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Our African ancestors July 5th, 2020 by

Ancient humans migrated out of Africa three times. The first “Out of Africa” as archaeologist Peter Bellwood explains in First Migrants, was about 2 million years ago, long before our own species, Homo sapiens, had emerged. But one of our ancestors, Homo erectus and other, related species entered Southwest Asia from East Africa, and settled in most of tropical and temperate Eurasia. They walked completely upright, made stone tools and hunted and gathered for a living. They had small brains, just 500 to 900 cc, half the size of ours (about 1500 cc). H. erectus also lacked the imagination which inspires humans today. Homo erectus never invented boats to reach the islands and it’s not clear if they could make clothing to keep warm.  

Out of Africa 2 occurred around a million years ago. A second human species migrated from Africa, Homo heidelbergensis, which eventually evolved into the famous Neanderthals of Europe (Homo neanderthalensis). Another branch of Homo heidelbergensis stayed in Africa, where they eventually evolved into Homo sapiens

Out of Africa 3 was sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, fully modern humans, left Eastern and Southern Africa to conquer the Earth. It was a humble start, with just a few people. Estimates vary, but there may only have been as few as 10,000 breeding adults on the whole planet.

By this time, modern humans almost certainly spoke fully expressive languages: they could no doubt argue, bend the truth, and describe their dreams. We don’t know the words they used to give flight to their thoughts, since their languages are lost in time. Long before people had started to till the earth, from 130,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers had replaced the Neanderthals, with just a bit of genetic mixing in Eurasia. Humans on most continents derive some two to four percent of their genes from Neanderthals. Modern Africans are largely free of Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens settled all of Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Periodic ice ages with lower sea levels created land bridges to Britain, Japan, and many of the islands of Southeast Asia. These modern humans had the imagination to invent boats, and they crossed a stretch of 70 km of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia.

Before 16,000 years ago people had mastered cold weather survival, almost certainly sewing sophisticated clothing from animal hides, using bone needles that have been found in archaeological sites. By then, some had reached the Eurasian Arctic and crossed the wide Beringia Land Bridge into Alaska. By 11,000 years ago, people were already hunting guanacos in southern South America. People had either walked down the South American coast or taken boats.

Boats were also crucial for reaching the islands of Melanesia, as far east as the Solomon Islands.

So, before humanity ever started to farm, our ancestors had reached almost every inhabitable spot on Earth, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific, which came much later. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated vast distances from Africa, settling all the continents, from the tropics to the Arctic, except for Antarctica.

By 10,000 years ago our ancestors could paint great art, carve ivory figurines, and invent tailored clothing. Their art included naturalistic representations of animals, but also dots, lines, half-circles and other abstract symbols, suggesting that they also had complex language. When their imagination got the better of their sense of caution, our ancestors would also walk or sail over the horizon.

There were only slight genetic differences between populations. In colder latitudes, where people wore fur suits most of the time, they struggled to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. Evolution selected for lighter skin, to help folks get their vitamins. Other than that, white skin doesn’t mean much more than the ability to get a sunburn.

From prehistory we learn that Africa was the cradle of humanity. The early modern humans were creative, thoughtful and widespread yet still relied on hunting and gathering for food and other essentials. Next week I will discuss the second half of First Migrants, which covers early agriculture and the movements of the first farmers.

Further reading

I’ve taken most of this material, especially the outline of prehistoric migrations from:

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

I’ve also been inspired by some recent books that document how most of humankind’s genetic differences are literally skin deep, while our common humanity goes all the way to our core.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha 2016 The Gene: An Intimate History. Penguin Books: Haryana, India.

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable June 21st, 2020 by

Ver la versión en español a continuación

The achojcha is a member of the squash family, green and crunchy and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. It grows vigorously as a vine and will smother a tree, if you let it.

The achojcha has an edible skin and is hollow inside, like a balloon, with striking black seeds. It needs little care. It can grow back every year from seeds that were accidently dropped the year before, sprouting with the summer rains, and bearing fruit in the autumn. With irrigation it will grow pretty much year-round.

The book Lost Crops of the Incas estimates that the achojcha was domesticated 9000 years ago. Ancient peoples loved it enough that the pre-Colombian Chimú people of Peru made effigy pots in honor of the little fruit.

We have grown achojcha in our garden in Cochabamba, Bolivia for years, and it’s a popular vegetable with smallholders. The achojcha is high-yielding and sometimes we have a basketful of fruit left on the vine which we can pick during the Andean winter. Even when we abandon the fruit until the end of the season, it simply wilts, and we have yet to see any diseases or insect pests on it. There is only passing reference to a virus in achojcha. I have seen mites on achojcha in the valley of Comarapa, further down the Andes, where pesticide abuse is common.

The achojcha is still a poor person’s food in Bolivia. It is not sold by that bedrock of middle-class cuisine, the supermarket, but you can buy achojcha from street venders. The achojcha does enjoy a certain following. If you search for it on the Internet you will find several recipes. Home cooks in South America sometimes stuff the achojcha with cheese, or with rice and meat, before battering it with egg and frying it. The versatile fruit can be stewed or eaten raw in salads. 

As Paul argued in last week’s blog, farmers should be encouraged to produce for the local market. While governments and donors have a responsibility to invest in generating new knowledge in support of agroecology, a transition towards more sustainable food systems will also require re-educating consumers on the importance of preparing the fruits and vegetables that fit best into the local agroecology.

Further reading

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

.Related blog stories

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Scientific and other names

The achojcha is called caigua in the northern Andes. Its scientific name is Cyclanthera pedata.

A couple of unconvincing English names are “stuffing cucumber” and “slipper gourd.”

Acknowledgement

As always, thanks to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for excellent comments on a previous draft. Thanks also to Eric for his stunning picture of the achojcha seeds.

LA ACHOJCHA: HORTALIZA INCA

Por Jeff Bentley, 21 de junio del 2020

La achojcha es un miembro de la familia de las calabazas, verde y crujiente y del tamaño justo para caber en la palma de tu mano. Crece vigorosamente como una parra y ahoga a un árbol, si se lo permites.

La achojcha tiene una cáscara comestible y es hueca por dentro, como un globo, con llamativas semillas negras. Necesita poco cuidado. Puede volver a nacer todos los años a partir de semillas que se cayeron accidentalmente el año anterior, brotando con las lluvias de verano, y dando frutos en el otoño. Con la irrigación crecerá año redondo.

El libro Lost Crops of the Incas estima que la achojcha fue domesticada hace 9000 años. A los antiguos les gustaba tanto que el pueblo chimú precolombino de Perú hizo ollas efigies en honor a la pequeña fruta.

Hemos cultivado achojcha en nuestro huerto en Cochabamba, Bolivia, durante años, y es una hortaliza cotizada entre los campesinos. La achojcha es rendidora y a veces nos queda una canasta llena de fruta en la parra hasta después de cosecharla por meses. Incluso cuando abandonamos la fruta hasta el final de la temporada, simplemente se marchita, y todavía no hemos visto ninguna enfermedad o plaga insectil en ella. Sólo hay una referencia pasajera a un virus en la achojcha. He visto ácaros en la achojcha en el valle de Comarapa, más abajo en los Andes, donde el abuso de pesticidas es común.

La achojcha sigue siendo el alimento de los pobres en Bolivia. No es vendido por ese cimiento de la cocina burguesa, el supermercado, pero puedes comprar achojcha de los puestos en la calle. La achojcha tiene su público. Si lo buscas en Internet encontrarás varias recetas. Los cocineros caseros de Sudamérica a veces rellenan la achojcha con queso, o con arroz y carne, antes de rebozarlo con huevo y freírlo. Esta fruta tan versátil puede entrar a la sopa, o cruda en ensaladas. 

Como Paul argumentó en el blog de la semana pasada, se debe alentar a los agricultores a producir para el mercado local. Si bien los gobiernos y los donantes tienen la responsabilidad de invertir en generar nuevos conocimientos en apoyo de la agroecología, la transición hacia un agro más sostenible también requiere reeducar a los consumidores sobre la importancia de preparar las frutas y verduras que se adapten a la agroecología local.

Para leer más

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

Otros relatos de este blog

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Agradecimiento

Sinónimo y nombres científicos

La achojcha se llama caigua en el norte de los Andes. Su nombre científico es Cyclanthera pedata.

Como siempre, gracias a Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por sus excelentes comentarios sobre un borrador anterior. Gracias también a Eric por su impresionante imagen de las semillas de achojcha.

Offbeat urban fertilizer May 17th, 2020 by

Some urbanites in Covid lockdown are rediscovering their neglected gardens. Living in or near the city also gives you access to some products that are hard to find in farm country. For example, cabinet makers in the city may be able to give you wood shavings that you can use to make beds for pigs or chickens.

I’ve written before about the Taquiña brewery that releases waste water—sometimes with a fine head of beer on it—while at other times it has detergent, or barley hulls, or it is clear. An irrigators’ association channels the water to grow carnations and other high value crops.

Taquiña has its factory in the foothills above Cochabamba, Bolivia, where spent, fermented barley mash, the grain solids left over from beer brewing, is heaped into large piles. We occasionally notice the mash when we park at the brewery to hike in the mountains. Ana always said it would make a good organic fertilizer, but it wasn’t until February last year that she decided to do something about her idea. The brewery was happy for her to take the mash, on one condition: she had to take it all.

Ana rented a vintage truck and hired a driver, then returned to the brewery with a shovel and a hired helper. The mash was golden brown, with a light, yeasty smell, and all appeared fine until they dug into it. Inside the pile was rotten and flies had laid their eggs in it, the result of staying out too long in the rain. Peri-urban farmers use the mash to feed their pigs, but they hadn’t been to collect it for some time.

Ana and her helpers made three trips home with around ten tons of mash. The mash smelled like sewage and it had the thick, sticky consistency of children’s modelling clay. I called it the stinky playdough.

Our neighbors had some choice words about the stench. Eventually we managed to get all of the stinky playdough spread over our small garden and the stench gradually disappeared. The flies went away, the plants grew and we forgot about the rotten mash. Until we were quarantined.

By March of this year our garden was overgrown with weeds. But then I found time in the evenings and the weekends to pull up the weeds and plant some vegetable beds. Years ago, the dirt in our garden was dull red, and lifeless, but after taking on the stinky playdough, the soil was rich and black, full of earthworms and just right for growing organic vegetables.

If I had to do it again, I would look for smaller, fresher batches of barley mash. Even so, the obnoxious, stinky playdough turned out to be a great fertilizer. Ana also collects a few other sources of organic matter, including lawn clippings from the neighbors. A lady who sells fresh-squeezed juice in the park gives us orange rinds, which compost quickly in Cochabamba.  

Cities have abundant organic matter, partly from urban gardens, but mainly pulled in from the countryside. With a little creativity, you can grow your own healthy food in the city at low cost, without the need for chemical fertilizer.

Related blog stories

Smelling is believing

Trash to treasure

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

On using wood shavings to raise chickens near the city:

Working together for healthy chicks and

Making a business from home raised chicks

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Related blog stories

A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artículo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vínculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producción agrícola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, según los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artículo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. Sólo el 8% de la producción agrícola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producción cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras así no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azúcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camión, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehículos circulan con permisos falsificados, sólo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como Martín Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicó que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sólo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicó otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendré mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Historias relacionadas de este blog

A long walk home

En el frutillar de nuevo

A long walk home April 12th, 2020 by

In Bolivia, a draconian shutdown went into place almost as soon as the first coronavirus cases were reported in the country in March. When the universities were shut, one 20-year old student, José Andrés Romero, tried to stay on in the city of Sucre, where he had been studying building construction. He was working part-time as a welder’s assistant, but when his employer closed shop, José Andrés could no longer afford the rent on his room. Then he ran out of food.

The buses had been stopped, so José Andrés would have to walk home, to his grandfather’s house in the village of Motaya, 90 kilometers away.

Just leaving the city was a challenge. In Bolivia we are only allowed out of the house one morning a week; everyone is assigned a day from Monday to Friday, depending on the last number of one’s national ID. When it was José Andrés’s turn to leave his room, on a Wednesday, he left at 7:40, carrying water and cooked pasta, the last of his provisions.

He avoided the road most of the time, taking short cuts. He wasn’t very sure of the path, so he used the GPS on his phone to guide him. After running out of water, he drank from a stagnant pond, which made him vomit. Weakened, and with no houses in sight, José Andrés kept walking. The mountains and the canyons blocked his phone signal most of the way. Then he remembered what his grandmother had taught him, that the stars set in the west, and this helped guide his way.

At 11 at night, when José Andrés climbed to a ridge, he saw the lights of the town of Presto, near his village, and he also got a phone signal. He called his cousin, who came with a friend on motorcycles to pick José Andrés up from the road. It was one in the morning on Thursday when they got home.

The municipality put José Andrés in quarantine for two weeks, but his family will feed him, and then he will be able to help with the farm work and wait out the quarantine.

This story puts a face on what is blandly called rural-urban migration. One of the most viable strategies for rural migrants is to go to the city after graduating from high school, to attend university. Young people from the countryside work their way through school and after graduation build a career in the city. These hardworking, resourceful kids are the future of their country. Yet they are so under-appreciated that national leaders can close their universities and shut down the bus system, without even offering the students the dignity of a ride home.  

Source

https://correodelsur.com/local/20200402_jose-andres-escapa-del-hambre-en-sucre-y-recorre-mas-de-90-kilometros.html

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