Marcela and Magda Machaca of the Quechua people analyze the results of their last harvest. 403 different types of potatoes, 233 types of corn, 56 types of mashua, 19 types of quinoa and one type of peach were what they counted on the fields around the Andean city of Ayacucho. On fields that lie 3,000 to 4,000 meters above sea level. Even back in the Incan days, their ancestors wrested their sustenance from these slopes. And this is what the sisters have harkened back to when they built their little Garden of Eden between Excel spreadsheets and ancient spirits.
The ancestors and spirits still make their presence known in the office of the ABA organization. Every morning, the sisters ask for the ancestors’ blessing and the good will of Pachamama, or Mother Earth. They should help make sure, for example, that the project paper “Indigenous Women against Climate Change” acquires sufficient funds. That’s why it is on the shrine along with a few cocoa leaves. Before work every day, they light a cigarette for their father Modesto. He passed away a few months back. When he could still smoke on his own, he helped clear a path for his daughters in the male-dominated world of the mountain. He also encouraged them to found ABA. That was more than 20 years ago. Today, they have 10 employees. And 5,000 families that work together with them.
They learned to farm water and till the fields according to the ancestral methods. Since then, the results of the harvest have increased 30 per cent. That what the numbers say. But underneath their potato paradise, yet another treasure still lies buried: copper and gold. The mining rights have already been sold. Nevertheless, the sisters hope they can still convince the corporations and the politicians to leave the metals in the earth. After all, water and potatoes are more valuable. “Speaking with nature is often easier than speaking with these kinds of people,” they say. The name of their organization ABA stands for Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla. Named after a prominent colonial-era farmer who brought people together to resist the colonial masters.
They too had to talk and explain a lot at the outset of their little potato paradise. They had to talk away the laughter. “What?,“ cried the indignant laughing voices. “You went to university for years and years, and the result is that we are supposed to spread ash on our fields as fertilizer?“ The people were bemused and frustrated, having let the sisters move to the city for university. They were supposed to have come back with more knowledge so that they could jointly end the cycle of hunger. Their old neighbors did not want to believe it: ash! Now that even they were fertilizing with chemicals and eliminating pests. But these chemicals did not work. Harvests even continued to drop.
Marcela, the austere sister, and Magda, the girlish sister. They complement each other perfectly and perhaps that is why they never married. For half the week, they live in a sort of shared house in the Andean city Ayacucho, and for the other half, in a small clay house in the village Unión Potrero with an elevation of 3,500 meters. In the city, they take care of Excel spreadsheets; in the village, potatoes and people. Three hours with an all-terrain vehicle separate the two. Just a few years ago, they needed two days and a donkey for the journey along a narrow path. As children, they rarely left their village. The young sisters helped in the fields, but Andean fields don’t yield much. Slowly but surely, the Quechua farmers lost faith in the traditional farming methods of their ancestors.
In the 1980s, a civil war is raging between the guerilla movement “Shining Path” and the Peruvian government. Magda and Marcela witness terrible acts. The small-scale farmers are annihilated by the violence of both groups. Each side suspects them of helping the other side. Murder, terror, show trials and rapes become daily occurrences. Distrust permeates every encounter. Nearly 70,000 people lose their lives or disappear forever. The region around Ayacucho is hit particularly hard, since the movement “Shining Path” chose this location as their base. This is where they carried out their first attacks. The brutality of that time still haunts Magda and Marcela today; they do not want to talk about it.
Their father hopes that his daughters can in some way counteract the vicious world and makes it possible for them to attend university. They are to become agricultural engineers. He asks the village community for permission and moves with them to Ayacucho. Magda and Marcela are the first ones in their village to go to the city. At home, every movement was couched in ritual, but now in the city, every ritual is treated as backwoods and anachronistic. All that matters are the seed numbers and pesticides; not plants, whose leaf positions can anticipate the rain. Marcela graduates as valedictorian, yet modern agricultural knowledge does seem particularly fertile for the sisters. They want to reactivate old knowledge and return to their village with a huge plan.
Nevertheless, both of them start gathering the ancient wisdoms. They go from village to village, speak with the elders, with the shamans and the sages of their people. They want to know how people used to get the plants to grow. “Yes, back then! There were still glaciers. And so we had water,” is what they often hear. But they still let them explain that it is better to plant garlic between the potatoes in order to keep the pests away. That when the prickly pear reaches full bloom, there will be a good corn harvest. That you should put garlic and lemons in your pants pockets when heading to a meeting that promises to raise conflict. That neutralizes the tensions. According to the current tally, they have collected more than 3,000 such wisdoms. They distribute these in the villages on so-called knowledge cards.
Gradually, Magda and Marcela can convince the farmers to try out the wisdoms. Some work, some don’t. For a long time, the village leaders find it difficult to listen to them. They are women, and what’s more, they don’t even have a husband. But the farmers are harvesting more and more, move into better huts and hardly suffer from hunger anymore. The sisters found ABA, and after their first successes, find institutions that support them. Terres des Hommes, a world hunger association and even the German Ministry of Development see potential in their ideas – despite the garlic in their pants pockets. They have managed to reach a solid 40,000 Euros in annual donations. That should be enough for ten employees, workshops for the 5,000 families and their trips throughout the Andes.
This is how the Andean Indians want to reach Allinkawasay, or the good life. Everything is a person; everything has character and is connected with everything. Therefore, everything must be treated well, according to the sisters. Even a stone but especially a field, the chacra. You have to give something to it so that you can take something from it. When Magda and Marcela explain the concept of Andean agriculture, they speak of Mother Earth, Pachamama, of evil rain clouds that can be driven away with a bare bottom, and from the art of water farming. Every now and then, they sprinkle in the results from Excel spreadsheets. They have held talks for disbelieving faces in France, Germany and Italy.
Maybe that is the Machaca sisters‘ biggest success – that they were able to reactivate minka, or collective work. Everyone helps each other and no one thinks of asking for money. The payment is in the harvest, in the community and in the meaningful work. Together, they get things to grow. They call it Uyway: nurturing, tending, letting it grow. Magda and Marcela are particularly proud of how they have gotten even water to grow.
So far the sisters have grown 100 lagoons. Some are as big as a lake, others as big as a suburban swimming pool. The engineers did not need heavy machinery or concrete for these projects, but rather above all, the other people. Where the lagoons are today are places that used to take several weeks or months to fill during the rainy season. And at some point, they always disappeared again. And their lifespans kept getting shorter. The sisters convinced the others to close off the valley side of these depressions with a stone wall, and to plant ichu all around it, a type of grass with particularly long roots that does not need a lot of water. The result was a sort of woven swimming pool. The water kept staying around longer until the lagoons stabilized after about seven years and retained water throughout the entire year.
Magda and Marcela calculated how much water is in these 100 lagoons: 1.5 million cubic meters in the pools themselves and an additional 61 million cubic meters in seepage into the layers of earth around them. Altogether, that is like dumping the Bavarian lake Starnberg over the region twenty times. The sisters know what this means. In a country like Peru that suffers particularly hard from climate change and the ever-decreasing water supply, a resource like this is a treasure. The government recognized this too and presented the water farmers with the country’s most prestigious environmental award. They just hope that the award can protect them a little while longer from the excavations of the mining industry.
Some of the lagoons have now acquired their own schools of trout. The farmers fish every now and then, but only from the shores. They would never dare to take a boat out onto the lake. Yaku, or water, is holy. Magda and Marcela laugh about it, but they themselves were never in a boat. At the same time though, they’ve still caught their own fat fish, even if the ministry for fishing did not support their trout farming. In general, the sisters said, the political system has only ever placed obstacles in their path.
The water farmers have declared putaqa to be the mother of the water plants. It is a type of sorrel and calls to the water, as the sisters say. Further down the mountain, they use their meter-long roots to draw back up to the surface the water that seeps from the lagoons into the deeper layers of earth. Puddles and even water springs form around the putaqa that direct water back into the valley and can be led to the fields. Futhermore, the sap of the putaqa is said to be good for hangovers and the reason why Andean women have such beautiful long hair. Even Magda and Marcela use it as shampoo.
As fertilizer, the sap is not particularly effective, but the sisters have found other solutions for that. Different varieties grow at every elevation, and different fertilizers work on each individual type of soil. They do not use any chemicals. They found that it is particularly fruitful when they plant multiple types simultaneously. At least one of the variety will survive the stress of the elevation, the pests and climate change. They also plant multiple varieties next to each other on the same field. That way, they always have something to harvest and to eat every month. When selecting and arranging the varieties, they make sure that one set of plants can use what the other plants give off, so that the soil remains in balance. For example, it turned out that a combination of peaches, prickly pear, a specific broadleaf tree, corn and a stone wall produce the perfect interaction. They exchange nutrients, water, warmth and shade.
This is the knowledge they wish to pass along. “What good does it do if we plant a garden and the next generations don’t take care of it?,” asked the sisters. That is why they visit the region’s schools and pass along to the future farmers what they think is important. They have established cooperations with the schools, work with the pupils and let them experience first-hand how a tuft of grass and a lagoon complement each other. But, just like everywhere, the younger generation is more interesting in experiencing the new rather than learning about the old. They are drawn to the cities.
But Magda and Marcela say that they don’t have it quite so back as in other regions. Even though the boys go to the cities to work and to go to university, they still tend to come back. They come back with more knowledge and more experience. It is not a disgrace anymore to come from the country. When the sisters were still young, less than a third of the girls went to school. Nowadays, almost all of them sit behind a school desk every morning. And they hear about how important the peasants and small-scale farmers are for Peru and for the whole world.
Small-scale farming in Peru produces 80% of the country’s agricultural yields. In fact, peasants and small-scale farmers harvest more than 60% of the products worldwide that make it to the table, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). At the same time though, they do not work any more land than the large-scale farms; various organizations even estimate that it is less. Small-scale farmers like Leonarda and Gerardo ensure biodiversity, maintain a sustainable CO2-level and can react better to climate change than massive industries. Despite all of this, industrial farming finds more financial support worldwide. Magda and Marcela are convinced that this will change soon. Simply because it has to change soon.
Once a year, a festival is celebrated in honor of Mama Yaku. The Water Festival. Early in the morning, three bowls of soup are served for the guests, cigarettes for the ancestors, and speeches and schnapps for everyone. Before a sip is taken from any of the circulating bottles, one sip needs to be poured out on the ground. For Pachamama and Mama Yaku. They should get to celebrate as well and make sure that there is sufficient water next year. This year, Marcela is one of the masters of ceremonies. She makes an offering to the mountain and holds a speech about the meaning of water and the past. Her words start to falter when she speaks of the past year, the year in which her father was still alive. “Mi papito.”
To be honest, the festival is work. To honor Mama Yaku, the farmers excavate an eight-kilometer channel that runs from the source of the Putaqa to the fields of Unión Potrero. Magda and Marcela have already done their part the night before down in the city of Ayacucho. They were standing over the stove, peeling potatoes, chopping herbs and cooking quinoa until right before they left at three o’clock in the morning. And then they head up into the mountains with an impressive iron pot as big as a full-grown man on the bed of their truck.
For a proper water festival, you also need music and dance groups. But since Marcela’s and Magda’s father passed away in the past year, the festival this year is less spectacular than normal. But there is still a good atmosphere here, especially at the cooking stations that help lighten the mood and workload for the shovelers every couple kilometers. And people tell each other stories. For example, the one about the intern from Columbia who couldn’t believe how much the Andean Indians could eat on their lunch breaks when it was harvest time. “It’s no wonder you Peruvians are so poor. You already eat everything while you’re harvesting it,” he supposedly said. Uproarious laughter.
But in truth, the Garden of Eden is under threat. Copper lies beneath it, and gold too. Multiple companies have appeared to extract it. Land rights for more than 12,500 acres have already been sold off. In Peru, the law officially states that the communities, under which the resources lie, must be consulted and appropriately compensated. In reality though, there are several mines in the country, where the local population was deceived or simply ignored. That is why the Andean Indians demonstrate against mining, do not allow the companies on the land and do not allow them to speak on the matter. But who knows how much longer they will put up with it. Even Germany has a stake in it. Nearly 25% of German imports on copper concentrate come from Peruvian mines. There is a natural resources agreement between the Federal Republic and Peru – and with German mobile phone contracts, a new smart phone annually.
Nevertheless, after months of negotiations, the sisters were able to squeeze a promise out of the Ayacucho administration that they would pay ABA a royalty for the lagoon water that seeps into the city’s water reservoirs. Above and beyond that, their ideas should flow into a national plan around all water issues. Pachamama and globalization are taking their positions on the field. It could get loud and dirty. The girls prefer to sing about love. Author: Elisabeth Weydt Photography / Video: Jakob Fuhr Illustrations: Christine Anas Web Coding: Gideon Glock, Jakob Fuhr Music: Sebastian Witte, Felix Herzog