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

August 28, 1992

Air Date: August 28, 1992


Mayan Farmers Defend Slash and Burn / Matt Binder

Matt Binder reports from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the efforts of some Mayan farmers to preserve their centuries-old method of rotating, slash-and-burn agriculture. The Mexican government wants to convert much of the Yucatan jungle into conventional modern cropland, but the Maya say their traditional method serves their needs better while protecting the forest. (06:09)

Ancient Andean Agriculture Revived / Bruce Gellerman

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. (15:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: David Wright, Mike Shatz, Matthew Binder, Bruce Gellerman

(Theme music open)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up, fade under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Growing enough food to support more and more people without destroying the environment -- that's the new challenge for farmers worldwide. In some places, the past may hold the key to the sustainable agriculture of the future. In Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, some say the old ways are better than the new.

CALLAGHAN: The Milpa form of agriculture still is the most efficient, time-proven method of agriculture.

CURWOOD: And in Bolivia, a long-lost farming method brings new hope to the Andes.

KOLATA: They're excited. They've never planted down here in this plain before. They never believed anything could grow down here, and now they see that these big, fat papas are coming out of the ground, these potatoes.

CURWOOD: Creating a sustainable future in Latin America, by learning from the past . . . on this week's edition of Living on Earth. First, this news roundup.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Just days after a congressionally-commissioned report found the country's national parks are poorly equipped to deal with increased use and rising pollution, a report by a watchdog group has charged that political pressure is threatening the very existence of the parks. The National Parks and Conservation Association says the National Park Service's mission has been compromised by pressure from business interests and government officials, including Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan. A Park Service spokesman says politics does influence the agency's work. . .but no more than any other federal agency.

Severe storm damage caused by Hurricane Andrew has led some conservationists to renew calls for reform in the Federal Flood Insurance Program. David Wright of member station WBUR reports.

WRIGHT: Right after the storm, federal officials estimated Hurricane Andrew caused no more than 200 million dollars in damage to homes insured under the Federal Flood Insurance Program. If that's true, the program should be able to cover all claims. But some conservationists say the price tag is likely to be much higher, and that it could possibly bankrupt the program. Beth Millemann of the Coast Alliance says flood insurance encourages coastal development, and exposes the taxpayers to liability.

MILLEMANN: Flood insurance isn't the only reason people build on the coast. However, it is a financial safety net for people who build a home in an area that they know is likely to be hit by a hurricane, or flooded. These dangers are not hidden dangers.

WRIGHT: The Senate is now considering a bill to make flood insurance tougher to get in flood-prone areas. The House has already passed a similar measure. For Living on Earth, this is David Wright.

NUNLEY: A US Labor Department report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act says harassment of inspectors on the Alaska oil pipeline may have been going on for several years. But the department has ruled that the recent dismissals of five pipeline inspectors did not violate whistleblowing protection statutes. The five say they were forced out because they wouldn't cover up environmental health and safety violations. But investigator Gordon Wilson says the agency wasn't able to meet the burden of proof required in that case.

WILSON: We have to be able to show that they were discriminated, harassed, intimidated or whatever, because of their whistleblowing activities. And some of these things that came about were not covered under the protected laws.

NUNLEY: The pipeline inspectors were charged with monitoring compliance with environmental and other laws. The Labor Department found that by writing unfavorable reports, the investigators "were not considered to be team players" in the eyes of their superiors.

Recycling is up, but it's still barely making a dent in America's trash pile. The latest EPA report shows that, while recycling of household garbage rose ten percent in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990, the amount of trash headed for landfills and incinerators rose fifty percent during the same period. Sixty percent of the garbage comes from residential consumers, and more than half of the stuff is paper and plastics.

This is Living on Earth.

A ton of the world's most poisonous radioactive materials will soon be crossing the high seas. A Japanese freighter is heading back to France to pick up a shipment of plutonium for use in its nuclear power program. Mike Shatz reports from Tokyo.

SHATZ: The shipment is the first from France since 1984, and Japan plans to import 30 tons of plutonium over the next twenty years. Critics are worried the ship could have an accident or be attacked by terrorists. The plutonium on board can produce 120 nuclear warheads. They also argue that Japan no longer needs plutonium, since uranium is cheaper and more difficult to convert into weapons use. But the government says its $160 million dollar escort ship will provide adequate armed protection for the cargo vessel. The government also contends that plutonium will prove cost-effective over the long term for Japan's nuclear power industry, which already supplies 30 percent of the nation's electric power needs. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: Researchers at Brigham Young University say a key to fighting AIDS may be growing in the Samoan rainforest. The scientists say a substance derived from a Samoan tree protects human cells from the AIDS virus in a test tube. Botanist Paul Cox says Samoan healers use the wood extract to treat yellow fever.

COX: Regardless of whether it makes it as a drug or not, it vindicates the entire approach of looking at the knowledge of indigenous people to discover new drugs. Secondly, I think it again demonstrates the necessity of preserving tropical rainforest.

NUNLEY: Cox cautions that the substance may still prove to be unsafe or ineffective. The drug is in early trials at the National Cancer Institute.

A new line of personal computers will soon be on the market which will "go to sleep" when not in use. The "sleep" mode could save up to a billion dollars of electricity a year. The "sleep" feature was developed under the EPA's energy efficiency program. The new PC's will also cut air conditioning costs, because they'll emit less heat than current models.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Mayan Farmers Defend Slash and Burn

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

In the struggle to feed booming populations and attract export income, developing countries have increasingly turned to large-scale, mechanized farming. In many cases, yields have gone up, but often at a cost -- to the soil, to water supplies, to wildlife, and to the social fabric.

Now, in the search for what's become known as sustainable agriculture, many agronomists, ecologists, and farmers are looking to old farming methods. Born of the particular ecology of a particular region, these can sometimes be more productive, and less damaging, than modern techniques.

But not everyone agrees. In Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the government wants Mayan farmers to switch from traditional jungle farming to modern cash crops. But the old ways are dying hard, and according to researchers, with good reason. Matt Binder reports.

(Fade up crickets)

BINDER: Things have remained pretty much the same in the remote parts of the Yucatan, since the time of the great Mayan civilization. The jungle is just as impenetrable; the low growl of jaguar and howler monkeys just as disturbing. For the people here, life doesn't appear to have changed much either. The local farmers still speak the Mayan language, and most of them still use ancient Mayan agricultural techniques. But in some parts of the Yucatan, the past is starting to give way to the present.

(Sound of chainsaw)

The Mexican Government wants higher yields from the region to feed the booming tourist industry centered in Cancun. So they're clear-cutting forests all over the Yucatan to encourage mechanized farming. The Mayan farmers are hopeful that the new methods will bring prosperity, but so far, they say, things have gotten worse rather than better.

Fernando Cancowo is the comisario , or leader, of a small village in northwestern Yucatan, near where the government recently clear-cut three square miles of forest.

CANCOWO (translated): Before the deforestation, we could go out and find animals to hunt, just a hundred meters away from the village. Peccaries, wild turkeys, deer -- now to find meat we have to go miles away. Firewood and wood for building houses is harder to get too. And so are wild fruits. I also think the cutting down of the forest has changed the weather, because there's now less rain here than there was before.

BINDER: Before the government tractors and chainsaws came, farmers in the Yucatan used the ancient Mayan agricultural technique called milpa farming. It's a type of slash-and-burn agriculture that was suited to the climate and poor soil conditions of the area. To make a milpa, a farmer cuts down all the useless trees and brush on a plot of land, lets it dry, and sets in on fire on a windy day.

The fast-burning fire doesn't kill the trees that are left standing, and the fire's ash adds nutrients to the soil. The farmer uses this field for two years, then lets it lie fallow for ten years to regain its fertility. The milpa technique leaves most of the forest around the village intact. The land that is cleared is highly productive while it's farmed. The ancient Maya used milpa to feed a highly developed civilization with a population almost four times as large as the present-day Yucatan. James Callaghan is an archaeologist who grew up in the Yucatan, and is now the director of the Institute of Mayan Culture at the University of Mayab in Merida.

CALLAGHAN: Here in the peninsula, the milpa form of agriculture still is to a great extent the most efficient, time-proven method of agriculture that has provided for the Maya for many centuries.

BINDER: But the Mexican government has less faith than Callaghan in the old methods, and they're encouraging a switch from subsistence to export farming. Guillermo Ramos is an agricultural counselor to the Mexican government.

RAMOS: You have to modernize it, you have to adapt your production to the present conditions of the market, and allow these people to participate in this system and obtain a higher income and live better, with all their needs satisfied, you know?

BINDER: But mechanized farming would require cutting down most of the trees surrounding the village, and Kathleen Truman, an anthropologist and the director of the Maya Sustainability Project in Merida, says the forest already meets most of the Mayas' needs.

TRUMAN: The forest, in fact, is more like a supermarket, a shopping mall, in which he can go out and get materials to build his house, he can get animal resources, animal protein, medicinal plants, ornamentals -- all kinds of resources that are not available if the forest is completely cleared away.

BINDER: Kathleen Truman believes that the ancient milpa system, honed over centuries of experience, is still the best agricultural option for the Maya, and for the ecology of the Yucatan, although she does think the Mexican government could help improve productivity by providing such things as modern seed stocks. Fernando Cancowo meanwhile says he's open to whatever techniques work, although no one's shown him anything yet that works better than the milpa of his forefathers.

CANCOWO (translated): My grandfather died recently. He was 113 years old. His death made me realize my identity as a Mayan and what that means. I like to do things the modern way, but there's always problems. I think I'll continue to farm my grandfather's way until I see something better for my village.

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.

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(Cricket sound up and fade out under host)

Ancient Andean Agriculture Revived

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.

Back to top

(music up and fade out under host)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth.

Let us know what you think about this week's program. Our address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass. 02238. Or you can call our listener comment line at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454.

(Music up and under)

Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. George Homsy is the coordinating producer. The director is Deborah Stavro. The production team this week included Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and engineers Kurt Lachowin and Jim St. Louis. Our reports from Mexico and Bolivia were mixed by Liz Dunn. Bruce Gellerman's trip to Bolivia was organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science, and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aaron. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up)


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