Have you ever heard of the Wichi people? We hadn’t until we went to Jueves a la Mesa, a vegetarian puerta cerrada in Buenos Aires. A couple from New York – Leigh and Noah – were holding an exhibition there of photos taken by Wichi children. They had given kids in the community digital cameras and taught them how to use them. The results were on the walls of Jueves a la Mesa and had also been displayed at an exhibition in Salta, the city the couple live in. All proceeds from the sales of the prints were to go back to the Wichi community.
Fast forward a couple of months and we were in Salta with Leigh, Noah and their daughter, Lila, volunteering on the project. We had been captivated by the photos the Wichi children took – photos of the ir family, their animals, their feet – and wanted to meet the people behind them, and do what we could to help.
How the Wichi project was formed
When we arrived in Salta, Leigh and Noah, or Cloudhead Art as their organisation is called, were in the process of starting a garden-building project with the proceeds of the photo sales. This is what the Wichi people had said they wanted when Leigh and Noah first met them. Having worked in international development for more than three years, I found this encouraging – so often charitable organisations make the mistake of foisting their own ideas onto a society rather than working with the community’s own wants and needs.
Cloudhead had sought advice advice from various organisations until they came across their perfect match in Alec Deane, a man who had worked with the Wichi for around 30 years. He had helped start a successful garden project in a Wichi community called Chaqueña, just outside Hickman, the village where Cloudhead work.
Alec invited Leigh and Noah to visit the gardens, and we tagged along for the three-hour drive up to the Wichi villages. First off, we visited the community Cloudhead work with.Most of the Wichi don’t speak Spanish, but Simon, the village leader does, so he is Leigh and Noah’s main point of contact.
We saw that the community were living in very basic conditions, most without electricity. While the people didn’t appear to be starving, their dogs were – skinny to the brink of dying. There clearly wasn’t enough food to go round.
Simon came with us to Chaqueña to see the gardens. After a very bumpy 30-minute drive down a long, rocky road, we arrived and the contrast was striking. While still poor by Argentine standards, this village had electricity, water tanks, shops – and gardens. We even saw satellite dishes – but of course, the gardens were what we were there to see.
Simon asked around and we were led to Antonio who has had a garden for the past three years. He grows enough food for his family and sells the rest to people in the village. The garden was impressive, abundant with healthy greens.
The trick that Alec taught Antonio is drip irrigation, which uses far less water than a standard hose, and also helps the plants grow better. It was a great set-up and Alec had agreed to give the necessary drip irrigation equipment to Cloudhead for the first garden in Hickman. They would pay Antonio a fee and he would teach Simon to set up and use it. Simon seemed keen, everyone chatted and it was agreed we would all come back next week to set up the first garden.
Why this arrangement works
Cloudhead favour this arrangement as it means their donation enables, and stays within, the Wichi community. Instead of receiving hand-outs, the Wichi set up the project themselves. It is hoped that this way it will be made more sustainable. Cloudhead’s role within this is ‘connector'; they asked Simon what he wanted and then found a way within the Wichi community to make that happen. They also provide the money to pay Antonio and lend the tools to set up, and tend to, the garden. This is a system with lots of promise but it is, of course, up to the Wichi themselves whether or not it will work.
On the day we went back and helped set up the garden, it was great to see the kids helping Antonio and Simon. As Noah said: “Perhaps if the kids grow up with this, they’ll continue it and be able to feed their families too.”
I also talked to one of the grandmothers who said she was excited about making soup. Meat is cheap in the village but vegetables are not. With a garden, Simon will be able to feed his extended family and make money from what is left over. In the long-run, Cloudhead hope the idea will catch on and more people in the village will want gardens.
Charity is a tricky issue, especially with tribal or indigenous peoples There are arguments for why, and how, one should or shouldn’t interfere. I was particularly aware of this as I briefly worked with Survival International a few years back. In this case, I think arguments for leaving the Wichi alone are flawed – because it’s too late. Of course, in an ideal world, they wouldn’t need help from outsiders, but they’ve been displaced from their land and are now segregated from society – often written off as drunks or no-hopers and forced to live off state benefits. Their original way of life has already been destroyed and, at least with this project, they are now being given the means to help themselves.
We hope it goes well and can’t wait to see how the garden grows.
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Volunteering with Cloudhead and the Wichi people
If you would like to volunteer with Cloudhead in Salta or donate to the project, visit the Cloudhead website for more details. They have a beautiful house in Salta where volunteers can stay, and there are multiple different projects to work on. We also helped teach media skills to teenagers.