How cows brought peace and prosperity to two Ecuadorian farms

More family time and a higher income: Climate-smart livestock management shakes things up

Cornelio León, a resident of Pedro Carbo in western Ecuador, can now provide feed for his animals and maintain their milk production, even during the dry season. ©FAO/Artunduaga


Surrounded by orange, lemon and mango trees, we find Rebeca, Fedora, Natalia, Campana and Gertrude. They are five of the 21 cows that Marlene Vacusoy and her husband, Cornelio León, own, but managing cattle is relatively new for this Ecuadorian couple.

They had always been farmers but never livestock owners, so when Marlene and Cornelio’s son came home one day with a cow and the desire to start cattle farming, the couple was not pleased. Farming all their lives in Pedro Carbo, in the Guayas province of western Ecuador, they had grown cotton, corn and peanuts, but they knew nothing about managing cattle and were not planning on learning.

Their son did not agree. Produce prices were low and the family desperately needed a new way of making money. He could see that cattle farming had the potential to turn their lives around. When their son passed away a short time later, Cornelio and Marlene could think of no better way of honouring his memory than starting the business he was so passionate about.

Doing so was no mean feat however. Marlene and Cornelio had little grass suitable for livestock feeding, so they had to walk across the surrounding countryside with their 21 cows to allow them to graze. Come rain or shine, they left the farm early in the morning and walked for hours on the edge of highways, local roads and riverbanks seeking fresh grass.

“It used to take us all morning, taking the cows out to graze,” Marlene says. “We arrived home around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., sweaty, tired and hungry. Then, I had to cook to feed my family. We are both over 60 years old – it wasn’t easy for us!”

Getting started

Just like Marlene and Cornelio, Luis González was also new to the livestock sector. Luis had been a fisherman, like his parents before him, catching fish on the dam just outside his farm in Las Balsas, Santa Elena Province in western Ecuador. He did keep a few cows, but his arid farmland made it difficult to feed them and, beyond milking them now and then, they were left to their own devices. But with changing climate conditions, his livelihood as a fisherman wasn’t bringing in enough money to feed his family.

Left/Top: Marlene and Cornelio stand proudly with their forage banks. ©FAO/Artunduaga Right/Bottom: Luis González and his family on their farm in Las Balsas, Santa Elena province. ©FAO/Artunduaga

It was at this point that Luis, Marlene and Cornelio heard about FAO’s Climate-Smart Livestock (CSL) project,which promotes sustainable livestock management across seven Ecuadorian provinces. The joint initiative implemented by FAO, with the support of Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Ecuadorian government, aims to tackle many of the problems that cattle farmers face in the country, including soil degradation and the effects of climate change.

Farmers are given practical help and advice such as learning how to install irrigation systems, drinking fountains and milking infrastructure. They are also taught new production methods like rotational grazing, composting for pastures and producing their own animal feed.

Transforming Ecuador’s small-scale farming sector

Representatives from the FAO-GEF project visited villages across Ecuador to spread word of the project. They demonstrated how cattle farming could be improved and how it can be done in harmony with the environment, while still achieving its economic potential. Hearing about the project in this way, Luis, Marlene and Cornelio took a chance and became three of the 1 056 farmers involved in the CSL project, which has transformed over 40 300 hectares of land.

For Luis, the CSL project’s help taught him to correctly manage the pastures and ensure his cattle were adequately fed. Recently his area had suffered severely from lack of rain, leaving him with no grass on his farm. The project’s support in implementing an irrigation system made an incredible difference. Now, Luis´s farm is the only green spot in this arid area. His income has improved and he is able to invest money in his farm, as well as pay for the bills at home: health, education and food.

 “My goal was to improve farming practices. Now, my cattle are well managed, healthy and productive,” he adds, smiling.

Cornelio and Marlene’s cows now have adequate feed and water without having to leave the farm. ©FAO/Artunduaga

As for Cornelio and Marlene, they no longer need to spend hours roaming the countryside to feed their cattle or to seek water. Marlene, followed by her three dogs, shows us the area on her farm destined for planting high-quality fodder varieties that can provide food even in the dry season. She said, “For a year now we have not gone out with the cows to look for pastures. We now have our own pastures and make good silage. We have more time to rest. Now we even spend more quality time together as a couple and not just working.”

Rebeca, Fedora, Natalia, Campana and Gertrude are now grazing happily. Just as their son had hoped, the family’s primary income comes from cattle management.

The impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant problems for livestock farmers in Ecuador, disrupting market channels for their products and negatively affecting their income. This situation, however, has brought out the generosity and solidarity of local farmers, many of whom have given away their dairy produce to neighbouring families affected by the lockdown.

Equipping rural communities with the know-how to mitigate the effects of climate change is key to creating profitable and sustainable agricultural sectors across the world. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require coordinated responses to protect the most vulnerable and to maintain efficient, inclusive, and resilient agri-food systems that can ensure food and nutrition security. This project that has helped Ecuadorian farmers like Marlene, Cornelio and Luis is just one of many FAO projects that try to do just that, helping create a more sustainable agriculture sector – and a more food secure world.  

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 13. Climate action, 15. Life on land