By Joan Hanawi
I first went to Ecuador in 2011 and became completely enthralled with the country. As a young high school graduate, I marveled at the colorful culture and lifestyle of Kichwa communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Kichwa people, one of the largest indigenous groups in the region, are well known for their deep connection to nature. Nevertheless, their very livelihoods are increasingly threatened on a daily basis by rising rates of deforestation and widespread lack of potable water in rural areas.
During my first year there, I worked with the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment and the German International Cooperation, both of whom facilitated my relationships with community leaders and development partners throughout the region. One of them was Amazon Partnerships Foundation. The opportunity to learn more about community work through APF and others before I had even started university confirmed my decision to pursue a career in international development. Whether for professional or personal reasons, I knew I would return.
San Pedro de Chimbiyacu is a small Kichwa community nestled in the rainforest of Napo, Ecuador. From 2010-2012, APF collaborated with San Pedro de Chimbiyacu to install 32 rainwater catchment systems in the homes of each of the community members and to plant a total of 80 fruit trees and native hardwoods. The goal of the project was to improve access to clean water, conserve soil, help mitigate climate change, improve nutrition, and reinforce environmental awareness. APF provided small grants and training for conservation projects designed and managed by communities. Through this approach, called the Community Self-Development Methodology, communities could take full ownership of the projects and advocate for their vision of sustainable development.
In July 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Ecuador to conduct a survey with families in San Pedro de Chimbiyacu to learn how the project from 2010 impacted the community. I waited anxiously as the sound of the bell echoed throughout the forest, and families trickled into the community house. Murmurs spread through the crowd as the anticipation and curiosity for my visit grew, mirroring my own excitement for being there again.
Originally, I intended to distribute a form to each community member that had participated in the project, requesting that they fill it out individually. However, I quickly realized that this model for research surveys I had seen completed at my university in the United States was not applicable in Kichwa communities, which prioritize collaboration. For example, it is an expectation that community members participate in regular “mingas,” or group work sessions centered around community improvement projects.
After I had passed out the paper surveys, I noticed varying levels of confusion. The community members chattered apprehensively amongst themselves–some people could not read in Spanish and others had forgotten details. Quickly adapting, I changed the survey collection method to individual interviews. Working with a blend of Spanish and Kichwa, the participants answered the questions with the assistance of a Kichwa-speaking former APF board member from a nearby community. While data collection may not have been as rigorous as the scientific method requires, the process was reflective of how the community operates.
The responses were also a testament to the communal culture. When asked what they use their tanks for, a group of women in the community shared a look and laughingly exclaimed, “For everything!”
Results have been impressive, unexpectedly exceeding expectations:
- 92% of the community is still using its rainwater catchment system.
- 100% of those still using the tanks are still cleaning and maintaining their rainwater catchment system.
- 95% of the community has observed positive changes within the community. In the words of project participant Jorge Chongo, “[Through this project,] we have learned how to organize ourselves as a community and how to conserve clean water.”
- 100% of the community that received trees still have at least two trees that are living.
In my experiences with international development, from USAID Indonesia projects to grassroots community outreach in Namibia, this has been one of the most successful and sustainable development initiatives I have observed. While other projects have been largely centered around the donor interests, project development in San Pedro de Chimbiyacu has been community-initiated and therefore, community-sustained. The key difference is that the community, not APF, identified what it needed most and took the lead on design, implementation, and monitoring of results.
The community is clearly invested in maintaining the rainwater catchment systems and trees. For the second phase of the project, the community even raised half of the funds from local governments. The participants were able to suggest areas of improvement in the project, such as stronger bases for the water tanks. The fact that they were able to think critically about how to advance the project further illustrates their ownership of the process.
The anticipation that rippled through the community when I arrived reflected its expectation that I had returned with more funds to conduct a new phase of the project. San Pedro de Chimbiyacu has grown since the last phase, and there are new families that need rainwater tanks. The next challenge is for the community to plan and implement an expansion of the rainwater project on their own, without the assistance of foreign aid.
Although community members believe they need outside help for the project, they are already using their organizing and project management skills to improve their community themselves. In addition to their work with APF, the members of San Pedro de Chimbiyacu have reached out to alternative funding sources to update the groundwater system and build a community field.
Dependence on outsiders, a belief shared by many communities and development workers alike, is evidence of the legacy of colonialism. It is, unfortunately, a difficult misperception to change. Increasing our awareness is key to the long-term success of any project, and I’ve learned is that my job isn’t necessarily to change paternalistic attitudes or deeply embedded cultural ideas, but to enter these communities humbly and encourage those around me to act more thoughtfully.