Ecuador is in the midst of recovery after an April earthquake killed over 660 people. Little Rock-based Heifer International has been working with farmers and fishing families in the region just outside the earthquake's epicenter for decades.
Oscar Castañeda, Vice President of the Americas with Heifer, spoke with KUAR's Jacob Kauffman about the path of recovery efforts.
Kauffman: Before we get into the state of disaster recovery and what you’re facing today tell us a little about the people you work with in Ecuador and your mission there before the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit.
Castañeda: Heifer International has been working Ecuador over the past 40 to 50 years. The main contribution is working with families and communities to end hunger and poverty by taking care of the Earth. That means everything we do is very much connected to those families in those areas. The main reason we are there is because we believe these families will have the power to end poverty and hunger in our lifetime.
Kauffman: How has your work in Ecuador shifted since the earthquake? What sort of recovery and immediate relief efforts is the organization involved with today?
Castañeda: The main focus of our work has been to work with those communities that we have had long standing relationships with. What happened in Ecuador in April ’16 after the earthquake is that many families woke up without a house. Most families have lost family members or friends and the environment has been completely destroyed. An additional problem was that roads that would help them have access to food and additional support were also destroyed. Heifer responded right away with immediate actions to provide food, water, and cleaning supplies to 3,489 families.
Kauffman: It’s been over a month since the earthquake [after schocks of 6.7 magnitude were felt as late as May 18] but we’re just now getting full damage assessments. Just last week the government in Ecuador said reconstruction will cost $3.3 billion and take nearly a point off their GDP.
This extended hardship, over 30,000 people were displaced and 36,000 injured, how would you characterize the stage of recovery now? What do the next few months hold?
Castañeda: We believe the earthquake destroyed the social fabric. It not only destroyed the housing and the roads but it destroyed all these elements that connect people to people. For Heifer that was an important factor to take into account.
Of the first actions that we organized was to provide emotional counseling to those families because we believe the first step that needs to happen is families need to move from shock into action. The only way is to overcome this overwhelming feeling that you cannot do anything. We work in partnership with local organizations to provide counseling to 3,000 families and we put a lot of emphasis on children.
The other factor is that if we depend on food provided from outside then there is no way that the social fabric can be rebuilt. What Heifer has done is work especially with women so they can bring in food to the communities, cook in these shelters, and by doing that we are connecting locally sourced foods with locally processed food that can have the additional benefit of creating a small business. It’s building the economy from the bottom up and partnering with the government that is providing additional resources from the top down. Ideally we can meet in the middle.
The other action that we believe is important is connecting social organizations, that all the local members are represented, and that the resources the government is going to bring about will be provided to those families that are in the most need.
Kauffman: Rebuilding a social fabric is certainly an unimaginably hard task to do, impossible to perfectly replicate what existed before…you’ve mentioned some of these things, but if you had to look at the needs of the body instead of the mind like housing, producing food rather than getting it from elsewhere, how long will those sort of missions take for the community?
Castañeda: The immediate action needs to happen right away. We began two hours after the earthquake in conversations with my colleagues in Ecuador, we were already discussing what next actions should be. But rebuilding those communities where there are not jobs right now, the buildings were destroyed, the houses were destroyed? There is not money to pay for all the jobs that are needed.
We are committed to work in the near for the next three years and extend it to five years and our focus is going to be working with women to develop local business to provide food in these different places and working with co-ops in an economic and ecological recovery.
We are not a housing or building organization but we are teaming up with others that are going to do that. Heifer’s contribution is to provide all these social organizations that support contributions coming in from the outside. Those are the elements of the recovery plan for the midterm. The long term is to reconnect those producers to the value chain that Heifer has supported in the past
Kauffman: Oscar Castañeda, Heifer International’s Vice President for the Americas, thanks for your time
Castañeda: Thank you very much and I’ll keep you posted.