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PERU: Guinea Pigs Spell Independence for Women

Milagros Salazar

PUCYURA, Peru, Oct 2 2009 (IPS) - In a rural village in the Peruvian Andes, very near yet so far from the popular tourist destination of Cuzco, the guinea pig, a rodent native to the region, has become “woman’s best friend” – an important means for women to earn money to support their families, as well as to learn how to defend their rights.

Teófila Anchahua caring for her guinea pigs. Credit: Julio Angulo/IPS

Teófila Anchahua caring for her guinea pigs. Credit: Julio Angulo/IPS

Pucyura is just 15 km from the famous southern Peruvian city of Cuzco, formerly the capital of the Inca empire and later of the Spanish colonial viceroyalty. In this small town, it is the women who head up the local associations of guinea pig producers. The organisational experience they have gained eventually led to the formation of a women’s rights group.

Teófila Anchahua, 58, is one of these women. She currently has over 100 guinea pigs housed in a number of sheds, separated according to breed, age and size. “The newborn guinea pigs have to be alone with their mothers, because if you put them with the rest, they won’t be able to feed properly. You have to give them a nutritional supplement, not just alfalfa,” she explained.

Anchahua travelled to a number of different areas in southern Peru to learn about guinea pig breeding as part of the Puno-Cuzco Corridor project, which was financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) until the end of 2008 to promote initiatives for women small farmers and microentrepreneurs in the 380-km corridor between the two cities.

“Raising these little animals has made it possible for me to feed my children and grandchildren, while still taking care of my family, since I can run my business without leaving the house,” Anchahua told IPS, while her eight-year-old granddaughter, Milagros, helped her feed the guinea pigs alfalfa, their main source of food.

Pucyura is situated at an altitude of 3,300 metres above sea level, more than 1,550 km south of Lima. The majority of its 3,500 people are indigenous, and 65.7 percent live in poverty, and 32.2 percent in extreme poverty, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI).


It started out as a business

Things began to change in Pucyura four years ago, when the raising of guinea pigs, once destined solely for individual household consumption, was transformed into a business based on commercial production and sale on a medium scale.

The guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) is native to the Andean region, where it has been raised in captivity since time immemorial. While it is popular as a pet in many parts of the world, it is a source of food throughout western South America, from Colombia to northern Argentina.

In Peru, however, the guinea pig also has symbolic and social significance above and beyond its nutritional value, especially in rural areas, where it serves to strengthen social and family ties and enhance prestige, and even offers medicinal qualities, in addition to being kept as a pet, explained animal health specialist Ernando Castro.

Its high nutritional value and low production costs have made the guinea pig – a highly prized delicacy throughout Peru, the world’s largest guinea pig consumer – an important source of food security for low-income families in rural areas.

Today there are seven guinea pig farming organisations in Pucyura made up of over 500 women altogether. The seven organisations are also members of the Central Association of Women of Pucyura, the group’s president, Indira Núñez, told IPS.

“Since we were already organised through the guinea pig farming business, we decided to form an association to defend our rights in the home and in the community, where women have not always been very highly valued,” said the 34-year-old women’s leader.

“In our town there is a lot of financial need, and it is important for us to be able to help our husbands and to have access to employment that places us in a better position. Selling guinea pigs has helped me to get ahead,” said Núñez.

Thanks to the guinea pig business, she can earn the equivalent of around 200 dollars a month, slightly more than what is estimated as the minimum living wage. “It’s a big help to us considering the few opportunities we have to increase our income, since the authorities do so little to promote women’s development,” she commented.

According to INEI, microenterprises are the main source of income for 83 percent of the population of Pucyura. The town is supported primarily by agriculture, cattle farming and the raising of other animals such as guinea pigs and pigs.

The establishment of a Commercial Information Centre, as part of the Puno-Cuzco Corridor project, has also provided the town’s residents with internet access to vital information ranging from guinea pig farming techniques to new recipes based on guinea pig meat.

These culinary innovations have helped to promote guinea pig consumption at food fairs where its nutritional benefits are emphasised. Guinea pig meat is practically fat-free, and has a higher proportion of protein than chicken, beef, lamb or pork.

Guinea pig farmers united against violence

“The women are really good at business, they know how to sell our products better than anyone,” said Raúl Nolasco, the president of an association of pig farmers in which women make up 40 percent of the members.

Nolasco told IPS that all of his group’s members, both men and women, would benefit from training in marketing, but the authorities do not put a priority on the issue when making budgetary allocations.

Through the Puno-Cuzco Corridor project, local women were trained in the breeding and sale of guinea pigs, which reproduce rapidly and are in high demand throughout the world, as pets, for their fur, and as test animals in scientific experiments. Peruvian breeds of guinea pig are also the largest in the world.

But when the funding from IFAD came to an end this year, production and sales declined.

“We have to recognise that not all of the women are organised and united. Some of them want to get ahead on their own, and others lose interest. We don’t all move forward at the same pace,” guinea pig farmer Elbertina Santoyo, 42, commented to IPS.

Combined with this was the decline in the production of alfalfa, which the women grow to feed the guinea pigs, because it is too expensive to buy. An 11.5 kg bundle of alfalfa costs the equivalent of five dollars, and guinea pigs fetch only three dollars each.

“The weather has been bad for growing alfalfa, almost the whole crop was lost. That’s why I sold my guinea pigs and just kept a few, because otherwise I would end up working just to feed them and it wouldn’t be profitable anymore,” explained Julia Quispe, 42.

Several of the women interviewed reported that their husbands were initially opposed when they started to spend more time away from home to attend meetings.

“As long as we were taking care of the guinea pigs at home, or when we were working on the farm, everything was fine. But when we started meeting to organise ourselves to defend our rights, the men started to protest, because of machismo,” said Quispe.

“They have always thought that they have more right to speak than we do. But that has to change,” she added.

As they grew more skilled at the commercial production and sale of guinea pigs, “we women learned that we were capable of taking on projects of our own and contributing significantly to the family economy,” said Quispe.

More importantly, however, the women realised that by joining together they could better defend their rights and demand to be heard. This is what led them to create the Central Association of Women of Pucyura, which was initially aimed at fighting the high rates of domestic violence in the town, explained Núñez, the group’s president.

The mayor of Pucyura, Tomy Loayza, admitted to the troubling rate of domestic violence, and told IPS it was largely linked to alcoholism, which is a major health problem in the region.

As a result of this situation, the women themselves pushed for the creation of institutions to protect women and children from violence, with the support of foreign development aid and state funding.

“We are working with the whole community to combat violence against women, but it continues to be a challenge,” Loayza acknowledged.

“It is important for the women to organise and make a contribution, because equity is valuable. We are doing a few things to help them, although we recognise that they still need more support,” he said.

Núñez reported on a new project to promote the marketing of guinea pigs that is being implemented by a non-governmental organisation and could help to boost production again.

Nevertheless, she stressed, “we don’t want to have to always depend on help from others. If the authorities provided us with information and trained us to take advantage of different alternative sources of employment, maybe things would be different,” she said.

“But here’s something you can write: there’s no going back for us, we have learned to do things and to think differently, and that won’t change,” she declared, as she cleaned out the sheds that house her guinea pigs, her allies – her best friends.

 
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