This Indigenous Community's Farming Co-op Protects the Amazon

Ecuador’s Kichwa people are conserving the Amazon as well as providing local jobs and income.

Aug 12, 2020

As environmental awareness grows, eco-friendly farming has taken the world by storm. While most of this involves green tech solutions, one indigenous community in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the Kichwa, is leading the way from the ground up, with a model for farming cash crops while protecting the environment.

The 55,000 members of the Kichwa tribe are the legal guardians of 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of Amazonian rainforest. The land was officially transferred to them by the Ecuadorian government in 1992 after a court ruling that recognized their rights to the land.

With preservation of the Amazon as their highest priority, the Kichwa have decided to embrace a new eco-friendly farming method via an innovative co-op Ally Guayusa. The goal of the cooperative with a mission to protect the forest, provide local jobs and socio-economic benefits to farmers.

 “We are a farmer-owned cooperative accountable to the community to produce, harvest, process and sell organic guayusa tea for local and international markets,” Leonor Andy, the general manager of Ally Guayusa told Mongabay.

Guayusa, a wild species of the holly tree whose leaves are used for tea, has been cultivated by the Kichwa for generations – and is native to the area – so the farmers are already familiar with the best practices for maximizing the crop while not overworking the land. The collective is made up of 103 families and together their monthly harvest is up to 1,600 kilograms (3,500 pounds) of guayusa leaves. 

“It [guayusa tea] has been used for generations by Kichwa communities,” Andy said. “Traditionally, it’s harvested directly from the forest and then boiled into a tea. It’s then consumed in the early morning before the sun comes up while sharing dreams and planning for the day.”

Recently, the co-op established a partnership with the Aliados Foundation – an organization that creates community businesses based on biodiversity in the Amazon and the Andes –  and British beauty retailer Lush Cosmetics.

According to the organization, they are working to maximize the benefits for the guayusa farmers to finance the infrastructure, costs, certify agroforestry systems by getting organic and kosher certification, as well as marketing the healthy antioxidant rich  organic tea. Aliados has already built a state-of-the art processing facility to boost the tea production.

“These communities need access to cash to supplement their traditional lifestyles and to serve as a safety net during hard times.” Wayne Collen, the executive director of the Aliados Foundation told Mongabay

“They could get cash by logging their forest and planting non-native crops but that would undermine the health of the ecosystem, their home,” said Collen. 

The crop fetches around $150,000 annually, with 40 percent of those funds going to the farmers and their families, and the rest invested into maintaining and growing the collective. This financial empowerment is critical, as families can now save money for a rainy day without compromising on environmental sustainability. 

Since Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have traditionally engaged in agricultural models that maintain the balance between humankind and the environment, it’s no surprise that the Kichwa people are fully embracing sustainable Guayusa farming.

A 2017 study by Allen Blackman of the think tank Resources for the Future found that where indigenous peoples won the legal rights to their ancestral lands, this “reduces [forest] clearing by more than three-quarters, and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds.”

With the Kichwa people as the official stewards of this corner of the rainforest, it’s clear that their part of the Amazon is in good hands.

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.