Emma Kirwan is a climber and mountaineer with a passion for food, which ignited her passion for working with farmers in developing countries to improve the food sources for local communities. This lead her to start Peaks Over Poverty, an organization that raises money for grassroots organizations dedicated to helping rural mountain farmers overcome poverty, adapt to climate change, and protect their environment.
Love+Water- Where did the concept for Peaks Over Poverty stem from?
Emma Kirwan- Since 2002 I’ve been studying local food systems, which in part comes from my history of growing up with an Italian mother and eating everything made from scratch! I’m also a climber and a mountaineer. Traveling to the Andes to do research in 2007 was the first time I had the opportunity to see how those two interests really connected. When hiking in developing countries, you have the opportunity to see how food is grown and dealt with because you go through trails that intersect with farmlands. I ended up working with farmers in highland communities, as well as hiking in the mountains, and eventually the two became inseparable. Peaks Over Poverty was born out of this experience.
L+W- What is the model for Peaks Over Poverty?
EK- In 2007 I was specifically studying a local food movement in the Andes where a group of families in urban centers were buying their food at a big outdoor market, which helped them save money because they were buying in bulk and splitting it up between the families. They were also eating fresh food as opposed to rice or potatoes. As these families started to save money they started to think about where the food actually came from. So they mobilized themselves to go to the farms to see how their food was grown, which also got them out of their urban environment for the first time. My research started from this urban viewpoint but then shifted to working with the farmers to help them find ways to connect with this market. The organization I was working with at the time had a very specific kind of methodology for development, which is people-centered. So we didn’t bring in aid, but instead incorporated the strengths of the local community so they could implement traditional practices to lead a better life, as well as protect the environment. I started Peaks Over Poverty as a way to bring in new wealth to fund this type of development in mountain regions and around the world, piloting in Ecuador. We just launched in September of this year.
L+W- What is Peaks working on right now?
EK- I’ve spent the last year with my partner Steve Sherwood and others who have been contributing voluntarily to building the website and the content, as well as defining how we want to work and who our partners will be. I just went to Ecuador for two weeks in September with a good friend who has been volunteering with us. Our goal was to climb Volcano Cotopaxi, which is about 19,000 feet. Before we went we set up a blog and sent emails to our friends and family explaining that we wanted to support the mountain communities through our climb, and wanted to raise $1.00 for every foot that we climbed. The total hike was about 4,500 feet. My friend and I set our goals, and we both exceeded them, raising around $10,000, which was an incredible feeling. Now we’re moving into the networking phase and promotion, reaching out to universities. We want to get students involved who want to travel to Ecuador.
L+W- What are the ways in which people can get involved?
EK- There are two ways people can get involved. First, you can organize your own ‘climbathon’, which you can do anywhere. We’re working on assembling groups that can do this as a fundraising challenge together. Right now there is a group in Holland doing a run called The Seven Hills Run in order to raise money for Peaks Over Poverty. It’s the kind of model that requires motivated people and a motivated team, and is extremely fun and rewarding. We’d also like to connect youth with fundraising and take recreation to another level. Secondly, you can take pre-organized trips with our partner guiding company. People can sign up to go to Ecuador and participate in a hike as well as visit one of the mountain communities that we support. It’s more of an educational field trip where people learn from the farmers exactly what they’re doing to improve their lives. There is a flat fee for this, which includes everything, including a donation to the organization.
L+W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had so far?
EK- The most moving moment was on the summit of Cotopaxi three weeks ago. It’s a difficult climb because of the altitude. Reaching that summit after a week of climbing was an amazing feeling. It was a sensational, surreal experience. Following that day, we visited one of the communities we support, sat down with the farmers and talked with them. We had a very grounded conversation about where they live, what they eat and how they work and survive on a daily basis, and then they asked us the same questions. It brought everything full-circle, which was amazing.
L+W- Is there anything else we should know about Peaks Over Poverty?
EK- What makes Peaks Over Poverty unique is that we are trying to create an alternative paradigm for improving mountain regions around the world. My partner Steve has been working in Ecuador and in this kind of development for over 15 years, and our work is centered on fostering change that is sustainable. We’re committed to educating people to learn the tools they need to be in control of their own lives and improve the way they live. As a result, people are directly connecting their experiences with others around them, which helps protect their fragile environment.
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