This sacred bean saved an indigenous clan from climate calamity

Years after coal mining and a prolonged drought sapped their water and food supplies, an indigenous community in Colombia’s Guajira desert is rebounding thanks to a resilient legume.

By Agostino Petroni
Published 25 Nov 2020, 16:46 GMT
Celia Vangrieken and Yadira Martinez look over a pond that provides limited water for a Wayuu ...

Celia Vangrieken and Yadira Martinez look over a pond that provides limited water for a Wayuu community in Parenstu, Colombia.

Photograph by Adriana Loureiro Fernandez

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 beans.

This legacy remained strong up until the turn of the 21st century, when prolonged droughts hit Colombia’s 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 on abundant 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 clan—the Ishashimana—have 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 Pulses—crops such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils—elevating the bean as a crop that could tackle world hunger and mitigate climate change.

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 dishes.

The Wayuu believe that all beings, including animals and plants, were humans at the beginning of time. Weildler Guerra, an anthropologist who specialises 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 beans.

"When natural elements come into your dreams, they appear in their original forms. The bean shows up as a woman in a colourful 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 generations—until the recent droughts shifted the communities away from farming.

"Moving away from this knowledge is killing us," Mercado says.

Don’t 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 she’s the headmaster of a school with 1,600 students.

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. Uriana’s 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. Uriana’s 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.

The 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 other communities.

"We realised 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 clan—the Ishashimana—have 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 creates 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 doesn’t 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 Guajira—where 440,000 Wayuu live—because 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 water.

"There is enough water in the territory, but we need wells to extract it," says Orlando Càceres, the Ishashimana’s 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 of Perù.

Agustin Uriana, Rita’s brother and the traditional authority of the community—in other words, its mayor—showed 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.

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