Gathering of the Communities’ Leaders

Dear Friends and Partners of VASI,

We hope that this update finds each of you well. We are writing with exciting news, and hope you will accept our sincere apologies for the delays in posting our updates.

In flood season travel is strictly by canoe

In flood season travel is strictly by canoe

For most of the time since the end of March, we have been living and working in Dos de Mayo, capitol of the district of Sarayacu, more or less centrally located between the nine founding communities. While Dos de Mayo now has cell phone service, at least most of the time, there is no Internet access. We have been trying to figure out an efficient way to get you our updates, and hopefully, now that you are reading this, we have figured one out that will allow us to post news every 2-4 weeks. There is so much happening, so much we would like to tell you, conversations we would love you to be apart of, foods to taste, music and bird calls to hear, things we hope to slowly be able to show you. So without further ado, we are going to send you this first note from Dos de Mayo, our second newsletter. Please, feel free to share it with friends, family, and colleagues. And please, be in touch: Info@proyectovasi.org. We get our emails read to us approximately once per week.

VASI’s First Project Wide Meeting and Formation of the Related Producer’s Association

“I nominate the professor from Nuevo Dos de Mayo as president of the association.” “Is there a second for the nomination of Prof Italo Hoyos?” Several voices responded yes, and hands shot into the air. “Are there other nominations?” Silence. “Is there a majority in support of Italo Hoyos as president of our association?” All the hands in the room went up. “Professor Italo, do you accept the nomination as president of our new association?” With an elegant and inspiring speech, thanking his fellow participants for the nomination and underlining his enthusiasm, Prof. Italo Hoyos—who teaches high school math, became president of VASI’s association of local producers. In quick succession, and with amazing efficiency, the representatives proceeded to elect the remaining members of the board of directors—making sure both that each town and each sector is well represented (fishing, timbering, agriculture, education, health, etc.).

The morning of Saturday March 26th, the various members of VASI woke up in shifts starting at 3:00 am, and frankly, nothing looked good. Our project wide meeting was scheduled to start at 8:00 am and to last for two days. In order to move the project forward, we scheduled an intense agenda and we needed to accomplish a list of specific goals. Community representatives had prepared to wake up as early as 3:00 am (depending on their distance from Dos de Mayo, the town scheduled to host the meeting) and travel by foot, boat, canoe, motorcycle pulled cart, and various other forms of transportation. The sky was black, pitch black, and it was raining. The river roiled with waves, and it was cold. At 4:00 am, Edgardo Gomez Pisco (coordinating team member) rolled out of bed with an unbelievable amount of forced energy. We were near panic—a storm, no news from any of the invited authorities, cell phone service was down so no news from the community representatives, complete exhaustion from our two day trip to get to Dos de Mayo, and no food. There appeared to be no food in Dos de Mayo.

For the two previous weeks, there had been a massive general strike in Pucallpa, the large Amazonian city upon which these communities depend and where Edgardo and Nancy had been temporarily living. The strike had stopped all transportation into Pucallpa, so vegetables and eggs from the Sierra (mountain region) were almost non-existent, as were things like noodles, flour, milk, canned goods, sugar, anything that isn’t grown locally. As people had been eating almost entirely local produce, there was very little of anything to find. To top that off, Holy Week was just ending, and in observance, the local fishermen had not gone out to fish.

Fishing from river bankOur plans had always been to serve all local and traditional foods, things like upe (a porridge made from ground roasted corn and peanuts mixed with milk and sugar), hot chocolate, (made from local cacao and in this case mixed with yucca flour, milk, and sugar), chilicano (fish soup made with regional sweet peppers and chilies, onions, and cilantro), plantains, local bread, aguadita de gallina (chicken soup made from local hens, rice, and spices), beans, yucca, rice, and other local dishes. Due to the lack of transportation and non-local foods, the communities had eaten much of the stores of local products. And this, in reality, underlines one of the focal points of the agroforestry project: to improve the immediate and long term local sustainability and market for locally produced foods. Over the past few years, the communities have grown increasingly dependent on products imported from other cities and regions.

Thursday, Edgardo travelled 8 hours up-river in a dug out canoe powered by a long axled motor to meet Nancy, one of the project students, and Amy Austin, a former anthropology student of Nancy’s who had flown in using her own funds to help organize the meeting. Friday night when we arrived back to Dos de Mayo, in the dark of a growing storm, it looked like much of the food needed didn’t exist.

Once again, we considered trying to change the dates, but given the inability to communicate (cell phone service down), there was no way to do so. Somehow, we also knew, that people would show up, and we better be ready.  At 4:00 am, Edgardo looked at Nancy, and said, “If you build it, they will come.”  Laughed, left a list of instructions, and took off to work magic.

And magic seemed to be in abundance that weekend. At 6:00 am, at 7:00, and still at 8:00 am (our start time) it appeared no one was going to show up. In the confusion of the storm, two groups of representatives had already shown up and were sheltering in various houses avoiding the rain—but we didn’t yet know that. And then suddenly, there was an amazing breakfast ready, upe steaming in large pitchers, local bread, fried eggs, and rice, all served at long wooden tables. The rain began to slow, and the representatives started trickling in.

If at 4:00 am we were filled with doubts about the meeting, the food, conversation, laughter, and animated nature of the participants at 10:00 am made everything clear—the meeting wasn’t only going to take place, it was going to be a success.

Below some we have compiled some more formal notes regarding the meeting, conversations, and decisions made. These are followed by a brief description of some of the more inspiring highlights.

During the meeting the follow questions and themes were discussed and debated:

  • Current state and progress of the project in general.
  • What does “an integrated sustainability” mean at both the personal and community level?
  • What is needed for the agroforestry project to be a success, and what of those can the individual farmers and communities provide versus what truly needs to be brought from outside of the communities?
  • What is lacking and what can be done so that that more people from the participating communities can gain access to higher education?
  • How should VASI be legally organized (as association, non-profit, cooperative, business, etc., and what steps are involved)?
  • What responsibilities were the participants willing to take on, and what steps could each take immediately?
  • What is a logo? And how are we going to create VASI’s?
  • Where should we hold the next general reunion?

The following points and decisions were made:

  • “We are the correct people,” and “We are the scientists.” In other words, we don’t have to have to wait for others to move forward. There are things that the project will need from outside of the communities (for instance technical information on cacao fermentation processes), but these are much less than what we had thought. Due to the lack of funds available to immediately launch a scientific study of the local cacao varieties, many participants wondered how we could move forward. Others, however, started describing their experiments, looking for wild varieties of cacao, monitoring them, counting the number of fruit and seeds, and planting the seeds in various conditions to see which took. As the group listened to these individual experiments, we collectively realized that if all of the participants began similar experiments, in a year we can reconvene, share the information gathered, and compare results. Together, the participants can become the scientists and if we can get funds for an intern or thesis student, this information will be able to serve as a base from which to design a more in-depth study and advance more quickly.
  • The communities are already feeling the effects of climate change—primarily in unpredictable and extreme floods and droughts and changes in some of the local conditions (a few of which may favor the cacao). Based on the unpredictability of these changes, there is a need to create highly adaptive systems and strategies that will work regardless of conditions.
  • The communities identified the following as the priority items for the agroforestry project for which they need outside help:
    • o Technical advice on cacao and tropical hardwood production particularly in terms of gaining organic and sustainability certifications
    • o Government or non-profit assistance in gaining legal title to their lands.
    • The conversation regarding education was much more profound and animated than anticipated—we began talking about scholarships and ended in a much more complete and complex conversation regarding the ways in which VASI can help promote access to higher education—creative and exciting ideas were proposed, and we look forward to exploring the possibilities more and to recruiting the help of some of you reading this.
    • We decided that VASI would be composed of a Non-Profit (which will retain the name VASI) and a Producers Association. The members have now chosen a name for the association; however, we can’t reveal the name until the Peruvian Government accepts it.
    • The Board of Directors of the Association will include 9 representatives and as it grows the number will grow to include one representative from each community.
    • The board is composed of a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, Fiscal, and four members at-large. The following were elected to serve as the first Board of Directors. Because two towns could not make it to the meeting, there were two extra spots (filled by representatives from the communities that were present). At the next meeting, there will be new elections to fit representatives from the remaining two towns into the board.
      • President: Italo Hoyos Lescano representing Nuevo Dos de Mayo
      • Vice President: Abel Ojanama Isuiza representing Dos de Mayo
      • Secretary: Samuel Gordon Isamani representing Nuevo Cajamarca
      • Treasurer: Roque Ramirez Romero representing Mahuizo
      • Fiscal: Raul Chavez Davila representing Yahuarango
      • At-large: Ivan Isuiza Ojanama representing Santa Lucia
      • At-large: Reynaldo Navarro Torres representing San Cristóbal
      • At-large: Raul Inuma Ojanama representing Nuevo Dos de Mayo
      • At-large:  Manuel Chota López representing Yahuarango
      • The Board of Directors of the Non-Profit (NGO) will be composed of 3 scientists, 3 community representatives, and 3 student representatives, plus the local coordinator who will also always be part of the coordinating team and is charged with representing the communities in conversations that take place in other regions or countries.
    • o The student and scientist representatives will be elected during the following months in meetings in the cities or in the next general meeting of VASI
    • o The community representatives are:
      • President, Italo Hoyos Lescano
      • Fiscal, Raul Chavez Davila
      • At-large, Reynaldo Navarro Torres
    • o The current local coordinator is Edgardo Gomez Pisco
    • Over the next few years, we will develop our internal capacity so that the current students can with time become a part of the project’s group of scientists and so that others can take over the role of local coordinator and the other roles of the facilitating team.
    • The participants took the information regarding the logo to their home communities, which then submitted several designs. A small committee was formed to determine the winning design, and the winners were awarded a handful of notebooks and pens (for their or their children’s use in school). We will publicly announce the winners and the logo in an upcoming post.
    • The participants nominated an informal committee of one volunteer per town to serve as a point of contact to continue the conversations that began regarding education.
    • The following general meetings will rotate through each of the participating town. The names of the towns were placed in a hat and the youngest participant (a high school student) drew the name. The next meeting will be held in Yahuarango; we hope in October or November of 2016.
    • The conversations revealed that there is much more cacao growing that what anyone had previously realized. Each participant promised to take the following steps and to encourage others in his/her town to do so as well:
    • o Choose 1 to 3 wild, native, or heirloom cacao trees and:
      • Clean the brush and vines from its surroundings,
      • Count the fruit on each tree, and note how many are big, medium, and small in size,
      • Count the seeds of 5-10 of the largest fruits per tree,
      • Note if the tree shows signs of infestations or disease,
      • And look into the tree’s history, asking older residents if the tree was planted, where the seeds came from, when it was planted etc.

To conclude, we wanted to leave you with a few of the more inspiring moments of the meeting:

Travel on the Ucayali is by dugout canoes or speedboats, mostly canoes

Travel on the Ucayali is by dugout canoes or speedboats, mostly canoes

Due to the fact that the government representative who was supposed to provide legal and technical advice regarding the formalization of VASI in Peru, we feared that we might not be able to move forward in this important and basic step. The representatives from the indigenous community of Nuevo Cajamarca took charge and based on their own previous experiences were able to provide the information needed and lead the group through the bureaucratic processes necessary. Their enthusiasm and willingness to jump in and take on this leadership role, even though they are the smallest of the participating towns, inspired everyone. Don Samuel Gordon Isamani, from Nuevo Cajamarca, was elected as secretary, and charged with helping to translate as much as possible of VASI’s official records, publications, etc. into Shipibo, reflecting VASI’s trilingual multi-national status.

The student representatives, both university and high school, also played an important role. Throughout the meeting, they carried themselves with a surprising confidence and ease, acting as young professionals, and jumping in to fill all sorts of roles. In addition, they took the initiative to lead the conversation on education, dividing themselves up so that each student led a community discussion group, facilitating the members of a community they did not know, to discuss that community’s representatives’ perspectives regarding what is needed to increase access to higher education. This was not an easy role. The conversations touched on issues of race, gender, and class, as well as geography, politics, and education. And the students were charged with ensuring that all the representatives voices were heard, not just the voices of the teachers and political authorities. These young men and women (ranging from 14-24) left a strong impression on all of us, and their skill in facilitating the conversations led to several exciting new ideas we look forward to exploring.

At the end of the meeting, we shared some samples of chocolate sent by Good Stuff Cacao. The participants loved it, and were quite interested in the fact that Good Stuff markets their cacao as healthy and beneficial to their health. Various parts of the cacao plant are used in local medicine. They were particularly interested in the idea that Good Stuff’s chocolate is sweetened with honey making it more acceptable for diabetics. The representatives repeatedly expressed their interest in working with the chocolate makers with whom we have established connections in Michigan, and simultaneously established the goal of “in a few years, we will have our own brand of cacao and chocolate, chocolate from Sarayacu, for local consumption and for international export.”

The meeting ended with several speeches expressing the participants’ gratitude to all who donated to the campaign, the chocolate makers, the communities, and the organizing team. The participants were extremely impressed by the number of donors and the number of people from different countries who have donated and/or are watching our progress and joining our team. A particularly moving speech, expressing a deep felt gratitude for his service to his town and district was made to honor Edgardo Gomez Pisco, principal organizer of the meeting, member of the facilitating team, and resident of the Dos de Mayo.

Over the coming months, we will continue the process of legalizing both the association and NGO, and through both the residents experiments, and research together with scientists and students we will begin an extensive exploration of cacao Sarayaquino. We are both excited and confident as we continue to work together as students, residents, scientists, and all of you reading this, to realize this vision for a more sustainable world.

Please, follow us by signing up for our newsletter (you can click on the button to the right) and through our Facebook (www.facebook.com/proyectovasi). Every time we have access to the Internet, we will publish, news, written and photographic essays, and other updates written by various members of the board of directors, coordinating team, and communities. We hope you will continue to join us on this journey.

With warm wishes,

The VASI Coordinating Team

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