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Miners’ stories September 17th, 2017 by

Robert Gerstmann was a German engineer and professional photographer who spent much of his time from 1925 to 1929, and later on, taking pictures of the tin mines of Bolivia. There were only three tin mining companies in Bolivia then, and two were owned by foreigners. Gerstmann worked mainly for Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, who was also from Germany. The mine owners were eager to show off their work. Tin had replaced silver as the target mineral in Bolivia around 1885, and during the First World War the need for metal for arms had revolutionized Andean mining.

By 1925 Bolivian mines were largely state of the art, with massive diesel motors to power the mills and long cable winches to lower miners down the deep shafts. The mines were modernized with foreign investment and management, and fantastic profits from the tin went into just a few hands.

Taking photographs in the early 20th century was a clumsy business. The cameras were heavy and could only take one photograph at a time, using delicate glass plates. Gertsmann had to use a tripod and estimate exposure by trial and error. He had to develop the plates himself and make prints in his own darkroom. He was also an innovator, and in the early days of electricity he had found a way to run a cable into the mine galleries to flood them with light.

Despite the technical challenges, a skilled photographer such as Gertsmann was able to capture rich and detailed pictures. The owners gave Gerstmann the run of the mines, where the 30-year old’s curiosity took him from the head offices, to the tidy storerooms, the engine rooms with their monster machinery, and into the deep mines.

Gertsmann spent most of the rest of his life in South America, until his death in Chile in 1964. Recently, a group of Bolivian and foreign social scientists discovered Gertsmann’s photographs, including over 5000 prints, some original plates and 30 minutes worth of movies. Anthropologist Pascale Absi and sociologist-historian Jorge Pavez were intrigued by the scenes Gerstmann had captured and have published a selection of them as a book.

Absi and Pavez went one step further. They showed the selected pictures to retired mine workers, who told the story behind Gerstmann’s photographs. He wrote little himself, mostly noting the names of managers and engineers who appeared in his pictures. Laborers were labelled by their job description, e.g. mine cart operator.

Explanations by the retired Bolivian workers brought the photos to life. Two men are shown selling canned sardines and other goods in the company store (pulpería), created to entice workers to stay on the job as labor became more valuable. An engineer with a theodolite is measuring the length of the mine gallery, to tell how far the mine has advanced.  One photo conveys action and hard work, as a mine worker is shown drilling at the rock face. Yet a crucial feature is missing. The retirees explained that the worker had to pose, otherwise the drill would have made so much dust that one would have been unable to see the worker, even under Gerstmann’s bright light.

In another picture, a worker is drenched with water. A colleague has doused him with a hose to cool him off. It was often unbearably hot inside the mine.  In a moon-like landscape of dust and rock, women huddle in the cold to sort ore from barren rock. The retired miners can tell where the women are from by their distinctive clothing. For example, a woman in a white hat with a distinctive black ribbon is from Cochabamba. She has come over 100 km to take this job as a palliri (the Quechua word for the women who select the ore).

Photographs are a powerful communication tool which not only tell a story, but help to unlock people’s memories. Although the Gerstmann photos were taken to pad the egos of the mine owners, the pictures also reveal the lives of ordinary people from a bygone world of dangerous work and low pay, when shifts could be as long as 48 hours, and when injured workers were simply dismissed with no compensation. Photographers don’t always write very much, and by themselves the pictures don’t tell the whole story. But Gerstmann’s innovative pictures, when narrated today by people who lived through the times he recorded, have given us a rich and lasting record of Bolivia’s mining past.

Technical note

The digital photographs you take today may tell your story later. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, Eric Boa taught me to label the pictures. I have labeled them ever since. The more text you include with your photos, the easier it will be for you and others to later read the story behind the picture.

Further reading

Absi, Pascale & Jorge Pavez (eds.) 2016 Imágenes de la Revolución Industrial: Robert Gerstmann en las Minas de Bolivia (1925-1936). La Paz: Plural Editores.

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Lazy farming September 3rd, 2017 by

In 1970, after studying Asian history and soil science at the University of California, 22-year-old Larry Korn boarded a ship bound for Japan. After travelling a bit he began working on farms, where he learned to speak Japanese and to love farming. A couple of years later, Mr. Korn heard about “natural farming” and a book, One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Mr. Korn travelled to Mr. Fukuoka’s small farm on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan, and spent the next two years working there and studying with Mr. Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was trained as a plant pathologist. He was the son of a village landlord who lost most of his farm during land reform after World War II. After working as a government customs inspector for a few years, Mr. Fukuoka decided to try to live a more natural life, and he returned to what was left of his family farm, just an acre and a quarter (5000 square meters) of rice fields. He was later able to buy 13 acres (5.2 hectares) of orange orchard.

Mr. Fukuoka began to question traditional Japanese agriculture, as practiced from about 1600 up to the late 1940s. Was it really necessary to weed, plow, fertilize and flood rice fields? Mr. Fukuoka experimented to see which of these practices could be skipped and eventually concluded that he could eliminate them all.

Instead, in the fall before harvesting the rice Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rye seed in one rice field and barley seed into another field of standing rice. He always kept white clover growing in these fields, to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. The rye and barley seeds would fall between the growing rice plants, among the clover and the weeds. When he harvested the rice, the rye and the barley plants would still be small, but would start to grow faster without the shade of the rice. After threshing the rice he would spread the straw back in the field as mulch, to keep the weeds down. The rye and barley would grow all winter, and a couple of weeks before harvesting them, Mr. Fukuoka would broadcast rice in the rye and barley, and after harvesting the rye and barley, the young rice plants would start to grow more vigorously. He harvested all his grain by hand, with sickles, with the help of family and students.

After two years of working on the farm, Larry Korn helped translate One-Straw Revolution to English, and found a publisher in the USA (Rodale Press). In 1979 Larry Korn hosted Mr. Fukuoka on his first trip to the USA, where he became a kind of celebrity, later making trips to India and other countries as well.

Forty years later, in 2015, Larry Korn treated the public to a delightful book about his experiences with Mr. Fukuoka.

Mr. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” was largely his own invention. It was not traditional Japanese agriculture which, to paraphrase Larry Korn, was lots of compost and lots of work. In his charming, self-effacing way, Mr. Fukuoka said that he was trying to avoid some of that work. He said that his style of agriculture could be called “lazy farming.” Even so, harvesting a grain field with sickles is a huge amount of work, especially since by the 1970s they could have used machinery. Larry Korn says that there were about five students on the Fukuoka Farm at any one time, and they were all working pretty hard. That is a lot of labor, actually, on such a small farm. But his rice yields were not bad, 5.9 tons per hectare, which was the average rice yield for Japan in 1979, according to Ricepedia.org. He was also building up the soil, forming a thick layer of rich, black earth, alive with earthworms.

I have made compost for nearly thirty years. I love the way it converts orange rinds, egg shells and old newspapers into rich, natural fertilizer. But as I was reading about natural farming, I realized that making compost really is a lot of work. At our house we usually cheat, and hire a day laborer to dig out the compost pit. We still make compost from kitchen scraps, but now we have started leaving the cut weeds in the garden as mulch, instead of tossing them into the compost pit. As soon as we started mulching we noticed that there was less weeding to do. And that is the mark of a good book: it gives you new ideas to think about.

Further reading

Korn, Larry 2015 One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green. 224 pp.

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The tyrant of the Andes August 20th, 2017 by

Near my home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, there is a park named after the most famous Viceroy of the Andes, Francisco de Toledo. A statue of the stern Viceroy frowns at passers-by, suggesting that Toledo was a tough administrator, but a recent history by Jeremy Mumford confirmed just how bad Toledo was for Andean farmers.

Francisco de Toledo was born in 1515 and was raised in the royal households of Spain. In 1565 King Phillip II appointed Toledo to be the Viceroy of Lima, to rule in the king’s name over a vast area that is now roughly the modern states of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Toledo’s instructions were to reform taxes, improve government and introduce the Spanish Inquisition to South America.

Before leaving Spain for his new post, Toledo read through reams of letters and reports from officials and travelers archived by the Spanish crown in Seville. He concluded that the main problems of the Andes were “drunkenness and idolatry.” Drunkenness was simply drinking low-alcohol, homemade maize beer (chicha); idolatry was observing rituals, including the prayers and offerings that farmers made at planting and harvest time.

Other Spanish writers had complained about indigenous drinking and the survival of pre-Hispanic spirituality. Toledo’s innovation was to decide that the best way to exterminate these humble pleasures was not with an inquisition (individual court cases), but with a “reducción general,” a general resettlement.

Prior to Toledo’s arrival, the Spanish had resettled indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, Mexico and Guatemala, but not in the Andes. Resettlement was a harsh and elegant idea. All native peoples were forced to settle into planned towns of about 2000 people, laid out with straight streets around a plaza with a church where the residents could receive Christian instruction. It was easier for colonial authorities to keep an eye on people if they were gathered into a town.

Toledo arrived in Lima in November, 1569, and left just 11 months later with a large entourage of officials for a five-year tour that would pass through Cusco, PotosĂ­, Chuquisaca, and Arequipa, in what is now the southern Andes of Peru, and highland Bolivia.

Although the crown was losing enthusiasm for native resettlement, Toledo pressed ahead, forcing Andean farmers to move from scattered villages to live in towns which were often a day’s walk or more from their fields. This made it hard to do the agricultural work that was the basis of the tribute that native people paid the Spanish.

Demanding a tribute was an old idea. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas had also taxed the local people, in goods and in forced labor, but the Incas had enough local knowledge to leave farm communities with enough food to survive. The Spanish lacked this intuition and tried to maintain tribute at high, fixed levels, even as the native population declined. The results were disastrous.

About 1.4 million Andean people were assigned houses in town and ordered to destroy their old homes. Toledo’s laws for resettlement show how he created new layers of bureaucracy to oversee resettlement. But few reports have survived on what actually happened on the ground.

It seems that many Andeans continued to live near their farms, with or without permission. Farmers might report to the town center just once a year for major festivals. Other native people resisted resettlement through the courts, appealing and often being granted the right to form satellite settlements nearer their fields.

In spite of resistance, resettlement meant that many small villages were indeed consolidated into fewer large towns. Famines and epidemics ensued, in part because the crowded towns spread disease and because after paying tribute, people starved on the meagre amounts of food left. As the population declined, many Andeans escaped their tribute obligations by leaving to find work in the cities or on Spanish haciendas (large farms). The people who were left behind had to work just that much harder.

A viceroy, literally “vice-king”, reigned like a monarch over distant American provinces, with the power to make laws, wage war, and sentence people to death. Communication with the Spanish crown was slow. Over the years, many wrote letters of complaint to the king. Some were justified, as when native peoples protested corrupt priests or the resettlement. Other complaints now seem laughable, as when the encomenderos (the heirs of the conquistadores) whined that Toledo had stripped them of their authority (but not their rents). Toledo himself eventually grew tired of ruling the Andes and begged Philip to replace him. Twelve years after Toledo arrived he sailed back to Spain in 1581, a figure so unpopular that the king refused to grant him a high office, the usual reward for a returning viceroy. Toledo retired to one of his estates, where he died alone.

Toledo was an unbending idealist determined to stamp out what comfort a conquered people could find in a drink and in ancestral rituals. According to Jeremy Mumford’s analysis, Toledo’s resettlement ranks as one of the earliest and grandest feats of modern rural social engineering, mirrored 400 years later by other miserable failures such as Julius Nyerere’s model villages in Tanzania, or the Soviet collective farms.

The resettlement also failed to achieve Toledo’s two main aims in the Andes: chicha is still popular and so are Andean rituals, at least in Bolivia, where burnt offerings to the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) are widely and openly practiced, even by the Hispanic middle class.

Agricultural policies must be drafted by pragmatists, not by idealists. And parks shouldn’t be named after tyrants.

Further reading

Mumford, Jeremy Ravi 2012 Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes. Durham: Duke University Press. 293 pp.

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Farmers produce electronic content August 6th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación 

Earlier in this blog we have told how smallholders in India and Kenya are using smartphones and tablets to surf the web for information. In Bolivia, some smallholders are not only accessing content on the web, but also using it to share their own observations and experiences.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa and Antolín Salazar are two quinoa farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, the astonishingly high plains at 3,700 meters, between the ranges of the Andes. At this altitude it can be difficult to grow even potatoes. Quinoa does well, if it rains, but the Andean rains are now coming later in the year, threatening a whole way of life on the high plains.

Bernabé and Antolín are part of a group of 98 expert farmers, called yapuchiris, who teach their neighbors techniques to adapt to the changing climate. In 2015 a Bolivian organization, Prosuco, formed a group on WhatsApp, an online social media platform that one can access from a cell phone. Ten yapuchiris from different parts of the Altiplano joined the group, and called it the Observer’s Network, dedicated to sharing information about the weather in their areas. Farmers in other parts of Bolivia, and a few non-farmers, have joined the network, so that it now has over 60 members.

In 2016 several farmers wrote in to tell how the drought was killing the harvest of nearly all the crops. But there is also encouraging information. Bernabé often reports on “indicators,” the name the group uses for signs that predict the weather in the near future. For example, when the foxes leave the plains to seek out warm cover in the hills, the night will be cold. This knowledge reminds farmers to double check that livestock are well sheltered.

nest of oven birdThe oven-bird makes a round, hard, covered nest. The birds seem to sense the coming wet weather and do their best to build a dry nest, so if the walls of the nest are especially strong and hard, it will be a wet year. Knowing this lets farmers know that they can plant even in somewhat dryer areas, and that they can start planting with the first good rains. Some of the users also upload satellite based weather predictions onto the Observers’ Network. At first I thought the yapuchiris might feel upstaged, and might stop uploading their own predictions, but they didn’t. The farmers are happy to see satellite images and bird nests alike. Information is appreciated no matter where it comes from.

The internet, inexpensive cell phones and user-friendly social media are making it possible for at least some smallholders to start posting their own ideas. It’s an exciting new trend, because those of us who share information with farmers on the Internet may soon find it easier to use the web to share high quality messages with farmers on a mass scale.

Acknowledgement

Written with the help of Eng. Sonia Laura who works at Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, a non-profit organization.

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AGRICULTORES PRODUCEN CONTENIDO ELECTRĂ“NICO

6 de agosto del 2017 por Jeff Bentley

Ya hemos escrito en este blog que los campesinos en la India y en Kenia usan smartphones y tablets para navegar la web para buscar información. En Bolivia, algunos productores no solo bajan contenido del web, sino que también lo usan para compartir sus observaciones y experiencias.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa y Antolín Salazar son quinueros del Altiplano sur boliviano, esa planicie sorprendentemente alta que está sobre los 3,700 metros, entre las cordilleras de los Andes. A esta altitud puede ser difícil producir hasta la papa. La quinua da bien, si llueve, pero ahora las lluvias llegan cada vez más tarde, amenazando toda una forma de vida en esas zonas altiplánicas.

Bernabé y Antolín son parte de un grupo de 98 productores expertos, llamados yapuchiris, quienes enseñan técnicas a sus vecinos para adaptarse al cambio climático. En el 2015 la institución Prosuco formó un grupo en WhatsApp, una plataforma de medio social que se usa desde el celular. Diez yapuchiris de diferentes zonas del Altiplano se unieron al grupo y lo llamaron la Red de Observadores, dedicada a compartir información sobre el clima en sus zonas. Algunos técnicos, y agricultores en otras partes de Bolivia, se unieron a la red, hasta tener más de 60 miembros.

En el 2016 cuando varios campesinos escribieron para contar que la sequía atrasaba azotaba a la cosecha de casi todos los cultivos. Pero también hay información alentadora. Bernabé a menudo informa sobre los “indicadores,” el nombre que el grupo usa para las señales que predicen el tiempo a corto plazo. Por ejemplo, cuando los zorros salen de las llanuras para buscar lugares cálidos en los cerros, hará frío en la noche. El saber eso hace recuerdo a los agricultores a asegurarse que sus animales estén bajo cobertura.

nest of oven birdEl hornero hace un nido redondo, duro y cubierto. Los pájaros sienten la llegada del tiempo húmedo y hacen lo posible para hacerse un nido seco, entonces si las paredes del nido son fuertes y duras, será un año lluvioso. Este conocimiento informa a los agricultores que pueden sembrar hasta en lugares más secos, y que pueden empezar a sembrar con las primeras buenas lluvias. Algunos de los técnicos también suben pronósticos basados en satélites a la Red de Observadores. Al principio pensé que eso podría quitar protagonismo a los yapuchiris, pero no fue así. Los agricultores están felices de ver imágenes satelitales y nidos de pájaros. Se puede apreciar información de varias fuentes.

Gracias al internet, los celulares baratos y los e-medios accesibles, hoy en día es posible que algunos campesinos empiecen a publicar sus propias ideas. Es una tendencia emocionante, que facilita el trabajo de los que compartimos información con los campesinos. En el futuro será más fácil compartir mensajes de alta calidad, a gran escala, por el web.

Agradecimiento

Escrito con el apoyo de la Ing. Sonia Laura, quien trabaja en Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, una entidad sin fines de lucro.

Cuentos relacionados del blog

Village smart phones in India

Connected to the world in Kenya

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Homegrown seed can be good July 23rd, 2017 by

African leafy vegetables are important for nutrition, and increasingly for sale. Shops in Africa are now starting to sell packets of seeds to farmers and gardeners. But seed produced by farmers is also sold informally, in small town markets.

Sophina Tembo and her vegetablesA recent study in Kenya suggested that this informal seed could be fairly good. Marcia Croft and colleagues compared 24 lots of seed for two kinds of African leafy vegetables: amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and nightshade (Solanum spp.). For each kind of seed, the study compared six lots of informal seed with six lots of formal seed. Since few companies in Kenya sell vegetable seed, the six lots of formal seed were made up of one lot from a Kenyan seed company, and five lots from an international research agency (AVRDC) in Tanzania.  The germination rates for the informal seed were acceptable: 59% for amaranth and 84% for nightshade, while less than 30% of the formal seed sprouted. The article does not explain why the formal seed had such an abysmal germination rate. Perhaps in future studies the formal seed will perform better.

Man and woman harvest vegetablesThe study raises questions: How good is vegetable seed in other African countries? And, how fresh was the seed in the shop and in the AVRDC collection? (Perhaps the formal seed had sat on the shop shelf for a long time). And future studies should clearly separate commercial seed from the collection of a research center.

The Kenyan seed customers themselves form two distinct groups. The study showed that the customers of  African leafy vegetable seed include poorer farmers (who have less land to grow their own seed), men and families with a salaried wage earner, weekend gardeners who don’t have time to produce seed.

Smallholders and gardeners could demand more seed in the future. To supply them, the study concludes that the informal seed markets should be strengthened, rather than supporting formal market development for African leafy vegetable seed. Good seed will benefit the poor, and gardeners trying to grow healthy food for their families.

Read the article

Croft, Marcia M., Maria I. Marshall, Martins Odendo, Christine Ndinya, Naman N. Ondego, Pamela Obura & Steven G. Hallett 2017 “Formal and Informal Seed Systems in Kenya: Supporting Indigenous Vegetable Seed Quality.” The Journal of Development Studies. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1308487.

Further reading on seed in Africa

Andrade-Piedra Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p. http://www.rtb.cgiar.org/blog/publication/case-studies-root-tuber-banana-seed-systems/

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Further viewing

The onion nursery. https://www.accessagriculture.org/onion-nursery

Making a chilli seedbed. https://www.accessagriculture.org/making-chilli-seedbed

Managing vegetable nematodes. https://www.accessagriculture.org/managing-vegetable-nematodes

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