Becoming an Ally and a Food Security Activist in the Sacred Valley of Peru
Carolina Putnam is the founder and Director of Reviveolution, based in Peru that works with an intercultural team of Indigenous wisdom-keepers, inspiring leaders, and global pioneers committed to a socially and ecologically thriving world. Their on-the-ground projects involve ecological regeneration, organic farming, food security, community-centered initiatives, holistic land practices, eco-cultural education and the protection of Indigenous wisdom traditions. Born and raised in Louisiana, Carolina has been living full-time in Peru for the past 8 years. She is deeply passionate about the exploration of human potential and deeply committed to creating healthy lands, communities and ecosystems through intercultural engagement.
In this interview, Arty explored with Carolina: her “middle way” approach to farming and land management that combines ancient Indigenous wisdom with some modern technologies; some of her specific projects; the joys and difficulties of trying to be a cultural ally in someone else’s culture; and her relationship with a Q’ero maestro.
ARTY MANGAN: Carolina, could you describe where you live and work?
CAROLINA PUTNAM: I live in the Cusco Region of Peru in the famous Sacred Valley. I was adopted into a family of the Q’ero nation for the past seven years, and I live in a town called Huaran, a farming community of mostly Quechua families, but that also includes a small group of expats (not tourists) who live there permanently. There are about 450 families in our watershed, which ranges in elevation from around 14,000 feet on the top of the glacier down to about 9,700 feet and which has many ecological “floors.” We live close to the river, where it’s very biodiverse. We can plant both highland crops such as potatoes and some subtropical fruits and avocados.
ARTY: Has the pandemic impacted your community?
CAROLINA: Not too badly, in terms of the virus itself. Initially one person contracted the virus, and it spread to 10 people, but that was the extent of it. Part of it might be that we are fortunate to have access to clean water and diverse foods that keep our immune systems strong, but the local leaders responded very quickly, creating barricades and closing the entrances to the community. Community members took turns watching the gate to ensure no tourists or even people from Cusco or Lima could come up into the community or into the adjoining mountains. We have a lot of elderly people and Indigenous communities that don’t have access to healthcare and medicine, so it was important to do as much as possible to keep the virus out, and the way the community responded was very effective in ensuring that the virus didn’t spread.
ARTY: You’ve integrated some of the Indigenous practices you’ve learned in Peru into your own personal life. Are you concerned that you might be engaged in some form of culture appropriation?
CAROLINA: I was being trained by my maestro without realizing it. I brought him around the world for seven years to intertribal gatherings and inter-religious peace conferences, and by being his assistant, translator and facilitator, he taught me his ceremonial ways and his Indigenous principles and life values in an organic process, by osmosis, in the same way that he learned from his maestro.
I didn’t know there was a global conversation going on about appropriation because I was in my own little bubble with him. It’s important to speak from experience, to tune in to ourselves deeply and to be super honest. If you have received teachings from an authentic Indigenous source, and you develop a strong relationship with the Earth and with the natural elements and can share teachings from your own experience and can see the benefit it provides others, I think that it is likely you will have a positive effect.
ARTY: When you were traveling with the maestro and learning from him, was that a formal apprentice relationship?
CAROLINA: He didn’t say, “You’re my apprentice.” The way it happened was natural. There was never a point where he said, “Here’s your initiation” or “Here’s the next step.” I was traveling with him; I was translating; I was facilitating. We were sharing the ceremonies and sharing the teachings on a daily and weekly basis over and over. For me it was about integrating and strengthening my relationship with life, with nature and with Pachamama.
Over time, I would say to him, “Hey, we’re working with more people now, and it’s getting a little heavy in my body; it’s draining me.” And he would say: “It’s time for you to have a karpay,” and he would then give me a very specific ceremonial empowerment and transmission designed to strengthen me and strengthen my resolve with nature, so that when we were serving other people, I would have the fortitude and resilience to be of service in those ceremonies.
ARTY: Coming out of the ceremony, did you feel different or do things differently after that?
CAROLINA: Yes, but it takes time. It’s like planting a seed. You’re recommitting. We work with the spirits of the mountains called Apus and with Pachamama, and each ceremony strengthens one’s commitment and one’s bond with them. And honestly, it would often create chaos at first because a lot of things need to be shed in order for the next thing to emerge. It would help break down some things in life that were no longer needed, so that I was able to rise to the occasion. It’s not a magic pill. It required a deeper commitment on my part, like strengthening my practice, strengthening my prayer, strengthening my offerings on a daily basis, and continuing to listen and being attentive to the way nature speaks. Looking back over the seven years, it completely rewired my brain over time. I see and navigate life in a completely different way now, not so much in a logical manner, but more in observation and listening to the messages that come through the life-force.
ARTY: What are the most important considerations coming from a different culture and becoming an ally to indigenous people?
CAROLINA: Definitely respect, but that respect goes two ways. There’s often a tendency to over-romanticize what it means to work with an Indigenous community or an Indigenous maestro or maestra. The first recognition is that we’re all human and that there are different expressions of being human. So, I think that the respect has to be mutual, but to be able to do that requires deep listening and observation and being willing to understand information coming through different formats than the ones we’re used to.
For example, if I ask my maestro a question point blank, he often doesn’t answer, but if we’re on a walk and it’s casual, and we’re sharing some coca leaves together, he might suddenly have a story that addresses that question. He’ll give me an answer through storytelling or through a metaphor. In the beginning of that experience, my brain would say, “I don’t really understand what he’s saying,” but if instead of trying to get a dictionary answer right away, I allow that transmission just to sink in as I go about my day, then suddenly it would awaken when it was time for me to understand. I had to learn to understand and listen on a different level and to realize that that sort of information is transferred in different ways.
It’s important to have respect for the place where I’m arriving and to try to understand deeply what’s going on without pushing my own ideas or agenda, but it’s also important to me to respect my own culture and where I come from. There was a time when I really believed that everything about being an American was totally wrong and that I had to give every little bit of my past identity up, but over time a middle path emerged. I could see that this could be a beautiful collaboration. He had so many skills and so much wisdom to share, but I also had skills, resources, and abilities from my background that I could bring to the table that could be mutually beneficial.
You have to be willing to go through a lot of hashing stuff out. There were many moments and periods that were really hard to navigate, but I had to be willing to come back to the table over and over again and to say, “Hey, sorry about that; we just crossed some cultural boundaries. Let’s sit down, chew some coca and figure out how to move forward.” You have to be willing to keep coming back to the table over and over again when you run into communication problems.
ARTY: Did you experience any cultural discomfort living in the wider community?
CAROLINA: Yeah. Definitely. In the farming community that I’m currently in, we had some uncomfortable situations during COVID. Even when I come with the best intention and feel that I communicated as clearly as possible, sometimes I brush up against past traumas without realizing it. At first, I didn’t understand the enormous extent of the history of unfulfilled promises that created such a deep mistrust of foreigners. It took a lot of willingness to come back and apologize (even when I didn’t believe I was wrong) and to keep repeating that I was here to listen and working hard to learn to listen more deeply in the moment. I had to keep asking what I did that wasn’t ideal in a situation, and to keep reminding everyone that we were all in this together, that we have the same intention: we want to see this entire watershed have food security. We want to see the people thriving, so please show me how I can do it better to bring that vision to fruition for all of us.
ARTY: That’s interesting, the idea of saying you’re sorry when you don’t feel you did anything wrong. You have to be totally open and receptive to developing a better understanding.
CAROLINA: Right. I’m a young Caucasian female from another country, and I’m speaking to men and women who are older than me and have been through incredibly tough situations in order to be on that land. I had to come to understand that in their culture with elders, you listen. I had to try to see all the subtleties of the intergender relations; the dynamics of different families and farmers’ relationships to each other, some going way, way back; the leadership structures in the community; etc. There’s a lot you have to learn when you work interculturally.
ARTY: It’s thanks to the remarkable Permaculture teacher Penny Livingston that we’re having this conversation. When she wrote to me about you, she said that you were regarded down there as a “chakaruna”—a “bridge person.” What are you bridging?
CAROLINA: Well, I don’t know if I’m succeeding, but my intention and focus is to re-center Indigenous values and principles in such a way that we can work with them effectively in the modern world. In our current project called Hampi Mama, which means “medicine mother,” we’re working with Indigenous women combining the growing of botanical medicines with a model of land regeneration. The project is Indigenous female-led, because in my experience, when women are positioned in a place of decision-making, they make choices that increase the health of the land, the community and future generations.
They themselves already have the wisdom of how to farm the land, where the medicines are, what they’re used for, and how they’ve been used traditionally. What they’ve asked from me is to help them create business models with which that wisdom can thrive in the modern world and support the expansion of a network of organic farmers. The Indigenous women and their families want access to modern communications tools to expand their learning, to share best practices between farmers and with educators, and achieve sustainable, viable, healthy livelihoods. They want a quality of life that includes sending their kids to college, ensuring that their community has access to healthcare, information networks, and educational opportunities.
Farmers work really hard from 5 AM to 5 PM. Some of them don’t even know that just one watershed over, a 20-minute walk, there are other groups of farmers also working on food security, food systems transformation and organic farming. They often don’t know about each other. Because I have a computer and I’m zooming online and I’m part of that regenerative network, I can contact the head of another organization of farmers nearby and say, “Hey, let’s get together and see how we can set up peer-to-peer learning,” if that’s what they’re requesting. I can help bring in connection to a larger context.
It was really nice to see the smiles on their faces when I shared that other people in the region and beyond were looking at how their community responded to COVID as a model of local resilience. They had no idea that people were looking for models for how to respond, or that there were other ways people responded. It was just so natural to them, and the way they did it was brilliant, but they were thrilled to learn they had become role models. So, I work to connect the network on a regional scale and more toward a global scale by exchanging information, resources and ideas.
ARTY: On a podcast you participated in, the hostess was romanticizing about traditional ways, and you said the folks in your community might want other options than planting potatoes in the snow in sandals. You mentioned that a middle way emerged in your approach.
CAROLINA: Yes, there’s a conversation going on globally about returning to ancestral ways, and that’s mostly positive, but, hey, just to give one example, some new techniques of farming organic potatoes produce more potatoes using a smaller amount of land with less inputs. Knowledge isn’t static. Farmers have always exchanged information to learn new ways to increase their livelihoods, and there is no reason for that to stop now. If there are viable, sustainable, healthy new techniques that can permit farmers to keep farming but boost their production and their soil fertility and their connection to supply chains, it can be really helpful to incorporate those methods, as long as it’s the farmers themselves who make those decisions freely.
The middle way I advocate is a both/and. Yes, it’s first about learning the ancestral ways of a deep connection of living with a breathing planet because ancestral ways teach us how to work with nature most harmoniously in a very local landscape. But it’s also about bridging the best of new technologies back to these communities, so their wisdom can continue to move forward. Without some of those technologies in that middle way, they may have to stop farming and drive a taxi and send their kids away from the farm.
For those of us who grew up in a modern, “developed nation” context, it’s not about dropping all the skills that we’ve learned around technology and research. Some of those skills, used right, can be really helpful in helping us all weave a new way forward, so, basically, what I’m saying is that integrating the grounded Indigenous spiritual, ancestral understanding that we’re part of a living, breathing organism with modern skills can feed the health of the whole system.
ARTY: What are some of the practices you’re introducing to local farmers?
CAROLINA: The Hampi Mama botanical sanctuary we’re currently working on is a land project mainly involving three female Quechua herbalists, one 74 years old, one in her late 30s, and the other in her early 30s. As we plant native Andean medicines, we’re doing different soil regeneration practices with mixed species of carbon material, nitrogen fixers and wildflowers to restore soil life. We’re making Bokashi and compost teas with native microorganisms, and showing a model of waste management by installing an Ecozoic toilet.
We are in the center of an area where most people are monocropping and using chemicals, so our practices of water conservation with a small constructed wetland is unique in the region. I’m calling it “essence agriculture.” We love medicine and it makes us really happy to plant things we love and fill a gap in the local market and supply chain. We’re showing that we can do agriculture on a small-holder, family-size farm in a way that brings joy to us while restoring native habitat and diversifying nutrition, and we are sharing these methods in a local organic farmers’ association.
During the quarantine for the Covid-19 pandemic, we were in one of the strictest military-enforced lockdowns in the world. The military was on the road with big guns. You had to have permission slips to leave even to get food. It was pretty intense. One of the first things that happened is that local leaders came together, and we collaborated with them to ensure that food could get to the top of the mountain where a lot of the food supply had been cut off. Many of the farms there have been selling the crops they produce and then buying food in the market. But we weren’t allowed to leave and go to the market, so we had to figure out what to do locally. The local leaders created a chain of food that brought emergency food baskets with staple foods like rice, salt, oats and some legumes on 20 horses up to the top of the glaciers and around the community.
The local expats created an online delivery system. On the delivery form, you could check off if you wanted to make a donation. Those donations would go to the emergency food baskets. They ended up creating a closed circuit where organic food was getting delivered to all the expats, and then the donations ensured that food was distributed all the way up the entire watershed. That food chain was a local emergency response, but out of that the organic farmers’ association that I’m involved in got started, and 40 farmers decided that they needed to think about the long term. If we’re not selling our food, but eating it locally, then we don’t want to be using chemical inputs, so a lot of them were willing to shift their gardens and farms from chemical agriculture to organic. During the lockdown, I helped organize over 20 workshops with the farmers, some of which included Penny Livingston and an amazing local teacher named Mauro Escalante who works with Sacha Munay. Farmers came to learn practices of soil regeneration, working with organic amendments, how to create biocides as a quick response, but ultimately how to increase the soil quality. Together the farmers created eight tons of bokashi, an amazing super compost. They made enough to share with the broader community and to start transitioning all of their farms to organic. This exchange of education and peer-to-peer learning is still going on.
ARTY: What a great response to the emergency! Penny also told me about how you grew Choclo corn organically, which most people thought could not be done.
CAROLINA: When we first got the land, we grew Choclo corn [a popular traditional local variety] organically. The first round was a bit smaller than the norm, but the second round was really beautiful. The corn was just as big as the corn grown by farmers using chemicals. We hosted a concert with Rising Appalachia in 2019. It was an intercultural exchange. Penny with two of the local leaders and educators shared information about compost tea and other techniques, and we brought all the corn off of my land and served it for lunch for around 200 farming neighbors. They tasted the corn and said: “It’s so sweet; I can’t believe you grew this organically!”
ARTY: What are the other programs of Reviveolution?
CAROLINA: We run different intercultural exchange programs throughout the year. Obviously, during COVID they were temporarily halted, and we were focusing more locally. Throughout the year we host programs for international guests. Rather than only going around to sacred sites and such–which is amazing if people want to do that– we create experiences for intercultural exchange. At the foundation we always share the Andean spiritual practices and ceremonies for connecting with the living Earth. We complement this with other aspects of Andean livelihood. Sometimes we’re farming together, and sometimes we’re doing ancestral arts and weaving. Other times we have a focus on herbalism. It’s an opportunity for our wisdom-keepers to learn ways from around the world, as well as pass on their traditional ways. And we are fundraising to support the expansion of these localized efforts and of food system transformation across our region.
(Reviveolution is a 501c3 fiscally sponsored project, and all donations are tax-deductible.)