Rufino Zavala is mirthful in the early morning, laughing joyously as he describes each crop on the nebulous route from Santiago de Chuco to Cahuide. At elevations of more than 4,000 meters, the road here in northern Peru is literally in the clouds, hindering Zavala’s colorful descriptions as the passing landscape fades into heavy fog.
Zavala is a community leader and a "yachachiq", which means teacher in Quechua, a family of languages spoken by indigenous South Americans. He is passionate about teaching eco-agriculture to his community, where he works on an eco-technology partnership that began in 2008 between the Alternative Agrarian Institute in Peru and Barrick. The initiative, known as the Productive Highlands program, has quite literally borne fruit for the small rural community of Cahuide. Located on a rugged Andean plateau that receives little sunlight, it is difficult for the community to grow fruits and vegetables in the thin mountain air. Local residents have traditionally relied on rudimentary agricultural techniques that have produced poor yields in the harsh Andean conditions, leading to high rates of malnutrition.
"Although I live in Santiago de Chuco, I came from Cahuide and want to ensure that future generations of my community thrive," Zavala says.
Cahuide is a rural community of 210 families located 3,700 meters above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. When the clouds lift, the mountainous landscape leading into the village is dotted with earth-brick houses, tightly packed stone walls and "cocotes," man-made rock formations that are the result of clearing land for agriculture and used for warming houses at night from the rocks’ residual heat.
Zavala teaches local families to build and incorporate green technologies to improve their quality of life, as part of the Productive Highlands program. The program has introduced 14 eco-technologies to the farmers of Cahuide that are simple enough to be implemented with basic and often readily-available materials. While each technology has its benefits, among the most critical are greenhouses and small water reservoirs that enable farmers to produce fruit and vegetables year-round. The project has also introduced bio-digestors, which produce methane gas for use in cooking.
Zavala is always quick to offer up a basket of fresh vegetables from the nearby community greenhouses to anyone who makes the trek to Cahuide to learn about the Productive Highlands project. His eyes beam with pride and generosity.
"Here, have these tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers for your salad," says Zavala, handing out vegetables to two recent visitors. "They’re as organic as it gets — you’ll like them."
A younger yachachiq accompanying Zavala explains that Cahuide farmers try to do everything as green as possible. The greenhouses are made up of mud-and-plant-matter bricks placed atop a thick base of large, tightly packed rocks. Once these bricks dry out, they can handle whatever weather Mother Nature throws their way. The greenhouses feature a clear, thick plastic tarp for a roof, which helps trap solar radiation within the structure and raise the temperature to 35 degrees Celsius. This is hot by any standards, certainly so compared to the average ambient temperature of the area of 15 degrees Celsius. Black, bio-degradable plastic strings hang from a metal grid overhead that locals use to prop up tomato plants and other plants that require support to stand upright.
"Because of these greenhouses, we’re able to grow certain fruits and vegetables from the coast that you otherwise wouldn’t see at these altitudes due to the low levels of heat and light we receive," Zavala says. Occasional agricultural surpluses allow some community members to go to market to sell vegetables such as squash, zucchini, tomatoes and ají peppers.
Another challenge the area faces is that it receives very little precipitation between April and October, which is why the rain-collecting reservoirs are absolutely crucial to Cahuide. These ponds are lined with high-density polyethylene to ensure that not one drop of precious water is lost. The ponds are the lifeblood for the greenhouses whose irrigation pipes they feed.
Next, Zavala demonstrates a "bio-digestor," which is in effect an air-tight methane-producing container constructed from earthen bricks. A large portion of the structure is housed below ground to preserve heat generated by the plastic roof covering and to ensure the temperature inside is high enough to trigger the chemical reaction that produces methane. The process begins with a water and manure mixture that is inserted into the bio-digestor through a pipe. Cotton or reeds stuffed within pillow-casings are decomposed with this mixture, and the methane produced is fed into a large storage bag via underground pipes. Depending on the size of the bags, three to five hours worth of bio-gas can be stored for cooking on specialized heat coils, which reduces the community’s reliance on wood-burning stoves indoors and lowers the risk of smoke inhalation.
Zavala demonstrates one of these ovens, turning a few valves in a dark kitchen. He then lights a match and holds it to the heat coils which catch fire, producing a green glow that quickly turns into a large, bright blue flame.
"These bio-digestors produce enough fuel for families to cook their three meals a day," Zavala says. "They also improve the health and nutrition of these rural families because heating the food kills bacteria."
As a yachachiq, Zavala visits Cahuide regularly to ensure the farmers are performing regular care and maintenance on the new technologies. He is quick to note and correct any slack. "It would seem this friend has forgotten to keep his ‘cuys’ (guinea pigs) out of his kitchen and in his cuy farm," says Zavala while giving a tour of a local house. "This is where we used to keep our cuys because the heat from the oven would help to keep them warm."
Cuys are a a primary source of animal protein in Cahuide, as are sheep. The cuys eat anything that falls from the table, which is not a good way to raise them, Zavala says. Zavala leads the tour to the back of the house and into a small, naturally-lit room. Cuys scurry past and over visitors’ feet and, in the middle of the room, there are more cuys in an elevated enclosure. The bottoms of these cages are made of fine mesh and covered with the tall grass that cuys eat. The mesh and grass provide comfortable bedding for these female cuys, who are housed away from the males to control breeding, explains the younger yachachiq.
Eder Isain Zavaleta Ulloa is also from Cahuide and has been trained to build and implement these eco-technologies, and train other community members. He is one of 20 yachachiqs from Cahuide. The community has plans to train more as the Productive Highlands program gains popularity and neighboring communities see their neighbors’ success.
Zavaleta has found tremendous success breeding guinea pigs, yielding orders as large as 20-100 guinea pigs per order from other regions of Peru. The influx of orders calls for a large cuy farm, which he happily and humbly shows to visitors. His house and farm, which he runs with his father and younger brother, feature three different breeds of guinea pigs, all indigenous to Peru.
"The orders continue to grow and we need to expand the farm," Zavaleta says. "Without the Productive Highlands program, I can’t imagine that we would have been farming on this scale. This gives me hope that I can help my neighbors find the same sort of success if they decide to pursue it."
Carlos Cabanillas, Barrick’s Manager of Government Relations in Peru, has been a strong proponent of the Productive Highlands program and is pleased with the results to date. "We’re glad that Barrick has been able to contribute to the noticeable improvement in these farmers’ lives," he says. "They can now provide a greater variety of foods for themselves and sell some agricultural surpluses to supplement their income."