20-year-old Cesar Guale Vasquez tirelessly tracks down threatened heirloom seeds and returns them to their rightful place of honor in the hands and gardens of rural farmers.
PEDRO CARBO, ECUADOR — It was late afternoon and Cesar Guale Vasquez had searched unsuccessfully all day. He visited almost all the farms in this rural area, walked through fields, picked through feed troughs, scoured kitchens. Nothing. As the sun faded, he approached one last farm. It was remote and belonged to a poor woman, and he didn't expect to find anything.
But there it was, hanging on a wire near the woman's smoky fire to keep pests and insects away—heirloom white corn. The woman was saving two ears, as she did every year, to replant her family's tiny patch of corn.
Vasquez is part of a seed-saving project in the coastal plain of ecuador, an agricultural area dominated for decades by cash crops like cotton and corn, planted on large monoculture farms. Even the small farmers in the area began to buy newer seed strains that grow best with the addition of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Slowly, the local varieties that small farmers and families had depended on for generations began to disappear.
Vasquez and his organization are trying to find these traditional varieties and bring them back into cultivation on small farms. This white corn he discovered, for instance, is well adapted to the hot, dry conditions here and makes the best cornbread. He will grow it out to increase the number of seeds and then pass them freely to small farmers in his group or trade them for other local heirloom seeds.
The woman was hesitant to give up her only two ears of seed corn, but Vasquez explained his purpose to her. "She agreed to give us her two ears of ancestral corn and thanked us for what we were doing," he said. "That's often how it happens."
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Vasquez—lean with his black hair coiffed into a shiny ridge along the top of his head—is 20 years old and has the fervor to match. He is a dynamo—searching out traditional food crops, urging small farmers to grow them and organizing seed swaps. He began working with traditional crops and seed saving when, after he finished high school, he found work in a plant nursery. From there, he became involved with FOCCAHL, a regional organization that partners with heifer international to alleviate poverty and increase food sovereignty through training, seeds and livestock. Vasquez now runs both the seed-saving and youth projects for FOCCAHL.
But for Vasquez, it all started at home. He grew up here on his family's farm in the community of Fatima, a few miles outside the town of Pedro Carbo, helping with the chores and watching his grandmother as she cooked. The kitchen was outdoors, with raised vegetable beds all around. When she needed a tomato, she reached up and picked one; when she needed a pepper, she picked that, too. Like most of the small farms in the area, theirs was largely self-sufficient.
"We're not as good as my grandmother, but we're trying to keep that tradition alive," he said. His family is again, two generations later, approaching self-sufficiency. "We grow the rice and the vegetables and the meat right here on our farm," he said, only venturing into grocery stores to buy staples like salt, sugar and oil. He is an evangelist who practices what he preaches.
One of the keys to greater self-sufficiency, Vasquez contends, is growing older varieties that were developed to fit the climate here. There's plenty of rain during the rainy season, but the dry season can be brutal. There are broad beans, peanuts, manioc and plantains, which are adapted to this climate but marginalized by the arrival of monoculture farming and inexpensive imported food.
Vasquez left the shade of his family's house and stepped into the harsh equatorial sun, past the sheep pen and down a rutted road to show us the vegetable garden, which he stocked with heirloom varieties. The garden—at 2.5 acres, it pushed the boundaries of the word—lay in a broad, flat area bounded by a neighbor's teak trees. Bean vines wound up corn stalks. The umbrella-like leaves of manioc—a staple root crop—flapped in the light breeze. Under the shade of a green tarp, coffee plants pushed through moist, black soil.
Water is a constant concern for farmers here. They have it in abundance during the three-month wet season, but it quickly dries up until the ground is a dull gray and cracked like old tarmac, and just as hard. In Vasquez's garden, irrigation drip lines—contributed to the project by heifer international—run parallel to each row of seedlings. Groundwater is pumped from a well to a tank, which then gravity-feeds the drip lines. Careful irrigation is the only way to coax a crop out of this soil during the dry season.
At the far end of the rows of vegetables is a more lowtech irrigation solution—a swale that collects rainwater. Now, just a few weeks into the dry season, it still has enough water to be considered a small pond—complete with tilapia swimming in it—but it will slowly dry to a puddle.
The earthen levee around the swale is planted thickly with crops that need more water—bananas, plantains, mangoes and melons. Half hidden in the dense growth is a huge squash, white and oblong. That, said Vasquez, is el giron, a local variety he and his organization have brought back from the brink of extinction. "I am especially proud of saving it," he said.
Ercilia Carlo Salazar's house was planted in the middle of a cornfield, surrounded by rows of dry, brown stalks. The bottom floor of her house was built with large clay-red blocks; the second floor was unfinished—the walls gray cinder blocks wrapped with a multi-colored, striped tarp.
A blackened cauldron sat on a smoky, open-fire stove in front, and women darted in and out of the kitchen. Plastic chairs were stacked in the yard, and several men had begun to gather near what looked to be the frame of a small wooden building at the far end of the yard.
The sky was overcast, and even though the rainy season was officially over, it looked like rain. But when asked if it would, everyone answered definitively, in unison, "No, no."
Beans and passion fruit twined along the barbed wire fence. Squash vines scrambled across the ground, every few feet displaying a yellow blossom or a greenish, almost white fruit. Skinny dogs slunk around the yard, while a hen and her chicks wove their way in and out of the corn stalks, searching for stray kernels.
A man on donkey back, whom we had passed on the drive in, slowly ambled up through one of the cornfields. From another direction, three men followed by two dogs appeared out of the corn.
Snarling and fighting ensued until the dogs were chased away. Another man, in a ball cap and yellow shirt, arrived on a bicycle. A white pickup drove up the dusty road, and Vasquez and his family and several others crawled out of the back.
Vasquez coordinated the day's seed swap and found this central location for the meeting. Heifer and FOCCAHL partnered with a small grassroots organization in this community to save traditional crops and ensure a steady supply of food. The community, called Voluntad de Dios ("The Will of God"), had a special significance for the seed savers. "The giron squash came from this community," Vasquez said.
After lunch, the women pulled out small plastic bags of seeds and displayed them on the long table made of three rough planks lashed together with rope. The women crowded one side of the table, each pointing out what she
Had brought and how it was used. Vasquez, overseeing the seed swap from the other side of the table, then announced each seed so everyone could hear. Off to one side, a woman with a clipboard kept notes on who was attending, what seeds they brought and what seeds they took home. Men also participate in the seed exchanges but on this day were working on their own related project.
"This is the gandul bean," a wide-pod bean much like a fava bean, he said, holding up a small bag of dry, brown beans.
"This is a heirloom variety of white corn," still on the cob.
"This is the seed of a big squash that looks like a watermelon," good for making cakes, Vasquez said, pointing to a large squash on the far end of the table that had been grown from these seeds.
"Here we have purple peanuts," that when shelled are almost black.
"As long as I can remember, we've had these peanuts," added the woman who brought them. "My grandparents saved these seeds."
The list of seeds grew—more beans, more corn, more squashes. When the seed swap began in earnest, it proceeded like a buffet. One by one, the women stepped forward. Vasquez would ask, "What did you bring and what do you need?" and then fill their small plastic bags with seeds. Yellow popcorn, shelling peas, cantaloupe. Whoever wanted seeds could get them. Tomatoes, rice, cilantro.
Vasquez fished out a handful of round seeds and dropped them into a woman's bag. "We'll expect you to bring cilantro seeds to the next seed swap," he said to her. These seeds are given freely but with the expectation that each person grows them will then save seeds for themselves and to give away to others—their way of Passing on the Gift.
While the women swapped seeds, the men were occupied with their own project. At the edge of the yard, pushed up against the cornfield, a wooden building was taking shape. The 8-by-10 pole frame had been built earlier, and a dozen men with adzes, handsaws, wooden mallets, hammers and machetes were placing rough boards for the raised floor. Wood shavings littered the ground.
All the men had gathered for a minga, a community work party in the vein of an Amish barn raising. "One person can't do anything by himself or herself. When it's a group of people working together, you see how quickly it gets done," said Cruz Arevalo, the woman who is president of the Voluntad de Dios grassroots organization.
An older man with graying hair, his shirt neatly tucked in, used an adze to hew the support joists so the floor boards would sit more evenly. Another man used a machete to form the end of a round pole into a square tenon. A young boy sat nearby in the shade on a stack of boards watching.
"Here they're building a kind of a barn, to save the seeds that we're recovering," Vasquez explained. The floor is several feet off the ground to discourage rats, and any holes in the walls will be chinked. The seeds will be mixed with ash to discourage insects and stored in sealed containers.
Inside the barn, local varieties of corn and rice, staple crops, will take up the most space. The corn will be stored in the husk, and the rice will be stored in a sealed wooden silo inside the barn. Containers of the smaller seeds— tomatoes, beans, peas, squashes, melons—will line the walls. Still, the seed barn is meant only for short-term storage between seed swaps, two months at the most.
Vasquez is justifiably proud of the seed-saving project he has spearheaded. Not only has the group saved several heirloom varieties of vegetables from being lost, but they were now building the infrastructure to ensure that they never lose those crops again. But, lest they become too complacent with their present success and the new seed barn, Vasquez was quick to remind everyone, "The best way to save seeds is by planting them."