Self-sufficiency in the Andes: Benson Institute builds stability in Ecuador
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Hundreds of families in Central and South America have improved their nutritional and financial stability under a program created by the Church's Benson Agriculture and Food Institute. The success of three families in Ecuador is typical of those blessed by the Benson Institute program that helps families become nutritionally self-sufficient.
By North American standards, all three families are well below poverty levels. But when compared to their neighbors, these families have seen a dramatic increase in both income and food production. As a result, their children have experienced significant gains in nutrition, health and energy. Interestingly, such increases have not been created by government subsidies or redistribution of wealth, but by hard work following proven principles of agriculture, small animal production and self-reliance.
Since 1975, the Benson Institute has been working with rural, impoverished families to raise the quality of life for people throughout the world through food production, nutrition and health.
As foretold by President Ezra Taft Benson, the institute, which has now merged with the Latter-day Saint Charities as part of the Welfare Services Department of the Church, is designed to take the lessons and discoveries learned over the past 30 years and bless the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world.
Artisan turned farmer
Income for most Otavalo Indians in the high Andes of Ecuador came historically from making and selling textiles to tourists in the marketplace. In the late 1990s, the Ecuador economy suffered inflation rates higher than 60 percent annually, and cheaper imports flooded the textile market. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered terrorist attacks. The combined result was a sharp drop in the purchasing power of the people from Otavalo and a severe reduction in the number of tourists.
"I was an artisan and made rugs," said Rafael De La Torre. "I could feed my family of 12 with cheap food without farming. But when the number of tourists decreased following the terror attacks in America, I could no longer afford to buy much food. My family suffered much."
The De La Torre family lives in San Luis de Agualongo on the slopes of Mt. Imbabura, a 14,950-foot volcano in northern Ecuador. They heard about the Benson Institute through a referral from their stake president. Benson Institute representatives taught Brother De La Torre not only how to grow crops, but also how to maximize his yield by improving planting techniques, fertilization and crop rotation. Soon, he was raising beans, corn, potatoes and other vegetables, as well as guinea pigs and chickens.
"The whole condition of our family improved," said Brother De La Torre. "The Benson Institute has been very helpful. Before they came here we never had food stored. Now we have large amounts of corn, potatoes, beans and wheat."
"Rafael [De La Torre] had one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land but he was not using it," said Renzo Macas, agricultural technician for the Benson Institute in Ecuador. "The success here is that the whole family could work their crops, which was essential as they didn't have very much money for food. Rafael has done very well in this program. He gets seed from his own crops now so he doesn't have to buy it anymore. It's now been one year since he graduated from our program, and the family continues with the same, small-scale agriculture model we taught them. Just last week, he harvested 60 bags of potatoes, with each bag weighing 100 pounds. He sold 30 bags and kept the rest for food, seed potatoes and food storage."
The De La Torre family has 10 children and joined the Church in 1981. Their oldest son served a mission in Chile. Brother De La Torre is first counselor in the bishopric of his ward.
Home-grown food overcomes disaster
Milton Yamberla and his family of four live just a few miles from the De La Torre family. Brother Yamberla is bishop of the Pucar?Ward in the Imbabura Stake. Three years ago, the Yamberlas were referred to the Benson Institute by their stake president for assistance. Today, the Yamberla family is successfully raising six crops plus chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits on less than three acres of land.
"The Yamberlas were one of the first 11 families in the Benson program," said Richard Brimhall of the Benson Institute. "In less than two years, they produced 10,000 pounds of dry crops such as wheat, corn and beans, and nearly 3,000 pounds of high-quality protein from small animals. They reached self-sufficiency in just 18 months. They became so successful they were able to buy a used car — unheard of in this area — and use it for family transportation and to earn income to transport others.
As a result of the success of the first 11 families, the priesthood leaders requested an expansion to 60 more families — 30 from each of the two stakes in the Otavalo region."
"Nutritional self-sufficiency can be achieved with as few as three successful crop cycles," said Allen Christensen, director of the Benson Institute. "But families require some help to get started. Without training and assistance, it's nearly impossible to get to the first rung on the developmental ladder. It's simply out of reach. Once their feet are planted firmly on the first rung, economic progress is rapid."
"The Benson Institute bridges the gap with training, improved seed, fertilizer and improved methods of crop production and rotation," said Brother Christensen. "Families are given a start of small animals for protein production. Once they've had three successful crop cycles, they can grow sufficient food for themselves. Surplus commodities can be sold at the marketplace, which provides funds for the purchase of fertilizer and other farming necessities, and they can begin their food storage program. Most important, their overall health is improved."
Entire family involved
Five miles away is the humble home of Diaz Yamberla. As a single mother, Sister Yamberla relies heavily on her children for their food production. Each year, they plant corn, potatoes and a large vegetable garden. Following the Benson Institute model, the crops provide for most of the family's food needs. Sister Yamberla gets some support from her two married sisters who live nearby but, for the most part, is self-sufficient. As with other families on the Benson program, the Yamberlas can't afford sheep or cattle, so they raise small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens for protein.
"One of the things we see in emerging nations is that they have been farming the same way for a long time," said Brother Christensen. "The green revolution of the last century has passed them by. We take simple ideas — such as plant density and fertilization — and show them how to improve their yields. There are no extension agents to do that for them. Their success is based on rain. Since rain patterns are sufficient only 50 percent of the time, it takes them three to five years to become nutritionally self-sufficient and generate the ability to sell their excess in the marketplace."
Three decades of help
For 32 years, the Benson Institute was a research department at Brigham Young University. In January 2008, the Institute was moved to the Church Welfare Department/Humanitarian Services. "Nearly 4,000 families in Guatemala, Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, Ghana, Morocco and on reservations in the United States have been involved in the Benson Institute program," said Luis Espinoza of the Benson Institute. "We're now investigating the feasibility of expanding to other countries."
"President Ezra Taft Benson charged us to take this program to the poorest of the poor," continued Brother Brimhall, "so we tell families the first thing they need to do is provide for their own needs." Instead of planting one crop, families are instructed to plant a diversity of crops from which they can provide everything their family needs. One component of that, however, is a cash crop. On one hectare of land a family can produce enough to feed seven people and have an excess to sell in the market.
"Everywhere else in the world, farmers sell everything to the market and then buy back what is needed by the family," said Brother Brimhall. "The Benson program is revolutionary in this sense. It also gives members the ability to send their children to school and on missions. It's that good . . . especially if they can crop twice a year like they can in Ecuador." — Howard Collett is a writer and photographer for LDS Philanthropies in Provo, Utah.