In Peru, women confront climate change with traditional gardens

By Anna Kramer
Women in Aviacin, Peru, work together to cultivate a traditional garden, which protects their culture while also providing an additional source of food and income for families. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

Can ancient knowledge help solve today’s problems? Indigenous women in the Amazon believe that it can—and to prove it, they’re going back to their roots. 

Through a pilot project from Oxfam and partner organization the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), indigenous Kichwa women in five rural communities in the San Martin region of Peru are working together to cultivate shared gardens. They’ve planted only crops native to this biodiverse Amazon region, like daledale, a root vegetable, and majambo, a nutritious yellow gourd, along with local varieties of household staples.

Many of these plants have been cultivated by Kichwa people for generations, but are in danger of disappearing as growers turn to cash crops like coffee or cacao instead. This shift to a single crop can leave farmers more vulnerable unpredictable rainfall caused by climate change, and more dependent on purchasing food from outside rather than growing it themselves—putting them at risk of hunger.

“Food prices are increasing. Sometimes we don’t have money for bread,” said Luz Sinarahua, who leads the group of women growers in Chirikyacu. “That’s why we’re glad to have the beans, yucca, and plantains from the garden.”

Oxfam program officer Lorena Del Carpio said the ancestral Kichwa methods of harvesting and planting year-round can help people adapt to changes in the climate. “Indigenous people have important knowledge about how to work with the environment,” said Del Carpio. “[Their traditional way of] growing diverse crops helps ensure food for their families.”

The idea for the gardens came from listening to Kichwa women, who first raised concerns about the loss of their crops in an AIDESEP workshop designed to build women’s leadership and advocacy skills. These efforts are part of a larger Oxfam program that helps indigenous people in South America protect their cultural, political, and territorial rights.

In the future, “we want to make sure we have enough for food, [but] our main goal is to sell crops so we can increase our incomes,” said Sinarahua of the women’s plans. AIDESEP aims to organize a sellers’ fair where growers from these remote towns can exchange seeds and connect with potential buyers. And, eventually, they hope to expand the project to other communities.

To learn more about the traditional gardens and the women who grow them, see the article in OXFAMExchange magazine.