by selling local consumers. Not only would small-scale farming become more profitable, the general public would have better access to nutritious products and grains that had been staples in the regional diet for thousands of years.
In 1994, Nicolas used seed funding from a local bank to send money to five “communas,” or farming communities, in and around Cañar that would enable farmers to purchase seeds for cultivation and equipment for grain processing. Nicolas called this newly formed farmers’ association Mushuk Yuyay (moo-shook yew-yai), which, in Quichua language, means “A new way.”
In the years since, Mushuk Yuyay has developed relationships with over 25 communas across three provinces in Southern Ecuador. The association provides member farmers with seeds and technical assistance. A 3,000-square-foot grain mill built in 2006 has enabled the association to produce and distribute grains to towns and cities across the region, including Cuenca, the largest city in Southern Ecuador.
Developing these types of supply chains – thus making small-share farming more economically viable – is essential for the transition to a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system. The crops Mushuk Yuyay promotes and produces are more resilient to extreme weather related to climate change, such as droughts and large temperature changes, than traditional commercial crops like potatoes, corn and white rice. Moreover, the association requires farmers to remain organic and use traditional farming techniques that emphasize agroecology. This means as Mushuk Yuyay continues to grow, the number famers will be helping with the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase in tandem.
The association is also working to expand its outreach to help improve nutrition in local communities. Like many middle-income countries, Ecuador is experiencing increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. This is a result of greater access to fatty, processed foods and other dietary choices. This has also been due to the movement away from the nutritious Andean grains that Mushuk Yuyay is working to popularize. To reverse these trends, Mushuk Yuyay is working with the University of Cuenca to develop a school lunch program using grains grown by the farmers in the association.
Amid this growth, issues remain. Revenue remains low and the government has been slow to provide funding, despite the association’s important mission and relative success. Reversing decades of shifting dietary preferences has been a difficult process as well, meaning the products remain fringe. Nicolas hopes the school lunch programs can help make Andean grains a staple of the region once more.