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Fire power September 12th, 2014 by

Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. It is easier to get killed there than in Afghanistan. For the seven years I lived in Honduras I knew four people personally who were murdered, and twice people told me that they had given some thought to shooting me (once for almost hitting someone on my bicycle in the dark and once for yelling).

A couple of years ago I found myself back in Honduras, travelling with an agronomist named Carlos, who had an old pickup truck, cowboy boots and every one of his white hairs slicked into perfect place.

We ate lunch at his sister’s restaurant in a small town in western Honduras one day, and as we left, Carlos said off-handedly “Roll up the windows. There are some guys here who want to kill me.”

“Why do they want to kill you?” I asked.

The story went like this: Carlos and his siblings inherited a little coffee farm. Some other relatives said that they had a share in the land. Carlos ignored them, sold the farm and split the proceedings with his brothers and sisters. The cousins didn’t get a share, so they killed the people who bought the property.

“They killed them right there,” Carlos said as the pickup rattled around a curve. “The whole family was leaving the farm, and as they stopped the car to open the gate, the guys killed all three of them: the man, the woman and their kid.”

Rural property can be valuable, and people will fight over it. If the police and court system is dysfunctional, the fighting can be lethal.

One of my first extension experiences in Honduras, years ago, was in Olancho, the rural center of the country.

As we drove to the field, one of the agronomists explained that things might be a little tense, because our farmer contact had shot a couple of guys a few days earlier. We met the contact farmer, a man in late middle age who looked more like a respectable elder than a killer, and he took us to a corral, where we could give our talk, which was on how to make poison bait to control bean slugs. I was in the middle of the extensionists. Our contact farmer was on one side of the corral with about seven people, and about 20 men were on the other side. We were unwittingly aligned with the outgunned faction. Except for me and the extensionists, all of the men had long pistols in leather holsters, cowboy hats on their heads and anger in their eyes.

Development people like to talk about “empowerment,” which is usually a good thing, but at the time I wished that these guys had had a little less fire power. Nevertheless, the mollusks were ravaging their bean fields, so they tolerated each other’s presence to listen to us and watch us make slug poison. We wrapped up our talk, shook hands with both groups and left them to simmer in their differences.

Development schemes are often built on the unstated assumption that “little communities” (to use Robert Redfield’s happy term) are harmonious. Farmer cooperatives, community warehouses and farmer field schools (FFS) implicitly assume a united village, places where anthropologists have noticed factions, witchcraft, and malignant gossip.

When you start any project in a village, how do you know if the village is factionalized? You don’t always. How do you know that the dominant group in the village doesn’t channel the project to suit their interests? You don’t, unless you know the village well and are gifted at social engineering.

I like mass media because you can share it with everyone. People can be excluded from a group, but it is possible to make videos that everyone in the village sees.

Expanding horizons August 29th, 2014 by

The Other World. I still recall my amazement when visiting a castle in the English countryside with my family some ten years ago. One of the 16th century Flemish tapestries hanging on the wall showed a workhorse with a two-meter long neck. It must have been hard for weavers in the 1500s to visualise new creatures, such as a giraffe, just based on other people’s descriptions.

The early European travellers lacked words to describe all the new things they were seeing. With few people travelling to far off countries, early travel writers had no peer reviewers. Many read what others had written before them, and then added more fantasies (like blue people, or folks with faces on their bellies) and exaggerations (ants as big as dogs) or hybridisation (wild animals with ears of a donkey, wool of a sheep and feet of a bird) For more examples of weird creatures “invented” since medieval time, visit Strange Science. As historian Mary Campbell puts it, for travel writers, the “Other World” was a tapestry or a blank page where they could let their imaginations run wild.

The audience is King (and Queen). During his first voyage Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) landed on Hispaniola and later cruised the coast of Cuba, where the Admiral obliged his men to sign a statement saying that they had travelled to Asia, although at least some of them must have suspected that they were not in China. Christopher was on a mission for the Spanish Crown (Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) at a time when colonial rivalry with Portugal was at its highest. Within weeks of Columbus’ return to Spain in March 1493 copies of his letter were picked up by publishers, translated and printed throughout Europe. The recent invention of the printing press revolutionised the way the word spread, like social media does nowadays. But Columbus’ writing was rather dull and did not appeal to a wide public, mainly because it lacked human interest. When Columbus wrote his letter, his audience was the Queen and the King, whom he tried to please as much as possible (“the fields are very suitable for planting and cultivating, for raising all sorts of livestock herds and erecting towns and farms”).

Knowledge is power. But Columbus also wrote a travel diary (the so-called Journal), which remained unpublished until a reworked version of it was printed in the 19th century. The original was never found, in part because the royal couple had decreed the death penalty for anyone who sent a map or part of the Journal abroad.

Blogging for development. Fortunately, protectionism in today’s publishing world has changed. But development literature still has fairly few readers, partly because papers and reports are written for academics, donors and policy-makers. The norms of scientific writing still promote a dry style where narrative and human interest are seen as distractions. Farmers are too often depicted as beneficiaries of interventions, not as people with own ideas, inventions, fears and aspirations. A more human style of writing will hopefully one day unleash a more people-centred development, where creativity, discovering human potential and even a sense of wonder are as important as planning and crunching numbers.

For further reading:

Campbell, Mary B. 1988. The Witness and the Other World. Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 285 pp.

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld August 22nd, 2014 by

The ancient Inca ruled the largest native empire ever assembled in the Americas. Its agricultural economy was based not on trade or exchange, but on tribute. The fruits of harvests from Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru flowed to the capital city of Cusco (“Jusk’u” meaning “hole” i.e. navel, center of the universe).

The Bolivian valley of Cochabamba is unparalleled in the Andes, and it was a key part of the empire. In this largely vertical landscape of mountain cliffs and canyons, Cochabamba is an immense, flat, fertile valley, gently curving in a boomerang shape 60 km long. The valley is an ideal habitat for humans and crops. The tricky part is getting things in and out over the mountains.

Years ago in a mountain village I sat in a tiny home made of stone and straw while a woman toasted maize grains on the fire and an old man explained how he used to herd his llamas loaded with goods down to the valley bottom. He and the other llameros would camp by a shallow lake outside of the city of Cochabamba. But that world is gone now. The lake has been drained and the municipal stadium has been built on the site where llamas once camped.

An agricultural tribute economy has to have a way to store some of the harvest, hence the massive stone granaries around Cusco. The ancient ones knew that food could be a weapon, that stored maize could feed a marching army, or resupply a restless province after a crop failure.

Near Cochabamba there is an Incan site called Inka Raqay (or Incaracay). “Raqay” means “to store” in Quechua. The Cochabambinos had told me that the place was an Incan granary site and I had no reason to doubt them.

Then this week we went to see it. The site is a long way up the side of the mountain. Ana and I had tried to find it years before, with archaeologist Wayne Howell, when we were all younger and fitter. Back then we had hiked all day without finding the site. But now there is a cobblestone road leading to the site and beyond. So this time we cheated. We took a taxi from the small town of Sipe Sipe.

A shiny new chain-link fence has just been built around the site, and the gate was locked. We climbed around the fence on the cliff side, and walked down to the site.

I was filled with wonder, because I could see immediately that the site was not designed for storing grain. There was not a granary in sight. Instead, it was a typical imperial Inca city, only in miniature. There was a little cluster of buildings made of stone, not cut stone like in Cusco, because after all, these were the provinces, but the walls were lined with the mysterious niches, typical Incan. The center of the site was a large, irregularly shaped plaza, just like in old Cusco or Machu Picchu or any other Incan town.

The view of the valley bottom was spectacular, like an aerial photograph. I began to wonder, if they weren’t storing grain here, what were they doing?

The phrase “a commanding view” suddenly came to mind, and took on new meaning. Cochabamba is one of the biggest and best spots for growing maize in all of the Andes. The Inca loved maize, and the alcoholic drink they made from it, called chicha, or aqha, in Quechua.

From Inca Raqay you can see the fields of modern Cochabamba, or a lot of them. Five hundred years ago you would also have been able to see a rebellious army moving against you, or you would have advance notice of a llama train bringing little bags of maize up the trail from the valley bottom on the Inca road. We know from historical accounts that the llama trains loaded with maize came through this end of the valley on their way to Tapacarí, then up to the Altiplano, skirting the shores of Lake Titicaca, and then down to Cusco, the imperial capital.

Risky business demands magico-religious sources of divination and comfort, whether the job is farming or imposing a tribute economy on resentful subjects. Inka Raqay is sited in a small cluster of exposed, giant boulders. As archaeologists Brian Bauer and Alan Covey point out, some Andean peoples erected structures like this for military defense, places to hide troops, or ambush enemies. At Inka Raqay, the little cluster of conglomerate rock was a gift from nature. A clear spring below the site provided the people with water on an otherwise steep, dry slope. The boulders also gave Inka Raqay a place of worship. The Inca people loved cave entrances or grottos in high places, where the sky, earth and underworld all came together. It was the ancient Andean trinity of sky (condor), earth (puma) and the underworld (snake). There was a natural niche in front of the grotto and I imagined it had room enough for a sacrificial mummy or two.

It took far less imagination to notice all of the beer bottle caps covering the little plaza in front of the grotto, the door to the underworld. In recent years, neo-traditionalists have taken to celebrating the June solstice here, Aymara New Year, as some call it. These rituals involve, among other things, burning offerings and pouring drinks onto the ground to honor the Mother Earth (Pacha Mama). Hence the beer bottle caps. Mother Earth likes a drink now and then.

Ancient people would have said their prayers here, or nearby, anxiously watching the valley below, hoping the rains would come, that the maize would grow, and that the sullen peasants would bring their tribute share here, past the first control post on their way to the imperial heartland.

Although we humans are busily heating up the planet and killing off its creatures, some things have improved since the old days. Now rituals involve drinking beer instead of sacrificing humans, you can fly from Cochabamba to Cusco, and farmers who raise a surplus can sell it instead of having it commandeered away from them. That rewards them to produce more, and to be creative.

A note on names

“Inca” should probably be spelled “Inka,” but colonial orthography dies hard. For readability I have used “Inca” to refer to a whole society, but actually the Inca himself was just one person, the king or absolute ruler of an Empire called “Tawantinsuyu” which means “all four places” or “all four provinces” in Quechua, the official language of the empire. Another name for the language was Runa Simi (the mouth of the people).

For further reading

Bauer, Brian S. & R. Alan Covey 2002 “Processes of State Formation in the Inca Heartland (Cusco, Peru).” American Anthropologist 104(3):846-864.

Translate to innovate August 14th, 2014 by

During a recent workshop on fact sheet and video script writing in Egypt, I read an interesting article on Alexandria, which for centuries was a granary for the Mediterranean (Casali, 2014). Alexander the Great made his name by building a vast empire between 334 and 324 BC. Military power and intelligence were keys to forging an empire that covered Greece, North Africa, Turkey and the Near East all the way to Pakistan. Alexander was a student of Aristotle, who would send his students to various places, and incorporated their observations into his works.  So the young Alexander also realised that progress in a society depends on knowledge and innovation. Apart from collecting gold, precious stones and other wealth from the countries he conquered, his servants collected or copied any manuscript they could find. The way Alexander made the manuscripts accessible was less orthodox: he imprisoned a small army of translators to render the books from various foreign languages into Greek. This allowed the Greeks to innovate based on the knowledge acquired in other cultures.

Eventually the sun set on the Greek empire, and even on Greek learning. But during the Middle Ages the Spanish Arabs collected Greek manuscripts and translated Aristotle and other classics to Arabic. The Arabs had a large library in Córdoba, Spain, with 200,000 books. After the Catholic Spaniards re-conquered Spain from the Moors, ending in 1491, European scholars got interested in the books the Muslims left behind. The European scholars teamed up with the citizens of Córdoba (many of whom still spoke Arabic after the Moors departed) to translate the classical manuscripts into Latin. Those Latin versions were then the basis of translations into European vernacular languages. If not for all that translation, Aristotle’s knowledge would have been lost.

In several societies the need to invest in language skills has been key to survival. In West Africa, the Hausa traders and the Peulh nomads who herd their cattle over thousands of miles speak several languages out of necessity.  In parts of the Amazon where there are many small ethnic groups, native Amazonians often speak six or seven languages. The Roma in India travel across the country and learn all the regional languages. More recently, rural migration has been another force that has changed communities and influenced language skills. In Benin and Togo, I visited small villages where up to five different languages were spoken, with farmers often mastering the languages of other ethnic groups. Rural migration often enriches local societies with new ideas and agricultural technologies from elsewhere. Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto says much the same thing in his comparative study of world civilizations; the ones with the most contact with others were the most technically innovative.

People across the world like to speak, sing and listen to others in their own language. This is equally true for farmers. The international NGO Access Agriculture has established a network of over 200 people in developing countries to translate and record voices in local languages and edit these onto available training videos. Farmers like seeing videos featuring smallholders from other countries, solving agricultural problems that are common to many different peoples. The rapidly evolving communication technologies have enabled this. More than two thousand years after the Greeks established their world famous library in Alexandria, farmers are now able to innovate by learning from farmers in other cultures, whose words have been translated and filmed on video (see for farmer-to-farmer videos in over 50 languages). Translation is key to helping people innovate by taking inspiration from other cultures.