Years after coal
mining and a prolonged drought sapped their water and food supplies,
an indigenous community in Colombias Guajira desert is rebounding
thanks to a resilient legume.
Celia Vangrieken and
Yadira Martinez look over a pond that provides limited water
for a Wayuu community in Parenstu, Colombia. (photograph by
Adriana Loureir Fernandez)
MANAURE, COLOMBIA Rita Uriana stooped to examine the stringy
green plants covering the oasis in the Colombian desert. As the
sun flared, she picked the pods and placed them in the fold of her
yellow dress, knowing these beans are part of an agricultural revival
that could feed hundreds of families in her desert-dwelling community.
In the past, this simple crop fed many more families in the Guajira
desert. The Wayuu, descendants of the indigenous Arawak, live scattered
across this dry territory in small communities called rancherias.
For centuries, they survived the harsh environmental conditions
by herding goats, harvesting wild fruits, and cultivating the brown-patterned
cowpeas now dubbed after the Spanish name for their home, guajiro
This legacy remained strong up until the turn of the 21st century,
when prolonged droughts hit Colombias northern region, brought
on by global warming and unprecedented oscillations of El Niño,
a cyclic climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, the construction
of El Cercado dam for the sake of coal
exploitation dried the Rancheria river, which has historically
provided water to the Wayuu. (Both coal mining and coal plants rely
amounts of water to function). Afterward, many in the community
abandoned farming, turning to governmental support in the form of
food stamps that rarely arrived. One
study reports that between 5,000 and 14,000 Wayuu died while
waiting for state assistance, due to the combination of chronic
malnutrition and thirst.
For the last six years, Uriana and her Wayuu clanthe Ishashimanahave
been working to reintroduce the resilient guajiro beans. Their quest
has been aided by the introduction of a low-tech irrigation system,
a red earthworm, and a patient attitude. Uriana now aims to spread
the Ishashimana renassiance to other Wayuu settlements, where she
thinks this bean could be the difference between life and death.
People are surprised by our harvests, Uriana says.
They are surprised we still have this plant."
A bean for all time
People around the world consume hundreds of varieties of beans.
Some, such as the pinto
bean contain a high amount of protein, making them possible
meat substitutes that are also rich sources of minerals, vitamins,
and carbohydrates. The UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International
Year of Pulsescrops
such as beans, chickpeas, and lentilselevating the bean as
a crop that could tackle world hunger and mitigate climate change.
For centuries, the Wayuu, an indigenous
group in South America, have lived in the area that now comprises
the border region between Colombia and Venezuela. A Wayuu
farmer looks for worms in bean crops on a small farm in Riohacha,
Colombia, near the mouth of the Rancheria river. (photograph
by Adriana Loureir Fernandez)
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, another Wayuu farmer,
walks along his small bean crops. Gonzalez has been trying
to harvest, but the land is too dry and hasnt provided
enough food for him and his family. (photograph by Adriana
The guajiro bean stands out because it fixes a hefty amount of
nitrogen in the soil, providing chemical support for other crops.
If treated well, the nutritious legumes can bear pods for months
even in arid environments. This adaptability made it a sacred crop
for the Wayuu and the principal ingredient in many of their traditional
The Wayuu believe that all beings, including animals and plants,
were humans at the beginning of time. Weildler Guerra, an anthropologist
who specializes in this region of Colombia, says that Wayuu beliefs
on the origins of life tell of the universe undergoing a transformation
in a distant primordial time, whereby some humans were turned into
"When natural elements come into your dreams, they appear
in their original forms. The bean shows up as a woman in a colorful
cloak, like our bean's patterned skin," Guerra says.
The dreams of the Wayuu also showed them where to plant the beans.
The community would gather in a yanama, the collective act of planting,
and perform kaa'ulayawaa,
a dance to ask for rain and protection against vicious spirits.
At harvest time, women selected the waüya, the best bean of
the harvest, to keep safe in a dry place for the following planting
season. Rafael Mercado Epieyuu, a Wayuu linguist of the National
University of Colombia, says thanks to these traditions, the Wayuu
had passed the bean on through generationsuntil the recent
droughts shifted the communities away from farming.
"Moving away from this knowledge is killing us," Mercado
Dont forget the red earthworms
After five years studying at Guajira University in Riohacha, Uriana
went back home to Ishashimana in 2009 to find that 79 children were
not in school and were malnourished, their families impoverished
and without much access to food. So Uriana began teaching in her
kitchen, and today shes the headmaster of a school with 1,600
Soon after, the school took on a second role as the home of a community
garden, founded in 2014, that feeds the children and their families
while also teaching them about their indigenous heritage. Some lessons
bring the students out into the gardens, where they learn how to
enrich the soil and cultivate the guajiro beans. Urianas students
learn how to pair beans with pumpkin, watermelon, and corn to create
a mixed garden.
Each plant in this combo supports another, creating a micro-ecosystem.
The beans fix nitrogen mostly for corn, while the leaves on the pumpkin
and watermelon plants, which also benefit from this nutritional booster,
help shade the soil and keep it humid. The Maya call this agricultural
system milpa, and many other indigenous communities across Latin America
have used it under different names. Urianas hope is that the
students will go home and replicate what they learn.
The bean has taught us to value the knowledge of our ancestors,
Uriana says. When she first returned to Ishashimana, there had not
been a garden in the community for over a decade, because the immense
heat and winds had ruined the soil.
community gardening project blossomed with support from federal
and non-governmental organizations,
such as Slow Food, an international movement that fights the disappearance
of local food cultures around the world. Liliana Vargas, a lawyer
and the coordinator for Slow Food Colombia, said that the group
identified the guajiro bean as a promising crop that could help
communities in the area achieve food security.
Slow Food decided to pilot the project with the Ishashimana because
they had a school and a well, giving them a unique advantage over
"We realized we could spread the production of traditional
crops, and through the students of Ishashimana, influence more families
in the territory," Vargas says.
A woman and child tend to guajiro beans
in Manaure, Colombia. Over the last six years, members of
this Wayuu clanthe Ishashimanahave relied on red
earthworms and drip irrigation to develop a sustainable agriculture
system around the cultivation of guajiro beans. (photograph
by Agostino Petroni)
The international cooperation project supplied the community with
Californian red earthworms, Eisenia fetida, to compost animal
waste and vegetation in wooden boxes. These earthworms have been
commonly used in organic agriculture across Latin America, and,
thanks to their size, can accelerate the composting process. This
organic material can be spread on the cultivated grounds to help
enrich the soil.
Water in the community well is salty due to the closeness of the
sea and the high-mineral conditions of the desert. Famed author
Gabriel García Márquez, who featured this region frequently
in his novels, even described
it as the village baked by Caribbean salt in Chronicle
of a Death Foretold. So the initiative also provided them with
a drip irrigation system, a low-volume technique that reduces the
impact of using brackish water rather than freshwater. Roberto Atencio,
an agronomist from the University of Córdoba, said that if
too much salty water is spread over cultivated land, the salt left
behind after evaporation can kill the plants and accelerate the
irreversible process of desertification.
The gradual application of saltwater via the drip system instead
a bulb of constant humidity around the plant's roots. The excess
salinity is kept on the periphery, which allows the roots to extract
the right ratio of water and minerals to survive. This process doesnt
remove all of the salt, but the guajiro bean is adapted to dealing
with higher quantities of salt around the roots, making it an ideal
crop for the drip irrigation system.
"We have a treasure in our hands. We can't lose it,"
says Guido Carillo, an agronomist who has worked in the creation
of sustainable agriculture systems in subtropical desert areas.
A bean for everyone?
The Ishashimana, with its brackish water well and external help,
has been able to recover its land and feed its community, though
Uriana said that it took five years of diligent work and planning
to make their soil fertile again. Now, she sits on the patio of
the community kitchen with other women dressed in colorful long
dresses, made with light fabric to tolerate the desert heat. They
talk as they pick beans out of the pods and place them in a basket
so they can make shampulana, a thick soup of guajiro beans,
corn, pumpkin, salt, and goat fat: an emblematic dish of the territory.
Ishashimana has become a case study for government institutions
and international NGOs that are trying to replicate its agricultural
success in other parts of the desert. However, those same innovative
solutions are harder to implement in the rest of the Guajirawhere
Wayuu livebecause few other rancherias have a well or
some other consistent water supply. Most Wayuu are left praying
to Juyaa, the god of rain, hoping he will bless them with
"There is enough water in the territory, but we need wells
to extract it," says Orlando Càceres, the Ishashimanas
agronomist, hinting at the need for governmental support to dig
wells and thus expand the use of drip irrigation. Carillo agrees,
saying that the bean could even thrive in other Latin American areas
with the right combination of climatic and environmental conditions,
such as the Brazilian northeast or on the northern pacific coast
Agustin Uriana, Ritas brother and the traditional authority
of the communityin other words, its mayorshowed pride
in the garden project. "Food self-sufficiency gives us the
possibility of self-determination," he says. While the Colombian
government occasionally sent food packages and water tanks during
the decade-long drought, what Uriana needed was support for longer
lasting agriculture, namely pumps to extract water.
We need to resist, and not desist, Rita Uriana says.
Food Foundation for Biodiversity
Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity is the operational body for
the protection of food biodiversity.
Inaugurated in Florence in 2003 with contribution from the Tuscany
Regional Authority, it coordinates and promotes Slow Foods
projects to protect food biodiversity across the world: Presidia,
Ark of Taste, gardens in Africa, Slow Food Chefs Alliance
and Earth Markets. Active in over 100 countries, the Foundation
involves thousands of small-scale producers in its projects, providing
technical assistance, training, producer exchanges and communication.