53-year-old Herminia Catucuamba is a kichwa cayambi woman, leader of the Urcu Sisa Artisanal and Commercial Union. She is one of the twenty women who collect mushrooms from pine forests surrounding the Pesillo community in Cayambe. This entrepreneurship began when Carlos Xavier Herran, Salesian priest, motivated the women of Pesillo to gather wild mushrooms that grew under the shade of the pine trees.
Herminia started working on this when she was 27 years old. At the beginning, 150 families participated on this project, and every family benefited from it. However, as years went by, women retired in significant numbers, leaving only 20 official stakeholders of the mushroom collection center. Herminia’s daughters currently work with her, with a will to continue their mother’s legacy.
To gather mushrooms you have to be prepared with buckets, knives, rubber boots, a protective mask, an apron and cleaning utensils. There is a specific time of year (November to March) that is suitable to collect mushrooms when rainfall levels increase in the Andean Corridor and mushrooms cover the forest grounds. During the summer instead, harvesting reduces by approx. 50-80 kilos due to the lack of rain. “If it doesn’t rain for 15 days, there is no harvest,” says Herminia.
Once the mushrooms are collected, they undergo a selection process where women pick the best mushrooms, which are later cleansed and left to dry for 3-4 days. Once dry, the women pack the mushrooms to be distributed to the Supermaxi market chain. The market’s pickup trucks carry 100 kilos of mushrooms from Pesillo to Quito. If there are orders for smaller amounts, the women take a bus to Quito to sell their product.
Pine tree mushrooms have become the primary source of income in the Pesillo area. With the support of the Artisanal Urcu Sisa Association, which has legal status since 1992, it was possible to sign an agreement with the Supermaxi chain to distribute this product throughout the country. The product is sold under the brand “Hongos Secos Cayambe” which has the green certification and meets the required sanitary permits.
Hermania dries the mushrooms as she confides in us about the immense responsibility that all women in the field share when it comes to harvesting wild products. Besides being their source of income, it is also their Earth they are working with, and they have to be respectful of mother nature.