Investing in biodiverse agriculture in Ecuador’s highlands: UNORCAC and the Santa Anita cooperative

In Ecuador’s mountainous Cotacachi canton, a member-based organisation called UNORCAC underpins prosperity and sustainability for 45 grassroot communities and 3,500 households. Trust, built up over decades, underpins membership in UNORCAC’s Santa Anita Cooperative. This fund, which supports a multi-million-dollar portfolio of ‘business unusual’, helps counter pressures from land acquisitions, climate change and market forces that favour monocultures.

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A woman stands behind a market stall of fresh vegetables, smiling proudly.

The Santa Anita cooperative encourages women-led enterprises (Photo: Pareto Paysages) 

UNORCAC (the Union of Peasant and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi) has worked since 1977 to preserve traditional farming knowledge for at least 172 crops within Ecuador’s chakra agroforestry system, now recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organization as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System. Chakra is a complex approach to agroecological farming that preserves social, environmental and economic values.

It is UNORCAC’s track record, and the trust it engenders, that initially underpinned the Santa Anita Savings and Credit Cooperative, established in 2001. To come up with the initial capital, UNORCAC invested from its own resources and encouraged its members to buy shares.

UNORCAC’s strategy is strongly rooted in concepts of indigenous territory, solidarity and shared biocultural heritage. UNORCAC members bought into the Santa Anita cooperative because of UNORCAC’s history with complex issues such as its advocacy for land rights, infrastructure and basic services, as well as its technical support for agriculture and other enterprises.

By 2023, Santa Anita had 15,000 members with savings of US$9.8 million and a loan portfolio of $11.3 million (with just a 5% default rate).

The Santa Anita cooperative is governed through its general assembly, board of directors, supervisory board, a management team and special commissions and committees. All members can participate. Its financial products include savings accounts, fixed-term deposits and microcredit for business, agriculture and general purposes.

Embracing complexity

Chakra, which UNORCAC has championed, is the ‘glue’ that holds this complex system together. It includes an elaborate set of shared agricultural festivals throughout the year. These celebrate first harvests, crop maturation in mid-summer, ploughing and sowing in autumn and winter weeding. 

Agricultural festivals complement other family and religious celebrations for new houses, marriages, baptisms and the day of the dead, and link to community practices that maintain cultural life.

Minga, for example, is collective farm labour. It relies on, and demonstrates, solidarity and reciprocity. Pampa mesa is the practice of sharing food communally. Social integration encourages people to exchange surpluses for mutual benefit. Knowledge is spread and renewed through weekly farmer fairs (La Pachamama Nos Alimenta), the annual Muyu Raymi seed fair and various community exchange tours, exhibitions and technical training sessions.

UNORCAC also works with Ecuador’s National Institute for Agricultural Research to multiply and distribute sought-after seed varieties. The union organises a bio-knowledge centre that runs a communal seed bank for traditional varieties of maize and beans and which demonstrates ancestral medicine practices.

Hambi Warmikuna, a group of women healers within UNORCAC, works to strengthen ancestral medicine and help conserve chakra.

When complexity can become complementarity 

UNORCAC has set up business initiatives to reinforce the union’s sustainable vision, and the Santa Anita cooperative supports these and in turn grows through them. 

For example, in 2000, UNORCAC established Runa Tupari Native Travel, a company for tourism homestays, which offers visitors the rich experience of local agroecological systems, cuisine and biocultural heritage. The Santa Anita fund designed loans specifically to help families adapt their homes and train in hospitality skills to join this scheme, increasing participants’ household incomes by up to 40%.

The union’s Sumak Mikuy initiative (meaning ‘excellent food’) processes and sells products such as cape gooseberries, the spicy pepper aji rocoto and wild fruits such as mortiño. Products enter both national and international markets, where dried fruits are popular in energy bars. Women-run Sara Mama enterprises bottle and sell chicha de jora, an ancestral drink made from maize.

UNORCAC’s vision of diversified agroecological farming for Andean crops offers a route to food security and sovereignty that will be vital for climate resilience. 

This vision draws on ideas of territorial rights and social, environmental and economic justice to support ‘Alli Kawsay’ – the good life – while maintaining respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth). The vision weaves together productive land, quality education and health systems that recover ancestral and cultural practices.

Long-lasting holistic relationships are key

The cooperative fund acknowledges its members’ complex lives, taking a holistic approach that complements financial services with other support. It offers financial literacy training, encourages women and Indigenous People to take up leadership roles, runs projects related to education, health and the environment, and campaigns to end violence against women.

Long-term and collaborative relationships are UNORCAC’s scaffolding for building success. For example, visiting advisors promote Santa Anita’s credit opportunities to rural micro-entrepreneurs. If someone decides to apply for a loan, the advisor collects information to assess credit needs and loan viability. Home or workplace visits strengthen ties between the cooperative and the client.

Once a microcredit loan is disbursed, advisors are responsible for identifying and monitoring potential repayment risks so that preventive action can be taken (such as altering repayment conditions), strengthening the client’s business and preserving the cooperative’s financial position.

Networks that have become a movement

The Santa Anita cooperative has also formed strategic alliances with regional and national networks of microfinance institutions. These include the Federation of Savings and Credit Cooperatives of Ecuador (FECOAC), and the National Popular and Solidarity Finance Corporation (CONAFIPS). This enabled Santa Anita to leverage opportunities for complementarity, to exchange services and knowledge and to share strategies to maximise impact.

Being part of this network of organisations also gives Santa Anita’s members access to additional external funds. For example, members can access low-interest credit from CONAFIPS to support sustainable production.

Meanwhile, UNORCAC has greatly benefitted from its initial investment in the Santa Anita cooperative, with the returns boosting the union’s financial self-reliance. This feeds back into benefits for UNORCAC’s members, as well as the wider society.

While production in Cotacachi is still mostly subsistence, UNORCAC and its Women’s Central Committee are developing increasingly sophisticated enterprise and marketing strategies, which generate income from agrobiodiversity and biocultural heritage and incentivise its preservation.

Isabela Núñez del Prado Nieto

Isabela Núñez del Prado Nieto ([email protected]) is a researcher (forest finance) with IIED’s Natural Resources research group.