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Quinoa, lost and found April 19th, 2015 by

Before the discovery of quinoa as a wonder food, in about the year 2000, Andean farmers were starting to abandon it. The brightly colored grains were considered a poor person’s food, a crop to be ashamed of. One of quinoa’s saving graces is that it grows well at altitudes of up to 5000 meters, where little else grows, not even the hardy potato.

As early as 2003 some researchers helped the farmers to realize the value of quinoa, showing them that by adding a bit of fertilizer the traditional intercrop of quinoa and oats yielded much more. (Read related paper Unspoken demands for farm technology).

Even earlier, before anyone thought that quinoa was cool, Bolivian plant breeder Alejando Bonifacio and colleagues had been conserving varieties of the crop. Dr. Bonifacio, born and raised on the Bolivian Altiplano, realized the importance of quinoa when few others did. In 1997, the research agency he worked for collapsed when World Bank support ended, and most agricultural stations were closed.

Researchers often fail to communicate the value of their work with their nearest neighbors, and after the stations closed, local farmers vandalized some, and ate the collections of crop varieties.

The quinoa collection avoided this fate, because Dr. Bonifacio took the 300 or so seed samples home, and saved them in little jars until he found work later with another agency.

When the market for quinoa boomed, there was little demand for the whole diversity held in those 300 jars. The market only wanted “royal quinoa:” large, white sweet grains, not the small ones, or colored ones or the ones with the soapy-tasting saponine.

Quinoa’s success has been good in many ways. It has given impoverished family farmers a new cash crop. Quinoa as a crop has been saved from extinction. Family businesses have grown up around quinoa processing and exporting.

Urban Bolivians have a new appreciation for quinoa and are eating it in cereals, pasta and snacks, made in Bolivia for the local market.

One of my favorites is “quinutrión”, a snack bar made with popped quinoa, honey and Brazil nuts (from lowland Bolivia). The label shows a cartoon armadillo, which Bolivians associate with the high plains, or Altiplano, where most quinoa is grown.

But fame and popularity can also be dangerous. Market preference for just a few varieties has made it harder to preserve the other types of quinoa. This loss of variety within a species is called “genetic erosion.”

Quinoa, like other crops, needs to keep all the genetic diversity it has. Future markets will require new traits, and new varieties will have to be bred for resistance against specific diseases (such as mildew) or for resistance to problems like hail (quite a problem at this high altitude). Keeping this genetic diversity into the future will be a challenge.

Quinoa’s success is also leading to that other form of erosion: lost soil. Instead of fertilizing and caring for a patch of quinoa every ear, farmers find it easier to plow up a fresh field with tractors, grow quinoa, and then abandon the land, leading some to fear that the Altiplano is being turned into a desert for the sake of quinoa.

Dr. Bonifacio and colleagues are now studying ways of conserving soil, including native legumes and grasses, planted with quinoa as live barriers, or as “improved fallow” to be planted after quinoa is harvested, to allow the soil to regenerate. New technologies, such as tractors, make labor more productive, although, they create new problems that demand research of their own.

Further reading:

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, & Milton Villca 2012 Catálogo Etnobotánico de la Quinua Real. Cochabamba, Bolivia: Proinpa.

Bonifacio, Alejandro Flores 2015. Traditional fallows support resilient farming on semi-arid sandy soils. Farming Matters 31(1): 34-36.

The goat with the bucket April 12th, 2015 by

At first glance, some of the things we see people doing in villages and small towns may seem strange, but digging deeper we often see that people have a good reason for doing what looks odd.

This afternoon, filming at a bean and grain trader in southwestern Uganda, I noticed some goats with a small plastic bucket over their mouths. I immediately thought that the elder woman who was walking with her two goats on a lead had taken measures so that her goats would not destroy any of her neighbours’ fields. A very thoughtful act, I thought.

Then I had another thought: since we were in a market, perhaps the bucket is to keep the goat’s snout out of the traders’ bags of flour. They might retaliate by smacking the goat and hurting it.

The driver, Fred, interpreted it differently, however, and said the goats had probably been punished for whatever reason goats are punished for.

My Ugandan colleague, Isaac Mugagga, came up with yet a fourth explanation. The goats must have eaten some maize grains or flour, so the woman wants to protect her goats. If goats drink water shortly after having eaten maize, their stomachs will bloat and they may die. “The buckets simply prevent the goats from drinking water,” Isaac said.

Interpreting farmers’ practices requires an understanding of the local context; a good place to start is by asking farmers why they do the things they do.

So we asked the woman, and she explained that she did want to prevent her goats from feeding on peoples crops and grains.

In rural Africa, a person travelling with a goat or two is a fairly common sight. The little animals are bought and sold at markets, and are just the right size to take to cook at a feast or funeral. Or the goat may just be going to eat lunch, not to become one. Unlike factory farms, a family farmer in a tropical country may have time to take the goat out to find a choice bit of grazing. Whatever the reason for the trip-with-goat, it’s usually best to keep the goat out of trouble on the way, and innovative farmers have come up with another use for the plastic bucket.

Making new ruins April 5th, 2015 by

A little archaeology can be a dangerous thing. Ancient agriculture leaves a trace in modern farming, such as the crops we grow and some of the hand-tools we use. But not all of archaeological agriculture can simply be picked up and used again.

The Inca Empire was renowned for its beautiful agricultural terraces, which still attract visitors from around the world. But terraces were largely built around the city of Cusco, the Inca’s capital. The terraces kept the city fed, were highly productive, and as the geographer William Denevan tells us, they were usually irrigated. Terraces were a way of squeezing the most food out of limited land, and they were built with corvé labor, because the Inca exacted a labor tax, one year in seven, of conquered peoples, who made the roads, granaries, and terraces.

The Inca Empire extended into Bolivia, but few terraces were ever built here.

A few years ago, a certain NGO in Bolivia decided to emulate the ancient terraces, with a population of modern, indigenous, Quechua-speaking farmers.

Farmers use different techniques, depending on whether land is abundant or scarce (as it was in Cusco). For these villagers in the 21st century in PotosĂ­, land was anything but scarce. Dry, rocky land rolled away to the horizon.

Andean farmers have a widespread institution for making use of abundant land. They divide the village territory into 12 or 20 patches and put them through a long rotation. They start by working potatoes one year, in one patch. Then the next year that patch is grown in Andean tubers (see our earlier blog story My wild Andean shamrock) and in the end it is planted with European grains (such as barley, or oats). Then they let the land rest in fallow, and in the off-season the sheep and llamas graze on the crop stubble. This long rotation is known by several names, such as aynoqa or manta-manta (Morlon 1992).

Tempting the farmers with “food for work” (surplus US commodities in exchange for labor on small-scale public works), the villagers built a replica, Inca-style set of terraces in the middle of an aynoqa. People dutifully grew potatoes on the terraces, but within three years the community was farming new patches of land and the land with the terraces, was laying fallow, and its stone terrace system was on its way to becoming an archaeological ruin.

The NGO knew that their terraces had been abandoned, but didn’t know way. I explained to them that they had tried to use a technique from intensive agriculture (where land is scarce, but there is lots of labor) for a community that practices extensive agriculture (where land is abundant and labor is hard to come by).

The NGO’s agronomist lost all patience with me. “But this is an ancestral practice,” he fumed.

That would be simple, if ancestral could just be copied, like an old manuscript. But farming techniques have to be adapted, not simply wrenched from their social and ecological contexts.

On a happier note, a different NGO (on the same project) had helped another village, Yuraj Cancha, also in PotosĂ­, to make several terraces, which the locals were lovingly fertilizing and planting in peaches and potatoes. The difference: this village was in a steep canyon, and land was scarce. For a long time, folks here had built stone terraces and irrigated them, carving narrow, new plots on the canyon sides.

Where there’s a canyon there’s usually a river, and sometimes the water can be taken to the slopes. Because there was no other land, and these terraces could be made productive with irrigation, people were happy to use them.

These villagers were skilled stone workers. They fashioned roof tiles and lids for boxes from sheets of slate. They even used that old Andean technique of making a wall’s foundation out of small, round rocks, and putting bigger blocks on top of them.

You can see the same technique in the ancient houses of Cusco, where the fortress-like Inca walls of multi-ton blocks rest on foundations of fist-sized rounded rocks. It seems to protect the walls from falling down in earthquakes. The walls roll on their foundations instead of collapsing.

Agriculture is complicated, which makes it interesting. No two places, and no two times are exactly the same.

Further reading

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

Morlon, Pierre (coordinateur) 1992 Comprendre l’Agriculture Paysanne dans les Andes Centrales : Pérou – Bolivie. Paris : Institute de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA). 522 pp.

Banana birds in the bean patch March 29th, 2015 by

Most agricultural researchers have heard of the devastating banana bacterial wilt, which they predicted would destroy bananas and plantains in East Africa. However, rumors of extinction proved to be exaggerated: many bananas and plantains survived.

Still, banana populations have decreased, and one unforeseen consequence is that farmers now have to manage mouse-birds as pests of beans.

Bananas have been a staple food crop for centuries in Uganda, but when the banana bacterial wilt disease struck, many farmers had to seek alternatives for their livelihoods. This partly explains the sudden boost in upland rice production in Uganda in the late 2000s. In the highlands in the southwest of the country, most farmers abandoned bush beans in favour of climbing beans, which yield at least three times more and provide a new way to earn some cash.

But farmers were not the only ones to adapt. The fruit-eating mouse-birds suddenly saw themselves deprived of their favorite food. Being used to sweet, ripe bananas, they now turned to the sweet taste of climbing beans. While farmers were learning how to grow a new crop, they also had to quickly learn about managing a new pest.

Beating the birds with bounty proved to be the most successful strategy. Indeed, nowadays farmers all plant their climbing beans at about the same time so that the birds will have plenty of sweet flowers all at once. By sharing the burden with the entire community, the damage to the crop of an individual farmer is bearable.

As with lungfish evolving to gulp air, or fast-food chains adding salads to the menu, surviving is often about adapting. This is as true for farmers as for pests. Once again, I was struck by how complicated farm ecology is, and how each bit is related to others, in unpredictable ways.

Related blog stories:

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

When stakes are at stake

Scientific names of mouse-bird: Colius striatus and other species

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.