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Forgetting Inca technology June 16th, 2019 by

No one knows how the Incas built their famous temples and palaces. Ordinary Inca houses were made of uncut field stones, with no mortar. But their palaces and temples were built in a style of fine masonry, with stones of irregular shapes, yet cut so precisely that they fit together perfectly. Inca fine masonry is one of the wonders of ancient engineering. The late Swiss historian, Armin Bollinger, writes that the stones even “dance” in place during earthquakes, before settling back into their original position.

Previous Andean cultures worked with large stones placed close together, but in simpler patterns than the unique, high art of fine masonry used during the Inca Empire (about 1425 to 1532 AD). The massive pre-Inca blocks at the prehistoric city of Tiwanaku are placed side-by-side, as rectangles, not in the Inca pattern, where each stone is of a unique size and shape.

Even the conquistadores admired the Inca stonework, yet the Spaniards never saw the walls being built. After the conquest, the Incas never built in their finest tradition again, as the Spanish directed them to build in the European style instead.

Bollinger dismissed some common theories of how the walls were made, such as the idea that the blocks were put in place, then taken off and chipped some more before being put back in place, over and over until the fit was perfect. Many of the blocks were too big for that, since they weighed over 20 tons. Another theory is that the Inca masons rubbed the stones together, back and forth until they fit perfectly together. But the stones were mostly andesite, a basalt-like stone that is too hard to work just by rubbing.

Both of these ideas rely on using mass amounts of brute force. Bollinger no doubt would have preferred a theory that also included smart engineering and careful measurement to explain how the stones were fitted. But that knowledge is simply lost. Inca fine masonry has never been documented, nor reinvented, not even with the help of machinery. Although in a recent experience, Brandon Clifford (MIT) and Wes McGee (Univ. Michigan) get pretty close, with digital technology, glue, with small blocks made of concrete, and robotic arms to do the carving.

Technology is a game of use it or lose it. Whether it is a style of masonry, or of farming, even ingenious techniques can be lost if they are not used.

Agricultural knowledge has been evolving for at least 5000 years, a lot longer than the Inca stone walls have existed. As farmers adapt their knowledge to make it relevant in a changing world, it is important to respect, document and keep that knowledge alive which is not only clever: it feeds us. It is in humanity’s interest to keep as many techniques on hand as possible, to remain adaptive. Human knowledge is fragile. It can vanish if it is not used.

Further reading

Bollinger, Armin 1997 Así Construían los Inkas. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. Translated by Rainer B. Podratz. Original title So Bauten die Inka.

Clifford, Brandon, and Wes McGee. 2015 “Digital Inca: An assembly method for free-form geometries.” Thomsen, M. R., Tamke, M., Gengnagel, C., Faircloth, B., & Scheurer, F. (Eds.). Modelling Behaviour. Springer. 173-186.

Related blogs

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Anasazi beans

Related videos

Almost all of the videos on www.accessagriculture.org show a sensitive mix of local knowledge and appropriate new ideas.  For example, there is a new series on herbal medicines for livestock from India, and a series on traditional Andean knowledge of the weather.

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met Benjamín Vargas, a farmer, and his friend Serafín Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

Benjamín and Serafín have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. Benjamín and Serafín wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

(more…)

Gardening against all odds May 26th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

All over the tropics, from Lima to Lagos, from Mumbai to Manila, the big cities are overflowing with migrants. In some regions, like the Andes, parts of the countryside are emptying out, with whole villages boarded up.

The new neighborhoods ringing the cities are often described as crowded eyesores. Ana and I visited one recently, on the edge of Cochabamba, a city that has long been divided into a fashionable north side, hemmed in by mountains, and by a working-class south side. But in the past 10 years or so the south side has mushroomed out of the valley bottom, to grow over the hills south of town. At night the lights on the hills are a reminder of how much the city has changed.

In one of the newest of these poor neighborhoods, we met some of the 80 members of a women’s group, Nueva Semilla (New Seed). Migration has been intense after the mining industry crumbled in the 1980s, but even in the past 10 years people have continued to leave villages in the provinces of Cochabamba and in Northern Potosí, the poorest region of Bolivia, to seek a better life in the city.

Nueva Semilla is in a tough neighborhood where people have to look after themselves. Families live on small plots of land, where they slowly build their brick and cement houses with their own hands, in their limited free time, usually just Sundays and national holidays. The streets are unpaved and dusty, laid out on square grids (or in curves on some of the steeper slopes). The government has built schools and hospitals. There is electricity, but no running water. People buy water from tanker trucks for a dollar a barrel.

The women’s group started in 2014, when some of them were taking a catechism class. They were impressed with the garden in the churchyard and this set them thinking. They had all been farmers in the places they had come from; why not establish their own gardens in their new homes?

But the women were used to growing potatoes, maize and barley, not garden vegetables. Fortunately, an NGO, the Agroecology and Faith Association, helped them with seed and some training, and some fabric to make semi-shade to protect the young plants against the fierce sun.

Doña Betty, one of the leaders, showed us the plot with her house, a small square of rocky hillside with no soil. Doña Betty bought a truckload of loamy soil, which she mixes with leaf-litter she collects from beneath mesquite trees on the surrounding hills. She puts the mixture in old tires, and irrigates with water she buys. She has created a delightful garden, with a dozen different vegetables, including healthy, organic tomatoes and celery which she is growing for seed to share with the members of her group.

A neighbor, doña Ernestina, is also in the group, and she has a lush garden of about 10 by 10 meters. She has a small hydroponic garden of PVC tubes filled with thriving lettuce plants, an investment paid for by the local municipality. Agroecology and Faith has a strong organic ethos and frowns on the hydroponic gardens because they rely on mineral fertilizer. Yet the NGO is also flexible enough to tolerate the hydroponic gardens, which the women seem to genuinely like. The women’s group is also independent and free to make links with more than one institution.

We paid a small fee, along with a small group of other visitors, for lunch which the women made. They were eager to sell their vegetables. Four heads of lettuce went for about 65-dollar cents, cheaper than in the market. The families eat a lot of their own produce and the kids we saw appeared healthy and well-fed. The women’s small vegetable gardens are surprisingly productive, even if they have to make their own soil and buy their water. The families even have surplus produce to sell.

The NGO is planning a seed exchange fair to … Once a month they also have a solidarity fair, where the women sell ‘solidarity’ baskets of vegetables they produce themselves.  

The women and their families have left their farms behind, but they have also brought the best of country values with them: hard-work and creativity. These adaptive people have taken their personal development into their own hands, and have decided that a home garden is one of the tickets out of poverty.

Related blog stories

Agroecology and Faith’s solidarity baskets are modeled on an experience in Ecuador, which (as luck would have it) I have reported on in a previous blog: Donating food with style

For a story on hydroponic gardening: No land, no water, no problem

Related videos

For videos on seed fairs, and farmers’ rights to seed, see:

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

UN MEJOR FUTURO CON JARDINES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de mayo del 2019

Por todo el trópico, desde Lima hasta Lagos, desde Mumbai hasta Manila, las grandes ciudades están repletas de migrantes. En algunas regiones, como los Andes, partes del campo se están vaciando, con aldeas enteras tapiadas.

Los nuevos barrios que rodean las ciudades se describen a menudo como “cinturones de miseria”. Hace poco, Ana y yo visitamos a una, en las afueras de Cochabamba, una ciudad que ha estado dividida por mucho tiempo en un lado norte de moda, rodeada de montañas, y por un lado sur de la clase trabajadora. Pero en los últimos 10 años, más o menos, el lado sur ha salido del piso del valle, para crecer sobre los cerros al sur de la ciudad. Por la noche, las luces de las colinas son un recordatorio de lo mucho que ha cambiado la ciudad.

En uno de los más nuevos de estos barrios pobres, conocimos a algunas de los 80 miembros de un grupo de mujeres, llamado Nueva Semilla. Ellas han migrado de las provincias de Cochabamba y del norte de Potosí, la región más pobre de Bolivia. La minería colapsó en los años 1980, pero la gente sigue llegando para buscar una vida mejor en la ciudad.

Nueva Semilla está en un barrio duro de gente habilosa. Las familias viven en pequeñas parcelas de tierra, donde lentamente construyen sus casas de ladrillo y cemento con sus propias manos, los domingos y feriados. Las calles están sin pavimentar y polvorientas, pero dispuestas en cuadrículas (o en curvas en algunas de las pendientes más empinadas). El gobierno ha construido escuelas y hospitales. Hay electricidad, pero no hay agua corriente. La gente compra agua de camiones cisternas por 8 Bs. el turril de 200 litros.

El grupo de mujeres comenzó en 2014, cuando algunas de ellas estaban tomando una clase de catecismo. Quedaron impresionados con el jardín de la iglesia y se pusieron a pensar. Ellas habían sido agricultoras en sus lugares de origen ¿por qué no establecer huertos familiares en su nuevo lugar?

Pero ellas estaban acostumbradas a cultivar papas, maíz y cebada, no hortalizas. Afortunadamente, una ONG, la Asociación de Agroecología y Fe, les ayudó con semillas y algo de capacitación, y algunas telas para hacer semisombra para proteger las plantitas contra el feroz sol.

Doña Betty, una de las líderes, nos mostró su casa, en un pequeño lote de ladera rocosa sin suelo. Doña Betty compró una camionada de lama, que mezcla con las hojarascas que recoge debajo de los árboles de algarrobo (thaqo) en las colinas circundantes. Ella pone esta mezcla en llantas viejas, y riega con agua que ella compra. Ella ha creado un jardín encantador, con una docena de diferentes verduras, incluyendo tomates orgánicos y apio que está cultivando para compartir las semillas con los miembros de su grupo.

Una vecina, doña Ernestina, también está en el grupo, y tiene un exuberante jardín de unos 10 por 10 metros. Tiene un pequeño jardín hidropónico de tubos de PVC llenos de plantas de lechuga, una inversión pagada por la municipalidad local. La Agroecología y la Fe prefiere lo orgánico, y no está muy de acuerdo con los jardines hidropónicos, porque usan fertilizantes minerales. Pero la ONG es suficientemente flexible para tolerar los huertos hidropónicos, que a las mujeres les gustan. El grupo de mujeres es independiente y libre de establecer vínculos con más de una institución.

Junto con un pequeño grupo de otros visitantes, pagamos un poquito para un almuerzo que las mujeres nos prepararon. Estaban ansiosas por vender sus verduras. Cuatro cabezas de lechuga costaron 5 Bs., más barato que en el mercado. Las familias comen mucho de sus propios productos y sus hijos parecen limpios, sanos y bien alimentado). Los pequeños huertos de las mujeres son sorprendentemente productivos, a pesar de que tienen que hacer su propio suelo y comprar su agua. Las familias también tienen excedentes de hortalizas para vender.

Agroecología y Fe está planeando una feria de intercambio de semillas, y una vez al mes tienen una feria solidaria, donde las mujeres venden canastas solidarias de verduras que ellas mismas producen. 

Las mujeres y sus familias han dejado atrás sus granjas, pero trajeron consigo lo mejor de los valores rurales: el trabajo duro y la creatividad. Esta gente versátil ha tomado su desarrollo personal en sus propias manos, y han decidido que un huerto familiar es uno de los boletos para salir de la pobreza.

Otras historias del blog

Las canastas de solidaridad de Agroecología y Fe se inspiraron de una experiencia en el Ecuador, que (por pura casualidad) he descrito en un blog previo: Donaciones de comida, con estilo

Para una historia sobre la producción hidropónica de hortalizas: Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos que le podrían interesar

Para videos sobre las semillas de semillas, y de los derechos populares a las semillas, vea:

Derechos de los agricultores a las semillas — Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Singing to the cows May 19th, 2019 by

I recently showed a Kenyan video about hand milking to a group of women dairy farmers in Bolivia. They laughed when Peter Ndung’u Macharia, a farmer who appears in the video, said that he sometimes sang to his cows.

I wondered why the Bolivian women laughed. People laugh for many reasons. They may find humor when they see the familiar in an unexpected context, or they can laugh at a strange idea. So, later I asked the extensionist, who was also watching the video: “Do dairy farmers here sing to their cows?”

“I wished they would sing to their cows. They argue in front of their cows, husband and wife yelling at each other, or at their kids. Sometimes they hit the cow, or they milk with all that anger inside of them, making the cow nervous.”

Access Agriculture videos are meant to be a learning experience, and serious, but it may add interest if the audience finds some unintended humor. The extensionist said that the video was excellent, and that he hoped that people here would adopt a softer touch, such as singing, instead of just corralling a cow and jerking on her unwashed teats.

After all, music is used fairly widely to calm cows – from classical concertos to Simon and Garfunkel (look up “music to soothe dairy cows”). Cows are living beings and making them comfortable during milking can only help to produce quality milk. And never argue in front of them.

Watch the video

Hand milking of dairy cows

Caring for animals, with plants May 12th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The yapuchiris continue to fascinate me. We’ve written about these expert farmers in the Bolivian Altiplano before, but there’s always something new to learn from them. Take Constantino Franco, for example, who is a jilakata, the highest traditional authority in self-governing rural communities.

In 2015, don Constantino began to teach other farmers about a method to treat the wounds of animals. He would gather several kinds of plants, boil them in fat and let the infusion cool. It made a salve that he could apply to the wounds of livestock.

At Prosuco, the NGO that supports the yapuchiris, agronomist Sonia Laura encouraged don Constantino to teach others about the remedy. She also wondered if it was really effective, so she asked a livestock expert, Elva Vargas, to investigate. Elva contacted a veterinarian, Sefarín Mena, who knew about the active ingredients of the plants used in salves, and who confirmed the value of don Constantino’s ointment.

Validating local knowledge in this way ensures that local treatments can be shared confidently with a wider audience.

I caught up with don Constantino recently and watched how he explained his method to yapuchiris and other farmers attending a workshop held in the remote village of Chigani Alto, on a hillside overlooking Lake Titicaca. Yapuchiris from distant communities had come to work with local farmers. They broke into groups and spent the morning on different farming topics, such as seed, weather, and soil.

Don Constantino had gathered an enthusiastic group around him. His new friends from Chigani Alto went to the nearby hills and returned with a selection of medicinal plants. They ground the plants in a metal hand-cranked grinder. Except for the gel-like aloe vera, which they scraped with a knife.

The group boiled the plants in fat in a new, earthen pot, to avoid adding a bitter taste to someone’s good cooking pot. Then they squeezed the plants in a cloth to obtain the herbal liquid extract. They ladled this into little plastic containers, so everyone at the workshop could take some of the salve away with them. The experiments would continue at home.

It was a simple but valuable exercise, sharing an effective local practice that is widely available to farmers and reduces their dependency on synthetic products. Being able to make inputs instead of buying them from agroinput dealers is important for smallholders who are often making a living on very tight profit margins.

Recipe

Ingredients:

Fresh eucalyptus leaves

Chamomile flowers

An aloe vera leaf

Some mint

Some malva

A kilo of animal fat, petroleum jelly or vegetable lard.

Equipment:

A hand-cranked metal grinder

A knife

A thick cloth

An earthen pot

Preparation:

Scrape off a handful of aloe vera gel.

Grind the other ingredients in the grinder.

Put the earthen pot on the stove.

Add the fat.

When it is melted add a handful of each of the ground plants and stir.

After five minutes remove from the heat.

Strain the mixture through a cloth to remove the solid plants parts.

Pour the mixture into a pot or other suitable container and allow it to cool.

Apply it to the wounds of animals to encourage healing.

Blog stories about yapuchiris

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Three generations of knowledge

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Predicting the weather

Related videos

You can catch of glimpse of don Constantino, wearing the red poncho of a jilakata, in the video:

Recording the weather; you can also watch the video in Spanish, and in two Andean languages: Aymara and Quechua.

Videos from India about botanical medicines for animals:

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

And a video from Egypt about caring for skin ailments of horses and donkeys

Preventing fly-borne illness in donkeys and horses

CUIDANDO A LOS ANIMALES, CON PLANTAS

12 de mayo del 2019, por Jeff Bentley

Los yapuchiris me siguen fascinando. Hemos escrito antes sobre estos agricultores expertos en el Altiplano boliviano, pero siempre hay algo nuevo que aprender de ellos. Por ejemplo, Constantino Franco es jilakata, una autoridad tradicional en las comunidades originarias.

En 2015, don Constantino comenzó a enseñar a otros agricultores un método para curar las heridas de los animales. Reunía varios tipos de plantas, las hervía en grasa y dejaba enfriar la infusión. Hizo una pomada que podía aplicar a las heridas del ganado.

En Prosuco, la ONG que apoya a los yapuchiris, la ingeniera agrónoma Sonia Laura alentó a don Constantino a enseñar a otros sobre el remedio. También se preguntó si era realmente efectivo, así que pidió que una zootecnista Elva Vargas, investigara. Elva se contactó con un doctor veterinario, Sefarín Mena, quien ya sabía de los ingredientes activos de las plantas que se usaban en las pomadas, y confirmó el valor de la pomada de don Constantino.

Validando el conocimiento local de esta manera asegura que las curaciones locales puedan ser compartidas con más confianza con una audiencia más amplia.

Volví a ver a don Constantino recientemente y escuché mientras explicó su método a yapuchiris y a otros agricultores mientras asistían a un taller en la remota comunidad de Chigani Alto, en una ladera con vista al Lago Titicaca. Los yapuchiris de comunidades lejanas habían venido a trabajar con los agricultores locales. Se dividieron en grupos y pasaron la mañana en diferentes temas agrícolas, tales como semillas, clima, y suelo.

Don Constantino había reunido a un grupo entusiasta a su alrededor. Sus nuevos amigos de Chigani Alto fueron a las colinas cercanas y regresaron con una selección de plantas medicinales. Molieron las plantas en un molino metálico de manivela manual. Excepto por el gel de aloe vera, que rasparon con un cuchillo.

El grupo hirvió las plantas en grasa, en una nueva olla de barro, para evitar de añadir un sabor amargo a la buena olla de alguien. Luego exprimieron las plantas en un paño, para obtener el extracto de las plantas. Lo vertieron en pequeños recipientes de plástico, para que todos en el taller pudieran llevarse algo de la pomada. Los experimentos continuarían en casa.

Fue un ejercicio simple pero valioso, compartiendo una práctica local efectiva para hacerla más ampliamente accesible a los agricultores y reducir su dependencia de los productos sintéticos.  El poder hacer insumos en lugar de comprarlos de la tienda agro-pecuaria es importante para los campesinos, que a menudo se ganan la vida con márgenes muy estrechos.

Receta

Ingredientes:

Hojas frescas de eucalipto

Flores de manzanilla

Una hoja de sábila

Menta

Malva

Un kilo de grasa de animal, jalea de petróleo (vaselina) o manteca vegetal

Equipo:

Un molino metálico manual

Un cuchillo

Una tela gruesa

Una olla de barro

Preparación:

Raspe un puñado de gel de aloe vera.

Moler el resto de los ingredientes en el molino.

Ponga la olla de barro sobre el fuego.

Añadir la grasa.

Cuando se derrita, añadir un puñado de cada una de las plantas molidas y remover.

Después de cinco minutos, retirar del fuego.

Colar la mezcla en una tela para eliminar las partes sólidas de la planta.

Vierta la mezcla en una olla u otro recipiente adecuado y deje que se enfríe.

Aplíquelo a las heridas de los animales para favorecer la curación.

Blogs sobre los yapuchiris

Inspiración de Bangladesh a Bolivia

Three generations of knowledge

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Prediciendo el clima

Videos que le podrían interesar

En el video se puede ver a don Constantino, vestido con el poncho rojo de un jilakata:

Hacer un registro del clima, disponible también en dos idiomas nativos de los Andes: aymara y quechua.

Videos de la India sobre remedios botánicos para los animales:

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Y un video de Egipto sobre el cuidado de enfermedades de piel de caballos y burros

Preventing fly-borne illness in donkeys and horses

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