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Story and Photos courtesy of Heifer Ecuador

The páramo is an ecosystem in South America. It is typically a treeless alpine plateau found between the tree line and the permanent snow line. The páramo environment protects water sources for a large part of the rural and urban population. Most of the people who live here are members of indigenous communities who depend on the páramos both directly and indirectly. 

“I think the páramo means life and protection,” says Andrès Ayala. “It is part of our life. We feel that it is like our mother who nurses us, gives us water… If the páramo didn’t exist, where, then, would we live? What water would we have? What air? My mission is to teach my children to care for the páramo.” Ayala  is a member of the Maca Grande community high in the páramo of Ecuador and lives with his family there. Maca Grande is home to the region’s largest water reserve.

In March, Ayala took part in a Passing on the Gift­® ceremony through the Heifer project. During the ceremony, his community passed on 20 alpacas to the neighboring community of Cumbijín.

The community has experienced progressive deterioration of their páramo for many reasons. Soil erosion, water flow issues, overgrazing, vegetation burning, loss of biodiversity and inter-community conflicts over access to water and land all create conflict and constant pressure to divide up community lands.  

Thankfully, the alpacas that were passed on to the Cumbijín community will help protect the páramo. The animals adapt well to high altitudes, and their soft, padded hooves do not erode the soil. “Five years ago, we received alpacas in our community,” Ayala explains. “We were so happy to receive them because these animals do not harm nature.”

By Passing on the Gift­ of alpacas across communities, residents of both Maca Grande and Cumbijín are building social capital and becoming allies amidst conflict. Passing on the Gift represents Heifer International’s philosophy and practice of Sharing and Caring, one of Heifer’s 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development. When a family receives a resource from Heifer, whether it is economic, material or organic, they sign a contract to eventually pass on that gift, sharing the resource with another family.

“I hope the people receiving the alpacas today feel like the animals are a part of their lives,” Ayala says. “I hope they will care for and protect the animals and continue to pass on the gift to others.”

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