Spotlight on Our Successful Peru Program

In March MESA’s intrepid Latin American Communications and Steward Resources intern Michelle Roses traveled throughout Peru visiting Program representatives, Steward alumni, and Home Country projects. Over the past seven years, 124 Peruvian farm Stewards and dozens of sustainable U.S. farms have benefited greatly through MESA’s thriving partnership with El Huerto, based at La Molina Univerity in Lima.

Working in cooperation with a small government unit within Peru’s Ministry of Economics and Finance to fund Stewards' 1-2 month English courses and international travel grants has enabled the participation of rural farmers from some of the most remote regions of Peru, many of whom had never traveled outside their home communities before joining MESA.

Michelle’s excellent adventure started in Lima, where she met with Peru Program partners at the Agrarian University La Molina, El Huerto. After a short stay in bustling Lima, Michelle traveled up the northern coast to Tumbes and Piura, to be greeted by two Steward alumni who proudly showed her around their employers’ organic cacao and banana farms. After humid days in the tropical north, it was back down south to the Andean highland regions of Cusco and Puno. Here Michelle visited several exciting Steward alumni projects including school greenhouses and nascent agritourism ventures. Overall, Michelle’s one-month visit encompassed Steward alumni outreach, project collaboration and forging MESA relationships.

Michelle’s Travel Notes:

My arrival into Lima welcomed me to the city of crazy drivers and flashy casinos- at least this is what any visitor initially encounters upon leaving the airport.  However, once out of the bright lights and sprawling streets, Lima can be a pleasant place if you can find yourself in the right neighborhood.

Probably the biggest highlight of my stay in Lima was visiting the Bioferia Organic Farmer’s Market in the charming district of Miraflores. Here I gave a short presentation about MESA’s involvement with Peru along with one of our representatives from El Huerto, Aida Bustamante. The Bioferia is a great example of a successful market (celebrating their 11th year) that promotes organic agriculture within a big city. Farmers travel great distances to sell at this market, as the areas surrounding Lima are mostly coastal desert.dsc_0174.jpg

Aida and her husband Daniel sell produce grown about 2 hours south of Lima in the valley of Mala. The head farmer of this parcel is none other than 2006/2009 alumnus Pedro Flores. At the very end of my trip I was able to visit this enchanting farm- a green oasis along the desert sand coast of Peru. Pedro is planning to expand his farming expertise to an area of land along the coast that he owns with his younger brother, Henry (currently in our 2011 Core Training Program).

After my weekend visit in Lima, I was right back in that airport, hopping a quick 1-hour flight to Tumbes. This little city was unexpectedly busy for being home to such laid back folk. Just a short way out of the bustle, 2008 alumnus Jenny Elizalde and I took a bumpy 4-wheeler ride into the cacao fields of Uña de Gato on the border of Ecuador. Before joining MESA, Jenny worked with the Asociación Regional de Productores de Cacao a la Region Tumbes (APROCAT)- an association of around 200 producers. We attended an informative workshop which focused on the post-harvest processing of cacao. The quality of cacao produced in Peru has never held a good reputation worldwide, mainly due to poor handling of the beans post-harvest. APROCAT is making it their goal to raise standards by maintaining quality throughout the processes of selection, harvest, and fermentation. Although APROCAT’s producers are not all organic, they are all Fair Trade Certified.

Just south of Tumbes lies the region of Piura and the town of Sullana where I made my next visit in the northern tropics. Edwin Castro, from MESA’s 2007 program, is now involved in the distribution department of a large banana farmers’ organization. Bananeros Organicos Solideros (BOS) in Salitral, Sullana began in 2003 with 111 producers on 94 hectares.  The organization exported their first shipping container in 2005 with a Fair Trade certification through FLO (Fair Trade Labeling Organization International). BOS became certified organic this same year through Dole organics, their exporter.  As the organization grew, the farmers fought for their own organic certification which would mean greater access to markets free from the limitations of Dole. Today, with 639 individually certified producers, BOS ships 10 containers per week, half of which are shipped direct to markets that promote Fair Trade. Not surprisingly, I ran across BOS bananas at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco about a week after I had returned; I smiled to myself and thought maybe I had seen these very fruits still on their stalks.

My escape from the northern heat was much slower than my arrival; a long 18-hour bus ride down the desert coast and back to Lima where I would catch a short flight south to Cusco. Here I experienced an abrupt change in the weather: whereas the coast proceeds with their summer, the highlands experience a cold, wet season. Nothing, however, can compare to viewing the lushness and fertility of these green mountains in the rainy season. Cusco is also home to many MESA alumni including John Huaraya (2006), Jose Laguna (2008/2010), Elio Quispe (2009), and Ruben Quispe (2006/2009). John is currently a technician and salesman for a local organic agrochemical company. Jose also works in the urban sector of Cusco in his own restaurant where he serves local produce. He hopes to return to his family’s farmland along with his cousin Elio Quispe to help establish a small project in agritourism.
Elio is currently enrolled in a technical school for his certification as a tourist guide. He plans to launch his own agritourism business, combining his education at school with his experience working in the US through MESA on Terry’s Berries and Wilson Banner Ranch in Washington. Ruben has been very active in small Andean communities in the highlands surrounding the Sacred Valley. He is involved with an organization based in the US that sponsors high school volunteers abroad.  With the help of these enthusiastic student volunteers from California and local village leaders, Ruben has built greenhouses for elementary schools in two communities. He is now making weekly visits to each of these greenhouses to both train leaders in maintaining the crops and to teach gardening classes for students and their families. These people shared many smiles with us, thanking us for visiting their well-loved greenhouse where they are able to grow a wonderful variety of crops.

My own smile did not fade after a relatively short and scenic bus ride through the Andes, leaving Cusco for the more southern city of Puno. Here, 2006/2009 alumnus Marvila Quispe is also promoting shared community agriculture and value-added products in her home district of Acora. This village is located on the coast of Lake Titicaca at an exceptionally high altitude with cold, harsh winters and heavy rainfall. As in Cusco, it’s difficult to grow a variety of crops due to the extreme weather. Marvila’s family has built a small greenhouse where they are able to grow tomatoes, peppers, chard, radishes and lettuce. This greenhouse serves as a working demonstration for their neighbors, while providing families with more variety of nutrients in their diets. The greenhouse is made almost completely out of local, low-cost materials, which Marvila hopes will encourage more greenhouses to be built in her village.

Another communal form of agriculture that we visited in her community is called “waru-waru”. Because they require a very specific environment, waru-warus are only practiced in Acora and other nearby regions surrounding Lake Titicaca. Developed before the Incan empire, this method has sustained generations of farmers and their families as its crops resist freezing temperatures, soil erosion, droughts and even heavy flooding. The technique is building raised beds along irrigation channels, often in a circular pattern. The beds provide a microclimate for their crops that maintains moisture and temperature because of the high heat capacity of water in the channels.  Beds are rotated in a 3-year pattern- starting the first year with potato, then quinoa or amaranth, and finally oat, barley or wheat. The next three years are spent in fallow to recuperate nutrients in the soil. Forming these beds requires a community effort, therefore the waru-warus are entirely located on shared lands and the harvest is always divided equally among families.

After leaving the wondrous waru-warus, I traveled across reed covered bridges onto a peninsula of this massive lake and found myself in an equally community-oriented farming village. This tiny area named Cochiraya is home to 2010 MESA steward Jose Ccalla. Recently returned to Peru this past December, Jose’s enthusiasm since his program has helped launch an exciting venture with his fellow community leaders. They have formed a group called Association of Productive Ecological Tourism, Cochiraya.  Within this small (maybe 20 families) community they have built a comfortable room for guests near the Ccalla family house. They have also remodeled part of the kitchen to include a traditional wood stove. Here guests will become part of the family by helping cook and eating all together. Tourists will be involved in community agriculture, hiking, boating and touring Lake Titicaca's islands.  Jose hopes to build a chicken coop to teach both neighbors and future tourists what he has learned in poultry raising at Pike Valley Farm. It’s so inspiring to see that techniques used on a small farm in Kentucky will be replicated and adapted to fit the needs of a community on the distant coast of Lake Titicaca!

What a trip is has been to really experience the impact MESA Stewards have had on their communities! I am continually impressed to see and hear about the connections our Stewards have with their host farms and families. Their experiences remain an inspiration to them as they become dynamic leaders and productive role models. MESA is proud to continue collaboration with enthusiastic alumni working on creative projects throughout the varied ecoregions of Peru.

Peru Program Update: Unfortunately, due to the recently announced closure of our supporting USDA-affiliated agency in Lima; MESA and El Huerto must identify and secure new funding sources. MESA is actively seeking strategic partnerships and new resource opportunities to keep our Peru Program alive and kicking!