Recovering lost traditions

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Recovering lost traditions

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Teófila Betancurth has spent over a decade fighting to preserve the traditional crops of her African and Latin American ancestors. Through the Chiyangua Foundation she works with rural women to promote the cultivation, marketing, and processing of traditional medicinal herbs, aromatic plants, and spices.

17 May 2016 – Teófila Betancurth has spent over a decade fighting to preserve the traditional crops of her African and Latin American ancestors.

A prominent Afro-Latin American leader in Colombia, Betancurth leads the Chiyangua Foundation, an organization currently working to preserve traditional crops and Afro-Colombian cuisine.

The organization has brought together over 300 women of African descent from the Colombian Pacific coast – a historically marginalized and conflict stricken population – to work on issues around preserving culture, tradition and local farming.

The foundation is helping families preserve long forgot crops and ancient food traditions by developing small businesses and selling products to larger markets.

But it all began when Betancurth and six other women from the small town of Guapi started cultivating and selling medicinal herbs and aromatic plants.

“Culture is not just about music or colourful carnival dresses,” said Betancurth. “Culture is also about food and oral tradition, about fishing and agricultural practices.”

 “When we started going back to grow traditional plants, men would contemptuously say: ‘Here come those women with their chit-chat about the herbs,’" she continued. "Now that families are making their living out of that, men come after us to learn about our crops and agriculture techniques. ”

"Women in our community are food-producers, peace-builders and those who care for our environment,” said Betancurth.

Today Betancurth leads the Chiyangua Foundation, which promotes a wide range of activities related to the cultivation, marketing, and processing of many types of medicinal herbs, aromatic plants, and spices. Families can cultivate these plants on the rooftops of cities and in gardens of rural areas. The foundation trains the families to grow the plants and then connect producers to local and national markets.

It is a complex job, maintains Betancurth, which involves the hiring of specialized services to enhance the presentation of products and management of microenterprises.

Building on tradition, the foundation is helping over seventy-four Afro-Colombian families recover and promote ancient foods linked to cultural traditions.

Daysi Rodríguez, one of the founders of the Atacames and the Río Verde Cacao Producers Association (APROCA), helps over 600 small farmers to grow cacao according to traditional practices in Esmeraldas, a town in Northern Ecuador. ©Fundación ACUA

Data illustrates that race continues to be one of the most persistent predictors of poverty in the Americas.A long history of marginalization

According to the World Bank, although Afro-Latin Americans represent 30 per cent of the region’s population, they account for 50 per cent of people living in poverty. In Colombia, home to the second largest Afro-Latin American population, they make up 75 per cent of people living in poverty, despite only making up 26 per cent of the population.

Much of this poverty stems from the region's history, which brought slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies in Latin America centuries ago and subjected them to decades of neglect, discrimination and exploitation.

During this period, many individuals ran away to form their own, free communities in remote parts of Latin America, their way of life strongly influenced by their African roots and nature.

The independence of Latin American states put Afro-descendants under the rule of the new governments, causing their communities to lose their communal lands and traditional ways of life.

With IFAD's support, the Chiyangua Foundation gathers around 300 Afro-descendent women from Colombia's Pacific Coast, one of the areas more heavily struck by poverty and conflict within the country. ©Fundación ACUA

A few decades ago, the fight to regain their culture was reignited by Latin America's Afro-descendants advocating for their rights. Women leaders played a critical role in this movement.Recovering lost traditions through agriculture

In 2007, understanding the strong link between poverty and loss of cultural and agricultural traditions, IFAD began supporting Afro-descendants in the region to improve their livelihoods through a grant awarded to Fundación ACUA (Afro Cultural Assets Foundation). 

The grant supports productive, capacity-building and knowledge sharing initiatives in the areas of traditional agriculture, gastronomy, fishing, music and intangible heritage, benefiting over 50 organizations in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

“Without women, Afro-Latin American traditions and territories would not be alive. Women are the ones transferring the culture from one generation to the next,” said David Soto, Director of Fundación ACUA.

“This is especially true in Colombia, where men have been dragged away from the communities because of the country’s internal conflict."

The grant has already supported a number of initiatives like the Atacames and Río Verde Cacao Producers Association (APROCA) in Ecuador.

Located in the Esmeraldas region of the country,  the association was established in 2004 by a group of independent private producers of cacao.

The association helps market its members’ cacao products, which represent the main income of the province. It also helps each farmer obtain certification of their organic products.

Daysi Rodríguez is one of the founding members of APROCA.

According to Rodríguez, what began as a small group of 60 small farmers, has grown into an association of over 600 farmers that grow cacao according to traditional practices.

“Our ancestors had a much better life,” said Rodríguez. “They lived on agriculture and fishing and were fully autonomous. Then, national governments prioritized extracting the natural wealth (gold and other minerals) of our ancestral territories and forgot about agriculture.”

This is just one example of the potential of investing in forgotten communities.

Last year, projects set up by Afro-Latin American’s associations supported by IFAD generated over US$500,000 worth of income, a great boost for people who live far below the poverty line.

However, according to Betancurth, there is still a long way to go.

Inspiring the next generation to focus on farming requires a society-wide change, which takes time.

“Even now, our kids are told in school that there is no future in rural areas, that they must emigrate to big cities,” said Betancurth.

In spite of these challenges, she remains hopeful, noting the value Afro-traditions bring to rural communities.

“Let’s be clear: we do not work with poverty, we work with cultural richness.”