Campus News

Understanding Homes and Gardens in Northern Ecuador

Story posted September 23, 1999

For the Chachi people in northern Ecuador, their relationship with their home, their garden and their fields forms the fabric of their daily life.

Claire Allum, adjunct professor of sociology and anthropology and program administrator for the CBB Mellon Study Abroad program, shared her experiences with the Chachis at a faculty seminar titled "A trip to the Cottage: the Use of Chachi (Indian) Field Houses in Ecuador."

In her two years in Ecuador, Allum lived with an extended family of 17 in a single house in a Chachi settlement on the banks of the Cayapas River. Chachi homes are built on stilts about 1.5 to 3 meters off of the ground, to avoid rising river water.

The Chachi live in an anthropogenic forest, meaning about 80 percent of the vegetation growing nearby is used by the people. The forest has likely been managed in this way, by people living along the river, for 2000 years, Allum said.

Though there are fields nearby, an important part of a Chachi house is the house garden, which surrounds the dwelling. The Chachi put valuable crops in their house gardens, but Allum was puzzled to find that they also plant staple crops there, even though there are fields of these staple crops nearby.

She found that it was a form of risk management; keeping these crops closer allowed them to be guarded. In addition, Chachis would put plants that had proved to be of superior quality near the house. One example Allum gave was a banana tree that produced double sprouts, this was planted in a house garden and other families would take cuttings from it to plant in their own house gardens.

Another aspect of Chachi life Allum examined was the practice of spending time at field houses, dwellings built away from the main house near more distant fields. She had read of the existence of these houses, but had found no documentation of visits to the field houses by non-Chachis.

When she traveled to a field house, or rancho, Allum found not a makeshift, temporary dwelling, but rather a miniature version of the main house located on the river. The rancho was built not of bamboo, but of hardwood, with the same type of thatched roof as the main family home; it even had a house garden like that of the main home.

"For me, it was a paradigm shift," Allum said, "I had been thinking of going to these ranchos as a way of dealing with distant fields." She found instead, that the fields were there because the rancho was there. Rather than a temporary dwelling built to house those tending fields, the rancho existed in its own right, and the fields had been added to accompany it.

Allum found that families regularly spent time at their ranchos. The Chachis told her that they ate better and slept better at a rancho. It was retreat, a bit hidden and not easily accessible, where families could go if there was an epidemic or a social conflict.

And now that children are schooled for part of the year, it has an additional function. "They treat it a bit as we would going to the cottage--getting away from the hubbub, the city, of the main river."

In her work as an enthno-archeologist, Allum studies how people living today relate to their environment in hopes of gaining insight into how cultures of the past lived. The Faculty Seminar Series lectures are from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. each Wednesday in the Main Lounge of Moulton Union. The series is open to students, faculty and staff.

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