Shared from the 2/23/2020 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin eEdition

From hacienda to commune to cooperating farm families


Photos courtesy of Clark Colahan

Above: Clark is learning from Jose Sánchez how to eat the sweet inner core of a corn stock.


Below: Ruins of the Hacienda.


Jose Sanchez is an indigenous farmer who grew up working in the fields of a newly formed commune and was optimistically helping organize the former share-croppers that had been liberated from huasipungo (serdom) in the 1960s.

He lives in Cotacachi, a town of 8,000 a few miles from Otavalo, and with his wife maintains and manages( at a low salary) a beautiful guest house owned by an absentee landlord long resettled in Quito.

His mother is still the owner of a small cornfield in the lands of the former hacienda, but it is not mechanized and doesn’t produce much crops or income. The net result of the “liberation” of the sharecroppers is that they, as before the 1960s, do all the work and yet remain quite poor.

On a recent Sunday Jose, his wife Narcisa, and his two young children gave Barbara and me a long walking tour of the grounds. With the family we sucked the sweet juice out of corn stalks and ate some of the many wild berries. As Jose often says, the location is magnificent, at the edge of the foothills of a large volcano and watered by a natural spring gushing forth so abundantly that it is used for irrigation by five indigenous communities.

The exceptionally fertile land produced, in the pre-commune days, immense harvests of corn, wheat, barley and other crops. Jose estimates the owner’s spacious house and the many large storehouses, now in ruins, go back a century and a half, at least.

But then came those whom Jose calls the naysayers, the opponents, the non-communal minded. Indigenous people from the surrounding communities who had not lived on the hacienda rushed in, claimed fields for themselves, then for many years refused to pay any taxes on them. Planting, irrigating and harvesting went back to the old, individualistic farming on small plots, with almost no machinery and all the economies of scale lost.

Some NGOs stepped in, including a Canadian one that planted seven varieties of avocados over about 10 acres. The Ecuadorian government developed a thorough plan to turn the former estate into a working tourist site, with the big house providing lodging for visiting groups. The land would still be producing with economies of scale on a cooperative basis, but the non-communals rejected it out of fear of becoming sharecroppers again, thinking it better to eke out a living with their tiny parcels.

In 1998, the decades of non-payment of taxes by the commune came to a head with lawsuits by the government. Thirty families, finding strength in cooperation, agreed to make monthly payments until the debt would be paid off. Those who refused would have to leave.

The debt now is gone, along with the naysayers. But individual ownership, too, has triumphed, proving itself essential in motivating farmers to work together. The 30 families have now delegated one person who is trying to make sure that each family gets a deed to their section of the land and that the deeds are legally recorded. Municipal government refuses to process small land holdings, so the process has to be handled by the Department of Agriculture.

How could Tandana’s approach have smoothed the way from serfdom to communism to cooperation among independent farm families?

I have given Jose and a neighbor the information about an indigenous woman lawyer, Gladys Perugachi, who devotes a big percentage of her practice to helping solve the problem of getting and recording deeds. As mentioned in an earlier article on her, she gives 50% discounts and takes payment in homegrown food from those in need. She was able to pay her way through law school with a Tandana scholarship.

An even bigger principle that the foundation practices is that communities cannot receive aid unless they reach consensus and make a commitment to put it into action. That includes contributing their own labor and whatever other resources they have.

The minga, a communal work party like a barn raising, has always been a fundamental element of kichwa culture, and is invariably a central feature of agreements reached between the foundation and a community. As Gladys has explained, being shunned for not cooperating is a pressure, and even a punishment in criminal cases, that works well in this tradition.

But Tandana’s approach includes facilitating joint efforts on projects, not just within a single group of people. Government and private parties can be, and usually are, brought into the mix of contributors to the solution.

A few months ago the Department of Agriculture finally paid to have cement irrigation canals built to distribute the spring water to everyone farming land on the location.

If Tandana’s philosophy had been brought early into the negotiations surrounding the big social change that has slowly worked itself out here, a wider base of support, and less tearing of the social and economic fabric, might have been achieved.

Barbara Coddington is a former director of Sheehan Art Gallery at Whitman College and former curator of the Museum of Art at WSU. She worked for 10 years to bring about the first exhibit of pieces by Native American women artists from the inland Northwest. Clark Colahan is a retired professor of Spanish and former Anderson Professor of Humanities at Whitman College.

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