Below is a post from a Summer 2013 Team Peru member, Krisztina Pjeczka about her overall experience this summer. Krisztina is a fellow from Middlebury College who was an awesome addition to our group of graduate students from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


Learning to ´develop´

During these past six weeks my teammates and I have been faced with a whole range of challenges as much in our work as in our personal lives; and our ways of tackling them have come to greatly define our experience here. When we decided to work for the Andean Alliance this summer we signed up for a two-month long position in a developing country, where our lifestyle and working environment are both a lot different from what we got used to in the States. While this can manifest in some more itchiness, light-headedness or other physical conditions from time to time, I think it is also quite a useful learning experience that shakes us into being more in real terms with our environment. Living with your colleagues is yet another learning curve, an opportunity for a great deal of reflection.

To mention an example, I, personally, have come to like the fact that I’m using so much less technology for my work. My laptop crashed during the third week into our program and from then on I gradually grew further away from computers, the internet and just technology in general. Writing my end-of-the-day reflections by hand was first tiring, but by now I really appreciate the intimacy of it, a connection to my words which is lost in Microsoft Word. Researching relevant information for our project without a constant and fast internet access also seemed more troublesome first, but soon I realized it was another unfounded worry. All the information we need is around us, guarded but not hidden by the people! All we need to do is seek it out! Now that we are about to compile our master document with all the material we gathered this summer this is more than apparent: interviews, discussions and spontaneous conversations fill up the entirety of our knowledge base. And if I would really need a ‘global connection’, I have found a reliable, friendly and cheap internet place in town.

Another huge take-away for me comes from our living situation. In any given team setting you are bound to encounter personality differences, which can come to surface in a variety of situations. This is when clear and effective communication becomes so essential, and you have an opportunity to improve at it! It’s easy to make yourself understood when you are surrounded with your best friends, or when you’re sure that you share some transformative experiences with the people around you (like having gone to a United World College as in the case of most of my close friends at Middlebury College). Getting your point across becomes a challenge when you have different perspectives about life and different ways of expressing yourselves. This is where learning begins! With careful practice, sensitivity and a good team feedback system I feel we have all honed these vital skills of ours here. We came to help develop but also to learn how to develop ourselves. ~Krisztina

Various members of the SGP group

Various members of the SGP group

The Context

Below is a reflection from Team Peru’s Alex about a meeting with a group of small farmers that are ecologically certified in the Calca area. AASD is also part of this group of producers and together we’re seeking better markets, as explained in this previous post about Team Peru’s work this summer. Alex is reflecting on a a meeting with this group. SGP stands for Sistema de Garantia Participativo,which is part of an international movement lead by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) called the Participatory Guarantee System.

A Reflection from Alex

Recently, we  had a meeting with our SGP certified organic farming group.  The purpose of the meeting was twofold; to obtain qualitative data concerning the training, concerns, and general sentiments of the farmers, and to obtain quantitative data to determine production capabilities.  The meeting had its share of ups and downs.  In general the obtaining of qualitative data proved much easier than that of the quantitative.  I was quickly able to determine from our interview that our previous assumption that our SGP farmers were attempting unsuccessfully to compete with conventional growers may have been flawed.  It seemed in fact that our grower’s market sense was keener than we had believed as they were branching out beyond produce into more niche products such as dairy and bee products, organic fertilizers and pest repellents, and specialty crops.  In doing this, they were largely avoiding having to directly compete with conventionally grown table crops such as lettuce and tomatoes.  This discovery, in addition to being of great academic interest, could be very useful in increasing the value proposition of our products as our farmers are able to produce a myriad of different products to potentially meet different customer needs. ~Alex


Team Peru working hard on a business canvas model.

Team Peru working hard on a business canvas model.


Often our farm updates focus just on the work we do within the physical space of the farm. But there’s much more to the demo farm project than just that. With our recent ecological certification, we’re starting to look more towards markets for selling our produce. For about the last year, on and off we’ve attended local, ecological ferias on the weekend where producers join together to sell vegetables and products such as honey, jams, grains, etc.

Through these markets we began to realize that there are a handful of motivated ecological/organic producers looking for even more robust outlets for their products. Some of these producers aren’t even selling in the ecoferias at all. That’s where the agriculture team of Team Peru comes in. They’re working with us to see if there is a more robust market for such producers (including ourselves) and if so, what models make the most sense (i.e. selling to restaurants, weekly veggie boxes, a local market stand, etc.). As we explore the possibilities, AASD and Team Peru are continuing to attend ecoferias and talk to as many people as possible from the suppliers to the consumers and everyone in between.

To really get what’s going on Team Peru has decided to spend some days working on AASD’s farm just to get a feel for what it really means to be a small, ecological producer in the Sacred Valley of Peru. After all that writing and thinking, the crew really enjoyed getting out and putting in some hard work at the farm. Check our the album on facebook for more photos of Team Peru out and about.


The below post is my reflection based on an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled Seven Habits of Highly Effective Mentors

I found this article on effective mentorship quite interesting as there are many parallels between being a mentor and the AASD approach to working with community members. It is important in any relationship with a complex power dynamic to stay grounded through humility. At the end of the day we all have an opportunity to learn and benefit from somebody within a relationship, regardless of a disparity in level of experience, education or accomplishment. Often times when a power separation does exist within a relationship one with less power may be hesitant to push the boundaries of what he or she could offer versus receive. This article infers that under these circumstances it is the responsibility of the person with more power (the mentor) to encourage a more symbiotic relationship. I think that is a valuable lesson that any individual can take into the world of social change, education or any field that is driven by relationships. ~Adam

Recently I met an inspiring individual, Liz Birnbaum, in the midst of the ecological farming movement. Liz began as a guerilla gardener, establishing a small organic farm at at her alma mater. In her current position as the Program Coordinator for the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) Liz connects constantly with big movers and shakers in the ecological farming movement. Naturally, I wanted to know what makes Liz passionate about her work – what does ecological agriculture mean to her? Below is a mini interview Liz undertook to give us insight into their inspirations. Enjoy!

Broken Banjo Photography

Broken Banjo Photography

What does ecological agriculture mean to you?

Ecology is the study of relationships. To me, ecological agriculture is based on a point of confluence: it joins nature’s ecology and human’s agriculture. It evokes the concepts of farming with nature, harmony, and biodiversity rather than slash-and-burn monocultures. Ecological agriculture is not about just using something up or making it work for one person/being, it is about a give and take. It is about a balance.

Ecological agriculture also invokes a concept of place-based learning—the kind of experiential knowledge one can only get from walking the land and paying keen attention to the forces at work. Ecological agriculture is much more than just concept. It is a practice. It includes a community-based model of learning that promotes ethics, principles, and methods for farming in harmony with nature.

At the Ecological Farming Association, where I am currently employed, a primary aspect of our mission is to educate farmers about ecological agriculture. For 33 years we have been hosting the Ecological Farming Conference, better known as EcoFarm, which last year had 75 workshops and discussion group sessions where farmers, ranchers, food handlers, distributors, and others came together to learn about the cutting edge topics in ecological agriculture.

Ecological agriculture is an umbrella term for permaculture, biodynamics, agroecology, integrated pest management, organics, and more. Looking at EcoFarm’s workshop content is a good way to get a sense of how diverse the term ecological agriculture really is. We had workshops on seed saving, attracting pollinators to the farm, on-farm water stewardship, pastured poultry, food hubs, draft animals, farm finance, growing local grains, and much more at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference.

 How and why did you get involved in the ecological agriculture movement? 

I first got involved because I saw a need in my community to have critical conversations about sustainability. Since everyone eats and food is the great equalizer, I felt that food was the best place to start talking about the environment so that the discussion would include everyone. So, I became a farmer. I had next-to no experience in growing at the time, but I promoted the idea of a campus farm and the college community from student government to the board of trustees gave me tremendous support to start the farm. It was an incredible first season, from getting the fence up to laying out the beds to staking my first tomatoes. When I tasted the bounty of that first season and I saw how it brought the community together, I was hooked.

I worked to get the food we grew into the campus cafeteria to make sure the whole community could access it. I also set up a way to financially sustain the project by having many events and classes in the garden, including weekly on-site “harvests” where faculty and staff could come to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from the four awesome student interns and myself. I managed the farm for two seasons.

Food became an intellectual obsession, to put it mildly. I began to realize how much food was connected to everything I cared about—art, communities, social justice, health, the environment, etc. I felt like I could explore it forever. So I helped create and co-teach some courses: Biodiversity and Agriculture, Botanical Imperialism, and Chicago: The Food City. All of these had food and farming as a central theme. And that is how I got involved in this whole movement!

How has your commitment to ecological agriculture changed your life or your lifestyle?

Well, I have moved to California! I am from Chicago and now I am living in Santa Cruz which is nestled in an agricultural area.

I have gotten so many awesome freebies through the wonderful community of food producers out here, so I am eating well. I also think so much more about what I eat and how to prepare it. I have also gotten really into food crafts like preserving and foraging and blogging about it all .

If you were on a bus trying to convince someone to see the value in ecological agriculture, what are the 3 most important points you would want to express? 

Earth—Look 7 generations ahead at the earth. How can you leave it better than you found it. I think that farming ecologically is a part of the answer.

Economy—Support a “know your food, know your farmer” system, not a faceless system.

Respect—Respect all life, don’t have a “winner takes all” attitude with the rest of the plants, animals, and fungi on this earth.

All that said, I am not the kind of person who will be judgmental of someone who eats McDonalds or eats from an anonomous food producer. I am the kind of person who wants to make a change so that those options either do not exist as they do (the cheapest and most plentiful things around for so many people), or they are made more sustainable somehow. I think everyone comes from different places with this and socioeconomics dictates so much.

If you could only eat one vegetable for 6 months, what would it be and why?

Probably onions. Is that a weird response? It might sound funny, but I eat onions in just about any dish for any meal of the day. The only hesitation I would have about this choice would be the lack of vitamins, which might have made me move to a brassica, but since I am from Chicago (named after the wild onion), I just had to go with onions. They are just so versatile and tasty! And they store so well. Yay for onions!

-Liz Birnbaum of Ecological Farming Association


AASD’s Aaron Ebner explains why irresponsible development practices are a social injustice.  Aaron speaks to the issue and  explains what organizations such as the AASD are doing to change these practices for addressing social justice and more. These 2 videos were made for Kalamazoo College’s Arcus Center Collaborative Leadership Prize and made it to the regional finals. We’re crossing our fingers for a win!! Stay posted for the news !



We hope you can join this important conversation and encourage you to share your own experiences and thoughts with us!

In honor of International Permaculture Day, we’d like to share an article on the potential of permaculture as a tool for individuals to improve their food security in a sensible and environmentally friendly manner that does not demand a major allocation of time or resources. Read this article about permaculture in the Guardian by Monterey Institute of International Studies alum Catherine Carlton who currently works at Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology.

Click here to read the article if you haven’t already.


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Recently Ruben and I asked Raul, one of the Choquecancha greenhouse overseers what organic/ecological agriculture meant to him. Below is a rough transcription of the Spanish recording. Hopefully we can share the recording soon when we get enough bandwidth!  Raul had much more to share but this is a tid bit of what makes ecological growing important to him. As he stood in the greenhouse Raul made it clear that growing without pesticides and chemical additives is extremely important for the health of the community. He sees the value from the point of human and ecological health. The school year is just getting started again so we’re excited to work closer with Raul and other enthusiastic organic growers at the schools. In the meantime, enjoy this update:  

Ruben: Raul, what does ecological and organic agriculture mean to you? What do you understand about this method of agriculture?

Raul: I understand that organic agriculture is about woringk naturally with no chemicals. This means working with guano de corral and compost. The products are healthier for our children and ourselves.

Ruben: What do you know about chemical agriculture? Why is it not important to you?

Raul: For me it is not important because it brings sickness and plagues. For example if we put fertilizer on a plant, it will grow large and produce a lot. But it has no nutritional value, it is not healthy. It will eventually get pests and plagues and this is not good.



For the last 8 months we’ve been hard at work on our family greenhouse initiative. The planning phase started long before that and in total lasted longer than a year. We talked, planned, looked for funding, and most of all gauged whether the community of Maucau was really invested in working with us to drive forward this family greenhouse project. Talk about making sure there was community buy-in.

As we all learn quickly in the field, there really is only so much you can plan for. The rest is reacting, adapting, adjusting and making sure a project responds to the real issues, concerns, and aspirations of all parties involved. Of course, taking into account that first and foremost this project is about families, veggies, and nutrition and not about fulfilling lofty visions of the AASD or remote funders. Here are just few ways we had to react and adapt to challenges and more throughout the process:

  • Do they even want workshops?: With our school greenhouse projects, capacity building workshops are the bulk of what we do. Providing these workshops is a given, really a must. But at the end of the day families (autonomous individuals) own their structures and are free to do what they please. Fortunately Maucau greenhouse owners asked to work with us to learn how to best manage and maintain their structures in an ecological manner. So together we embarked on a journey of workhops, sharing best practices, fusing local methods, and even hosting a few workshops at the Demonstration Farm.
  • Lesson Plans vs. Immediate Challenges: On several occasions we arrived with a well designed, interactive lesson plan ready to go and then put it on the back-burner. Each workshop opens with a discussion of how things are going for each greenhouse owner, mainly the women. Several sessions immediately shifted to address pressing problems with pests, roof repair, wind reducing strategies, and watering issues. Priorities for the owners had to be met. Sometimes we could push the issue to the next week and come prepared with solutions. Sometimes we had to respond to a real issue, read the crowd, and pull all of our creative knowledge together to find a solution. So long for the beautiful lesson plans, hand outs, and planned activities – vegetables determine the priority.
  • Dependency via Seeds: From the beginning we emphasized that we would work alongside Maucau as a resource connector, capacity builder, and organizer to encourage knowledge sharing about the greenhouse cultivation practices. We were adimant that following a few rounds of seeds to get going, greenhouse owners needed to save their own seeds and collaborate together to swap different varities. But then we realized their structures were too small to be take over by plants going to seed – where would the veggies grow? So, we agreed with the owners that they could sell some veggies to buy seeds locally. Well those seeds never germinated. Who knows how long they had been in the central hub of Lares for. Now what? Instead of pressing on providing seeds or leaving this issue hanging we asked the owners how we should advance, making it clear we could not provide free seeds anymore. Their solution? We bought a set of requested seeds that would indeed germinate and then sold them back to the owners on an as need basis. Not ideal but better than free seeds.  Hopefully soon we can find a way that completely removes us from the equation.
Our seed selling visit last Thursday went well. We made it clear that AASD is always available as a resource and a collaborator but that these structures were their own to drive, to manage, and to make flourish. True to their proven dedication over a year ago, these family greenhosue owners are really utilizing their structures and eating lots of veggies! Want to hear more about the Maucua family greenhouse project? Check out these previous posts:

Local Innovators

Photo of the Week – greenhouse owners at the demo farm workshop

Our Philosophy: A Reflection from Chris Miller

Photo of the Week– inside the greenhouse


Studies show that 90% of income earned by women is reinvested back into the health and education of their families.


So let’s invest in them!  Especially today on International Women’s Day. Naturally we want to give a shout out to all the women involved in AASD, especially the women weavers of Choquecancha. These skilled weavers make the beautiful designs seen on our INKAcase line. Support these women of Choquecancha on International Women’s Day by checking out their beautiful work here! Proceeds from all INKAcase purchases go directly back to the women who created the beautiful textiles. If you want to learn more about Andean weaving, check out the last 2 blog posts in our Textiles Series:  1) Quechua Colors and 2) Artistic Expressions In Time

Most importantly, check out the above pictograph, explaining the VALUE we see in investing in women not only in Choquecancha, but all over the world! Here’s to the change making women of the world!