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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.

Sugar sweet ants March 15th, 2015 by

It hardly seems fair that organic orange juice is sour, but there is a way to sweeten it, with ants!

In 2009, Professor Kwame Afreh-Nuama from Legon University in Ghana took me to the Coastal Outgrowers Association, an organic citrus-producing association in the Abura-Asebu-Kwamankese district in the Central Region. The outgrowers were enjoying top-notch international support. As early as 2006, a German-funded project (Market-Oriented Agriculture Programme) asked WAFF (West Africa Fair Fruit Company ) to help the outgrowers’ association prepare 1000 farmers for certification, which it did. Several thousand other farmers later joined to become organic producers.

WAFF is a social enterprise that organizes farmer groups into a supportive network of NGOs, grassroots organizations and fruit companies, and helps them to certify organic fruit.  The private Ghanaian fruit-buying company Coastal Grove Ltd. buys fruit from the Coastal Outgrowers Association to produce organic orange juice for local and export markets.

Organizing and training thousands of farmers to comply with organic standards was a huge challenge, and just as it was reaching what should have been a successful conclusion, victory was snatched away by a new species of fruit fly, recently arrived in West Africa. The invasive fruit fly causes devastating losses in many orchards.

To control the flies without chemicals, the organic farmers started to harvest their fruit earlier, but the unripe oranges had less sugar and their juice was not as sweet.

So I suggested a readily available solution; weaver ants could improve the sugar content in the juice by allowing farmers to harvest later.

Talking with various people in Ghana, I heard the same old story I had heard in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere in West Africa. Farmers and others in the value chain perceived weaver ants as a pest and systematically killed them. In part this is because the territorial ants will bite harvesters and other people who are working in the trees.

But weaver ants are a keystone natural enemy. They are fierce predators that kill many kinds of insect pests. The ants live in large colonies and are totally adapted to life in the trees, sewing leaves together to make nest chambers, and connecting parts of the colony with paths along the tree branches. Apart from being predators, weaver ants also protect fruit trees in other ways. While ants patrol the trees, they deposit marks on the branches, leaves and fruits which fruit flies are able to detect. Not wanting to risk their lives, fruit flies wisely look for other places to lay their eggs.

On the way back from Tamale we crossed the north of Togo and entered Benin to visit various radio stations. I was happy to learn that Radio Communautaire Ilèma at Dassa had made active use of the book Ants as Friends. The radio broadcaster had learned the importance of conserving weaver ants and said that one of the older mango plantation holders in a nearby village had successfully established weaver ant colonies and ‘ant bridges’ between his various trees.

Good communication tools require motivated people and channels to reach farmers. In the future, a series of training videos on how to deal with fruit flies would benefit farmers, fruit processors and consumers. After all, consumers love organic orange juice, but not if it is sour!

The training manual “Ants as Friends: Improving your Tree Crops with Weaver Ants” is downloadable for free in five languages:

English (2003, 2007)
French (2008)
Khmer (2010)
Vietnamese (2005)
Bahasa Indonesia (2004)

Other publications on weaver ants are downloadable from the Agro-Insight Resources Section.

Scientific names:

Weaver ant: Oecophylla smaragdina (Asian species), Oecophylla longinoda (African species).

Invasive fruit fly: Bactrocera invadens

Slow death on the coast March 8th, 2015 by

Coconut lethal yellowing may be a strange name, but it is unlike any disease I have seen. It attacks and destroys whole landscapes. A leafy canopy of coconut palms is a signature image of the tropics. Here in Côte d’Ivoire (once called the Ivory Coast), whole groves of coconut have died. The leaves turn yellow and fall off, leaving nothing behind but a decapitated trunk. The stately palms become a ghastly forest of telephone poles.

In the village of Badadon, people explained that they were losing their livelihood. They depend on coconuts, growing them to sell for their oil. But many coconut palms in the community are turning yellow, and will all be dead in a few months. The farmers are able to grow some cassava between the palms, but coconuts thrive on sandy, salty soil where few other plants will live.

A video made in Côte d’Ivoire and available in various local languages is addressing the issue of how to grow cassava on sandy coastal soils: see Growing cassava on poor soils).

The coconut lethal yellowing disease arrived in neighboring Ghana in 1932, although for some reason it has recently spread much faster in West Africa. Similar diseases have been killing coconuts in the Caribbean and in East Africa.

The cause is a strange organism called a phytoplasma, which is a bacterial without a cell wall. It acts a bit like a virus, with deadly effect. Phytoplasmas are carried from plant to plant by sucking insects, and they also live in various alternative hosts, such as the weedy plants between the palms.

I have been watching plant pathologists bore into coconut trunks with carpenters’ drills, collecting sawdust to isolate the phytoplasma and cultivate it, to reconfirm the diagnosis and learn more about the cause of the diseases.

It’s frustrating because there is no cure for the disease. There is still basic research to be done such as finding the exact insect vector and the alternate plant hosts.

But even at an early stage, the scientists are sharing what they do know with farmers. In the village of Badadon people from the university in Abidjan and other institutions are explaining that lethal yellowing is spread by a microbe, and how the symptoms progress. Meanwhile the scientists are searching for resistant coconut varieties and will soon start working with the communities, to find a solution. They are going to try fertilizer trials, to see if healthier soil offers a solution.

Farmers and scientists have perhaps five years to save the coconut palms of Côte d’Ivoire.

With Yaima Arrocha, Hortense Atta Diallo and Eric Boa in Côte d’Ivoire.

Other names: In Ghana, coconut lethal yellowing is called Cape Saint Paul’s disease.

In Côte d’Ivoire it is called jaunissement mortel du cocotier.

100 words for corn (or at least 50) March 1st, 2015 by

“Eskimo has a hundred words for snow” goes the abiding urban myth. In his original 1911 paper, Franz Boaz merely said that the Inuit had four words for snow, but this reasonable number has been blown out of proportion by textbooks and enthusiastic lecturers.

In his charming book on translation, David Bellos mocks the Eskimo myth (Starbucks customers have a lot of words for coffee, he writes). (2011 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything). He could have said that New Yorkers have a lot of words for sandwiches.

The problem with the snow myth is that it has a grain of truth. People do have words for most ideas that matter to them. For example, Samoan has a separate word for green coconut (niu) and for a ripe one (popo), because the green nuts are filled with a fizzy drink and edible slime, while the ripe ones can be rendered into coconut oil. The over ripe ones even lose their water and meat, to become a sweet, spongy treat called o’o.

I was delighted that Quechua had a special word for the berry (makunk’u) that grows on the potato plant. The makunk’u may be inedible, but it grows in step with the tubers under the soil, so if you notice it, you will know when your potatoes are ripe.

In Honduras, where rural people grow maize (corn) and eat it at every meal, there is however just one word for corn: maíz. But, the deeper you look, the more words you find. The ear of corn changes names as it ages, from jilote for the green ones you can eat raw, to elote for the roasting ears, and mazorca for the mature, dry ones.  That makes 4 words.

There are 14 verbs (or verb phrases) to label each of some dozen perceived stages of corn growth, from nacer, when the corn blade first pokes above the surface of the ground, to madurar, the last stage when the leaves turn from green to straw-colored.

The maize plant itself has 30 words for each of its parts, and there are separate words for the parts of the ear and even the kernel; the tip is called its “ojo” (eye), for example.

To harvest is “cosechar” for all crops except maize, which has its own label (tapiscar). Our sub-total so far is 48.

There are maize words for things that most city folks have never noticed. Such as when a maize plant grows alone, few grains are pollinated, so with lots of extra room to grow, they are round like coins, which Honduran farmers call “cinco cinco” (like five centavo coins).