Interview: Keely McCaskie, EkoRural Coordinator

Keely McCaskie has been working for EkoRural as the coordinator of EkoRural´s Northern Highlands Program, and is currently working on EkoRural’s Central Highlands Program. In this interview, Keely elaborates on the role she has within the organisation.

Q: How did you come to be involved in the work of EkoRural?

Keely: “I came to Ecuador in January 2014 on a U.S. Student Fulbright Grant having graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013 with a BPhil in International Area Studies, BA Environmental Studies, BA Sociology, and Certificate in Women´s Studies.

I had long been involved in community organizing, education, and advocacy surrounding various social and environmental causes, for example: organizing around gender and reproductive justice, service workers´ rights, and regulations for gas-drilling in Pittsburgh; facilitating education around climate justice with native communities in the Navajo Nation and across the US; and conducting action-research in Ecuador in 2011 around sustainable development and a large-scale hydroelectric dam.

I came to love Ecuador and wanted to return on a Fulbright Grant to continue learning from the many extraordinary community leaders in this diverse landscape of cultures, issues, and locally-based solutions. I was fortunate to gain an affiliation with Fundación EkoRural, and ever since, I´ve only continued to fall more and more in love with the work and the people here.”

Q: What has been your role with EkoRural?

Keely: “My work began in the northern provinces of Imbabura and Carchi, where I served as Coordinator of EkoRural´s Northern Highlands Program. There I worked in collaboration with two promotores comunitarios to plan, implement and evaluate EkoRural´s programming in various farming communities, mainly focusing on a 5-month workshop series to highlight and promote traditional practices in healthy, locally-based consumption. In collaboration with community partners, I edited a book of local recipes that utilize healthy, disappearing crop varieties, and a facilitation manual, “Nutrition in the Northern Sierra: A guide for community facilitators,” in order to equip community leaders with tools to continue facilitating this learning and change in their own communities. I also worked to propose a new long-term strategy for the Northern Highlands Program, by gaining a comprehensive view of the current landscape of actors, challenges, and opportunities moving forward in the region.”

Most recently I have worked with the Central Highlands Program in the provinces of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, where I support in strengthening the internal capacities of the team and strategic planning of the program, and in coordinating and facilitating a week-long service-learning trip for North American donors.

Q: What have you learned and gained from the experience?

Keely: “This experience has only strengthened my conviction that sustainable, positive change is best achieved by just processes built on the knowledges, visions, and leadership of women, youth, elders, and others at the local level. It has been a true gift to learn and contribute as an integral part of an organization that successfully embodies this approach.

I´ve also affirmed that this work—and, for me, social justice in general —is simply about human relationships, and according people and environments the value they deserve. As part of EkoRural, I have been able to form truly satisfying and enriching human relationships across all of Ecuador. Without a doubt, my greatest sense of accomplishment comes from this—the day-to-day conversations, interactions, laughter, and bonds that I´ve shared this year. And so, to EkoRural, I am forever grateful.”keely_collage

Thesis research in the Central Highland of Ecuador

Jonajonass Wegener is a German student who studies International Development Studies at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. He is completing his Master’s Degree at the moment, and as part of his Master thesis he conducted a research on fluidity in agriculture in the Central Highland of Ecuador. During his time in Ecuador he lived with several farmer families during a period of three months. EkoRural supported him with its extended network. We asked him to share his work and story with us.

 Jonas’ research started from the observation that today’s agricultural situations appear to be contradictory, nonlinear and dynamic; thus fluid. He states that: “farmers do not fit into classical categories like ‘peasant’ and ‘industrial’.” He continues in saying that science fails to approach these realities as it assumes fixed situations and denies nonhuman agency. Scientific tools like modelling and systems thinking cannot deal with this complexity. Being part of development approaches, this causes a fail of current interventions in agriculture. At the same time it calls for a better link between scientific theory and practice on the ground; theory of science needs to go beyond positivistic assumptions.

In his quest for an alternative approach, Jonas decided that he needed to start on the ground. He based himself in the office in RiobamAPDSC DIGITAL CAMERAba to get acquainted with the projects and build trust with farmer families. Together with EkoRural he chose three different farmer families in the Central Highland of Ecuador to live with for a period of one month each. He accompanied farmers in their everyday life and participated when they went to their plots to harvest maize, to spray pesticides or to work collectively during so called ‘mingas’. The minga (minka in Quechua) is an ancient tradition of community to collectively work for social utility.

“As I assumed that agriculture is not an isolated part of life but a mirror of it, I broadened my focus to life outside farming as well. This showed me that materialities can have multiple realities. For example, the colour of the soil does not only indicate how fertile it is, it may also be perceived of how well a farmer practices his religion; the blacker (thus more fertile) the soil, the more dedicated the farmer studies his bible. A tree can be a symbol of agro-ecology, and an unwanted part of modernity or a crop variety can be western and indigenous at the same time.”

APDSC DIGITAL CAMERABased on these complex situations he developed a framework to analyse these human and nonhuman interactions. He got his inspiration from Post-Structural approaches and Assemblage theory. The framework includes critiques to positivistic assumptions and goes beyond assumptions on fixed and singular understanding on realities and contexts, on human centred agency and linearity of practices. By this, the framework contributes to a new generation of development approach, whose base is a dynamic understanding of realities.

In retrospect, Jonas concludes that he had a fulfilling time in the Central Highland of Ecuador, and enjoyed his time in the field a lot: “I loved to get up early in the morning, take care of the animals, work in the field and join the families to local football matches or in running an errand in the city. This, however, was only possible because of the incredible kindness of the local people who made me part of their families.” Besides the possibility to do research on a very interesting topic, Jonas therefore states that he has learned a great deal about hospitality.

We wish Jonas all the best in his future endeavours and his career.APDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

Saving the Seeds of the Past for the Future

Sonia Zambrano, the EkoRural coordinator for the Central Sierra Region of the Ecuadorian Andes, informed me that usually the community of Tzimbuto was much more beautiful.   The irrigation canal was undergoing repairs, so the land lacked water and the lush greenness that often characterizes the Andean hillsides.  But it was a perfect day and, in spite of Sonia’s insistence to the contrary, the view was breathtaking.

The community of Tzimbuto is already involved in the Canastas Comunitarias in Riobamba, a market in which farmers agree to use organic practices to cultivate food and, rather than dealing with wholesale middlemen, sell directly to low-income consumers, who pay a fair price for the healthy produce.  However  in this past year, the community has gone a step further towards increasing biodiversity  and securing reliable income from their farmland.  After three years of planning, the community-run seed bank, Nueva Vida (New Life), is now in full operation and highly functional.

On a very practical level, the seed bank purchases seeds used for animal feed and soil building, such as oatmeal and alfalfa, in bulk so that farmers do not have to make the long, bumpy journey into the city.  This has allowed the seedbank to grow its capital.  Meanwhile, certain potato, bean and corn species that are native to the area (and quickly disappearing as farmers buy commercial seed) are making a reappearance.  Farmers can take a certain quantitiy of heirloom seed at the beginning of the growing season, but they must return two times that amount of seed in order to be permitted to utilize the seed bank for the following season.  In this cash-poor region, a bartering system is the perfect method for recuperating the seeds and plants that best grow in the area.  It also makes the community a perfect experimental site for organizations like the Centro Internacional de Papas (International Potato Center) – who connect to such projects through EkoRural.

Unlike many  “development projects” that are executed by an external organization and lose their utility when the organization or funding disappears, the Nueva Vida seed bank was conceived and implemented by local community members with minimal facilitation by EkoRural.  Every month, a different community member is in charge of keeping careful records of transactions.  52 farmers from the surrounding communities already utilize this start-up venture.  The small amount of seed money ($500) provided by has quickly grown to ($2,500 – combined cash and materials) through conscientious team management and strategic partnerships with seed and plant material providers.

Take a moment to view the slideshow below and learn more about yet another community initiative that EkoRural has helped to grow:

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