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The blacksmiths of Ironcollo October 8th, 2017 by

Andean farmers have used iron tools since colonial times, including plows, harrows, picks, shovels and hoes. A favorite Bolivian tool is a long, triangular hoe, known as the qallu (Quechua for “tongue”). The qallu is ideal for working the steep rocky potato fields. Many farmers never leave home without their qallu.

In the valley of Cochabamba, the village of Ironcollo is home to the blacksmiths who make qallus and other tools. Ironcollo is strategically sited near the small market city of Quillacollo on the valley bottom. Farmers coming from the high Andes to shop in town can stop in Ironcollo on the way and have tools repaired or buy a new one.

Ironcollo is an old place. It is built over an archaeological mound, a large, artificial hill created gradually over the centuries as each generation of pre-Colombian people built their houses on the ruins of the people before them. Today the villagers are unsure exactly how long their ancestors have been working iron in Ironcollo, though they told me they were well established before the War for Independence from Spain, and that they made weapons for fighters in the Battle of Falsuri (1823). I have no reason to doubt them.

The narrow main street of Ironcollo is lined with shops, many of them owned by blacksmiths. I saw a large, industrial-made wood and leather bellows lying in the dust by one front gate. The label, pressed into the hardwood, says that the bellows is a model No. 102, made by Alldays and Onions of Birmingham, England. A museum in Marlsborough, New Zealand displays another copy of the same model, imported from Britain before 1888. Not only have the blacksmiths of Ironcollo been connected to global trade for some time, but their nineteenth century ancestors were making enough money to buy themselves decent equipment.

But times are tough now in Ironcollo. Where there were once 70 blacksmiths shops, there are now 30. Cheaper steel tools from Brazil and China are eating into their market. Not that the blacksmiths are going down without a fight. In 2011 they started holding an annual fair, inviting the public to stroll through the village and see how iron tools are heated in a charcoal forge until they are red hot, and then skillfully pounded into shape on an anvil.

We saw many tools on display in Ironcollo, but none of the larger ones were fitted with handles. No one was even selling handles at the fair. The smiths’ customers were still largely hardworking smallholders who know how to whittle a tree branch into a hoe handle.

Some blacksmiths have responded to changing market demands, making coat-racks and decorations for city people.My wife Ana and I met a woman blacksmith, doña Aidé, who took over her husband’s forge when he died, so she could support her children. The kids are grown up now, but she continues to make heavy-duty rakes that she designed herself. She also invented a new recipe, which she calls “the blacksmith’s dish” (el plato del herrero): steak cooked right on the hot coals of the forge, which she sells to visitors at the annual blacksmith’s fair.

An older blacksmith, don Aurelio, designed a new style of blacksmith forge, with a built-in electric fan. This saves labor, since the blacksmith doesn’t need an assistant to pump the bellows to fan the flames of the forge. Don Aurelio’s family makes and sells the electric forges to other smiths in the community, and beyond.

In 2013 the blacksmiths of Ironcollo formed an association. Community leader Benigno Vargas explained that they hope that this will be a way of getting support from the government, which is much more likely to fund a community group than unorganized family firms. But with or without official support, for now local farmers are still keeping the blacksmiths in business.

These blacksmiths have technical innovations, like the electric bellows and the coatracks and other metal products, but they have also innovated socially, with the annual fair, a professional association, and even a new way to prepare steak.

Near the end of the short main street, an elderly farmer stops us to admire the heavy, green rake we bought from doña Aidé. The farmer is from a remote village, and speaks little Spanish. She asks us in Quechua how much we paid for the rake before she marches off, wondering if she should invest 40 pesos in such a fine tool. Innovative farmers need imaginative tool makers who are tied into the local tradition of farming.

Further viewing

Family farmers make many of their own tools. Access Agriculture has videos for example on making a rabbit house, making a quail house and other devices. Many of the videos show how farmers use different tools. When farmers watch the videos, they are often interested in the tools they see in the videos.

Farmers around the world also rely on mechanics and other artisans to make and repair some tools, like the conservation agricultural tillage equipment for tractors and tools drawn by animals.

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The sculptures of Copán March 22nd, 2015 by

The Maya recycled their temples, building new pyramids over the top of older ones, cannibalizing the sacred works of a previous generation. Archaeologist who wanted to see the inner pyramids without destroying the outer ones had to tunnel into the pyramids. It was a gutsy thing to do. The pyramids weren’t meant to be bored into. The tunnels could have collapsed. A world class site like Copán could have been destroyed. But archaeologists like William and Barbara Fash were successfully digging the tunnels when I lived in Honduras in the 1990s. You couldn’t go inside then, but now you can.

They named one of those inner temples Rosalía, and learned enough about it to reconstruct it in a new sculpture museum at Copán. The recreated temple is painted a brilliant red, white, green and yellow paint, and is complete with giant masks of macaws (New World parrots).

The tunnels inside the Maya pyramids are dark and claustrophobic. You can barely see the stucco sculptures of macaws on the faces of the inner temples, but it is still worth going inside, if only to be in the heart of a vanished world.

Macaws still live at Copán, rescued from various cages across the country. The site guides all put a macaw feather on the tip of a pole, and armed with this handy invention, stroll around the site with their groups in tow. When they stop at a sculpture, the guides use the feathers to point at the delicate carvings on the stelae. It’s a nice trick, and strictly speaking, the feather even counts as a new, ICT (information and communication technology). All innovations need not be digital.

All the site is a stage for the guides who speak as proudly as if they had made Copán themselves.

I thought I was too smart for a guide. But I soon noticed that I was doing what all the other guide-less tourists do, walk around and snap photos. Copán must produce a million amateur photos a day, blurry and over-exposed or landscapes filled with flocks of people following a feather.

I imagined what fun it would be to be a guide, and how I would pepper my captives with fact and speculation. I would say things like “See this hole in the ground, next to the imaginatively named ‘Stela A’; it could have symbolized a cave, the entrance to the underworld. Perhaps a masked dancer leaped from here during ceremonies!”

Each stela is a stone portrait of a Maya king, in ceremonial regalia, such as jaguar pelt kilts, and trophy heads of slain enemies. The glyphs carved on the back of each sculpture are not just decorations. The Mesoamericans were one of three peoples who invented writing from scratch, along with the Sumerians and the Chinese. The glyphs on the stelae were texts, even if they look more like cartoon characters. In her book Forest of Kings, Laura Schele says that these words, written in stone, may have been read out loud during ceremonies in the plazas.

Culture is real, but so is human nature. Some of the things the Maya did strike us as distinctly “other,” like ceremonies where the king jabbed his penis with a stingray spine to get a blood offering. Yet sometimes Maya sculptures speak to us in ways that are comfortingly familiar, such as the life-like carving of a water bird with a fish flapping in its mouth.

Nowadays the guides stroll around Copán like the ancient kings and priests, “reading” the sculptures for an awed audience. It’s a vague mockery, an accidental imitation of an ancient performance. The original Maya act would have encouraged native farmers to keep bringing their produce to town and sending their sons off to die in wars that fed the kings’ ambitions. Today’s audience of global tourists is just looking for some blurry pictures to put on face book. The show goes on, and the tributary offerings continue as the tourists leave foreign currency in the economy of Honduras.

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The bird cliffs November 2nd, 2014 by

The red-fronted macaw is found nowhere but in the sandstone canyons of central Bolivia. There may be less than 1000 individuals alive.

The bird fills a niche, literally, nesting in small holes high in the cliff side. While this may have been an evolutionary breakthrough, freeing the bird from the predations of pumas and foxes, the stone alcoves eventually became death traps as we will see below.

Fortunately for this endangered species, a group of conservationists bought its largest nesting site, in San Carlos, Omereque, and built a visitors’ lodge near the food of the cliff, and taught local people to run the guest house, to keep the money and split it once a year between the three nearest communities.

It was a shrewd move because the macaw’s worst natural enemy is the human being. Once a year, just before the young birds are old enough to leave the nest, young men lower themselves over the top of the cliff-face on ropes and capture fledgling chicks to sell for $20 or more to people who cage them and teach them to imitate human speech, especially the sillier versions of it, such as football slogans and strings of cuss words.

Kidnapping macaw chicks is an easy traffic to stop, if a community wants to, because the nesting cliffs are in full view of the village, and the hunting season is just once a year: easy to anticipate and police. At least two other bird species, the Bolivian blackbird and the cliff parakeet also live in the cliffs, and while not quite as appealing as a brilliant, emerald and vermillion macaw, the other birds are also protected.

Not every endangered species can be protected by buying 50 hectares of land and putting up a comfortable lodge. Some animals range over vast forests and can be hunted in secret. But for some species, this is a model. The nifty part is that the donors who buy the land don’t need to make a profit. They are investing money to keep a species alive. The project generates small amounts of money that can be given to nearby communities, to spend on schools and potable water, and encourage people to protect the wildlife.

Since 2006, people from the Bolivian NGO Armonía have spent a lot of time teaching the local people about the value of the macaw. Farmers noticed the birds scrounging for peanuts in the soil or eating the occasional ear of corn, and assumed that the macaws were pests. Guido Saldaña of Armonía explained to the people that this damage was minimal, more unsightly than economically important.

Still, relatively few visitors come, because Omereque is so remote, a six to eight hour drive from the nearest airport (about equidistant from either Santa Cruz or Cochabamba).

A Bolivian newspaper article reports that the three neighboring villages received about $7000 last year. And the villagers earned money from agricultural projects with Armonía, such as growing papaya.

Local people say that the youth who once robbed the nests still do so, they just go further into the canyons, in places where the birds are unprotected. I don’t say this as a criticism of the youth, the communities or any of the organizations that are involved. Villagers often protect a common resource and set up rules about how to use it, to conserve it. In Omereque, with the help of sympathetic outsiders, the villagers have turned the cliff-face into a formal, organized common, with rules that prohibit the extraction of birds. The village youth are still happy to risk their necks dangling over other cliffs to filch baby birds, but now the boys go outside the regulated common. The youth are free-riders, not apparently convinced of the conservation ethic, but benefitting from the increased supply of breeding pairs of macaws, thanks to the protected site. No solution is perfect.

At least we know that their nesting sites can be protected, one haven at a time.

Scientific names:

Red-fronted macaw, Ara rubrogenys (Spanish: paraba frente roja)

Cliff parakeet, Myiopsitta luchsi, (Spanish: cotorra boliviana)

Bolivian blackbird, Oreopsar bolivianus (Spanish: tordo boliviano)

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Fishing on a hill September 19th, 2014 by

School teachers across the world hold a special position in society. They are respected for the knowledge they share with new generations. But teachers in developing countries also have something else in common: they often find it hard to make ends meet. On a recent visit to Iran I was fortunate to meet Sadegh Mohammadi in Sohrevard city in Zanjan province. Like most Iranian school teachers, Sadegh has a second job, but his is innovative: he rears fish on a steep slope in the back of his garden.

Creating rural employment is as important as ever before, in Iran and elsewhere. Over 15 years the people employed in fisheries in Iran doubled to 181,000 (FAO, 2014). The fish tanks that Sadegh installed in his backyard give direct work to three families and indirectly (supply of fish feed, rearing and selling of fingerlings, marketing) to another 7 families. “Even in the worst situation, the fish gives much more income than a teacher’s salary of 500 US dollars a month,” Sadegh says.

Sadegh learned about aquaculture from the extension service, which also loaned him money to set up his concrete fish tanks. Trout likes cool climates and fresh, fast-moving water. Hence Sadegh pumps up water from the lake in the valley bottom to the upper tank and then lets the water flow by gravity through the various fish tanks. From experience Sadegh learned that if the fish all gather at the entrance of the tank, they lack oxygen, after which he switches on a small fountain to pump extra air in the water. The many mature walnut trees in his garden provide a pleasant shade from the summer sun, which keeps the fish happy, and provides picnic spots for the many local tourists who come to the village on weekends.

In southern Vietnam, in the late 1990s I saw how creative entrepreneurs built fish ponds in the middle of fruit orchards to attract local tourists. People could fish for a fee, and food was served. Agro-tourism comes in many ways, building on local dynamics and cultures. Bringing the culture back into agriculture is a great way to create rural employment and for urban folks to learn about farming (and sometimes about fishing too).

Reference: FAO. 2014. Iran National Aquaculture Sector Overview. http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/naso_iran/en

To watch or download a training video, see: Food for fish

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