Seed, Photo essay

Seeds, Bodies & Territory in Cerro Quilish

Colectiva Semilla

Jun 23, 2023

In September 2004, a massive protest by Quechua sustenance farmers from Porcón and dwellers from the city of Cajamarca in the northern Peruvian Andes derailed plans by Minera Yanacocha—the largest gold mine in South America at that time—to exploit an aquifer at Cerro Quilish, the area’s main source of water. Cerro Quilish quickly became witness to the expansion of mining activity and the radical transformation of spatial and socioeconomic dynamics of its surrounding lands and inhabitants. 

A mountain in low light

Cerro (Mount) Quilish, one of the most important mountains of Cajamarca in the northern Peruvian Andes.

Since June 2022, Leslie Searles, Francisco Vigo, José Isabel Ayay, and I have been working together as Colectivo Semilla in Chilimpampa, a small community at the base of the mountain and within the mine’s area of direct impact, to trace the transforming relationships between bodies, communities, and territory that have unfolded after this emblematic conflict.

A family harvests grassy crops

The Ayay family harvesting and Cerro Quilish at the back in the 1980s (José Isabel Ayay personal archive).

Seeds tell the stories of the territories from which they grow and the communities and people who cultivate them. Shaped by land and water, seeds witness the social and political relationships that collectively steward these resources, as well as the clashes and power disputes over their command and control. Every viable plant seed that we hold in our hands is a mnemonic device of how ancestral knowledges and practices have evolved and circulated across individuals and communities and continue this evolution now. 

If and when seeds are used as foodstuffs, they materially alter the identities of the people who consume them. As Colectivo Semilla has worked closely with the Ayays—José Isabel’s family—we learned how their relationship to seeds mirrors the sociopolitical changes brought on by the expansion of corporate resource extraction in the region.

Shaped by land and water, seeds witness the social and political relationships that collectively steward these resources, as well as the clashes and power disputes over their command and control.

José Isabel is the 72-year-old anchor of the Ayay family and has witnessed how the wide variety of species and subspecies of seeds that the family cultivated in the past—oats, weed, quinua, tarwi, and the Andean tubers potato, oca and mashua—has reduced over time. This depletion reflects the family’s search for alternative livelihoods as it becomes increasingly difficult to live off the land.

Over the past 10 years, the Ayays have replaced some of their agricultural plots with grass to graze their cows—an important asset now that they could sell milk to Gloria, a national dairy company that has operated in the area since the late 1900s. Also, new labor patterns emerged as Minera Yanacocha shifted its corporate social-responsibility policies to hire men from neighboring communities as “unskilled” workers in the wake of the Cerro Quilish conflict. José Isabel’s brother and son began to work in the mine, reducing the time they could dedicate to the land. When asked how this has transformed the economic value of his family’s time and labor, José Isabel believes that they “have become lazy.”

Two people in hats sit in back of a mound of potatoes

Potatoes cultivated on the Ayay family's land in the 1980s (José Isabel Ayay personal archive).

The alternative livelihoods have redefined the family’s diet. José Isabel recalls that when his mother was alive, breakfast consisted of a meal made with black oat powder; but black oat has not been cultivated in the area for a long time. In this scenario of vanishing food supply, a new seed has made a powerful entry: rice. Originally cultivated in Peru’s coastal region, rice had been a daily ingredient for the inhabitants of Peruvian urban areas, and has slowly become a staple in the diets of rural dwellers as a cheap and filling meal. 

This reorganization of food systems reflects new patterns of mobility and food flows that characterize the community’s territorial articulations. Whereas in the past, José Isabel moved across the territory to exchange seeds with comuneros from different altitudinal tiers, the current purchase and cultivation of rice marks new patterns of articulation with industrial food systems from distant territories.

Two hands hold a tuberlike plant and rice

Ocas and rice, a staple of increasing importance in rural Andes. 

With changes in the family’s relationship to land and diet came negotiations of their racial and ethnic identities, which are inextricably linked to class, geography, education, and consumption patterns. In the Peruvian Andes, indigeneity is historically implied by peasant ways of being. So, as the Ayays moved away from economic dependence on land, traveled constantly between the community and the city, accessed education, and dressed and ate as city dwellers, they transitioned from Indigenous to mestizo identities. 

These changes are not linear, however. Vilma, José Isabel’s niece, recalls that when she was a child: “I dreamed of studying a career, becoming an architect, and engineer, like the ones that work in the mine, and I was good with numbers.” She moved to the city, but not permanently. She studies civil engineering but comes back to Chilimpampa every weekend to help her family, alternates between flowing hair or braids, eating rice or potatoes, and speaking Spanish or Quechua in between, and illustrates the fluidity with which these transitions are lived. 

A person stands near flames of a fire burning a field

Vilma stands next to the traditional burning of ichu during the dry season.

In this scenario of radical transformations in the relationships between bodies, community, and territory, the endurance of Andean tubers—potato, oca, and mashua—allows us to grasp the complexity and fluidity through which they are experienced. A seed’s survival depends on how its uses are adapted to the changing social relationships that sustain them. It is not only that Andean tubers, as less-labor intensive crops, have adapted better to new socioeconomic scenarios. Their importance, the meaning they condense, has been reinterpreted so the Ayay family can keep re-creating the desire to make space for them in their remaining farming practices as well as in their dishes. 

The alternation of traditional and “modern” foodways and the rearticulation of the flows and mobilities  of seeds typify the transience between rural and urban areas, Quechua and Spanish languages, and Indigenous and mestizo identities. These changes are not an uninterrupted pathway toward “modernity,” but a constant renegotiation of how individuals and communities participate and re-create their social and political relationships with their homelands.

Photographs by Colectiva Semilla. Text by Sandra Rodríguez Castañeda.

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