The Indigenous Sisters Who Created Lagoons Mixing Ancestral Practices With Scientific Knowhow

    Saving their rural community water resources is the goal of these creative women

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    The dry hill slopes of Tuco, in Quispillaccta, Ayacucho, have been transformed into vast fields of cultivation. The miracle has a name: Qucharuway, the ancestral practice with which  Magdalena, Marcela, and Lidia Machaca, three sisters have created 71 lagoons that supply all of Quispillaccta with water. Only in Tuco there are 12 of them, allowing more natural pasture and cows that produce up to 8 liters of milk per day. It is so much so that its inhabitants call the area “little Switzerland”.

    Once the assembly was called, and with the mountains of Quispillaccta as witnesses, Modesto Machaca presented his idea clearly to the community. He also wanted permission for Benedicta, Marcela and Magdalena -at that time his only 3 daughters- so they could leave the community and study at the National University, San Cristóbal de Huamanga, the agronomic engineering career.

    Until that moment, he had been in charge of completing their academic training by transmitting his knowledge in the Chacara, where he used a Maray (Batan) slate and white stones such as chalk to teach the 3 sisters during the few free time that he had. Modesto was a farmer so he loved agriculture. But he was also a handyman. In other words, an unusual teacher capable of seeing the stars and healing the sick.

    A person ahead of his time

    His vision was that of a person ahead of his time. It was not common in the 1980s for rural women to receive higher education in areas traditionally considered masculine. The farmer promised that her 3 daughters would return to the area to reverse the knowledge acquired. So the community accepted that Modesto, his wife, his 3 daughters and his son, still too young to even go to school, decided to move to the town.

    Over the years, the family grew to be completed with 6 sisters and 1 more brother. Because of this, Benedicta, Magdalena, and Marcela grew up surrounded by women but still in a men’s world. On the other hand, the university was not what they expected.

    Moreover, the professors excluded the Andean worldview from the curricula and told them that they should study Anthropology, that the Faculty of Engineering was not an appropriate place for them. In this regard, none of the 3 paid any attention to this suggestion; they all firmly believed that what they learned would serve to complement their grandparents’ knowledge. And, they were not wrong.

    Fulfilling the promise

    Many years later, the sisters fulfilled the promise made by their father and when they finished their professional career, they returned to their community creating the Bartolomé Aripaylla Association (ABA) of which today 7 out of the 11 brothers are part and thus began what they call the “Resistance of Traditionality”.

    A work that, to date, has shown university engineers, with more than 1,100,000 cubic meters of ‘reasons’, that the effects of climate change and the absence of water can be reversed with innovative work plans that mix the technical knowledge with the ancestral knowledge of the Andean highland communities.

    The surface of the Apacheta lagoon is calm. But it is cold; actually, very cold. The wind from the night before brought the frost. And although it is been a couple of hours since dawn, the sun is not hot enough to make you forget that, at an altitude of 4,480 meters in winter, the heat is nothing more than an illusion. Sitting on a rock near the shore, Magdalena, Marcela, and Lidia Machaca observe the water mirror that reflects the town of Tuco, in Quispillaccta, Ayacucho, and which was raised with their help more than 2 decades ago.

    The silence is almost absolute. Some llamas graze on the other side of the pound. Magdalena gets up, rolls up her skirt slightly, and dips her feet into the water. For a few seconds she holds her breath. The temperature of the pond is too low, although that does not seem to matter too much to her. Walking slowly, so as not to slip. Closing her eyes. And suddenly she starts laughing, louder and louder; that is because the seaweed at the bottom tickles her. She says that Yaku Mama (‘Mother Water’) is playing with her. “We came to visit you. We want to thank you for everything you give us”, she whispers to it. Bending down and caresses the water. From the edge of the lagoon, Marcela and Lidia thank it, too.

    Development of their community

    A profound respect for nature is the philosopher’s stone in the work of these 3 agronomist engineers who, through the Bartolomé Aripaylla Association (ABA) –founded by Marcela and Magdalena in 1991–, are committed to the union of low-cost technology and ancestral practices, as the perfect formula for the development of their community.

    For them, all the elements of the earth are living beings: water is not a natural resource, but a kind of ‘person’ with whom you talk, sing, and dance; that is, a mother who raises and needs to be raised. “That is why you do not have to exploit it. If this is done like that, then it suffers and disappears. The key is to treat nature with affection. Only in this way do the deities allow it to emerge from the depths of the earth and never leave us”, says Marcela.

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