Photo credit: Julie Caron/iStock, Rosa Elena Colchado,& Zaña Afro-Peruvian Museum

As narrated by Rosa Elena Colchado Medina, General Coordinator, Zaña Afro-Peruvian Museum

In the 18th century, the Spanish imported African slaves to work in farms in the valleys of northern Peru. From this dark and terrible history of slavery developed today’s distinctive Afro-Peruvian livelihood and cultural practices, particularly in Zaña in Chiclayo Province, where the African descendants are now clustered. Zaña is formally recognized by the Government of Peru and by UNESCO as a live repository of Afro-Peruvian historical, artistic, and cultural memory and heritage. The Zaña Afro-Peruvian Museum seeks to rescue, preserve, document, disseminate, and educate about Afro-descendants’ community perspectives, heritage, and culture.

In the past decade, the frequency of damaging natural hazards along the Peruvian coast has increased. They increasingly affect rural areas, biodiversity, and food security. In addition to experiencing the global El Niño phenomenon, Peru is also affected by the “El Niño Costero”. This is a notable warming of the coastal waters off Peru and Ecuador, associated with especially heavy rains and related flooding. In 2017, it caused the largest disaster in Peru, killing more than 100 people and causing 141,000 people to suffer losses and damages of US$ 3.1 million. Northern Peru is not an area typically affected by cyclones, but in March 2023 Cyclone Yaku followed a prolonged drought and created extensive damage on the coast, resulting in 61 deaths from flooding.

Agroecological activities of the Zaña AfroPeruvian Museum, tapping into Indigenous and local knowledge.

Increasing average temperatures, including in winter, give rise to more mosquitos, and the diseases they spread, such as dengue fever. Droughts reduce the quality of pastures for sheep and guinea pigs. Climate change is also affecting many Indigenous fruit trees. The algarrobo tree (Prosopis pallida), for example, requires rainwater or irrigation for reproduction and seed dispersal. It has not fruited now for the past eight years, and – from a mix of climate change and deforestation – 70% of these trees have disappeared. This has had dire consequences for local economies and traditions, which relied on algarrobo fruits for sweets, syrup, and flour, as well as on tree materials such as rubber.

Algarrobo trees used to provide ample shade to sheep and goats, and their forage, but without this, local livestock production has suffered. There have been consequences to cultural practices because recipes, such as the cabrito a la norteña (goat cooked northern style) are equally at risk of extinction as goats become more expensive due to dwindling pastures. Honeybees and certain bird species have disappeared. These include the Peruvian plantcutter bird Phytotoma raimondii, endemic to northern Peru. Traditionally, people call this bird the Inca’s clock as it is said that it sings once every hour. It favors the Prosopis tree species, such as the vanishing algarrobo.

As climate-related damage began to affect the area, the museum’s leaders initiated diverse activities to improve local people’s understanding of climate change and accelerate climate action. The museum turned out to be ideally placed for this role, as it was already a focal point for Indigenous and local knowledge. Through discussions and practical activities such as school-based food gardens, people identified rich seams of local knowledge that could inform their strategies for protecting crops and livestock from climate change impacts.

Indigenous varieties of vegetables in the local market.

Actions to Limit the Cultural and Economic Damages of Climate Change

In 2017, the Zaña Afro-Peruvian Museum called a meeting to discuss the impacts of climate change. More than 400 people met in the town square to discuss their concerns and hear a group of volunteers from the museum list concerns related to the loss of Indigenous vegetable species and livestock breeds, traditional foods and drinks, and related cultural heritage.

After the assembly, the group of volunteers from the museum came together as the Environment and Culture Committee of Lagunas-Mocupe, led by Rosa Elena Colchado Medina, to undertake a study on plants in danger of extinction in Zaña. Tapping into ancestral knowledge about farming traditions and the memories of older generations, they produced an educational brochure and then a book.

The results of the study were disseminated through the radio and online sessions with school children during the COVID-19 pandemic. An initiative to distribute seedlings from endangered fruit tree species was crucial in maintaining local people’s health during the pandemic. Initially focusing on 16 plant species, the study expanded to cover 30 plant species that were traditionally grown in people’s fields and are now being re-introduced through food gardens.

The Afro-Peruvian Museum started a program to support the creation of food gardens for healthy, pesticide-free diets, and for food security. It started in schools – designed to help families understand the importance of going back to the tradition of producing their own food in the face of climate change – and then rapidly expanded to families, churches, and municipal grounds. Fifteen schools in Zaña now have organic food gardens, and families have been inspired with new knowledge to deliver nutritious produce while greening the valley. Initial challenges, like perishing gardens in some schools, were overcome through collaboration, and a movement was born. By the end of the first year, the school families had produced so many vegetables that they bartered them among each other, and each family’s needs were satisfied. Every family now has its own food garden, saving the money they previously needed to buy food.

Participants in educational activities of the Zaña Afro-Peruvian Museum.

As well as learning by doing, the Afro-Peruvian Museum has also documented traditional practices. With a strong emphasis on demystifying complex language and concepts, they have produced six educational brochures focused on different aspects of climate change, food production, and the role of women farmers. Information on the latest adaptation-related science and technology is constantly sought from the Instituto Nacional de Investigación (INIA, the National Institute for Agricultural Research) to manage the spread of crop and livestock disease, respond to heat stress on guinea pigs, and prepare for new and emerging climate threats.

A women’s committee of the Environment and Culture Committee of Lagunas-Mocupe has attended a training of trainers by INIA staff, to enable them to disseminate knowledge to others in the community. The museum also invites technicians and different experts to their workshops with farmers, teachers, students, and families. These activities have empowered women and farming families to access training, seeds, and fertilizers, as well as to share and improve upon their ancestral farming techniques.

A pilot composting activity launched in mid-2023 is the latest addition to the Committee’s repertoire. Schools and families will receive training in using the bokashi method – an easy composting method that involves sealing kitchen scraps and organic waste in an airtight container with a medium. A greenhouse nursery has been set up to grow 600 Moringa oleifera seedlings for distribution, along with a brochure extolling the plant’s numerous benefits, including seeds that can purify water. Access to safe fresh water is one of the first resources to disappear when cyclones and floods hit the area.

Families living along the banks of the Zaña River have been engaged in a reforestation campaign to protect surrounding lands from floods and reduce erosion by planting 200 bamboo seedlings (Guadua angustifolia). Other species that can prevent flood damage and help maintain the quantity and quality of the water resource are being studied.

Through these diverse activities, the museum has become an important knowledge exchange platform, bringing together individuals and community organizations to share traditional knowledge and link it to locally relevant scientific knowledge. Community members recognize the benefits of this initiative and are motivated to participate, even though participation is voluntary and unpaid.

How Challenges Are Addressed

One of the main challenges faced by the museum has been to recruit, organize, and consolidate a sustainable group of volunteers to undertake the activities. An organization from the United States funded the initial purchase of the first batch of seedlings that were distributed to the schools. Thereafter, the museum, as a non-profit entity, relied mainly on the revenues from the sale of its books and entrance tickets to support the activities of the group. These meager resources have not covered anyone’s time.

While climate change activities did not initially attract people’s attention, the benefits – manifested in enhanced food security – have become clearer over time. The committee now has six stable members, joined by an additional three regular volunteers and 20 families that step in to support specific activities at different times.

The schools themselves initially struggled to keep the food gardens watered and cared for during holidays, as teachers and pupils were away from December to March, but through increasing ownership in the activities – especially among families – and the volunteers, this issue has been resolved.

At first, many Afro-Peruvian men did not want the women in their families to participate in the museum’s activities. This changed when the men saw how women’s different adaptation actions brought benefi ts to the community and the local environment. Now men are recognizing women’s crucial leadership roles in the Afro-Peruvian community and are more supportive, overall.