Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Andean chakra system of the Cotacachi Kichwas communities


Detailed Information



Detailed Information

Global importance

The knowledge and technologies used by farmers have allowed the conservation of a wide agrobiodiversity, based on the management and reproduction of native seeds and varietal adaptations of forests or other agroclimatic floors. These practices have been transmitted from generation to generation, and in each generation observation has allowed innovation by creating knowledge and practices adapted to the chakr and the bioclimatic floor. In this way, functional practices are observed for the ecological management of soil, water, crops and livestock, which are key to the sustainability of the ecosystem.

From its ancestral origin, and considering the agrocentric cosmovision of the Andean communities, the chakra is the center of life development, being considered a material and symbolic breeding place for the Quechua families and communities. The production of the chakra is mainly oriented to the self-supply of food and medicinal products, also used for basic habitability needs such as housing and for festive and ritual purposes both for the family and the community. In general, chakra products are used for the development of the livelihoods of the vast majority of Cotacachi's rural population.

The Andean area comprises four agro-ecological zones that include a variety of ecosystems plus the Cotacachi - Cayapas ecological reserve. They are divided by altitude into two major zones: the páramo (above 3,000 m) and the Andean farmlands (2,300 to 3,000 m). This Andean zone is further divided into: the cereal zone (2,700 to 3,000 masl), the corn zone (2,500 to 2,700 masl) and the short-cycle crop zone (2,300 to 2,500 masl). These sub-zones differ in terms of rainfall, soil, vegetation and crops.

This biophysical context has been interpreted by the Ecuadorian Andean populations, generating a system of adaptation and production that could be characterized by

  • The maximum use of ecological floors, climates and microclimates;
  • The complementarity of these;
  • The development of active and varied product exchange networks
  • The existence of strong mechanisms of community cohesion.

Food and livelihood security

Up to 172 species of food, medicinal, fodder, forest, ornamental, and ritual plants have been counted on the lands of the peasant and indigenous farmers of the communities in the area. Of the species found, at least 52% correspond to food crops. For medicinal use, around 84 species have been registered. These aspects reflect an important aspect of the high value and importance of the chakra in family and community life.

Production in the chakras is mainly aimed at ensuring a healthy and diversified diet, which is why 50% of the average production is for family consumption and the surpluses for marketing. The production is commercially distributed through different Alternative Circuits of Local Commercialization such as the peasant fairs, the supply of school feeding rations, specialized stores and restaurants, and the transformation of the product facilitating the aggregation of value. Today, the emphasis is on identifying market opportunities for the diversity of chakra products such as the elaboration and delivery of prepared foods, restaurant services, agro-tourism, educational guides, among others.

The gastronomic diversity of the Andean territory of Cotacachi, from its Andean chakra production system, has been extremely important for the family and regional diet. About 300 gastronomic preparations have been identified as part of the food heritage of the territory of Cotacachi, largely dependent on the cultivation of corn, but enriched with the full variety of fruits and breeds of the chakra.


Cotacachi is considered a microcenter of agricultural diversity, because of the great variety of traditional crops it has, such as corn, beans, chili, zambo, pumpkins and some high Andean fruit trees. Of the 172 species and varieties that are cultivated and cared for in the rural chakras and their environments, corn is the most recognized. This is the central crop in the Andean chakras, and Cotacachi stands out for its great diversity of corn varieties, since 11 of the 29 existing races in the country have been identified.

The chakra of a family represents a laboratory for experimentation and exchange, a space for in situ conservation of seeds and a highly productive space in terms of diversity and food supply, as well as a space for innovation. A central element in the management of the chakras are the seeds and the different mechanisms of selection, conservation and reproduction of seeds of traditional varieties of native plants. These come to be considered and therefore protected as integral elements of the cultural heritage of the people and landscape of Cotacachi.

Local and traditional knowledge systems

Around the Andean chakra and the relationships that develop there, there is specific and very detailed inherited knowledge about the constellations, plants and animals, fungi, water, soil, landscapes and vegetation, etc. The adaptation and development of this knowledge has had to respond to the need to take advantage of ecological floors, climates and microclimates to promote their complementarity and guarantee the food security of the community as well as the sustainability of the production areas. Thus, the distribution of areas for crops within the chakra is regulated by the type of ecosystem and the quality of the site, which also applies to forest plantations.

The composition and arrangement of chakra species is a dynamic set, composed of a diverse mix of annual and perennial plants, herbaceous, shrubs, trees, roots and tubers, as well as useful "weeds", and other "voluntary" plants that were born spontaneously and are tolerated in the chakra set. One of the most important aspects is the association of crops, a practice that has been carried out for years by indigenous families. This association is based on the joint planting of crops with different periods of maturation and harvest, thus seeking to develop a relationship of mutual reciprocity. The productive systems are structured in such a way that the diversity of plants provides complementary functions of support, nutrient fixation, shade, protection against pests and thermal regulation, among others.

Value systems, culture and social organizations

The Andean culture can be defined from an agrocentric cosmovision. In order to understand this culture, it is important to understand that the Andean world is not made up of "objects" but of people who talk, raise and are raised.  For this reason, the breeder is not only concerned with his chakra, that is, the human chakra, but also with the raising of the chakra of the members of nature and the deities. A chakra will be healthy as long as all other chakras in the landscape are also vigorous. In this way, the health of the human community is associated with the health of its chakras as well as that of nature as a whole.

Communities have developed traditional community practices that emphasize solidarity and community life as the cultural core. This is the case of the minga, which consists of the contribution of joint work and solidarity of all the members of a social group. Bartering is also practiced, especially when the crops are finished and some residues remain so that anyone who needs it can enter the chakra and collect what is left. In this way waste is avoided, and awareness of sustainability is promoted, understanding that if a product reaches its maturity it is thanks to work and sacrifice so it should not be wasted.

Landscapes features

The modern mosaic of Cotacachi's landscape is the result of the traditional vertical system of production and complementary exchange, where agricultural elasticity and continuity have been evident despite the dramatic changes experienced during large periods in the area. Nevertheless, the historical transformations of the landscape and the traditional principles applied by the local inhabitants, which are still in place, offer lessons of resilience in agricultural modernization efforts in the field of sustainable development.

Given the topographical conditions, it is common for terraces to be formed for the development of crops, either slowly (by sowing grass or bushes in counter-slope lines) or on a bench (formed manually). Their main function is to counteract river erosion on sloping land. The notorious effects of this practice (in addition to the obvious: avoiding accelerated mobility of water on slopes) are the retention and infiltration of humidity, as well as adequate drainage when there is an excess. It also prevents the accelerated sliding of cold air masses and generates less cold air mass turbulences from the soil surface, which has positive effects against the known frosts and increases the cultivation area due to design effects. Thus, the agricultural practices of the Andean chakras have allowed the development and maintenance of the local landscape.