Weaving connections between Wageningen students and Andean communities

By Susana Zavala

The Environmental Justice in Practice course at Wageningen University proposes an approach that involves students in practical cases of competition for natural resources. In this sense, together with Sebastian, we will look at the case of the Páramo (highland) communities and the Licto (lowland) communities, who use water from the Páramo to irrigate their lands, without any retaliation or sense of reciprocity. Six students therefore set out to develop strategies to rebuild relations between the highland and lowland communities, addressing the complexities and dynamics of the case.

Conversation with students of the Environmental Justice in Practice course.

With the brief introduction we gave in the first meeting about the “twin rivers” and their actors, the paramo communities integrated in the ASARATY association (upper zone) and the irrigation communities that make up the Guarguallá Licto Irrigation Board (lower zone), the students drew up a report and presented the case as they understood it. Throughout this process, we held discussions to provide additional information and clarification. These dialogues focused on crucial aspects such as: the essential characteristics of the páramo ecosystem, its population and family livelihoods, which are based on alpaca breeding; the history of access to irrigation water; the initial relationship between the communities of the lower and upper zones; the changes in production resulting from the introduction of irrigation in the beneficiary communities; and the acquisition of land in the Molobog community.

However, we believe that these meetings with the students could be enriched with a complementary approach, specifically through interviews with the leaders of the organisations present in the upper and lower communities of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
In this context, we took the initiative to establish communication with the leaders of both the moorland communities (high zone) and the irrigation communities (low zone). The communication process began with the exchange of respectful greetings such as “Good morning, comrade” and responses such as “Good morning, miss”. It is worth noting that in this effort to connect, we received calls even in the early hours of the morning, demonstrating the time difference and the dedication of our colleagues to communicate and hear their voices.
Despite these minor setbacks, we were able to successfully schedule interviews with three key leaders in the context studied: Alfonso Guamán, head of the Molobog community and Licto parish; Galo Bonilla, president of the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation Board; and Rafael Ushca, head of ASARATY, the representative organisation of the Guarguallá marshlands.

The first interview took place on Tuesday with Mr Alfonso Guamán. We took advantage of the internet connection to remove geographical barriers and allow instant communication. Although the students were able to meet Alfonso, they needed the support of Catalina (a student from Wageningen) to overcome the language barrier. The interview started with a general question: “This gave Alfonso the opportunity to express himself freely and share information about life before the arrival of the irrigation water, the process of land acquisition, and the changes the community experienced with access to water and land. This first approach made it possible to introduce the dynamics of the relationship with the highland communities.

Alfonso noted that at the beginning of the irrigation project there was a positive relationship between the communities. However, he noted that this relationship had deteriorated over time due to constant changes in leadership and the assumption of roles by individuals unfamiliar with the irrigation system and the struggle for water. Despite this deterioration, Alfonso was optimistic that there is a good chance of reaching harmonious agreements and rebuilding the relationship between the upland and lowland communities.

The following day, the students met with Galo Bonilla, who enriched the process with his experience and knowledge as the current president of the Junta de Riego. They then met with Rafael Ushca, who provided a unique perspective on environmental management in the páramo. It is important to highlight and express our sincere appreciation for the time given to the three leaders, as their contributions were fundamental in enriching the understanding of the case.

The colloquia and interviews with leaders have given the students in the Environmental Justice in Practice course a broad perspective on the history, dynamics and breakdown of inter-community relations between the highlands and the lowlands, and the challenges of managing their natural resources. This insight is reflected in the first outline of the students’ proposal, which consists of a collaborative timeline of the history and relationships between the two communities. They also plan to develop an exchange plan between the communities to deepen their mutual knowledge of their respective territories.

Moreover, this active and collaborative dialogue extended to other instances, as we presented and discussed the case with Masters students at Wageningen University, and they showed a marked interest in engaging with the issue.

Meeting with Master students from Wageningen University.

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