"One kilogram of cheese represents more change than you think," says Dr. Pedro Estrada Vega, veterinarian and director of the Allpa Association for Cooperation and Sustainable Development (ALLPA), a local non-governmental organization (NGO) in Peru's high Andes. "It represents change in how people operate their farmsteads and how they live their lives."
Standing in her artisanal cheese factory — a bright, clean room that is no larger than 15 square meters — Segundina Ortega agrees. She holds up a round of queso andino, a fresh Andean cheese that is popular in restaurants in the provincial capital Huari, one hour down the road. "Before, I used to earn seven nuevos soles per kilogram of cheese (approximately $3 per kilo), now I earn fourteen", she says. Ms. Ortega is surrounded by different molds, presses, utensils and a natural refrigeration unit — all of which are used in the artisanal cheese-making process. "We have doubled our income, which lets us invest more in our animals, our farm and our family," she adds.
These changes have come about because of a joint initiative between SUCO, a Quebec-based NGO that provides technical and financial advice to local communities; ALLPA, the Peruvian NGO; and the municipality of Huari, which is funding project activities through Canon, Peru's mining royalty distribution program. CIDA has supported this initiative by providing highly-skilled technical experts through its volunteer-sending program with SUCO as well as an international youth intern through SUCO. The Government of Quebec has also supported the project.
Just outside the door of Ms. Ortega's cheese factory, Herminio Calderon, her husband points out the difference between his older cattle and the new breed that is emerging after introducing cows from Puno in the south of Peru. The new cows are hardier, and as a result the family's herd has increased in size and so has their milk production. Maintaining the herd is getting more efficient too. New grasses have been introduced that are more nutritious and resistant. The cows are contained within a new portable electric fence, powered by a small rechargeable 6 volt battery, which controls grazing and accelerates recovery of other pastures, meaning that the family does not have to move cattle very far each day, saving time.
"The cheese is a symbol," says Dr. Vega. "It reminds us of the steps taken to arrive at this point. The farmers earn more because the cheese is better quality, which is the result of more milk, better cows and better pastures." He adds the farmers now have a more secure market because their cheese is one of the best in the region and because they are reliable suppliers.
Since 2010, four volunteers from Quebec have worked on the project providing much-needed technical expertise. ALLPA identifies the skills required, SUCO finds the appropriate expert in Canada and CIDA pays for the travel costs of the volunteers and provides a modest living allowance.
"The volunteers help us do work we wouldn't accomplish ourselves," says Andres Toro, an agronomist with ALLPA. "They help keep us organized and moving." They are also a source of encouragement, according to Dr. Vega: "It is really important to know that we are not alone in our work and to connect with others outside of our community, outside of Peru".
On the back wall of Ms. Ortega's factory is a list of steps to follow during the cheese-making process in an easy-to-use format developed by ALLPA and Canadian volunteers. Ms. Ortega follows these steps every time and uses the chart to teach her neighbours. Not only does her workshop produce approximately two to three kilograms of cheese per day, but it is also churning out new cheese producers — members of her community who have seen the success of the project and want to participate.
"You wouldn't believe that people living on such small incomes could find the time or the resources to make the investments to participate, like finding money for a new cow or heading over to Segundina's to learn how to make the new cheese," says Dr. Vega. But they do, and now those families are seeing results too — increased farm production, higher incomes and a generation of new community leaders with improved self-esteem, especially for women.
This project contributes to CIDA's priority theme of stimulating sustainable economic growth.