Make people live off
the Land sustainably

Smallholder irrigation in northern Ecuador

Improving the economic performance of 435 smallholder families in the Central Andes of Ecuador, by rehabilitating a traditional irrigation system and strengthening the irrigation-user association

In partnership with the Association des Usagers du Canal Grande o de Caciques, the Institut de Recherches pour le Développement, the European Commission, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Irrigation paysanne dans le Nord de l'Equateur Image principale

The canton of Urcuquí (situated at an altitude between 2,300 and 2,800 meters, in the foothills of the Piñan mountains, in the northern region of the Ecuadorian Andes) has always been a rural zone: the vast majority of its inhabitants are either mixed-race or Indian smallholders who farm for a living. A study carried out by the Institut de Recherche et Développement (IRD) in the 1990s showed that the long tradition of irrigation in this canton is rooted in very strong disparities and inequalities regarding the access to and distribution of this resource. A total of 80% of the water resources used for irrigation are held by less than 20% of the population: the haciendas, or ”large estates.” The IRD’s study of the Canal Grande o de Caciques smallholder irrigation system also reveals that, within the system, the differences between the water-access rights held by the Caciques (descendants of the people who founded the canal in 1582) and those held by everyone else leads to a distribution of water among the 435 users that is not only socially questionable but, more importantly, that is not adapted to the needs of the crops (corn, beans, and fruit) grown in this rapidly expanding production system that is also well integrated into the market.

In 1994, the CICDA (now AVSF) and the IRD worked together to launch a project (the RIEGUS project) for the ”rehabilitation of the Urcuquí and San Blas irrigation systems.” The project’s main focus is ”managing water in a socially responsible way.” The objective is to reach a consensual agreement to reorganize the distribution of water among sectors and users (which has traditionally been a source of great conflict), increasing the frequency of irrigation to 15 days and making sure the allocation of water meets the needs of the crops. From 1998 to 2004, AVSF carried out complementary activities to support irrigated production, particularly having smallholder families experiment with crop diversification.

More than 17 years after its implementation, and 10 years after AVSF left the region, the infrastructure (rehabilitation of the main intake, sand-removal machine, canals, numerous distribution works, and sluice-gate fittings) is still operational today: everything is in good condition and is regularly maintained by the irrigators’ association (repainting the sluice gates, applying lubrication). The irrigation frequency (once every 15 days) is still respected, the irrigators’ association is still active and collects contributions from users to cover the regular upkeep and improvement of the irrigation system. Water fees are regularly increased to keep the operational and maintenance budget in balance. The implementation by the users of a new system for distributing irrigation water, which is still in use today, has made it possible not only to eliminate the major limiting factor for production (resulting in slightly higher yields for traditionally grown crops and the introduction of new crops with high added value such as tamarillo, avocado, and chili pepper) but also, most importantly, to re-homogenize irrigation fees (and thus access to water) between the different users of the system. With the average user having about 0.75 ha of irrigated land, the net value of additional production is estimated to be $1,200 per year for each family that uses irrigation.

Moreover, the strategies and methods used in this project have been capitalized and have spread extensively throughout Ecuador to other public and private actors involved in irrigation-water management. These strategies and methods have helped these approaches with regard to the ”socially responsible management of water” and the revalorization of smallholder irrigation to gain a following in Ecuador among national NGOs (CESA, IEDECA) and public entities.

This project is funded by the Commission Européenne [European Commission], the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ecuadorian-Canadian Development Fund.

Lire la fiche : "Les expériences innovantes d'AVSF : irrigation paysanne en Equateur" [CHECK OUT THIS ARTICLE: "INNOVATIVE AVSF EXPERIMENTS: SMALLHOLDER IRRIGATION IN ECUADOR"]