June, finally! But instead of a beauty topic, let’s ring in summer with a fascinatingly zeitgeist-accurate read this World Environment Day. Let’s discover Chakra gardens, the traditional biodiverse *and* spiritual farming method from the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Ecuador’s Chakra Gardens:
Holy Grounds Of Biodiverse Agroforestry & Farmer Owned Value Chains
When you think of a farm, what images come to your mind? Monocrop fields, right? Corn. Wheat. Maybe even lavender. As far as eye can reach — plains, plains, plains.
Well, when you see a rainforest image from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, chances are, you might also be looking at a farm. At a chakra garden, to be precise. Chakra gardens are the traditional farming systems of the indigenous tribes, but they are so obscure that if you look up “chakra+garden” on Ecosia you’re more likely to find images of esoteric and/or Ayurvedic gardens dedicated to the seven chakras than rainforest images. That’s a pity because this exact way of biodiverse agroforestry can be so powerful in saving the rainforest from deforestation and oil drilling. And agricultural products from chakra gardens can include many things, with those available to ethical consumers in Europe being chocolate and the fantastic, invigorating guayusa tea.
To explore the exciting cultural, environmental and entrepreneurial phenomenon of a farm that looks and feels entirely like rainforest, I sat down with Ecuadorian entrepreneur Raquel Cayapa. Raquel was the first distributor of now super hyped guayusa tea in Europe and is a sustainable agroforestry expert.
In this exclusive interview she shares her story of bringing novel food to another continent (took “only” about seven years!), talks about her native Kichwa culture and explains how a traditional rainforest farm can become a sustainable business and contribute to saving the endangered Ecuadorian rainforest.
Interview With Europe’s First Guayusa Distributor Raquel Cayapa
Half-Shuar, half-Kichwa herself, Raquel grew up soaking up the indigenous culture, a culture shaped by respect for nature and the environment. The Ecuadorian cooperative Kallari Futuro she represents in Germany distributes locally grown and made premium quality chocolate and guayusa tea. Direct trade, fair prices and, most importantly, a supply chain kept in the hands of the farmers are at the core of this business. Their chocolate is free from emulsifiers, vegan friendly and conched into perfection for a perfect melt. Their organic guayusa brand, Etza, has quicky won hearts of eco and health enthusiasts in Germany, but this wasn’t an easy road.
Nath Fedorova: Raquel, it took you almost seven years of hard work until Etza Guayusa could officially distribute in Germany. You told me that you almost gave up?
Raquel Cayapa: Well, for the Kichwa families the diversity of products grown in a chakra garden for commercial use is as important as the preservation of the traditional way of farming. I didn’t want to settle for selling chocolate only; I wanted to offer different chakra typical products, and guayusa was hardly known outside the Amazon area back in 2011. However, “thanks” to the administrative barriers in Europe guayusa was a so-called novel food in accordance to the regulation EG 258/97, meaning it had to undergo safety assessments. Which in turn meant a lot of work and, above all, quite some investment.
NF: The word „chakra“ is only known to us in Europe from an entirely different culture and has an entirely different meaning. So… mind explaining to our readers what an Ecuadorian chakra is?
RC: Chakras are a fixture in the indigenous culture. Originally it was a rainforest area worked in rotation for two years. This method was owed to the soil quality in the rainforest — topsoil is thin, and can be irretrievably damaged if cultured aggressively or in monoculture. Chakras also were women’s matter; cultural, even ritual sites to pass on knowledge, to play some music, to meet each other and to learn. It’s always been more than “just a farm”. On my chakra, my mother has given me power and energy to bless my own cultivation.
NF: Holy ground and a farm, what a pure and beautiful way to honour mother Earth… But how does a chakra really look like, what are you growing there?
RC: A chakra can be home to up to 80 different plants. Basically it’s simply a section of the natural rainforest. So it looks like rainforest 🙂 All rainforest levels are intact. Formerly it used to be a piece of land of about half a hectare, but since the Kichwas are no nomads anymore — even living far away in the cities — and we use the chakras for commercial cultivation, a family can own a 2-hectare chakra these days. The rotation principle is now only applied to rapid-growing plants.
Traditional chakra products would be manioc, beans, two to three ilex guayusa trees, fruit trees such as orange trees, some corn, cacao. Today it’s similar, but of course the indigenous farmers tend to product more of what they’re selling, meaning they plant more of cacao trees and more guayusa trees. Still it’s biodiverse to protect the soil and thus the rainforest. By the way, the chakra culture is supported — and protected.
NF: For me as an outsider, the chakra concept sounds absolutely beautiful and I’m gobsmacked I haven’t heard of it before. I’m wondering now, is chakra farming even common knowledge in Ecuador?
RC: I don’t think so, no. Not everybody in Ecuador knows it. I’d say it’s known to those Ecuadoreans only who consciously purchase sustainable products from the rainforenst and the Andean region.
NF: I’d like to talk about the environmental chances this form of agriculture offers. What many people might not necessarily know is that Ecuador has the most biodiversity per square kilometer of any nation, worldwide. And despite environmental protection being recognised in the country’s constitution, the oil exploitation of the Amazon rainforest remains a huge problem. Does the sustainable agriculture, do sustainable businesses established by the Amerindian peoples bear the chance of protecting this ecosystem?
RC: As long as the mindset of profiteering doesn’t seduce the indigenous tribes, the chakra system can really help. You see, the massive exploitation of the environment wasn’t an established concept. You have only taken as much from mother Nature as she could replace. But to the people from the the outside the image was that of lazy indigenous people who prefer to keep the rainforest as is instead of clearing the woodland and taking profits.
If we can live our lives the traditional way, the chakras have a fair chance of surviving. Will there be chakra farms in hundred years though? Honestly, I can’t tell.
NF: The conventional agriculture and big food’s favourite argument is “you can’t feed the world with organic”. But how scalable is biodiverse farming anyway?
RC: That’s a tough one. I definitely have heard this argument before, “organic and bio can’t feed the world”. It certainly depends. There are areas of the world where monocultures have no place in — like the Amazon area. I think it’s utopic too to say every person in the world should have a piece of land to sustain themselves, as we’ll hardly ever get ther. There will always be individuals who want the most for themselves. In the end, it’s up to each and every one of us to learn to be more content with what we have. Less egocentric. As long as there are greedy people out there, sustainability will struggle.
I work in education, and we ask ourselves every day anew whether or not the climate change can be stopped. Well, I heard somebody say that our situation is that of trying to stop a train that rushes at 400 km/h within a few meters.
Unfortunately, the ressources are getting more and more scarce, while Earth’s population keeps growing. The sustainable development goals, the Agenda 2030, is about so much positive change — peace, food safety, sustainable farming, clean water supply, clean energy, education, poverty eradication, helath, stopping the climate change, sustainable management of natural resources, and employment. So many great goals, but they are quite contradictory, in particular considering the population growth.
NF: You’re right, and in the end I hope it helps to just bring up the topics, to raise awareness — and fast — to really create some change there. Speaking of change though, how modern is the rainforest farm based business in 2019?
RC: Yes — well speaking of chakras, I think I can say that the most indigenous peoples are proud of our culture. We are protecting and sustaining our culture, our traditions, and it’s part of our culture to keep the chakras biodiverse, which is vital not just for the Amazon area but for the world, globally.
At the same time, we’re modern-day people nonetheless, and we try to marry the both worlds. A good example are my sister who has studied agricultural science and myself, I’ve studied silviculture. It’s helping tremendously!
We can help build up a fair distribution for Ecuadorean rainforest products, such as chocolate and guyausa by bringing the value creation to the farmers’ cooperatives, by establishing direct trade. It creates respect for the makers, which in turn motivates them to keep going.
NF: Speaking of value chains and direct trade! Raquel, I have researched a bit and I’ve seen that most guayusa brands in Europe claim to support some kind of “fair trade”. Are all guaysa teas fair trade? What can the consumer do to truly support the farmers, not the middlemen?
RC: There’s no shortcut to questioning the vendors. Do they have a label? If yes, is it a reliable one? If not, how transparent is the company about the conditions, about the growing area? The consumers can simply get info on where their guayusa comes from exactly and how the farmers are paid. “Above average” for example, what does it mean, how many % above the average and what is the average anyway? Customers of Etza, our certified organic guayusa brand, can actually visit the rainforest and meet the families, should they come to Ecuador.
Thank you Raquel!
With special thanks to I. Montag and V. Muchkaeva for helping with the realisation.