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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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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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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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Your own piece of land July 30th, 2017 by

In earlier blog stories Jeff, Eric and myself have written about the value of growing and processing one’s own food. For people who don’t own their own land, one alternative is the allotment.

Allotments or community gardens are small plots cultivated by individuals who abide by rules set by the land owner, often a local council but sometimes the Christian Church, a private company or individual willing to provide a social service. Non-commercial gardeners pay a modest annual rent against the security over a longer-term land tenancy.

While a new trend of urban gardening is sparked by a young generation in favour of eating healthy food that is produced with minimal food miles, few people realize that allotment schemes originated out of a need of food security.

Across most of Europe, industrialisation in the 19th and early 20th century drove people from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs. Their working and living conditions were often appalling and, coupled with poor nutrition, meant that early deaths in a family were common. Church authorities and local councils started “gardens of the poor”. Railroad companies also allotted plots of land to their workers. The stretches of land along the sides of the railway were unsuitable for general agriculture, but offered a good opportunity for the large workforce to grow their own food. Through this social service, companies kept their workforce happy.

Your own piece of landDuring the first and second World Wars it became a real challenge to bring enough food from the countryside to the cities. Most of the male workforce was called up by the armed forces. Fuel was also rationed and prioritised for moving soldiers, weapons and supplies. As ships were no longer able to import as much food, the British government launched a “digging for victory” campaign that used waste ground, railway edges, gardens, sports fields and golf courses for farming or vegetable growing. Victory gardens were also planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops. By 1943, the number of allotments had peaked at an estimated 1.75 million.

To support newcomer growers, many of whom did not have prior farming expertise, numerous radio and TV programmes were developed to strengthen people’s skills while at the same time instilling a communal pride in the nation.

When looking at today’s allotment plots a few things strike the eye: each plot shows a unique mix of innovations as tenants experiment to get the best out of their garden. And secondly, the soil is often quite black indicating the many years the soil has been nourished with organic matter. Long-term leases encourage gardeners to cherish the land and invest in its future.

Throughout history and across countries, allotment gardens have taken many shapes and forms. Many that were started under the pressure of war continued long into peacetime, in part because of demands from gardeners who loved being outdoors and growing their own produce. While allotments often started as poverty relief, they now help salaried professionals unwind from the stress of the office. Like agriculture, gardening evolves, and does more than just produce food.

Credit

The British “Dig on for Victory” poster was produced by Peter Fraser.

References

David Matless 2016. Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaction Books. 491 pp.

Related blog stories

A farm in the city (urban agriculture)

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Anasazi beans June 18th, 2017 by

Dove Creek 3In 1981 I worked as an archaeologist at the Lowry Ruins, a Native American site inhabited about 1200 AD by the Anasazi people, now known as the “Ancestral Puebloans”. The Lowry Ruins are in Southwestern Colorado, a flat land with rich soil, carved in places with deep sandstone canyons.

room blockThis strange landscape is made even more bizarre by the ancient stone dwellings which are still visible in shallow caves (alcoves) in the canyon walls. Modern farms dominate the flat lands and produce some of the finest pinto beans in the USA. But drop into the canyons and it is like going back 700 years to pre-Colombian America, when ancient Native Americans also grew beans, as well as maize and squash.

irrigated beansOne day in 1981, I happened to meet a Colorado bean farmer, who told me that in one of the canyons he found an ancient pot filled with a strange variety of beans. Being a bean farmer, he was naturally curious, so he planted a handful of the beans and they germinated. He harvested the beans and planted them again. By the time I talked to the farmer in 1981 he said that he had a whole acre of the beans and would soon have enough seed to plant a commercial sized field.

By 1983 a new variety of bean appeared in stores in the Southwestern USA under the name “Anasazi beans.” Unlike pinto beans, which are brown, these Anasazi beans were pale, with reddish speckles. I wondered if the beans in the shops were the ones the farmer in Colorado had told me about.

handfull of Anasazi beansI was back in that part of the world recently, visiting family, when my brother, Scott, went to the cupboard for a burlap bag labelled “Anasazi beans” and began to prepare them for supper. I could see that Anasazi beans were still popular with consumers, and for the first time in years I thought of the farmer with his odd tale of finding the beans in a ruin in a canyon. But this time I was more skeptical that bean seed could stay viable for 700 years, even in the dry Southwest. I wondered if the farmer I talked to in 1981 had found the beans in some more conventional way, such as from a seed catalog, or perhaps while on vacation in Mexico.

By 2017, several companies were selling “Anasazi beans”. Scott’s bag of Anasazi beans came from the Adobe Milling Company in Dove Creek, Colorado, where I went with my brothers, Scott, Brett and Dan to learn more about the origin of the beans.

adobe milling companyDove Creek is a small town and the Adobe Milling Company was easy to find. The store was surprisingly busy for a specialty shop in such a quiet place. The staff could hardly keep up with the stream of customers. I met Velvet Pribble, the lady in charge of this successful family business. Although the she and her staff were busy coping with a steady stream of customers, she still had time to chat. Velvet said that her great-uncle found the Anasazi beans in the nearby Lukachukai Mountains of New Mexico and brought them home and planted them in her family’s garden in Yellow Jacket (near Dove Creek). The beans grew and Velvet’s sister took the beans to school, for show-&-tell. The teacher, Bessie White, took some of those beans home and planted them herself. Ms. White shared the beans with neighboring farmers and then “they took off”. Velvet says that her family still has the original pot and some of the ancient beans, and that they look as fresh as the ones just harvested in Dove Creek today. “They never age,” Velvet adds.

tower at Painted HandVelvet’s story puzzled me; her great uncle could not have been the farmer I met in 1981, because the two men claimed to have found the beans in different places. The Lowry Ruins are about 120 miles from the Lukachukai Mountains. Then I learned about other versions of the Anasazi bean story. The pamphlet on display at the Adobe Milling Company itself says they beans “were found in the ruins by settlers to the four corners area in the early 1900s”, not that the beans were found by family members in the 1980s.

To put the Anasazi beans in context, there are no confirmed cases where old seed, stored on purpose by ancient people, has been successfully grown by modern farmers. Legume seeds found in adobe (mud brick) from California and Northern Mexico were still alive after 200 years (Börner 2006), but this is some of the oldest viable seed ever found. Seed rarely survives for more than a century (Bewley and Black 2012).

By 1299 AD, following a 27-year drought, the Anasazi abandoned their canyon homes on the Colorado Plateau, in the area where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all meet. Centuries later, the area was settled by small groups of other Native Americans, the Utes and the Navajos. Anglo-American colonization did not start until the 1840s. Parts of Anasazi country are still uninhabited, so great was the ecological collapse of the late 1200s.

Seven centuries seemed a long time for bean seed to stay viable, so I phoned an old college friend, Winston Hurst, a life-long resident of canyon country, and an archaeologist specializing in the area. He told me that stories have been circulating for years about people finding beans in pots in archaeological sites. Winston explained that Utes and Navajos were growing corn in the region, but it is less clear if they were planting beans there. However, historic native North Americans usually grew maize and beans together, and the Navajos made enough pots to suggest that they could have been cooking beans. Several Navajo pots have been found in dry caves in Anasazi country. Winston recalls seeing three kinds of beans, which people claimed had come from ancient pots. Each bean was completely unique. One was the reddish “Anasazi bean,” while another was large and white like a navy bean, and the third looked a bit like a castor bean.

So I offer the following hypothetical scenario: after the Anasazi (the Ancestral Puebloan) people abandoned southern Colorado and southern Utah in the late 1200s. Navajo settlers eventually planted gardens of maize and beans in the country, and left small caches of seed in pots in dry alcoves, perhaps even in Anasazi sites. These beans could have been less than 200 years old when collected by Anglo-American farmers, including Velvet’s great-uncle.

Whatever their origin, the Anasazi beans are delicious. So drop in to see the friendly folks in Dove Creek, Colorado, or order some Anasazi beans on-line, because no matter where these attractive beans came from, they are a real treat to eat.

About ancient sites

Some local people in the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are now digging up archaeological sites for pleasure, forever closing a window on the past. Wherever you live, please respect ancient sites and leave them to the archaeologists, who know how to excavate a site professionally, to learn how ancient people lived and farmed. When plundered for its artifacts, an ancient site is not worth a hill of beans.

Scientific name

The pinto bean and the Anasazi bean are varieties of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

Further reading

Bewley, J. Derek, and Michael Black 2012 Physiology and Biochemistry of Seeds in Relation to Germination: Volume 2: Viability, Dormancy, and Environmental Control. Springer Science & Business Media.

Börner, Andreas 2006 “Preservation of Plant Genetic Resources in the Biotechnology Era” Biotechnology Journal 1: 1393–1404 DOI 10.1002/biot.200600131.

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