Sustainable Agriculture in Ecuador by Anastassia Kolchanov

 Amazonian views of a local chakra, a traditional inter-crop system developed by the Kichwa people

Amazonian views of a local chakra, a traditional inter-crop system developed by the Kichwa people

This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit the Amazonian rainforest through Sustainable Summer, an absolutely wonderful organization dedicated to the creation and facilitation of trips across the world focused on environmental justice and sustainability.

One of the main goals of this particular expedition, Sustaining the Amazon, was to witness the development of sustainable living and economic practices in a developing country such as Ecuador. During our two weeks of travel, we encountered a variety of local businesses that were using environmentally friendly practices while also creating profit that gave back to Amazonian communities. In this photo essay, I would like to focus on two particular businesses that struck a balance between sustainablity and ethics: Kallari Chocolate and Huasquila Lodge's Guayusa Tea Operation. 

Kallari Chocolate: An Indiginous Sustainable Enterprise

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Kallari Chocolate is a unique cooperative that is run completely by Kichwa farmers. From agriculture to business, Kallari Chocolate has built itself almost completely on the support of the local community.  In the late 1990s, the local community became tired of feeling powerless when it came to crop distribution, payment, and cacao quality. The Kallari village was willing to come together to cut out the middleman and to change the way the community saw economic security. 

With the help of volunteers, the community soon adapted its agricultural systems and formed a cooperative of farmers who raised crops organically. The locals adapted from the monoculture cacao trees that lined the valleys to the chakra system. The chakra system was used for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, and is the traditional way to farm in Ecuador. Chakras are essentially farms that utilize the inter-cropping system, in which the farmer plants a multitude of trees, plants, and tubers that all interact with each other. 

The three images above portray one of the local farmers cutting down a palm tree, which can later be used for a variety of puposes. On the left, he shows us the flower of the palm tree, which he harvests to save for later use. The second and third images show the farmer's process of finding the inner core of the palm, which is harvested as hearts of palm. The outer bark of the palm trees are used as materials for building shelters. Other sections of the palm have holes cut into them, making them the perfect environment for the chontacuro beetle larvae. The chontacuro, in addition to being a sought after traditional Amazonian food, is used in indigenous medicine to heal conditions such as epilepsy and arthritis . 

This is a prime example of the chakra system at work. One does not see rows and rows of palms waiting to be chopped down for their hearts. On the contrary, the images show a secondary forest that has a multitude of plants useful for the survival of the people, physically and fiscally. All parts of the plants are utilized, and the array of organisms thriving in the chakras provide a variety of nutrients for the soil. In fact, the carbon content in the air and root biomass show that cacao chakra systems contain 896% more carbon than monocultures (which is great for the health of the plants and quality of the produce). Thus, the chakra system allows for the communities to give back and maintain healthy, adaptable farms.  

Above on the right we have Luis, the chief community liason of the Kallari cooperative, crouching next to the participating farmer. Luis was our guide during our tour of the Kallari site. Here, Luis explains to us the agricultural side of cacao: the varieties, ideal conditions, and how to plant it. Luis had explained to us that there were five types of cacao, but only one of them was unique to Ecuador: the Nacional. This specific cacao is relatively rare and sought after for its unique taste.

As he held the Nacional cacao bean in his hands, the local farmer chopped another one down from the tree and split it in half. The second image shows the farmer planting one of the fleshy seeds from the cacao pods into the soil. The cacao seeds, interestingly enough, tasted citrus-like and sour, which called for many of us to plead for seconds. 

After leading us out of the chakra and into the home of one of the cooperative's members, Luis and the family showed us how the cacao was made into a chocolate sauce at a basic level. We participated in the bean shelling process which was an exhaustive procedure, as well as grinding the beans into a fine powder (as seen in the images above). 

Finally, after leaving the Kallari cooperative, Luis took us to the processing facility which gathers the crops of 40 families to be made into chocolate. The processing plant first receives the beans in crates, which are left for several days outside to ferment. The fermentation is necessary to bring out the full richness of the cacao beans. After fermenting for several days, the beans are brought out to dry in buildings such as the one in the first image. They trap the sunlight inside to expedite the drying process. Too little or too much moisture in a bean can yield unsatisfactory results, so Kallari's employees work hard to ensure the quality of the beans. Following the drying, the beans are packed into large woven bags, with their initial weights coming into the facility and their final, smaller weights leaving the facility. These weights are important to note, since the families are paid by the weight of the beans. Interestingly enough, in order to benefit the farmers, Kallari pays the families the larger weight which in return gives them more income. 

After this, the beans are sent off to various factories around the region to create the chocolates. Luis had mentioned that in the near future, they would like to make the chocolate right in the processing center. In this way, Luis stated, the Kallari company would be even more centralized to the people's needs in the community. 

Kallari is a fascinating example of what can be done to improve regional economy while listening and supporting local farmers and ecosystems. This may be the epitome of sustainable alternative chocolate (which is absolutely delicious). 

For more information about Kallari, visit their website.  

And if you want to get your hands on some delightful Amazonian chocolate, try Whole Foods or Amazon

Huasquila Lodge's Guayusa Tea Operation

 Guayusa leaves growing on Huasquila property 

Guayusa leaves growing on Huasquila property 

Huasquila Lodge, an ecolodge situated in the Amazonian rainforest, provides more than just jungle excursions and accommodation. In the recent years, one of the founders of the lodge, Pablo, has taken initiative to capitalize on a product that grows abundantly in the region: guayusa. 

The guayusa tree produces leaves that contain caffeine, antioxidents, and a variety of other useful propreties. The leaves are gathered, dried, and made into a tea, which is easier for the body to digest and has a sweeter taste than moste caffinated teas. 

Pablo has planted several dozens of guayusa trees on the ecolodge's property, and is working with six other families to maintain the tea operation. All of the families use the chakra system for farming, and all of their products are organic. In addition to guayusa, the operation also grows lemongrass (also known as herba luisa in Equador) to sell. 

On the left stands Pablo, who is holding a bag of lemongrass ready to be sold. Pablo kindly guided us through the various small structures that currently house the drying and distillation portions of the process. Pablo explained to us the process from seed to distributor in a series of steps. With lemongrass, the men from the families generally collect while the women peel the grass into smaller portions. The job is quite meticulous, since the lemongrass has to be peeled in a specific manner in order to avoid cuts along the plant's sharp edges. After being picked from the fields, the lemongrass comes into the sheds. They can either be distilled into lemongrass oil, as seen with the machine in the last image. Aletrnatively, they can be stacked onto racks in order to dry into tea leaves.  The drying process takes three or so days with both the lemongrass and theguayusa leaves. Afterwards, both are sent off to distribution companies in the region. 

Pablo told us that this operation is coming at a very opportune time for guayusa. The tea is making headway in German markets, and is starting to become extremely popular in the United States thanks to Runa. 

Runa's Tea operation was founded not too far from Huasquila Lodge. Several years ago, a graduate student visited the area for some volunteer work. He was introduced to guayusa tea, and came the following year to tap into the community's rich resources. Runa now works with the surrounding communities to grow vast quantities of guayusa in an organic, sustainable, and ecofriendly way. No one in the area every dreamed of profiting from such a common resource, but it turns out that guayusa has saved the region economically (in some ways).

Pablo hopes that with his own operation, he can give families a secure income, even if there are only 6 of them for now. Pablo hopes to greatly expand his business in the coming years, and wants to turn to exporting the tea leaves internationally. Pablo continues to dream big, and hopes for a brighter future for his community. 

(Although Huasquila's guayusa tea is currently only available at the lodge itself, Pablo intends to start selling it to a broader customer base win the next several years.)

These are some final parting images from Ecuador. Even through these three small photographs, I hope it is clear just how wonderous and fantastic the country is. The people are no less fascinating. As seen through these two examples, sustainable business is growing in popularity. Traditionally, Ecuadorians have a more intimate connection with nature, in which Pachamama and Pachaalpa (traditional depictions of nature within Kichwa mythology) dictates planting, harvesting, socialization, and much more. Thus, such sustainable agricultural businesses are not as difficult to imagine. There are multitudes of people that are eager to start their own businesses that coincide with local beliefs and traditional respect towards nature. 

These are the first signs of expansion within sustainability in Ecuador, and hopefully the coming years will give us more entrepreneurs with bright ideas.