Permaculture in Practice: A Spicy Shipibo Success Story

Fernando Cauper is a 30 year old man living in the Shipibo community of Santa Clara. From a young age, Fernando’s father instilled in him the value of leaving a legacy for future generations. As he grew up, he witnessed the devastating impacts that illegal logging and slash and burn agriculture had upon his community, and was determined to do something to regenerate the land.

Fernando participated in Alianza Arkana´s SEED Program in 2013 where he developed a permaculture design and implementation strategy for his family’s chacra (agricultural plot). With his peers, he learned about designing for ecological succession in Permaculture systems, economies of scale, and finding market niches. In addition to a diversity of subsistence crops, they brainstormed possibilities for growing certain cash crops cooperatively which would yield at particular points in this succession (short-term, medium-term and long term). In other words, they learned that it is possible to feed your family while earning a decent living.

One crop that really fired them up was the Amazonian wild chili pepper Capsicum frutescens known locally as Ají Charapita – literally translated as Little Turtle Chili (a relative of the humorously named pipi de mono, or Monkey Penis Pepper). It´s easy to grow, produces after five months, and will yield for up to six years if properly managed. As a shade-tolerant crop, it is perfect for planting in the understory of a permaculture garden, stacking the functional capacity of the system. With a rating of 30,000-50,000 scoville units, be warned: they may be small but they are fierce!

Abundance in the Charapita Chili Patch

Little Turtle Charapita Chili

Fernando planted many peppers in the understory of his permaculture system and when they began producing, he reached out to his peers from the SEED course to see if they were achieving the same success. Much to his dismay, he discovered that the others hadn’t taken the same initiative, and had very poor, or no yield.

However, that didn´t deter him in the least. What his family doesn’t eat of the chili harvest, Fernando now sells at the market in Yarinacocha, an hour boat ride from his community, where he easily finds buyers for his quality product. He is receiving 15 Peruvian Soles per kilo ($5.35 per kilo, or roughly $2.45 per pound). To give you some perspective, the average local wage for an agricultural day-labourer is between S/.20-25 per day ($7-9).

Fernando is getting a crash course in economies of scale. Having to pay from his earnings to transport his product to the city, and with a relatively small yield, he is limited to local market sales. He now understands how a Shipibo farming cooperative would provide strength in numbers. Larger yields would allow them to enter national or international markets; and potentially enable the manufacturing of value-added products, such as chili sauces. By empowering producers to cut out the middlemen and access more profitable markets, they would capture a much higher percentage of their product’s value.

Seeing is Believing

Fernando planting in bags

This spicy success story springing from the earth in Fernando´s garden has not gone unnoticed by friends and neighbors, who are now inspired to join the party – proving once again that seeing is believing. When I spoke to Fernando recently he told me, “I have 800 charapita plants in the nursery and hundreds more in germination beds. They are now ready to distribute to community members who are interested in joining forces. We could earn a lot more if we work together.”

As a consequence of Fernando´s hard work and innovation, he has now been employed full time by Alianza Arkana as a coordinator and site manager for a community permaculture demonstration site. He has also been elected to the board of community leaders in Santa Clara and his first initiative is promoting family permaculture gardens and community composting. He is committed to help every family in his community to produce nutritious food for subsistence and to create opportunities for regenerative livelihoods through ecosocial entrepreneurship. The goal isn’t just subsistence, it is supersistence.

The charapita chili pepper is just the beginning in Fernando´s mind. He says, “I´ve learned that in Permaculture you start with small and slow solutions before going big. My peppers were the small system, and now we are ready to scale up.”

Fernando dreams of being able to provide for all his family’s needs from their own land, as well as teaching other people from his community how to revitalize the land and make it productive using permaculture methods. Just as his father taught him, Fernando is working tirelessly to leave a positive legacy for his children and the generations to come.

STAY TUNED: As variety is the spice of life, we´ll be sharing stories about other crops the Shipibo permaculturalists plan to incorporate in their systems: cacao (Theobroma cacao), macambo (Theobroma bicolor), sangre de grado (Croton lechleri), aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), ungurahui (Oenocarpus bataua), sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis) and a myriad of other Amazonian superfoods and medicinal plants.

Luke Smith, Friday, 13 June 2014

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