On the Rise .. and on the cutting room floor
We just couldn't pack these bits into the magazine, so we've posted them here for you to read.
By Laurel Miller
RESTING ON SACKS OF GRAIN
On the one-hour bus ride from the colonial city of Ibarra to Zuleta, we bumped up the startlingly beautiful cobblestone Pan-America Highway, lined with tidy, pastel-hued adobe houses. I was an object of curiosity, as well as good-natured teasing, as the only non-indigenous person and solo gringa on the bus. Juanito, an elderly man upon whose sacks of grain I was resting, asked me where I was headed. Upon hearing of my destination, Juanito - clad in traditional black, flat-brimmed felt hat, and long, striped wool poncho - informed me that my bus-mates were all Zuleteños, as residents of the Zuleta community are called, descendants of a pre-Incan indigenous people known as the Caranqui. The Hacienda property is actually one of the most important Caranqui archaeological sites in Ecuador, boasting 130 ceremonial earth mounds that date back as far as 700 A.D.
The community of Zuleta has approximately 1,580 residents, although there are other small villages, such as Angla, population 600, located within the boundaries of Hacienda Zuleta's properties, including a rolling, verdant patchwork of humble farm plots, fecund with crops and plump, healthy livestock.
To the southwest lies the massive, snow-covered bulk of Volcán Cayambe; up the valley are more farming communities. It is a place of staggering beauty, but I came to fully appreciate Zuleta and its cheesemaking upon learning how progressive Galo Plaza Lasso was in his business and humanitarian philosophies.
GIVING THE LAND BACK TO THE PEOPLE
Plaza, while virtually unknown in the United States, is still remembered as a true visionary in Ecuador. As president (and later ambassador), secretary general of the Organization of American States, and special envoy to the United Nations, he was considered a champion of the poor, a defender of democracy and education for all, and a spokesman for ecological and agricultural sustainability.
Plaza started his cheese factory to industrialize the milk from his dairy cows and make Zuleta's dairy more profitable, as well as to provide a model for responsible business and production practices. He also wanted to produce aged cheese - something, says head cheesemaker Fernando Polanco, the man loved as much as his cows. As manager of Zuleta, Plaza became one of the first family landowners in Ecuador to give land back to the people, with titles.
"[Plaza] believed agrarian reform was the right thing to do, long before the government mandated it [in 1964, with the Agrarian Reform Act]," Polanco explains. "He could have just continued the tradition of exploitation by Hacienda owners, in which the people living on the land had nothing to their name. But he became an agent of change because he believed it was the right thing to do. He knew that by giving people the tools for progress, they could learn more, achieve more, earn more, migrate. He gave them titles, created the first savings and loan in the countryside, and paid for a bus for the children to go to secondary school in Ibarra, because Zuleta didn't have one."
Today, Polanco, with the aid of the nonprofit Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation that he established in 1995, carries on the tradition of helping the community help itself. There is a library with volunteers to aid schoolchildren with their homework, a hospital, and continuing education programs for youth and adults.
As executive director, Polanco oversees various social, ecological, and economic enterprises such as the Condor Huasi Rehabilitation Program, which helps protect the region's endangered vultures, and the Zuleta Embroidery project, which was started by his grandmother to sustain the traditional craft.
MILKING IN SKIRTS AND BOWLER HATS
Zuleta's women are famed for their intricate, hand-stitched linens, blouses, and dresses, which they sell to supplement their family's income. Like most indigenous highland women throughout Ecuador, Zuleteñas still wear traditional dress, consisting of full, brightly colored, accordion-pleated skirts; embroidered, white cotton blouses; woolen shawls; bowler hats; and layers of beaded necklaces and bracelets. Visiting the semiautomatic milking parlor on my first day, I was astounded to see the women working in near full dress, their primary sartorial concession the wearing of rubber boots.
Thanks to Plaza's vision, all Zuleteños own their own land, where they grow crops such as quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat, known as faro in Italy), barley, corn, and potatoes. They own at least a few types of livestock, including chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, and guinea pigs (known as cuy, a dietary staple of the Andes). Land ownership has also freed them from a life of subsistence farming. In addition to selling surplus crops and livestock, farmers earn income by selling milk to the cheese factory and other regional producers of dairy products.
Hacienda employees also take mandatory classes on sustainable animal husbandry and sanitation to help promote education and quality assurance, which visibly impacts their own animals and business practices. It also explains why the dairy cows of the Hacienda and the larger community are the healthiest I've seen in South America.
"Apart from their salary, which is above minimum wage," Polanco says, "they all own one cow, which produces [milk] almost nine months of the year. We pay a higher-than-average price for the milk because we do direct trade. Due to the poor economy, we are increasing the aging time on some of our cheeses, such as the Parmesan, because otherwise we'd have to cut back on milk production and purchasing."
Visitors to Zuleta can even try their own hand at milking. One afternoon, I joined Rosita, an employee who lives on the farm, as she milked her cow, Esperanza. A stout, middle-aged woman with a long braid and a gap-toothed smile, Rosita coaxed the recalcitrant Esperanza into her yard and, with her powerful hands, began squeezing jets of frothy milk into the bucket. Although I milked dairy goats as a kid, my hands now proved to be as weak and useless as if made of rubber. Rosita, politely giggling at my feeble attempts, was kind enough to pour me a glass of milk before I departed, humbled by the experience.
WHEN YOU GO, CHECK OUT:
Quito's main food market is spotlessly clean, orderly, and a great place to grab a plate of ceviche or hornado, whole, roasted pig served with llapingachos. Lunch will set you back less than three dollars. Located in the Old Town, between Avenidas Pichincha and Esmeraldas, open daily, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mercado Metropolitano La Carolina (Iñaquito)
The cooks at Rumiloma Lodge shop this produce, seafood, and dairy-centric market in the northern part of the city between the La Mariscal (New Town) district and the airport. Unofficially known as Mercado Iñaquito, here you will find vast displays of tropical fruits, medicinal herbs used by local shamans and brujas (witches), and spices–an ideal last-minute souvenir stop. At Iñaquito and Villalengua, open daily, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.