From Andean moorlands to autumnal landscapes: A story of collaboration between Andean communities and Wageningen University.

Hello, I am Susana Zavala, Ecuadorian, student of Anthropology at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Ecuador. I am currently visiting Wageningen University, The Netherlands. My presence in this educational institution is mainly to share my knowledge and experiences about the communities of the Páramo (highlands) and the communities of Licto that are supplied with water by the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (lowlands), in the context of water justice. At this moment, I would like to recall and share my journey from the Andean moors to the land of autumnal landscapes.

It all started when my thesis supervisor recommended a book about the peasant communities of the Licto community and the Guarguallá-Licto irrigation system in Ecuador, the same place where I wanted to do my Master’s thesis. I also come from the community of Molobog, which is part of the irrigation system. I immersed myself in the search for information about the author and, after confirming his relevance, I decided to contact Rutgerd Boelens by e-mail. We started communicating, exchanging information and news about Licto.

One day, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from Rutgerd Boelens, the principal investigator of the Riverhood and River Commons projects, to participate in the selection of a river in Ecuador to carry out a counter-mapping exercise. This exercise was carried out in Colombia by the Ríos Viajeros team, linked to the aforementioned projects.  Although the Nagsiche River in Cotopaxi was initially considered for this project, the possibility of carrying out the exercise on the Guarguallá River, with which I was already familiar thanks to its irrigation system, was raised. The information gathered would be an integral part of the seminar ‘Rivers, territories and power: political cartography and alternative hydro-social representations’, which took place in the city of Riobamba, Ecuador. So I accepted without much hesitation.

In this preliminary phase, Meike (from Wageningen University) and Sebastian (from the Central University of Ecuador) joined us, people whose names were unknown until then. Together we formed a team and set off on this journey. The aim of the previous visit was to establish dialogue with local actors who had knowledge of the river area. This would allow us to understand the relationship between the population and the river, analyse its uses and conflicts, and assess the feasibility and relevance of the mapping process. In the course of planning our trip, we exchanged information and news about the controversies surrounding the supply of drinking water to Riobamba. In this context, the importance of the Alao River was identified and highlighted, and we decided to include it in our pre-visit.

The Alao and Guarguallá rivers originate in the Andean highlands and, although separated by a hill, follow parallel courses until they meet and form part of the Chambo River. Despite these similarities, each river has its own dynamics and actors, which is why we call them “twin rivers”.

In this context, we informed the Travelling Rivers team, which led to a virtual meeting with Rutgerd, who showed interest in our case. During this virtual meeting I had the opportunity to put a face to a person with whom I had been corresponding for several months. Unexpectedly, when I introduced myself, he discovered that I belonged to the Molobog community and that my mother had been part of the Guarguallá-Licto irrigation project 25 years ago. This project brought irrigation water to peasant communities that had been historically marginalised and exploited by landowners, the church and mestizos. It not only changed the geographical landscape, but also represented a significant social construction in the communities. A few days later, their response was positive, and at the end of June they would visit the rivers and their actors.

As part of this project, I took on the logistical responsibility and direct contact with the actors involved in river management, using my knowledge of the area. Over the course of two days, we travelled through the páramo and along the riverbanks, making contact with the users. Although exhausting, these days were an enriching learning experience.

On the third day, the counter-mapping exercise took place, which marked a significant milestone by bringing together the leaders of the páramo communities (upper zone) and the irrigation communities (lower zone), who had not met for more than a decade. This collective approach projected the territory as a single entity without borders, underlining the interconnectedness and interdependence of the communities. It also highlighted the challenges and problems faced by these communities. These included mining, hydropower, non-compliance with projects, agrochemical abuse and migration.Our commitment was to return the “Community and Solidarity Water Management Map between upper and lower communities”, a tool designed to reflect the reality and shared aspirations of the upper and lower communities.

Rios Viajeros” team with the leaders of the organisation ASARATY and the Páramo Guarguallá, Chimborazo.

After almost two months of counter-mapping, we reopened a channel of communication with the communities of Licto and those of the Guarguallá páramo. The message focused on the return of the product of their work, the map. This approach provoked a series of reactions: “I thought they had forgotten us”, “where did you come from”, “thank you for inviting us”, and similar reactions. The mistrust of community organisations towards the institutions is notorious, due to bad experiences, because in some cases they are only the object of studies and subject to the extractivism of information and knowledge.

The Junta de Riego Guarguallá-Licto offered us a space where we could officially hand over the map, the fruit of our collective work. Before the meeting began, we placed the map in a place where it could be seen by all, attracting the attention of our fellow farmers. Intrigued, they approached to observe and identify their localities, while others said that their territories were not there, noting that the landscape was even more complex and extensive.

Elaboration of the map with the peasant companions of the Guarguallá páramo (high zone) and users of the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (low zone).

Peasants from the Guarguallá páramo (upper zone) and the Guarguallá-Licto Irrigation System (lower zone), observing the “Community and solidarity-based water management map between upper and lower communities”.

The handover was well received by the farmers. In my case, I experienced an emotional sense of belonging, and the most gratifying thing was to hear the leaders express the possibility of initiating dialogue between the upper and lower communities in order to re-establish inter-community relations. This was an important gesture, given that some 25 years ago these communities had a relationship that had weakened over time to the point of disengagement.

Delivery of the map to the communities of the high and low zones.

The handing over of the map to the highland and lowland communities took place in a context that aims to be a turning point, in a way that points towards new relationships and collaborations between communities and academia, promoting justice and equity. In this sense, Rutgerd invited Sebastian and me to share our knowledge and experience of the Twin Rivers and their actors, the Páramo and irrigation communities, with the students of the Water Justice course in the Netherlands. This news filled me with enthusiasm, as it offered the opportunity to immerse myself in the reality of the communities, to amplify the voices of fellow farmers and to explore a new environment. So I landed in the Netherlands, immersed in an autumnal landscape.

Alboretum of Wageningen, Netherlands.

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