Unity In Ecuador, Part 3: Community

Communities in the United States are not as close as they could be, not as willing to come together for a cause unless it’s something they consider to be big, and I get it, I’m part of a community like that. Many communities are like that, no matter how big or small we are. This happens in many levels, from the biggest one, the entire community as a whole, to the smallest one, a single family. It’s a common societal issue, discussed quite a bit, from how we are more likely to put our elderly in assisted living homes than keep them at home, to a town issue such a burglary or a predator like a mountain lion lurking in the neighborhoods. (That last one is a current issue in my town, and not uncommon enough for it to be entirely shocking. I live in a small town in the mountains, what can I say?) That’s not to say these communities never come together. Natural and man made disasters have a way of bringing people together in ways they didn’t bother with before. But when considering all this, it is a bit sad that it takes something like a disaster to bring people together. This is not always the case though, not everywhere. There are plenty of places where taking care of one’s community and coming together to help a neighbor build a house or pave/fix a road that’s in need, are done without question. It is such an important part of their culture and community, that it is only natural. The unification of these communities is something beautiful to hear about and see, and is something everyone should experience, as it would be a big step in making the world a better place.

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A Pampa Mesa, or ‘community table’ lunch in the mountain community of San Clemente, Imbabura Province.

If I were to pick the one thing that truly blew me away while I was living in Ecuador, it would be the sense of community and togetherness, both in the big city and in the mountains. People take care of each other there, most  of the communities  were tight knit and knew each other like members of a family. In a sense, that’s what these communities were, families, not always tied together by blood but by approximation to each other, their commitment to keeping each other alive and well being a bond. People are friendlier, the usual greeting among friends being an air kiss to the cheek and a hug, and a genuine, friendly interest in how one is doing. In the city, people share cars and responsibilities.

In the countryside and highlands, the idea of communal work, or minga, goes even deeper and is more extensive. It is not uncommon for an entire community to come together and build a house, repair a road, plow a field, or even create irrigation canals for crops, without pay but with the unsaid promise that should another member of the community need help with a project in the future, the rest of the community will help them as well. Despite several points being added to the constitution in 2008, as well as the usual government promise to ‘take care of the people’, more often than not issues in the community will go unattended to by the government, which is why many communities have taken these local issues into their own hands in order to make things better.

Cecilia Mantilla, former mayor of Pedro Moncaya and a long time community board member, in the La Esperanza province near Quito, has been working on not only bettering her community, but making the local government, as well as the national government, easier to deal with. Medical centers and community programs were formed, and an irrigation system that would better the community’s efforts in agriculture is a constant project being worked on. Everyone in the community works with this new form of local government, both in the field and in decision making. They work together with a local organic farm and compost organization called Cincas in order to further their agricultural pursuits and push out the bad, imported food that has caused health issues in the community for years.

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Crop fields at Cincas.

High in the mountains of the Imbabura province is the small Andean community of San Clemente (Not to be confused with the coastal community of the same name.). Community leader Manuel Guatamal, as well as other members of the community, run a cultural center near the top of the mountain, where they, and the community, host groups of tourists who come to learn about life in the Andean mountains and Andean cultural and traditions, such as agricultural and religious tradition. My group was there during their Inti Raymi celebrations, and got to see first hand how the community works together to bring the celebration to fruition. Among other things such as dream interpretation and traditional midwife medicine, we learned about the importance of minga to that community and some of the numerous things they achieved together, such as building the houses, harvesting the crops, contributing to the celebration, bringing food to one another, and, in one remarkable case, creating their irrigation system. The closest water source is miles and miles away, but the need for water in order to farm was great, so the community came together and dug irrigation canals and a main canal to bring the water to their community, over five miles away from the source. One family might take years to do this, but with the community, it didn’t take near as long, and shows how great a commitment they have to each other in the community. The homes, including Guatamal’s home and the center, was built by the community. This sense of togetherness and responsibility to one another was amazing to behold, and, as we harvested a corn field the second day for an elderly woman who couldn’t do it herself, the work went by fast and was quite a lot of fun. Because that’s the other part of minga, the community gets together and does the work, but they do not see it as hard labor. They are surrounded by friends and family, sometimes even food and drink, and they turn it into a fun community event rather than just another issue to be dealt with, as it should be. One should view aiding their community as an enjoyment, as a right, as a privilege, as a part of life that is just as common as breathing, but it is too often viewed as a tedious labor task, which is one reason it is not seen as often in some places.  In the Afro-Ecuadorian community of Valle de Chota, the people of the communities have come together to fix the problems seen there, such as health and education, through planting their own gardens and creating schools and activity centers.

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A community garden in Valle de Chota.

The importance of community and unification in Ecuador is something I believe we could all consider and execute a bit better, wherever we  live. These communities saw a need for whatever the community was lacking, and, knowing the likelihood of them getting government aid was slim, or with an existing commitment to each other, took matters into their own hands and took action to change these issues. Politically, for the indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities especially, things are not going well. Despite the 2008 rewrite of the Ecuadorian constitution, where things were added that were supposed to help these communities, nothing is happening. To quote a former professor, Krishna Toolsie, “A law is only as good as it’s enforcers.” and there are too few enforcers around to make sure these changes are actually put into action. This is a big reason why some communities are taking the reigns that hadn’t before, and why there is an increase in minga in other places, because no one else is going to do what needs to be done. Now more than ever, tight knit communities are important, vital even, to the survival of the people, not just in Ecuador, but all over the world.

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