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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ancient Andean Agriculture Revived

Air Date: Week of

Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR reports from Bolivia on the rediscovery and revival of an ingenious irrigation system once used in the high Andean plain known as the Altiplano. The system helped support a population of 250,000 in an area where only a tenth as many have been able to scratch out a living in recent centuries. Gellerman reports on the successful first harvest under the revived system.


CURWOOD: In the high Andean plain of Bolivia -- the Altiplano -- twenty thousand subsistence farmers scratch a meager living from soil-poor lands, plagued by harsh conditions and killing frosts. But a thousand years ago, the area supported a powerful empire of ten times as many people.

Until recently, the reasons for the empire's success -- and sudden disappearance -- were a mystery. Now an American anthropologist believes he's uncovered those secrets, and as a result is trying to reintroduce a long-lost farming method to today's Indians. Bruce Gellerman recently travelled to Bolivia, and has this report.

GELLERMAN: We set out from La Paz. At twelve thousand feet, it's the highest capital in the world. In the distance, like a watermark in the sky, the magical snowcapped Mount Illimani. Only twenty minutes out of town, and already we've run out of paved road. The Land Rover's tires grip the rutted red clay, as our driver kicks in the four-wheel drive. We're headed north, to the Altiplano, a series of three valleys high up in the Andes. At this altitude, even with the bright sun, it's chilly. Professor Alan Kolata is our guide. He's an archaeologist and anthropologist from the University of Chicago, and he's been coming to the vast emptiness of the Altiplano for 13 years. Kolata points out the window to what at first glance looks like just an endless expanse of scruffy land.

KOLATA: Interestingly enough, the fields you see on the surface, the preserved fields you see on the surface, is only the uppermost layer of fields. When we excavate these things down about two meters, we find ancient fields buried under the ones that are on the surface.

GELLERMAN: We pass mud-thatched huts, an occasional llama and burro. This forty-square-mile flatland is home to the Aymara Indians. These are their beasts of burden, and their fields. The Altiplano Aymara are literally dirt-poor farmers; the soil is marshy; the aquifer from nearby Lake Titicaca is just a few feet below the surface. So the Aymara farmers plant their fields of potatoes, beets and onions on top of the occasional hill. Dry farming, is what they call it. But Kolata believes the landscape here wasn't always this barren. He's excavated what was once the Tiwanaku empire. Here the Aymaras' ancestors created a powerful pre-Inca society that stretched from Peru to Argentina. For a thousand years, they thrived. Then suddenly, they virtually disappeared. The Tiwanaku empire, once a quarter-million strong, disintegrated. By inspecting soil samples, Kolata thinks he knows why.

KOLATA: What do we find? Well, we found about somewhere in the core between about 950 AD and about 1100 AD, it looks as if -- again, this is speculative, you know scientists are conservative -- looks as if there was a major drought here, about six, seven decade long drought.

GELLERMAN: We stop and climb a small hill, and look out on what, a thousand years ago, were fields rich with crops. 250 thousand people who hadn't yet even discovered the wheel had made this a vast breadbasket. Now this barren landscape produces barely enough for 20 thousand Aymara Indians to survive. For a thousand years, the Aymaras' success remained a secret, until archaeologist Kolata began excavating. From our hilltop, he points to the fields below. When you dig them out, you find they were once raised three to five feet above the ground. That was the secret of Tiwanaku's success.

KOLATA: See the squiggles, see the corrugation, see the change in color -- light green, dark green, light green, dark -- it looks like a calamina. These are actually 950 AD, mas o menos, more or less, 950 to 1000 AD. In other words --
GELLERMAN: What did these people think when they saw them?
KOLATA: Well, we asked them, and they didn't think they were fields. They said things like, "Nuestros abuelos y bisabuelos nunca sembrado aqui," basically saying our ancestors never could have planted here, our grandfathers couldn't plant here, 'cause it's too marshy, everything would rot. So they only used this plain principally for pastures, as you see.

GELLERMAN: A few Zebu cows grazed below on the ridged plain, a distinctive pattern neatly laid out. Cobblestone, clay, gravel and topsoil fields raised above the marsh for drainage. From the side they look like the cross-section of a lasagna. The exact layering of soil, gravel and clay helps to prevent the buildup of crop-killing salt that leaches into the ground. Cutting across the raised fields at 15-foot intervals, the ancient Aymara built canals --five-foot wide trenches precisely oriented toward the sun -- that they filled with groundwater. The Altiplano is two miles above sea level. Frost is the biggest threat to crops. These days, ninety percent of the harvest can be lost to the cold. But the ancient Indian farmers' ingenious canal system solved the problem.

KOLATA: The canals act as a sort of solar sump, if you will, or a giant experiment in solar heating. Basically those canals soak up the heat during the day. In the evening, you'll see that the heat that is stored in those canals radiates out over the fields' surface, raising the ambient temperature, the temperature in the foliage where the crops are growing, as much as two to three degrees Celsius, which is . . .
GELLERMAN: And that's enough to prevent the frost?
KOLATA: . . . more than enough to prevent the frost.

GELLERMAN: Kolata was sure the old raised-field canal system would work to alleviate some of the poverty of today's Aymara farmers. But convincing them to experiment with their already tenuous livelihood proved nearly impossible. The Indians castrated one of the first farmers to try the new-old method. But then Kolata promised to guarantee a harvest, even if their experimental fields failed. A few women agreed to try. That was four years ago, and it led to the discovery of a second secret of the Tiwanaku canals.

KOLATA: In those canals you have basically a fertilizer factory. That's what's going on, it's basically fixing nitrogen from these plants; that nitrogen is floating down into the sediments in the canals, and then what we do is at the end of the growing season we cut off the water, the water dries out in the canals, and we have wonderful organic muck -- green manure, essentially -- and we scrape that out, resurface the field, and what you have is a continuous production of fertilizer. You don't have to buy it, it's made by nature, so it's obviously wonderful for these people, 'cause they can't afford it, they don't have the capital to buy chemical fertilizers. Also it addresses the problem of environmental damage. This kind of natural green manure, organic muck, whatever you want to call it, is obviously much better environmentally for the whole watershed than tons of chemical fertilizers.
GELLERMAN: How did farmers 2000 years ago figure out something this highly complex and technical?
KOLATA: These boys really were empirical scientists.

GELLERMAN: "El Doctor" is what they call Kolata in the small town of Champigrande, a gathering of a few adobe huts at the end of the road. They grow sheep and guinea pigs that they cook in dung-burning mud ovens. The land looks out forever. The people of Champigrande have been waiting for us. This is their first harvest using what they call the suka kollus, raised field method. Their ancestors may have been scientists, but these descendants sure know how to party.

(Natural sound: celebration)

We're pulled out of our truck and surrounded by a blur of color: women wearing their traditional festive dress, bolleras, flowing red skirts and white blouses, long double black braids sticking out from under felt bowler hats that they believe make them fertile. On their backs they wear rainbow-colored shawls used for carrying everything from babies to furniture. The men, forming a marching band of reed flutes and snare drums, wear chulos, Indian knit caps with Snoopy-like ear flaps. On their hips, woven coca bags, a convenient place to stash the narcotic leaves which everyone chews. Around and around we dance and dance. The Aymaras, short and squat, are built for the altitude and thin air. Gringos take steps that are too big, and tire quickly.

GELLERMAN: Alan, are you exhausted?
KOLATA : Not yet, but I'm about to fall down soon. Unbelievable. I once did this for four hours almost non-stop. I nearly died.

(Natural sound up and fade)

GELLERMAN: We gather in a circle. The Spanish conquistadors were heavy-handed spreaders of the Christian gospel. But ancient rites continue to be practiced. The village shaman, the yatiri, 70 years old, taller than the other villagers and dignified despite a toothless smile, prepares a pago . Into tissue-thin paper he places coca leaves, colored yarn and sugar candies, cigarettes and santos, small saint figurines, and a dried llama fetus -- a ritual offering to Mother Earth, Pacha Mama.

Alcohol and maize wine are poured on the wrapped pago , and we march to experimental raised fields. The pago is set afire and dropped to the ground. Then the shaman takes a papa , a swollen and pockmarked potato, and scoops out the eyes.

KOLATA: The eyes are, as you might expect, they think of the eyes as eyes, like we do, you know, the whole metaphor is there, and so it is an opening up, an opening up of the potato, an opening up to fertilization. And so the poker goes in there and then you saw they poured alcohol down in there, so it's like feeding the potato, and the potato's the metaphor for earth, for Pacha Mama, for the earth that sustains. So it's a cyclical thing, you take from the earth, you have to give something back.

GELLERMAN: Meanwhile the women prepare a feast.

KOLATA: This is the atapi or the communal meal, in other words, everyone from the community brings something that they have, and you celebrate a communal meal, so you get to eat as much as you want. They bring in abas here, you see beans, the dark stuff is chuno, the whiter stuff is tunta, later they're going to have most likely some cheese, some eggs, and some quichpena, which is a kind of quinoa bread. So they lay out these long textiles and the whole community will sit down on both sides facing each other and they'll eat together.

GELLERMAN: Champigrande is one of 26 Aymara communities anthropologist Alan Kolata is trying to reintroduce to the ancient raised field technology. Its success could have broad social implications. If the method works, it could reverse a trend that threatens the Aymara culture. Poor harvests in recent years have driven men from the Altiplano to the fertile Yungas in Chapari Valley, to the south and to the east, where coca is grown and turned into cocaine.

KOLATA: The women stay on the land though, and the children are here. The men will commute back sometimes. There are only like 20 or 30 men in this community and about 50 or 60 women, so it's almost like a 2 to 1 ratio, which is quite interesting. But again it varies from community to community, there are no rules about what happens, but outmigration is a big problem.

(Flute music up and fade under)

GELLERMAN: Soon, time for more dancing -- lots more dancing -- an Aymara man wants to talk into a pooped reporter's microphone.

AYMARA MAN (translated): In this community of Champigrande, we're trying to realize a pilot program which will help the whole community where about 80 people live. We're skeptical of new things, but we're very confident and willing to work with the project. Hopefully in the future we'll be able to grow many different crops. Many thanks. This has been your friend from Champigrande, from the province of Abar.

GELLERMAN: Again we parade to the fields. The usually reticent Aymara are grabbing each other, and the norteamericanos, in a whirling-dervish dance.

KOLATA: Here we're beginning the harvest. It's always a happy time. That's why we have this picking up people, looks like they're drawing and quartering them , it's called arrozca de la papa, and they spin you around and they dump you in the fields, so it's a happy time. So here we're harvesting for the first time potatoes in Champigrande, and they're excited. They've never planted down here in this plain before. They never believed, as one of the dirigentes, the leaders said, never believed that anything could grow down here and now they see that these big fat papas are coming out of the ground, these potatoes.

GELLERMAN: Women and men dig the experimental raised fields with short-handled axes. Onions, beets and potatoes -- reluctant at first, this year the campesinos of Champigrande have planted just a few modest acres, using the experimental raised-field method. But Kolata expects the acreage will double next year, and predicts that by the end of the decade the ancient Aymara technology will spread to much of Central and South America. The process has already begun.

KOLATA: While individual little fields from time to time just sort of pop up here and there. What those represent are individual families, who are doing it on their own. The technology is escaping. It's no longer under control, so the genie's out of the bottle.
AYMARA MAN: Veinte-dos, veinte-tres, veinte-quatro. . .
GELLERMAN: What are you counting there?
KOLATA: Number of potatoes from an individual potato plant. We've got thirty-one right now.
GELLERMAN: Is that good?
KOLATA: That's great.
GELLERMAN: How many ordinarily, do you know?
KOLATA: Que es los normal, papas, porqueses treinta y dos, que se da en plantas normales . . .
AYMARA MAN: En plantas normales, siempre veinte, quince o veinte.
KOLATA: Quince o veinte, nada mas, fifteen or twenty. Here we're getting thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-five, so we're in some cases doubling it. So we get more, they're better quality, and in some cases they're larger. These aren't particularly large.
GELLERMAN: This is all because of their using a method of farming that's over 2000 years old?
KOLATA: Exactly, and the best part of it is that it's these peoples' own technology. That's the most ironic part of it, it's their own. They developed it 2000 years ago, it was lost 800 years ago, now it's coming back to life. And they look pleased, don't they? (Laughs)

GELLERMAN: And archaeologist/anthropologist Alan Kolata is swept away. The music echoing off the distant Andes, lingering as the people of Champigrande, Bolivia dance in the clear early evening chill of the Altiplano.

For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.



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