VILCABAMBA, Peru, 30 October 2002 -- The people of this district in a fertile valley of the Peruvian Andes have had rough times. After more than a decade of exile due to armed conflict in the area, many returned to their land in the 1990s, facing the prospect of starting over from scratch.

"The district of Vilcabamba has very fertile soil," say Francisco Díaz, Director of CEPRODER (Centro de Promoción y Desarrollo Rural), a local NGO. "But the valley is hard hit by El Niño, which brings unusual rain patterns and very cold weather during the winter. People here are very poor." In 2002, most of the crops were destroyed by a prolonged freeze, and tonnes of the potato chuño, the basis of the Andean diet, rotted while they were being dried.

TeleFood, FAO's campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight hunger, established a small vegetable garden and pig-raising project for women in Vilcabamba in 2001 to help alleviate poverty and fight malnutrition. With the assistance of CEPRODER, the project operates in four peasant communities: Vilcabamba, Muyurina, Huancansayhua and Colcabamba. Initially it is concentrating on 22 families considered among the poorest and most vulnerable.

Learning the ancient ways
Since the region had not been cultivated for 14 years, the villagers faced a lot of preparatory work before they could make use of the seeds, tools and pigs provided by TeleFood. First, they built terraces on the steep slopes, just as their ancestors did in Inca times. CEPRODER then trained all the participating women in cultivating their land, producing fertilizer from worms and crop residues, and taking care of small farm animals. Very soon, the first vegetables started growing, bringing a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment to the participants.

The gardens are well kept and green, and some include flowers and fruit trees. Most have a small parcel destined to grow medicinal plants and aromatic herbs. During a recent tour of the gardens, local resident Pedro Bravo played his flute for the visitors, the same lilting songs he plays for his fellow villagers as they work the soil.

"Before, we didn't know how to cultivate our land," says Felicitas Arsega. "Now, we know how to grow vegetables, how to transplant them and how to make our own fertilizers."

"Our products are 100 percent natural, without an ounce of chemicals," adds Nelly Vargas, coordinator of the local committee for the TeleFood project. "And so far, no diseases! Look at these lettuce, how beautiful they are!"

Every morning at 5 a.m. a bus leaves for Chuquibambilla, a town about a half hour drive away, where the villagers sells their products. The modest revenue allows them to buy the basics: sugar, oil, bread and rice, and sometimes medicines for their children.

Everyone's involved
What started as a women's project has become a household project. Women take care of the plants and men prepare the land, build terraces and prepare fertilizers. The children, busy with school and homework, help out only when they're done studying -- a source of pride for parents who see education as key to a better future. Every family member takes pride in their garden. "Little by little, we're improving our lives," says Honorata Cruz.

For those raising pigs, there is more investment of time and money, especially for feed, but the results are also very encouraging. Edith Alvarez's sow, Jacinta, is expecting piglets soon. To Ms Alvarez's relief, Jacinta's belly has grown so big that she can no longer jump the little wall of her pen -- so finally she has stopped escaping into the village.

Maria Contreras is also very excited about her sow's upcoming delivery. She knows she will have to give back two piglets, one male and one female, to the project's rotating fund so that another family can also benefit, but she will still be able to sell some of the animals and invest her money. "I want to buy more small farm animalswith the money,and food and clothes for my children," she says. "I want to be able to buy them books and pencils for school. It's a good investment for the future."

Isabel Ferrel's family has future growth in mind - they have already started investing. They sold their boar soon after the sow got pregnant and bought twelve chickens. Now they can sell eggs at the market as well.

Every family also has a little piece of land to grow vegetables. Everyone raises alfalfa, to feed their pigs or to sell as feed. "We want to grow more fruits and vegetables and diversify our production," says Mr Bravo, pausing between tunes on his flute. "We would like to start making by-products such as marmalade and juices, so that we can sell them at higher prices. We would like to export more and farther."

Vilcabamba still does not exist on the map, even the regional one -- but the villagers are eager to put it there with the results of their hard work. Between the fertility of the valley, the commitment of the community and the help from TeleFood, they should be able to succeed and serve as an inspiration for others like them.