A Fascinating People Located High in the Andes Mountains

We've recently had the opportunity to connect with a group of indigenous people located in Ecuador called the Kañari Kichwa. The Kañari are in the process of reviving many of their traditional agricultural practices, after having largely thrown off the yoke of external control by various empires over the last few hundred years. 

To be completely honest, I did not know very much about Ecuador before I started talking with the Kañari and someone who works with them in the United States. It turns out that Ecuador is this amazing ecological place, packed with biodiversity. I learned that Ecuador is one of seventeen megadiverse countries, which means they have among the highest concentration of unique plant and animal species in the world. In addition, because of the elevation changes, there are actually many different climactic zones located inside this one, relatively small country.

At Aspire, we want to study and learn from various experiments across the globe which are exploring regenerative food practices. We also want to provide additional exposure for groups like the Kañari so that more people can learn about what they are doing. Over time, we hope to connect various groups into a highly organized but decentralized web of ecologically sensitive human settlements.

Ecuador - The Political Context

The first humans in the area were what we would now call indigenous groups. Over time, the people in the various climactic regions started to develop their own cultural practices. Later these groups became the Valdivia Culture, the Machalilla Culture, the Quitus, and the Cañari. The Kañari Kichwa are the continuation of the Cañari culture from this period (Cañari and Kañari are different spellings for the same word). 

In the mid-1400's, the Incan Empire conquered all of modern day Ecuador. There was stability for a time, which resulted in some infrastructure projects which still partially exist today. However, the Incas encountered three serious problems:

  • The Incan Emperor died, creating a succession crisis and civil war.
  • The soldiers from the Spanish Empire arrived in search of gold, challenging Incan rule.
  • Smallpox outbreaks broke out and killed as much as 75% of the Incan population. 

There is some dispute as the precise sequencing of the three factors, although it is clear they all happened during the same general time period. The confluence of these three factors enabled the Spaniards to quickly conquer the region.

In terms of farming, the Spaniards used a hacienda model, which is the Spanish equivalent to plantations. The haciendas were huge tracts of land, typically owned by one individual, which required large inputs of forced manual labor. Because the haciendas depended on a predatory labor model, the conditions for the workers were quite poor, apparently comparable to a Soviet gulag.

The hacienda system produced a number of longterm negative effects in the region. They left the soils depleted due to the lack of crop diversity and lack of a well-planned irrigation system. The local inhabitants were left in abject poverty because their needs were not prioritized by their colonial rulers. Local markets and economies were neither developed nor encouraged since the goal was primarily wealth extraction for Spain and its local representatives. 

Later, Ecuador declared independence from Spain and is now a representative democracy. I noticed that the legacy of Spanish rule still remains via language. Most of the Kañari people are fluent in both Spanish and their native language, Kichwa. I found it to be an interesting irony that the only reason I could communicate with the Kañari Kichwa people at all was their ability to speak Spanish. In other words, an odd benefit left over from the highly problematic colonial period was a certain level of language standardization which is facilitating communication today. Our hope is that as language translation technology develops, common languages will be less and less required for communicating across cultures.

Specific Location

Ecuador is located on the western coast of South America, north of Peru and south of Columbia. It also includes the Galapagos Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean to the west.

 
 

The Kañari primarily live in a province known as Cañar, which is located in the Andes mountains.

 
 

Ecological Context

The Andes mountains are the longest chain of continental mountains in the world, running along South America's western side. Its mountains are also the tallest in the world, except for those located in Asia.

 
 

The Amazon rainforest is another key ecological feature of the region. I was surprised when I learned that my mental picture of where the Amazon is located had been slightly inaccurate. While most of the rainforest is located in Brazil, sections of it span many other South American countries, including Ecuador:

I found the following map to be helpful because it simplified the ecological landscape of the country a bit to aid in understanding. Setting aside the Galapagos Islands, which are hundreds of miles off the coast, there are three general types of ecologies in the country: the western portion is coastal since it borders the Pacific Ocean, the center portion of the country is in the Andes mountain range, and the eastern portion is part of the Amazon rainforest. While the Kañari are primarily located in the Andes mountains, they have close proximity to both the coastal region and the rainforest region.

Inside of these larger ecological regions, elevation changes cause further variances. Different plants and animals thrive at different altitudes. The higher elevations also tend to have steeper slopes, which require animals well adapted to the more challenging terrain. 

The net effect of all of this is a mega-diverse set of ecosystems located in close proximity to each other, especially in the area inhabited by the Kañari. 

The Kañari mentioned that they have access to five different "life zones" (different types of ecological zones) in the immediate vicinity of where they live. While such a diverse location creates challenges in terms of agricultural techniques, it also enables the Kañari to grow a wider diversity of food than would otherwise be possible. 

The Kañari Agricultural Approach

Traditions are clashing with capitalistic consumerism in Ecuador. The Green Revolution of the 1970's put many family farms out of business. This created economic conditions largely forcing the men to emigrate elsewhere to find economic opportunity. Because the family farm was no longer a viable unit during this period, consumerism slowly took hold such that, in general, people are now used to buying things at stores rather than produced them for themselves. The current Kañari revitalization is an attempt to make the more traditional farmstead viable again, and to rebuild local communities around that connection to the land. 

Reverence for the Land (Pachamama)

To the Kañari, Mother Nature is personified as the Pachamama. The Kañari respect the Pachamama as the source of all. She is the nurturer and sustainer. The water is her blood and the animals are her children. The Kañari have a variety of community rituals built around thanking her throughout the agricultural cycles. 

I first heard about the Kañari in a conversation about holding hands in groups of people as a way to get closer to nature. This sort of behavior is normal in Kañari rituals, whereas in the western world such a scene might invoke images of hippies or others on the periphery of mainstream society. To the Kañari, these ceremonies are a way to keep their community close-knit and to tell their stories to the next generation. 

Traditional Kañari ceremonies are also built around shared food, which are seen as building up the spiritual health of the community. Foods are shared at weddings, births, house openings, and many other occasions such as seasonal festivities.

Another festival I learned about from the region is called Inti Raymi, a winter solstice celebration created by the Incas and celebrated since 1412. It was outlawed by the Spaniards but is still celebrated by indigenous cultures in the Andes region. Inti is the sun, responsible for light and energy. The celebration consists of a feasting period lasting several days. 

Restoring Soils and Biomass

In practice, the Kañari reverence for the land results in a recognition that healthy food starts with healthy soils. As a result, they focus on agricultural biodiversity. In a method which shows some similarities to the food forestry approach, the Kañari plant trees, shrubs, and medicinal plants in addition to their core annual crops of barley, quinoa, and corn. They also mentioned planting tubers, legumes, and squash. In previous generations, these sort of diversified plantings had resulted in food throughout the year. According to the Kañari, the variety of plantings strengthens both the body and the soil.

The huge variety of ecosystems in the Andes mountains also lends itself well to this sort of diversity-based approach. Each ecosystem provides a unique opportunity for certain plants and animals to thrive. Diverse plantings in different areas provide resiliency because if one area has a problem, it is unlikely to effect other areas. For this reason, I'm told the Kañari intentionally avoid planting in only one location in favor of spreading out the crops into different areas. 

Developing Seeds

If you think about it, even inside of the same plant or animal species, some individuals are going to be better suited to certain environments. Since the beginning of agriculture itself, farmers around the world have selected seeds from the very best plants each year for planting the subsequent year. Over time, this section process dramatically effected the evolution of these species. In plants (and sometimes in animals) this is called developing a landrace. A landrace is a subset of a species which has been honed over time to be exactly adapted to one specific geographic location on earth. 

The Kañari are developing landrace seeds of their own, especially for quinoa and amaranth. In fact, the environmental conditions are so harsh in the Andes mountains that many supposedly resilient seed varieties sent over from other countries have failed to thrive here. I got the impression that some of the local varieties were faring much better in terms of overall survival rates. 

A group from the Association of Producers of Seed and Nutritious Andean Foods, Mushuk Yuyay (New Thought) analyzing varieties of quinua.

A group from the Association of Producers of Seed and Nutritious Andean Foods, Mushuk Yuyay (New Thought) analyzing varieties of quinua.

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Guinea Pigs

As we discussed in our series about food forests, animals are a great way to prepare soil for planting by fertilizing it and tilling it up. The Kañari are focusing on Guinea Pigs as their primary livestock. They had been using chickens, but like other places in the world the chickens had been fed a lot of antibiotics and the Kañari found that to be problematic (which I personally do as well). 

At first I was surprised to hear about raising Guinea Pigs (called "Cuy") as farm animals. Upon further research, though, I learned that they are actually very hearty animals. They provide the Kañari with a good source of protein which is low in fat and doesn't need antibiotics or growth hormones. The Cuy are also easy on delicate lands compared to other animal options available because they are small and require less water. 

Llamas and Alpacas

In the Kañari territory, llama and alpaca production is on the increase. They produce wool used in the production of traditional artistic ponchos, sashes, and other clothing. 

Llamas and alpacas are particularly well suited for the high grasslands, the páramos. These environments at the top of the Andean ridge are the head of Pachamama. They absorb the water from the ocean winds and provide the source of all rivers. The páramos are also carbon sinks, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and reversing climate change. These lands must be treated with the greatest respect. 

Ingatoma (Incan Irrigation)

As part of a small community initiative about 50 years ago, the locals reopened the Ingatoma built by the Incan empire for irrigation purposes. While the canals had been overgrown with plants, they had only been damaged from wash-outs in a few places and were soon repaired. 

While researching this specific type of irrigation system, I learned some interesting details. The canals were primarily carved into whole rocks instead of being constructed from individual bricks. This minimized leakage by decreasing the total number of seams. The remaining seams were filled with gravel, sand, and some dirt to further reduce leakage. In fact, the advanced Incan water management system was one of the primary reasons for the empire's success because water is scarce in the area. The canals enabled the gathering of water from springs located high in the páramos of the high mountains as well as melting snow.

An Economy Benefitting the Community

Exposing the local kids to the traditional ways of relating to the earth and to food is a priority for the Kañari. They have created a program called "Healthy Kids, Healthy Future" to encourage educational experiences. Here are some pictures of the local kids doing some plantings and interacting with the mature plants:

The logos on the banners are from First Peoples Worldwide and Friends of Ecuador, both of whom helped with funding for the program.

The logos on the banners are from First Peoples Worldwide and Friends of Ecuador, both of whom helped with funding for the program.

Women are also a key focus for the community. Many have formed potato cultivation associations, which are groups of thirty five women who work together to cultivate tiny pieces of land in different areas. They use twelve different potato varieties and intentionally plant in non-contiguous areas to make the crops more resilient. If a crops fail in one ecosystem, it will likely thrive in another. In fact, using the different elevations and growing conditions allows the planting and the harvesting times to be staggered in a way would not have been possible otherwise. The ladies move from plot to plot when the timing is right. 

In general, the harvests are divided into 3 parts - one for local markets, one for family consumption, and one for seed. When I inquired about perhaps obtaining some of their quinoa, I learned that they would only consider exporting after meeting local and regional demand. They also expressed an interest in prioritizing exporting their food first to members of their community who had emigrated away. I thought it was noteworthy and admirable how they were able to maintain a sense of community even across great distances. 

The brand name is Alli Mikuna, Good Food, processed and packaged by Mushuk Yuyay, New Thought, the Association of Producers of Seed and Nutritious Andean Foods.

The brand name is Alli Mikuna, Good Food, processed and packaged by Mushuk Yuyay, New Thought, the Association of Producers of Seed and Nutritious Andean Foods.

Concluding Thoughts - What We Can Learn from the Kañari

I found the Kañari people to be really inspirational. They are focusing on practical solutions, their local people, and their local economy. They are rediscovering some of the wisdom from traditional approaches while remaining open to the world at large. They are using these techniques to make their land better while providing high quality food for themselves and their loved ones.

In my opinion, it is these kind of projects throughout the world from which we should be learning. They provide us with specific examples that can serve as intellectual jumping off points for us to explore what would work where we live. Perhaps a detail you read here will inspire you to think more creatively about what would work in your situation. 


We want to thank Alan Adams for making this article possible by making us aware of the Kañari people and for facilitating communication / information exchange with them. You are awesome, Alan!
(Left to Right) Maria Cruz Morocho, Paulette Adams, Alan Adams, Sara Ñusta Pichazaca, Nicolás Pichazaca, Toa Micaela Morocho, Pacha Sarita

(Left to Right) Maria Cruz Morocho, Paulette Adams, Alan Adams, Sara Ñusta Pichazaca, Nicolás Pichazaca, Toa Micaela Morocho, Pacha Sarita