by Penny Livingston Stark, Co-Founder, Regenerative Design Institute
I was called to the Sacred Valley of Peru to teach regenerative design, permaculture, and medicine making. I arrived March 11th in Cusco. As the coronavirus began to escalate throughout the month of March, I had to make a decision to go or to stay. I knew when I came here that there was a chance that I would not be able to travel home for a while. I was ok with that — I have many friends here in Peru and there is a lot of momentum building from the work we started together in 2015.
Permaculture is a design system and educational curriculum that helps support communities and individuals in learning how to live more in harmony with Mother Earth. Historically, the local indigenous communities in Peru had their own “permaculture” systems. It was a culture of food security, and they had enough food stored to feed everyone for two years. Many of the farmers have been so indoctrinated into chemical farming that they know longer remember how to grow corn and vegetables organically. They have also deforested the land–to make more space to grow corn–and have destroyed the fertility of the land.
December 2015 I was invited by a young man to teach a Permaculture Design Certification Training in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Adam, an Australian man living in Peru, had interned with James and I at the Commonweal Garden for a few months. I agreed to come, on the condition that there would be scholarships for local Quechua farmers. The course was located at a yoga retreat center and registered non-profit in Peru called Sach’a Munay, located in the village of Arin.
Mario Herrera showing students a potato fruit and seeds. I’ve never seen one, as our potatoes only go to flower.
A local Quechua farmer and community leader from the nearby village of Huaran, Mario Herrera, took this course and it changed his life. In 2017, I returned to teach another permaculture course at Mario’s farm in Huaran with his daughter Tanya. This was organized by a local non-profit called Reviveolution, run by a very dynamic American woman, Caroline Putnam. She was adopted into a Q’ero family and has been assisting the wisdom keepers with ceremonies called Despachos.
In 2019 I returned again to Peru, to build on the momentum resulting from the previous permaculture trainings. During this year, Caroline grew a beautiful crop of organic corn. We served it at a community gathering in Huaran. During this time I gave a presentation and demonstration on how to purify water by building a biological grey water system. Explaining that it is important to stop using toxic chemicals on the land, because while there were only a few bad microorganisms, the majority of billions of microorganisms are good and help protect the plants from the bad ones. Putting chemicals in the soil destroys all of them, the good and the bad. People showed renewed interest in transitioning back to organic agriculture.
Life in the Sacred Valley of Peru during Coronavirus
So now I’m again back in Peru riding out the Coronavirus pandemic. I arrived here March 11; on March 16th, the government initiated a national lockdown and curfew. Only one person per household can leave their home to get essential things like food and medicine. Any cars traveling on the roads need a permit, which has to be renewed daily. Everyone needs to be home and off the streets between 5:00 PM and 6:00 AM.
It was challenging for many local people, because the lockdown happened very suddenly. There was only a one-day notice. The main tragedies of the virus in Peru are happening in Lima and some of the jungle cities like Iquitos. There are no roads in or out of Iquitos. There is also an outbreak of Dengue Fever happening there as well, so the hospitals are overwhelmed. Peruvians who lost their jobs suddenly in Lima were stuck, with no place to go, and no busses to take them back to their villages. When the lockdown happened there were only 58 documented cases in Peru. There are now over 100,000 with more than 4,000 new cases every day. It’s hard to explain why because there has been such a strict quarantine and curfew. The Peruvian government has provided some money for those who cannot work.
Here in the rural villages of the Andes, it’s a very different story. It’s peaceful and the mountain air is fresh and clean. As we are in a farming community, the local farmers seem to be thriving.
I have been working with local organizations and community leaders, even during the quarantine. The main goals are to:
- Bring about watershed awareness within the community to clean the WilkaMayu River that runs through the valley.
- Support food security and sovereignty in the villages.
- Create replicable models of crop diversification and transitioning to organic agriculture.
- Train farmers, community leaders, teachers and international people in permaculture and regenerative agriculture in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
- Organize a symposium for the community that includes bioregional mapping, sharing visions for the future of the community, and document traditional ecological knowledge for the future generations.
- Designing and developing an ecological ethno-botanical educational Sanctuary Garden.
- Documenting nutritional values of Andean fruits vegetables and tubers.
One significant event created a powerful opening between the expat community and the local people. The expat community and foreigners of Huaran came together to help some of the communities in the higher elevations who have run out of food. They raised funds and gathered enough food, staples, oil, etc., to feed 98 families. The people from these communities came down and helped pack the food on 20 horses, bringing it up the mountain to villages where there are no roads. This warmed the hearts of the local people and has created a deeper level of trust and friendship between locals and foreigners.
Another initiative was seeded when we found out many farmers are being unfairly treated by middlemen that buy from the farmers at a low price and resell for 10X the price. Two people in our community have stepped up to create a fair trade food distribution system, which is key for local sustainability.
In Huaran, the quarantine has resulted in a healing of the inter-cultural division. In addition, the experience has pointed out the lack of food security for some remote areas where people have not been planning for such a crisis–and demonstrating food security for those who have been putting this in place for the last few years.
We’ve been working to implement strategies here to help activate the local community. Some of them include:
1. Training local teachers so that education can happen on a regular basis on a schedule that is easier for farmers to be able to attend. We are offering scholarships for local indigenous farmers, herbalists, elders, and women.
2. Supporting farmers in cooperating with each other to set up veggie baskets in the Community Supported Agricultural model.
3. Creating a market and, thus, revenue stream, for value-added products like food, medicinal herbs for tea blends, tinctures, powders, etc.
4. Listening to the stories of the cultural and social history of the place.
During this time of quarantine, the organic farmers are thriving as they are selling everything they produce. Organic food is in increasing demand among locals and foreigners.
Seeing this, the leaders of Huaran and the surrounding villages are now interested in becoming a completely organic village. They have municipal funds that will support 20 farmers to transition to organic methods. They see this as the future for food security and economic development. They plan to form an alliance of organic farmers in the village.
When the quarantine is over, we will organize a community mapping symposium to bring all generations of people together to share ecological knowledge, history, and future visions for the region.
You can email Penny for more information about her work in Peru or her other work at the Regenerative Design Institute. If you would like to make a donation to Reviveolution, you can do so on their website.