Jaime Idrovo

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
INKA, Inst. de Civilización Indígena
This description of Jaime Idrovo's work was prepared when Jaime Idrovo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Jaime Idrovo is helping the farmers of the Ecuadorian high plains enjoy improved and sustainable livelihoods by resurrecting pre-colonial agricultural methods and combining them with post-modern organic farming methods to reclaim drought-stricken and impoverished soils.

The New Idea

Jaime Idrovo believes that combining pre-colonial agricultural techniques with those of post-modern organic agriculture can help indigenous farmers economically and socially. Jaime's twenty years of archeological experience convinced him that every society develops its technology from a vantage point that incorporates the natural environment and resource base, forms of social organization and economy and the common ideology and culture. Jaime's research demonstrates that the re-introduction of pre-colonial techniques for irrigation, terracing and cultivation can dramatically improve agricultural yields, especially when combined with the new "permaculture" methods now sweeping the world in the wake of the shipwreck of high-input "modern" agriculture. The social benefits of Jaime's approach may be even more significant than the direct material benefits. By demonstrating the enduring wisdom of ancestral knowledge, the long-oppressed and culturally-demeaned indigenous farmer of the Andes can see how the practices of his or her ancestors are more effective than those of the modern system."Without recovering its identity, no people can march along their own path, nor satisfy their aspirations of justice and equity, in harmonic development with nature," says Jaime. Thus, his approach emphasizes that the community must lead each phase of the program, which always begins a systematic inquiry into the cultural-historical context of the technology in the area.

The Problem

Throughout South America's Andean Region (stretching from Venezuela to Chile), erosion, loss of soil fertility and declining agricultural productivity have led to increasing poverty, malnutrition and health problems and loss of cultural identity and traditions. As even subsistence livelihoods on the land become impossible, many migrate to the cities in search of work, swelling the armies of the under-employed and alienated. Unsustainable and unsuitable agricultural practices and technologies are a contributing cause of diminished agricultural productivity in the altiplano. The more highland farmers become dependent on petrochemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, and on genetically-altered seeds, the poorer and more indebted they become and the more they seek desperate short-term solutions. Soils suitable for agriculture become more and more depleted of nutrients. Technical solutions proposed by national and international organizations and by the government have failed the indigenous highland farmer. Among other problems, these outside technical solutions take little account of social conditions, culture, the natural environment and historical practices and technology.Despite the fact that they constitute 45 percent of the population, the culture and traditions of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, as elsewhere in the Andes, are little-respected, recognized, or appreciated by mainstream society. Mainstream society has foisted culturally-alien land ownership patterns and agricultural technologies on indigenous peoples, provoking a cultural identity crisis as well as instilling economic and social decline among indigenous and rural peoples.

The Strategy

Jaime's strategy for improving altiplano farm practices utilizes model projects to encourage indigenous peoples and small farmers to adopt his synthesis of pre-colonial and post-modern agricultural techniques. Working independently, or under an organizational umbrella provided by local farm organizations, Jaime has established working models of traditional terraces, consolidated and repaired ancient irrigation systems and recovered soils using organic composting and the varied cultivation of soils instead of burning. Jaime finds that this process helps capture the indigenous and farm worker organizations' interest, since they see economic as well as cultural benefits. Jaime's strategy stems from his original demonstration projects in the southern provinces of Azuay and Cañar. Working with local community and farmer organizations, he organized a community research and production group to formulate and implement a community agricultural development plan. Jaime used his archeological expertise to determine the region-specific historical context and pre-colonial agricultural techniques used, as well as locate abandoned works that could be restored. This information, and relevant experiences from other Andean communities that have preserved traditional agricultural production methods, were presented to the local community, which decided on specific soil restoration proposals and participated in the agricultural systems that incorporated ancient techniques. Each community established a system to collect money for the community projects such that each individual and family earned enough for their subsistence. Jaime is now applying his techniques in 26 communities in the southern province of Loja at the request of a regional indigenous organization.In the next phase of his project, Jaime will establish demonstration models in the central and northern zones. The results, he believes, will help him formulate an generic approach that can be applied anywhere in the Ecuadorian or Andean altiplano. Each project, of course, must take into account specific geographic, social and cultural constants and variables. Jaime is also planning to establish a farm-worker's university and a communication network to collect, collate, analyze and share information relating to his synthesis of new and old agricultural production and soil restoration techniques. It will also serve as the institutional focal point for spreading the new-old agricultural method throughout the Andean region.

The Person

Despite his middle-class family origins, Jaime grew up in the Andean city of Cuenca identifying strongly with indigenous families who taught him to appreciate humanity and developed in him a profound knowledge and relationship with the natural environment. He continued this attachment at the state university in Cuenca, where he joined with young people from the rural areas. His deep immersion there in traditional cultures and traditions became a professional passion, and he earned a master's and doctorate in archeology at the Sorbonne in Paris.As an archaeologist, Jaime has excavated Ingapirca (one of the most important archeological sites in Ecuador), established museums and exhibits, restored Inca trails and numerous other archeological sites, organized educational expositions on ancient musical instruments and ceramics, given seminars, designed educational curricula and directed projects in the recovery of ancient agricultural techniques. Jaime has written numerous articles and books on pre-colonial Ecuadorian history and indigenous societies.Over more than twenty years, Jaime has been able to immerse himself in the study of past and present Andean society, analyzing its richness and its weaknesses and relating the past to a better future for indigenous people. In his synthesis of new and old agricultural methods, he has found the way to employ his archaeological expertise for the direct benefit of the descendants of the subjects of his excavations.