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Originally published December 26 2009

The season for sharing: Christmas brings gifts to the people of Vilcabamba, Ecuador

by Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, NaturalNews Editor

(NaturalNews) Christmas was in full swing in Vilcabamba, Ecuador this year, where numerous foreigners participated in widespread gift-giving. I took part in a half-day gift distribution effort where two local business men from Vilcabamba joined with two foreigners (myself and my friend Jim) to purchase and deliver gifts to families, children and senior citizens throughout the Vilcabamba region. Just our effort alone reached over a hundred people, and many foreigners contributed dollars to this effort. It was organized by the founders of a locally-owned Vilcabamba real estate company (

Our effort wasn't even the largest that took place this Christmas. Another resident couple of Hacienda San Joaquin took part in a 2-day gift distribution effort that brought food and other essentials to poor families throughout the Valley of Longevity.

I've published photos of some of the families and children we reached. View them on our photos page here:

Many of the children we were able to reach with our efforts have never received Christmas gifts, I was told. Most were living in conditions that North Americans would likely consider poverty, so our gift bags included essential food items (such as rice and beans) in addition to small toys and edible treats.

Doing our part

It meant a lot to me to have the opportunity to take part in this in Vilcabamba. The disparity of income is generally quite large between the locals and foreigners, and I believe that those who are blessed with greater financial abundance have a moral obligation to voluntarily share with others who are less fortunate. In fact, after distributing all the gifts we had purchased for this year, everyone in my group decided we needed to do something much larger next year. Because even though we handed out a large number of Christmas gift bags to smiling, friendly families, we ran out! We could have easily handed out 200 more Christmas gift bags without running out of people who could benefit from some assistance.

Then again, why wait for Christmas to help people in the first place? You don't need a holiday to lend a helping hand. That's why many of us foreigners living in Ecuador have taken steps to offer ongoing financial assistance (or food assistance) to those in need. My wife and I pay the electricity bill for a local organization that supports underprivileged children, for example, and from time to time we donate food from our garden to some of the families in town with the greatest need. Other residents of Vilcabamba (both foreigners and locals) offer other forms of support to local schools, families and foundations.

Even then, though, it's never really enough. And long-term assistance for any population really needs to come in the form of improved opportunities for education. In some cases, entrepreneurial micro-loans can also make a big difference to enhancing the economic opportunities for a local population. These are the areas where I hope to make a greater contribution in 2010 and beyond. After all, sharing food and gifts with people is both meaningful and important, but to contribute to a brighter future for any population, what you really need to do is open new doors of opportunity through support for education or entrepreneurship.

A wealth of medicine

I've put the word out, in fact, that I'm looking for ways to help connect farmers or gatherers of Ecuadorian herbs with potential buyers in the United States. I would really like to play a role in helping Ecuador realize the financial treasure it possesses solely in its medicinal herbs and superfoods. As much as Ecuador has oil and gold, I believe its greatest natural resource is its abundant collection of medicinal herbs (and the indigenous knowledge of how to use them). As the Amazon Herb Company has done in Peru -- showing indigenous tribes how to make more money by keeping their forests alive than cutting them down -- I'm looking to help support this idea in Ecuador as well.

Until then, myself and many other people in Vilcabamba -- both the locals and foreigners -- will continue to directly assist people in ways that are immediately available: Food, clothing, job opportunities and more. And beyond that, simply interacting with local poor people with an attitude of respect and humility is one of the greatest gifts that anyone can bestow upon another.

Today I met a 99-year-old woman, and I was awed by her presence. She walked with the help of a cane, and she couldn't have been over four feet tall. But as she lumbered towards us, I took great delight in noticing the elaborate colorful dress that adorned her small body. She was dressed in the traditional clothing of the local indigenous people (Indians), and I was told that she was one of the very first indigenous persons to ever come to Vilcabamba.

To reach an age of 99 years old and still have to presence of mind to dress up in a celebration of life is remarkable for any person in any culture, in any country. She recorded in the lines on her face a deep history of the struggle of life over the last century -- a time when neither roads nor electricity existed in most of Southern Ecuador. Life was simple, rugged and natural. People walked several hours a day, worked their farms and fields, and ate all their meals from local foods. It's a way of life that's fast receding in Ecuador as technology and processed foods make their presence increasingly felt.

I got a gift, too!

I didn't expect any gifts for myself on this day, but I was pleasantly surprised to find one appearing right in front of me anyway.

At one point, as we were distributing gifts out of the back of my pickup truck, I suddenly found myself facing a tall bush full of small yellow berries. As someone who pays special attention to wild foods, I immediately knew I had never seen these particular berries before. Yet here, in this region outside of town, they appeared to be quite common.

"What are these berries?" I asked in Spanish. A woman told me they were "Pico Pico" berries, and the local children would eat them from time to time.

I had never heard of Pico Pico berries. They were small, spherical and growing on a large bush in clusters of a dozen berries or so. I tasted one and found it to be rich like goji berries, but not too sweet. Very potent nutrients in the skin. They reminded me of the uvillas (wild gooseberries) I discovered growing like weeds on my property one day. Except these Pico Pico berries had no thorns!

I asked if I could take a branch of berries with me (for their seeds, of course) and was told no problem. So I snapped off a branch, put the seeds in the truck and brought them to my farm where they will now be dried and sowed in the soil.

To me, this was one of the greatest gifts I could possibly receive on Christmas -- a new type of berry to add to the complement of five berries already growing on my farm.

This is how mutual exchanges should really work: Each party gives something to the other, and they both benefit. With the help of my friends, we were able to give the locals some food, toys and Christmas treats. And in return, we received a new type of berry seed -- a type I had never seen (or tasted) before, and one that would now have a permanent place in my garden.

I think I'll call them "Pico Pico Christmas berries."

P.S. In no way do I mean to take too much credit for the gift-giving efforts around Vilcabamba this Christmas. There are many people who did more than I in terms of effort and scope. I only played a small part in the larger spirit of sharing this Christmas season, and I plan to do much more next year! Vilcabamba has a wonderul Christmas spirit!

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