Andean Indigenous Women Combat Food Insecurity in Peru

These containers hold food produced by women in the rural community of Choquepata, in the municipality of Oropesa, in the southern Peruvian department of Cuzco. Ana María Zárate places salad with various vegetables on the right, and the traditional dish mote, made from white corn and broad beans, on the left. Photo: Mariela Jara/IPS

By Mariela Jara (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Paulina Locumbe, a 42-year-old peasant farmer who lives in ​​the Andes highlands of southern Peru, learned as a child to harvest and dry crops, one of the ancestral practices with which she combats the food insecurity that affects millions in this Andean country.

“I have tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis), peas and dry beans stored for six years, we ate them during the pandemic and I will do the same now because since I have not planted due to the lack of rain, I will not have a harvest this year,” she told IPS in her community, Urpay, located in the municipality of Huaro, in the department of Cuzco, at more than 3,100 meters above sea level.

“Farmers faced a very hard 2022, it was a terrible year with water shortages, hailstorms, frosts and an increase in pests and diseases. These factors are going to reduce by 40 to 50 percent the crops they had planned for planting corn, potatoes, vegetables, and quinoa.” — Janet Nina Cusiyupanqui

She, like a large part of the more than two million family farmers in Peru, 30 percent of whom are women, has been hit by multiple crises that have reduced their crops and put their right to food at risk.

A study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published in January estimated that more than 93 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean suffered from severe food insecurity in 2021, a figure almost 30 million higher than in 2019.

Compared to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, the situation was more alarming in South America, where the affected population climbed from 22 million in 2014 to more than 65 million in 2021.

In Peru, a country of 33 million people, food insecurity already affected nearly half of the population, according to the FAO alert issued in August 2022, far exceeding the eight million suffering from food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly due to the increase in poverty and the barriers to accessing a healthy diet.

Women from the Andes highlands areas of Peru, such as those who reside in different Quechua peasant communities in the department of Cuzco in the south of the country, are getting ahead thanks to the knowledge handed down by their mothers and grandmothers.

Putting this knowledge into practice ensures their daily food in a context of constant threats to agricultural activity such as extreme natural events due to climate change -droughts and hailstorms in recent times – the rise in the cost of living and the political crisis in the country which means the needs of farmers have been even more neglected than usual.

Paulina Locumbe, an agroecological farmer from the rural community of Urpay, in the municipality of Huaro, in the southern Peruvian department of Cuzco, shows her recent planting of vegetables in her greenhouse, which once harvested will go directly to the family table to enrich their diet. Photo: Mariela Jara/IPS

Producing enough for daily sustenance

Yolanda Haqquehua, a small farmer from the rural community of Muñapata, in the municipality of Urcos, answered IPS by phone early in the morning when she had just returned with the alfalfa she cut from her small farm to feed the 80 guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) that she breeds, a species that has provided a nutritious source of protein since ancient times.

“I don’t sell them, they are for our consumption,” she explained about the use of this Andean rodent that was domesticated before the time of the Incas. “I cook them on birthdays and on a daily basis when we need meat, especially for my eight-year-old daughter. I also use the droppings to make the natural fertilizer that I use on my crops,” she added.

Haqqehua, 36, the mother of Mayra Abigail, has seen how the price of oil, rice, and sugar have risen in the markets. Although this worries her, she has found solutions in her own environment by diversifying her production and naturally processing some foods.

“I grow a variety of vegetables in the greenhouse and in the field for our daily food. I have radishes, spinach, Chinese onion, chard, red lettuce, broad beans, peas, and the aromatic herbs parsley and coriander,” she said.

She also grows potatoes and corn, which last year she was able to harvest in quantity, although she does not believe this will be repeated in 2023 due to the devastating effects of climate change in the Andes highlands in the first few months of the year.

“Fortunately, I got enough potatoes and so that they don’t spoil, we made chuño and that’s what we’re eating now,” she said.

Chuño is a potato that dries up with the frost, in the low temperatures below zero in the southern hemisphere winter month of June, and that, when stored properly, can be preserved for years.

“I keep it in tightly closed buckets. I also dry the corn and we eat it boiled or toasted. And the same thing with peas. It’s like having a small reserve warehouse,” she said.

Selecting the best ears of corn, carrying out the drying, storage and conservation process is the result of lifelong learning. “My parents did it that way and we are continuing what they taught us. With all this we help each other to achieve food security, because if not, we would not have anything to eat,” she said.

Janet Nina Cusiyupanqui, a young Quechua agronomist, talks with a farmer in her vegetable greenhouse in the rural community of Muñapata in Cuzco, southern Peru, during her work providing technical assistance for food security to rural women, as part of the Agroecological School of the non-governmental Flora Tristán Center. Photo: Mariela Jara/IPS

Agroecology to strengthen Andean knowledge

Janet Nina Cusiyupanqui, an agronomist born in the Cuzco province of Calca, is a 34-year-old bilingual Quechua indigenous woman who, after studying with a scholarship at Earth University in Costa Rica, returned to her land to share her new knowledge.

She currently provides technical assistance to the 100 members of the Agroecological School that the non-governmental feminist Flora Tristán Center for Peruvian Women runs in six rural communities in the Cuzco province of Quispicanchi: Huasao, Muñapata, Parapucjio, Sachac, Sensencalla and Urpay.

“Farmers faced a very hard 2022, it was a terrible year with water shortages, hailstorms, frosts and an increase in pests and diseases. These factors are going to reduce by 40 to 50 percent the crops they had planned for planting corn, potatoes, vegetables, and quinoa,” she told IPS in the historic city of Cuzco.

She stressed that women are leading actors in the face of food insecurity. “They know how to process and preserve food, which is a key strategy in these moments of crisis. To this knowledge is added the management of agroecological techniques with which they produce crops in a diversified, healthy and chemical-free way,” she said.

The expert stated that although they would have a smaller harvest, it would be varied, so they would depend less on the market. Added to this is their practice of exchanging products and ayni, a bartering-like ancestral tradition: “You give me a little of what I don’t have and I pay you with something you lack, or with work.”

Luzmila Rivera (2nd-L) poses for photos together with her fellow women farmers from the rural community of Paropucjio, in the highlands of Cuzco in southern Peru, after participating in a market for agricultural products organized by the municipality of Cusipata, where they sold their vegetables, grains and tubers. Photo: Mariela Jara/IPS

Don’t give up in the face of adversity

At the age of 53, Luzmila Rivera had never seen such a terrible hailstorm. In February, shortly before Carnival, a rain of pieces of ice larger than a marble fell on the high Andean communities of Cuzco, “ruining everything.”

In the peasant community of Paropucjio where she lives, at more than 3,300 meters above sea level, she felt the pounding on her tin roof for 15 seemingly endless minutes, and the roof ended up full of holes. “Hail has fallen before, but not like this. The intensity knocked down the tarwi flowers and we are not going to have a harvest,” she lamented.

Tarwi is an ancestral Andean cultivated legume, also known as chocho or lupine, with a high nutritional value, superior to soybeans. It is consumed fresh and is also dried and stored.

Rivera is confident that the potato planting carried out in the months of October and November will be successful in order to obtain a good harvest in April and May.

And like other small farmers in the Andes highlands of Cuzco, she also preserves crops to store. “I have my dry corn saved from last year, I always select the best ones for seeds and for consumption. I also store broad beans, after harvesting I air dry them and in a week they can be stored,” she said.

This provides the basis for their diet in the following months. “I cook the broad beans in a stew as if they were lentils or chickpeas, I put them in the soup or we have them at breakfast along with the boiled corn, which we call mote, it’s very tasty and healthy,” she said.

In another rural community at an altitude of 3,100 meters, Choquepata, in the municipality of Oropesa, Ana María Zárete, 41, manages an organic vegetable greenhouse as part of the Flora Tristán Center’s proposal to promote access to land and agroecological training to boost the autonomy of rural women.

She said it is valuable to have all kinds of vegetables always within reach. “This is new for us, we didn’t used to plant or eat green leafy vegetables. Now we benefit from this varied production that comes from our own hands; everything is healthy and ecological, we don’t poison ourselves with chemicals,” she said.

This knowledge and experience places Quechua women in Cuzco on the front line in the fight against food insecurity. But as agronomist Nina Cusiyupanqui stated, they continue to lack recognition by government authorities, and to face conditions of inequality and disadvantage.

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