By Madeline Greenwood (McGill University)
I arrived in Cuncani for the first time just four weeks ago, and was immediately in awe of the scenery, and the way of life. Life isn’t easy in the high Andes, and I admire the way in which people go about their days, hiking for hours just to get home from school, or bring their Alpacas to graze. At over 4,000m above sea level, the climate is cold, the soil is thin and the only crop that will survive outside is potato. I was impressed to learn that there are hundreds of types of potatoes being grown in each chakra, or plot of land, and the people of Cuncani have definitely mastered the art of growing, storing and cooking them. But, in reality, no matter the quantity or type, the nutritional value of this starchy vegetable is not enough to sustain a family. This is where the agriculture portion of Nexos Comunitarios’ Sustainable Homes project comes in.
My first glimpse of a Cuncani greenhouse was at Señor Martin’s house. We walked uphill from the community centre and found ourselves giving an out of breath introduction to the first patron of the sustainable homes project. He showed us around his property, and finally to the greenhouse and chicken coop which had been built earlier that month. The greenhouses in the project are simple adobe/rock structures, like any house in the region but with industrial white plastic for the roof and windows, which traps the heat from the sun, and moisture from the plants inside. The temperature is dramatically different between the inside and outside of the building, and I was fascinated at how easy it seemed to create a climate suitable for a wide variety of vegetables including lettuce, cauliflower, beets, chard and cabbage.
During my first visit, the plants were small and mostly unrecognizable green sprouts but, just two weeks later the mini versions of each plant were full-fledged. It’s exciting in itself to witness a feat of nature like growing plants where they shouldn’t naturally survive, but the greenhouses do not come without challenges. Without proper care, and foresight of potential problems, the plants inside don’t stand a chance, but at the same time we’re hoping that people will be able to complete extra work on top of all their other tasks.
Right now, it’s potato-harvesting season in Cuncani, and everyone has something to do. After school the children rush home to help their parents in the fields, and soon they will be busy preparing Chuño and Moraya. These traditional methods of preserving potatoes continue to be the main resource for surviving the winter in this community, and can feed families for months. With this in mind, it is easy to understand how the supplemental vegetables in the greenhouses could fall by the wayside and in this environment, even a small mistake like leaving the door open or watering the garden improperly could be detrimental. This winter will be an interesting learning experience for families to figure out what works for them in terms of delegating tasks between family members, and incorporating this new responsibility into their lives.
Although this project is still in its beginning phases, it’s looking very promising. Each week we return to Cuncani, the families seem increasingly comfortable using and maintaining their gardens and as a result, the veggies are healthy and growing consistently. For the families in Cuncani, the greenhouses mean subsistence agriculture that will actually serve its purpose of nourishment. It’s the newfound access to a wider variety of foods in their own backyards, and for free that will make a real difference to their nutrition everyday, but survival will always come first. The challenges they face within the project may not be over, but as a community and an organization, we can all learn from each experience, failure or success we encounter in the first months of the Sustainable Homes Project.