Living and Learning in the Andean Highlands

With plans to travel to Ecuador over the summer, I wanted to spend some of my time off the “gringo trail” and learning about the country’s non-touristic areas. I was particularly interested in learning more about agricultural practices in the country — globally, Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas, and contributes significantly to the global market of coffee, flowers, and quinoa. Though the country’s economy survives on agricultural exports, it is also a country where many live in poverty and small farmers struggle to compete in a globalized market. This paradox that occurs all over the world drew me to explore the issue closer.

My economic studies, as well as my interest in agriculture, led me to connect with a nonprofit organization called “Earth to City” that arranges home-stays in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. For 2 weeks, I lived in a small town called Mulalillo where a majority of farmers practice traditional farming methods on a small scale. Throughout the two weeks, my host family and neighbors shared their way of life with me. I helped with daily farm chores in the morning and preparing meals, slaughtering animals raised in their backyard on occasion, and also had the opportunity to tour local businesses.

Throughout my stay there, I was able to learn a great deal about Ecuadorian culture and the specific customs of Mulalillo. The town is physically situated on the road between more remote villages far up in the mountains and a small but bustling city called Salcedo. Its physical location is allegorical to the unique transition it is experiencing from traditional ways of life to the more modern way of life of the city. The people of the town still make many customary foods like machica (toasted barley ground into a fine powder), but also snack frequently on Fritos; the indigenous language, Kichwa, is spoken by many grandparents, but few children; and the traditional vestments like sombreros, colorful skirts, and woven ponchos are worn by about half of the residents. Though 100% of the town is Catholic, aspects of the indigenous religion are deeply steeped into everyday life and folklore, especially regarding the nearby active volcanoes and other natural surroundings. It was fascinating to learn about the way my host family both embraced new change yet held closely beliefs and traditions that had been in their families for generations.

Through “Earth to City”, I learned before visiting Mulalillo that the community had many different cooperatively run initiatives. A course I took in the Honors Program my freshman year introduced me to social enterprise and other alternative approaches to social benefit through business. Seeing thriving examples of such initiatives was one of the most enriching aspects of my trip. During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit an organic farm run cooperatively by 49 families in the community. Unexpectedly, I also visited and participated in the work at a cooperatively owned snack factory; being immersed in the process of potato chip making was not something I ever thought I would end up doing in Ecuador, but it was enlightening to see the intricate process. Farmers from the community provided extra potatoes from the harvest, other community members washed, peeled, sliced, fried, and bagged the potatoes, and finally sold them to a small market in the nearest city. The profits were split among all partners involved. (As an important side note, they were also pretty delicious potato chips!)

My experience in Mulalillo immersed me into a drastically different culture. The opportunity to spend time living with a host family and experiencing the way of life in an agricultural community enriched my understanding of the country, but also left me with many questions about agricultural production. Most of what I saw in my short visit gave me insight into the way local, small-scale production and trade operates; I’d be interested to learn more about large scale exportation of commodity crops and how this affects both the livelihood of farmers and the environment.

I hope to continue learning about this intersection of economics, agriculture, and international development in my time at Northeastern and potentially in graduate school.

Allie Smith, Environmental Studies and Economics