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Khipu: A story tied in knots September 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Writing was linked to farming from the time of the first scribes, when Sumerian accountants made wedge-shaped marks in wet clay tablets to keep track of trade in grain and livestock. These numbers and symbols were first used around 5,000 BC as a simple notational system for counting sheep and jars of olive oil, eventually evolving into true writing by at least 3,500 BC as shown by recorded hymns and myths. Original writing systems were rare: only the Chinese and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently of the Sumerians.

All writing systems use a flat surface, and until factories made cheap paper in the nineteenth century, material to write on was a limitation. Clay was bulky. Stone was hard. Papyrus was expensive. Parchments from animal skins were so valuable that old ones were often scraped clean to write something new; the old text was often still visible and called a palimpsest. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka took the trouble to write scriptures on palm leaves, painstakingly arranged in books, while rare Sanskrit manuscripts survive on birch bark.

High in the Andes, the Inka state was using its own system for recording data, based on a completely different medium: knotted twine, a technique that had been evolving since at least the time of the Wari Empire (450-1000 AD), long before the Inka (1400-1533). The multilingual empire of the Inka reached from Ecuador to Chile, with millions of subjects. Conquered communities paid tax to the empire, as textiles, and as maize and freeze-dried potatoes kept in storehouses (qollqa) and as a one-year labor turn every seven years (mit’a).

To tabulate all of these obligations, the empire used the khipu, knots on a string. The khipu maker (khipu kamayoq, or knot-master) started with long central cord, with secondary and tertiary twine fanning out from it like branches of a tree. Each string told a story. Meaning was distinguished by type of fiber (cotton vs llama hair), whether it was twisted left or right, by the type of knot, by a hundred different colors of twine and by the position of the knots.

Conquered nobles were forced to send their sons to live in the capital city, Cusco, where the boys took a four-year course on Inka myth and history, and on the official language (Quechua). Two years of their education were devoted to a study of the khipu.

The khipu was accurate enough to record the census data of a whole province, the soldiers of an army, or tax obligations. Knot-masters also used the khipus to help memorize and recite myths and narratives.

The Spanish conquistadores understood that khipus stored data accurately, and had them dictated and transcribed as sources of Inka history. Khipus were even allowed as evidence in colonial courts, where the litigants would argue over the ownership of land or titles, or sue for reimbursement for foodstuffs supplied to Spanish soldiers, as recorded in the knotted strings.

Knowledge of how to make a khipu died out a generation after the conquest, but Harvard anthropologist, Gary Urton, a specialist in the khipus, argues that they were not an adding machine (as some thought), nor were they true writing. They were however, a superb mnemonic device, perfectly accurate for recording exact numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Moderately simple khipus could be interpreted on their own, without memorizing the content. The Inka organized a network of runners radiating out from Cusco across the realm. Each messenger (chaski) would run for about 20 km, before relaying his information to the next courier. A team could cover as much as 240 km a day, but perhaps 150 chaskis were needed to run from Quito to Cusco, some 2900 km. To avoid garbling their message entirely, each chaski handed the next one a khipu, which travelled independently of its maker, and must have been capable of bearing meaning alone.

I wonder what would have happened if the khipus had evolved for a much longer time? Given a few more centuries, would they have evolved into a full writing system to record human language, not with marks on a flat surface, but in three dimensions? It would have been a truly unique writing system, unlike any other the world has used.

Further reading

Urton¬īs study of the khipus is discussed at length in:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. New York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Photo credit

Khipu on display at the Museo Larco, in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter.

Related blog stories

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Feeding the Inca empire

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

DESENREDANDO LA HISTORIA DEL KHIPU

Por Jeff Bentley, 27 de septiembre del 2020

La escritura estuvo vinculada a la agricultura desde los tiempos de los primeros escribas, cuando los contadores sumerios hac√≠an marcas en forma de cu√Īa en tablillas de arcilla h√ļmeda para llevar la cuenta del comercio de granos y ganado. Estos n√ļmeros y s√≠mbolos se usaron por primera vez alrededor del 5.000 a.C. como un simple sistema de anotaci√≥n para contar ovejas y c√°ntaros de aceite de oliva, que con el tiempo evolucion√≥ hasta convertirse en escritura verdadera por lo menos para el 3.500 a.C., como lo demuestran los himnos y mitos registrados. Los sistemas de escritura originales eran pocos: s√≥lo los chinos y los mesoamericanos inventaron la escritura independientemente de los sumerios.

Todos los sistemas de escritura usan una superficie plana, y hasta que las fábricas hacían papel barato en el siglo XIX, el material para escribir era una limitación. La arcilla era voluminosa. La piedra era dura. El papiro era caro. Los pergaminos de pieles de animales eran tan valiosos que los viejos a menudo se raspaban para escribir algo nuevo; el texto antiguo era a menudo todavía visible y se llamaba palimpsesto. Los monjes budistas de Sri Lanka se tomaban la molestia de escribir escrituras en hojas de palma, cuidadosamente dispuestas en libros, mientras que raros manuscritos sánscritos sobreviven en corteza de abedul.

En las alturas de los Andes, el estado Inca usaba su propio sistema de registro de datos, basado en un medio completamente diferente: el hilo anudado, una t√©cnica que hab√≠a estado evolucionando desde por lo menos la √©poca del Imperio Wari (450-1000 d.C.), mucho antes del Inka (1400-1533). El imperio multiling√ľe del Inca lleg√≥ desde Ecuador hasta Chile, con millones de s√ļbditos. Las comunidades conquistadas pagaban impuestos al imperio, en forma de textiles, ma√≠z y chu√Īo guardados en almacenes (qollqa) y como un turno de trabajo de un a√Īo cada siete a√Īos (mit’a).

Para tabular todas estas obligaciones, el imperio usaba el khipu, nudos en una cuerda. El entendido en la materia, el khipu kamayoq, o maestro de nudos, comenzó con un largo cordón central, con cuerdas secundarias y terciarias que se abrían en abanico como las ramas de un árbol. Cada cuerda contaba una historia. El significado se distinguía por el tipo de fibra (algodón vs pelo de llama), si se retorcía a la izquierda o a la derecha, por el tipo de nudo, por cien colores diferentes de hilo y por la posición de los nudos.

Los nobles conquistados eran obligados a enviar a sus hijos a vivir en la ciudad capital, Cusco, donde los muchachos tomaban un curso de cuatro a√Īos sobre el mito y la historia del Inca, y sobre el idioma oficial (el quechua). Dos a√Īos de su educaci√≥n se dedicaron al estudio del khipu.

El khipu era lo suficientemente preciso como para registrar los datos del censo de toda una provincia, los soldados de un ejército, o los impuestos. Los maestros de nudos también usaban los khipus para ayudar a memorizar y recitar mitos e historias.

Los conquistadores espa√Īoles entendieron que los khipus guardaban datos con precisi√≥n, y los hicieron dictar para transcribirlos como fuentes de la historia de los incas. Los khipus fueron incluso permitidos como evidencia en las cortes coloniales, donde los litigantes discut√≠an qui√©n era el due√Īo de tal terreno o t√≠tulo, o demandaban el reembolso de los alimentos suministrados a los soldados espa√Īoles, seg√ļn lo registrado en las cuerdas anudadas.

El conocimiento de c√≥mo hacer un khipu se extingui√≥ una generaci√≥n despu√©s de la conquista, pero el antrop√≥logo de Harvard, Gary Urton, especialista en los khipus, argumenta que no eran una m√°quina de sumar (como algunos pensaban), ni tampoco eran redacci√≥n. Sin embargo, eran un magn√≠fico dispositivo mnemot√©cnico, perfectamente preciso para registrar n√ļmeros exactos en los cientos de miles.

Los khipus moderadamente simples podían ser interpretados por sí mismos, sin memorizar el contenido. Los Incas organizaron una red de corredores que irradiaban desde Cusco a través del reino. Cada mensajero (chaski) correría durante unos 20 km, antes de transmitir su información al siguiente mensajero. Un equipo podía cubrir hasta 240 km al día, pero tal vez se necesitaban 150 chaskis para correr de Quito a Cusco, unos 2900 km. Para evitar tergiversar su mensaje por completo, cada chaski entregó al siguiente un khipu, que viajó solito, sin su creador, y debe haber sido capaz de llevar el significado por sí solo.

Me pregunto qu√© habr√≠a pasado si los khipus hubieran evolucionado durante mucho m√°s tiempo. Dados unos pocos siglos m√°s ¬Ņhabr√≠a evolucionado hacia un sistema de escritura completo para registrar el lenguaje humano, no con marcas en una superficie plana, sino en tres dimensiones? Habr√≠a sido un sistema de escritura verdaderamente √ļnico, como ning√ļn otro que el mundo haya usado.

Para leer m√°s

El estudio de Urton de los khipus est√° ampliamente descrito en:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. Nueva York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Crédito de la foto

Khipu exhibido en el Museo Larco, en Lima. Foto por Claus Ableiter.

Relatos relacionados del blog

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Alimentando al Imperio Incaico

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semi√°rido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben c√≥mo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¬Ņcu√°ndo comenzar√°n las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris tambi√©n apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han dise√Īado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agr√≥nomos de Prosuco, una organizaci√≥n en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada d√≠a del a√Īo, con s√≥lo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difícil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del a√Īo pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. C√≥mo √©l me explic√≥ hace poco, Prosuco tom√≥ cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campa√Īas agr√≠colas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campa√Īa por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permiti√≥ a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas hab√≠an ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tard√≠a (dos semanas despu√©s).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorol√≥gicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por m√°s lluvia. La precipitaci√≥n media anual es s√≥lo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un a√Īo seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un a√Īo con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio hall√≥ que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir da√Īo en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco despu√©s de la siembra de la papa, afectando m√°s a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son m√°s riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tard√≠as justo en la √©poca de floraci√≥n. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tard√≠as, si la papa est√° en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelaci√≥n. La meteorolog√≠a cient√≠fica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos d√≠as, pero con meses de anticipaci√≥n. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pron√≥stico moderno no te puede decir c√≥mo ser√° el tiempo cuando tu cultivo est√° en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es √ļtil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas despu√©s puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es m√°s vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorología científica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipación, el conocimiento local llena un vacío que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentaci√≥n por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en espa√Īol)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigación. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versión previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesía de Prosuco.

The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every ‚Äúsystem‚ÄĚ (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not profitable,‚ÄĚ the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

‚ÄúBut the farmers do grow it,‚ÄĚ I said.

‚ÄúWell, they won‚Äôt for long,‚ÄĚ the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had ‚Äúbread up its ass and shit in its mouth‚ÄĚ (p√£o no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: ‚ÄúCereal – Renaissance in the field‚ÄĚ (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

Friendly germs April 5th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

At a recent event in Cochabamba, just before Bolivia went into lockdown over coronavirus, I had a rare opportunity to see how to make products or inputs used in agroecological farming.

The organizers (the NGO Agroecología y Fe) were well prepared. They had written recipes for the organic fertilizers and natural pesticides, an expert to explain what each product did and to show the practical steps. The materials for making the inputs were neatly laid out in a grassy meadow. We had plenty of space to build fires, mix materials such as cow dung with earth and water, and to stand and chat. Agronomist Freddy Vargas started by making bokashi, which extensionists have frequently demonstrated in Latin America for decades, especially among environmentally sensitive organizations.

Bokashi is sometimes described as fertilizer, but it is more than that; it is also a source of minerals and a culture of microorganisms. Freddy explained that for the past 25 years, ever since university, he has been making bokashi. He uses it on his own farm, and teaches it to farmers who want to bring their soil back to life.

Freddy mixes leaf litter and top soil from around the base of trees (known as sach‚Äôa wanu (‚Äútree dung‚ÄĚ) in Quechua. The tree dung contains naturally occurring bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter, add life to the soil and help control plant diseases. Freddy adds a few packets of bread yeast for good measure. As a growth medium for the microbes, he adds rice bran and rice husks, but any organic stuff would work. Next, raw sugar is dissolved in water, as food for the microorganisms. He also adds minerals: rock flour (ground stone) and ‚Äúfosfito‚ÄĚ (rock flour and bone flour, burned on a slow fire). The pile of ingredients is mixed with a shovel, made into a heap and covered with a plastic tarpaulin, to let it ferment. Every day or so it gets hot from fermentation, and has to be turned again. The bokashi will be ready in about two weeks, depending on the weather.

This elaborate procedure is why it has taken me some time to accept bokashi.  It seemed like so much work. Freddy explained that he adds bokashi to the surface of the soil on his farm, and over the years this has helped to improve the soil, to allow it to retain water. ‚ÄúWe used to have to water our apple trees every two days, but now we only have to irrigate once a week,‚ÄĚ he explained. His enthusiasm and clear evidence of benefits made me re-assess my previous skeptical view of bokashi.

Next, agronomist Basilio Caspa showed how to make biol, a liquid culture of friendly microbes. He mixed fresh cow dung, raw sugar and water with his hands, in a bucket, a demonstration that perplexes farmers. ‚ÄúHow can an educated man like you mix cow dung with your hands?‚ÄĚ But Basilio enjoys making things, and he is soon up to his elbows in the mixture before pouring it into a 200-liter barrel, and then filling it the rest of the way with water.

Basilio puts on a tight lid, to keep out the air, and installs a valve he bought for 2 pesos at the hardware store, to let out the methane that is released during the fermentation. The biol will be ready in about four weeks, to spray on crops as a fertilizer and to discourage disease (as the beneficial microorganisms control the pathogens).  Basilio has studied biol closely and wrote his thesis on it. He found that he could mix anything from half to two liters of biol into a 20 liter back pack sprayer. Higher concentrations worked best, but he always saw benefits whatever the dilution.

We also learned to brew a sulfur lime mix, an ancient pesticide. This is easy to make: sulfur and lime are simply boiled in water.

But do farmers actually use these products?

Then Mar√≠a Omonte, an agronomist with profound field experience, shared a doubt. With help from Agroecolog√≠a y Fe, she had taught farmers in Sik‚Äôimira, Cochabamba to make these inputs, and then helped the communities to try the inputs on their farms. “In Sik‚Äôimira, only one farmer had made bokashi, but many had made biol.‚ÄĚ This seasoned group agreed. The farmers tended to accept biol more than bokashi, but they were even more interested in the brews that more closely resembled chemicals, such as sulfur lime, Bordeaux mix (a copper-based fungicide) and ash boiled with soap.

The group excitedly discussed the generally low adoption by farmers of these products. They suggested several reasons: first, the products with microbes are often made incorrectly, with poor results and so the farmers don’t want to make them again. Second, the farmers want immediate results, and when they don’t get them, they lose heart and abandon the idea. Besides, making biol and bokashi takes more time to prepare than agrochemicals, which is discouraging.

Bokashi and biol do improve the soil, otherwise, agronomists like Freddy would not keep using them on their own farms. But perhaps farmers demand inputs that are easier to use. The next step is to study which products farmers accept and which ones they reject. Why do they adopt some homemade inputs while resisting others? An agroecological technology, no matter how environmentally sound, still has to respond to users’ demands, for example, it must be low cost and easy to use. Formal studies will also help to show the benefits of minerals, microbes and organic matter on the soil’s structure and fertility.

Related blogs

A revolution for our soil

Strawberry fields once again

Farming with trees

The bokashi factory

Apple futures

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Acknowledgements

The event I attended was the Congress of the Regional Soils Platform in Cochabamba, organized by the NGO Agroecología y Fe. Thanks to María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, and Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

MICROBIOS AMIGABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 5 de abril del 2020

En un reciente congreso en Cochabamba, justo antes de que Bolivia entrara en cuarentena por el corona virus, tuve la rara oportunidad, como parte de un grupo peque√Īo, de ver c√≥mo hacer insumos o productos para la agricultura agroecol√≥gica.

Los organizadores (la ONG Agroecología y Fe) estaban bien preparados con recetas escritas para los abonos y plaguicidas naturales, con un experto para cada insumo para explicar qué hacía cada producto y para mostrar los pasos prácticos. También tenían sus materiales debidamente preparados de antemano.

En un campo de pasto, teníamos mucho espacio para hacer hogueras, mezclar materiales como estiércol de vaca con tierra y agua, y para observar y charlar. El Ing. Freddy Vargas comenzó haciendo bocashi, que los extensionistas han demostrado muchas veces en América Latina durante varias décadas, especialmente entre las organizaciones sensibles al medio ambiente.

El bocashi se describe a veces como fertilizante, pero en realidad es m√°s que abono org√°nico; es tambi√©n una fuente de minerales, y microorganismos para el suelo.  Freddy explic√≥ que desde que √©l estuvo en la universidad, durante los √ļltimos 25 a√Īos, ha estado fabricando bocashi. Lo usa en su propia finca, y lo ense√Īa a los agricultores que quieren devolver la vida a su suelo.

Freddy mezcla la hojarasca y con tierra que recoge debajo de los √°rboles (conocido como sach’a wanu, en quechua, “esti√©rcol de √°rbol”). El esti√©rcol de √°rbol contiene bacterias y hongos naturales que descomponen la materia org√°nica, dan vida al suelo, y controlan las enfermedades de las plantas. Freddy agrega unos cuantos paquetes de levadura de pan por si acaso. Pone salvado de arroz y cascarilla de arroz como un medio de cultivos, pero podr√≠a usar cualquier cosa org√°nica. Tambi√©n pone minerales: harina de roca (piedra molida) y fosfito (harina de roca y harina de hueso, quemado a fuego lento). √Čl a√Īade chancaca disuelta en agua, como alimento para los microbios, luego da vuelta a todos los ingredientes con una pala, y se cubre con una lona, para dejarla fermentar. M√°s o menos cada d√≠a el bocashi se calienta por la fermentaci√≥n, y de nuevo hay que darle vuelta a la mezcla. El bocashi estar√≠a listo en unas dos semanas, seg√ļn la temperatura ambiental.

Es un procedimiento exigente, que parece mucho trabajo, pero Freddy explic√≥ que √©l agrega bocashi a la superficie del suelo en su finca para liberar los microorganismos en la tierra. A lo largo de los a√Īos esto ha ayudado a mejorar el suelo, para que retenga m√°s humedad. “Antes ten√≠amos que regar nuestros manzanos cada dos d√≠as, pero ahora s√≥lo tenemos que regar una vez a la semana”, explic√≥. Su entusiasmo y la clara evidencia de los beneficios me ayud√≥ a reevaluar mi opini√≥n esc√©ptica del bocashi.

A continuaci√≥n, el Ing. Basilio Caspa mostr√≥ c√≥mo hacer biol, un cultivo l√≠quido de microbios amistosos. En un balde, mezcl√≥ esti√©rcol fresco de vaca, chancaca y agua, explicando que cuando muestra a los agricultores c√≥mo mezclar el biol, se oponen. “¬ŅC√≥mo es que un hombre educado como t√ļ puede mezclar esti√©rcol de vaca con sus manos?” Pero a Basilio le gusta hacer cosas con las manos, y pronto est√° hasta los codos en la mezcla, antes de echarla en un barril de 200 litros, y luego llenarlo el resto con agua.

Basilio pone una tapa herm√©tica al turril, para que no entre el aire, e instala una v√°lvula que compr√≥ por 2 pesos en la ferreter√≠a para dejar salir el metano que el biol liberar√° al fermentar. En un mes, el biol estar√° listo para fumigar los cultivos como fertilizante foliar y para evitar las enfermedades (por que los microorganismos ben√©ficos controlan a los pat√≥genos).  En realidad, Basilio escribi√≥ su tesis sobre el biol. Encontr√≥ que pod√≠a mezclar desde medio litro de biol hasta 2 litros en una bomba de mochila de 20 litros, y que entre m√°s biol que pone, m√°s fuertes son las plantas. En base a eso, √©l recomiendo poner dos litros de biol para arriba en una bomba de 20 litros.

También aprendimos a preparar una mezcla de azufre y cal (caldo sulfocálcico), un antiguo plaguicida. Es fácil hacerlo; se hierve cal y azufre en agua.

¬ŅPero los agricultores realmente usan estos productos?

Entonces Mar√≠a Omonte, una ingeniera agr√≥noma con profunda experiencia de campo, comparti√≥ una duda. Con la ayuda de Agroecolog√≠a y Fe, ella hab√≠a ense√Īado a los agricultores de Sik’imira, Cochabamba, a fabricar estos insumos y luego ayud√≥ a las comunidades a probar los insumos en sus fincas. “En Sik‚Äôimira, solo un agricultor ha hecho bocashi, pero muchos han hecho biol”. Este experimentado grupo estuvo de acuerdo; as√≠ era. Los agricultores tend√≠an a aceptar el biol, m√°s que el bocashi, pero m√°s que eso, est√°n interesados en los caldos que parecen m√°s a los qu√≠micos, como el caldo sulfoc√°lcico, el caldo bordel√©s (un fungicida c√ļprico) y el caldo ceniza (ceniza hervida con jab√≥n).

El grupo discutió animadamente la poca adopción que en general hacen los productores de estos preparados. Decían que hay varias razones: una es que no siempre se hace correctamente los mezclados con microbios, y los resultados no son buenos y los productores no quieren hacerlos nuevamente. Otra razón es que los campesinos quieren resultados inmediatos, y al no ver esto desconfían y lo dejan. Además, hacer biol y bocashi requiere mayor tiempo y esfuerzo en su preparación que los agroquímicos y eso los desmotiva.

El bocashi y el biol s√≠ mejoran el suelo, si no fuera as√≠, ingenieros como Freddy no los seguir√≠an usando en su propia finca. Pero tal vez los agricultores demandan insumos m√°s f√°ciles de hacer. El siguiente paso es hacer un estudio m√°s al fondo para averiguar qu√© insumos aceptan los agricultores y cu√°les no. ¬ŅPor qu√© adoptan algunos insumos caseros y se resisten a usar otros? Una tecnolog√≠a agroecol√≥gica, por m√°s sana que sea, todav√≠a tiene que responder a las demandas de los usuarios, por ejemplo, de tener bajo costo y ser f√°cil de hacer. Este tema tambi√©n merece estudios formales sobre los efectos de los minerales, materia org√°nica y microbios a la fertilidad y estructura del suelo.

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Agradecimientos

El Congreso de la Plataforma Regional de Suelos en Cochabamba fue organizado por la ONG Agroecología y Fe. Gracias a María Omonte, Germán Vargas, Eric Boa, y Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa.

Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Like many Bolivians, Diego Ramírez never thought about remaining in the village where he was born, and starting a business on his family’s small farm. As a kid, he loved picking fruit on his grandparents’ small strawberry patch in the village of Ucuchi, and swimming with his friends in a pond fed with spring water, but he had to leave home at a young age to attend high school in the small city of Sacaba, and then he went on to study computer science at the university (UMSS) in the big city of Cochabamba, where he found work after graduation.

Years later, Diego‚Äôs dad called his seven children together to tell them that he was selling their grandparents‚Äô farm. It made sense. The grandparents had died, and the land had been idle for about 15 years. Yet, it struck Diego as a tragedy, so he said ‚ÄúI‚Äôll farm it.‚ÄĚ Some people thought he was joking. In Ucuchi, people were leaving agriculture, not getting into it. Many had migrated to Bolivia‚Äôs eastern lowlands or to foreign countries, so many of the fields in Ucuchi were abandoned. It was not the sort of place that people like Diego normally return to.

When Diego decided to revive his family farm two years ago, he turned to the Internet for inspiration. Although strawberries have been grown for many years in Ucuchi, and they are a profitable crop around Cochabamba, Diego learned of a commercial strawberry farm in Santo Domingo, Santiago, in neighboring Chile, that gave advice and sold plants. Santo Domingo is 2450 km from Cochabamba, but Diego was so serious about strawberries that he went there over a weekend and brought back 500 strawberry plants. Crucially, he also learned about new technologies like drip irrigation, and planting in raised beds covered with plastic sheeting. Encouraged by his new knowledge, he found dealers in Cochabamba who sold drip irrigation equipment and he installed it, along with plastic mulch, a common method in modern strawberry production.

Diego was inclined towards producing strawberries agroecologically, so he contacted the Agrecol Andes Foundation which was then organizing an association of ecological farmers in Sacaba, the small city where Diego lives (half way between the farm and the big city of Cochabamba). In that way Diego became a certified ecological farmer under the SPG PAS (Participatory Guaranty System, Agroecological Farmers of Sacaba).  Diego learned to make his own biol (a fermented solution of cow dung that fertilizes the soil and adds beneficial microbes to it). Now he mixes biol into the drip irrigation tank, fertilizing the strawberries one drop at a time.

Diego also makes his own organic sprays, like sulfur-lime brew and Bordeaux mix. He applies these solutions every two weeks to control powdery mildew, a common fungal disease, thrips (a small insect pest), red mites, and damping off. I was impressed. A lot of people talk about organic sprays, but few make their own. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not that hard,‚ÄĚ Diego shrugged, when I asked him where he found the time.

Diego finds the time to do a lot of admirable things. He has a natural flair for marketing and has designed his own packing boxes of thin cardboard, which he had printed in La Paz. His customers receive their fruit in a handsome box, rather than in a plastic bag, where fruit is easily damaged. He sells direct to customers who come to his farm, and at agroecological fairs and in stores that sell ecological products.

Diego still does his day job in the city, while also being active in community politics in Ucuchi. He also tends a small field of potatoes and he is planting fruit trees and prickly pear on the rocky slopes above his strawberry field. Diego has also started a farmers’ association with his neighbors, ten men and ten women, including mature adults and young people who are still in university.

The association members grow various crops, not just strawberries. Diego is teaching them to grow strawberries organically and to use drip irrigation. To encourage people to use these methods he has created his own demonstration plots. He has divided his grandparents’ strawberry field into three areas: one with his modern system, one with local varieties grown the old way on bare soil, with flood irrigation, and a third part with modern varieties grown the old way. The modern varieties do poorly when grown the way that Diego’s grandparents used. And Diego says the old way is too much work, mainly because of the weeding, irrigation, pests and diseases.

Ucuchi is an attractive village in the hills, with electricity, running water, a primary school and a small hospital. It is just off the main highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, an hour from the city of Cochabamba where you can buy or sell almost anything. Partly because of these advantages, some young people are returning to Ucuchi. Organic strawberries are hard to grow, and rare in Bolivia. But a unique product, like organic strawberries, and inspired leadership can help to stem the flow of migration, while showing that there are ways for young people to start a viable business in the countryside. Diego clearly loves being back in his home village, stopping his pickup truck to chat with people passing by on the village lanes. He also brings his own family to the farm on weekends, where he has put a new tile roof on his grandparents’ old adobe farm house.

Agriculture is more than making a profit. It is also about family history, community, and finding work that is satisfying and creative.

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EN EL FRUTILLAR DE NUEVO

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de marzo del 2019

Como muchos bolivianos, Diego Ram√≠rez nunca pens√≥ en quedarse en la comunidad donde naci√≥, y empezar un emprendimiento agr√≠cola en las peque√Īas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de ni√Īo le encantaba recoger fruta en la peque√Īa parcela de frutillas de sus abuelos en la comunidad de Ucuchi, y nadar con sus amigos en una poza de riego, llena de agua de manantial, pero de joven tuvo que vivir en la ciudad peque√Īa de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingenier√≠a de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empez√≥ a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

A√Īos m√°s tarde, el padre de Diego llam√≥ a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. Ten√≠a sentido. Los abuelos hab√≠an fallecido, y nadie hab√≠a trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 a√Īos. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareci√≥ una tragedia, as√≠ que dijo: “Yo la voy a trabajar”. Algunos pensaron que era un chiste. En Ucuchi, la gente estaba en plan de dejar la agricultura, no meterse en ella. Prefer√≠an emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se hab√≠an ido del pa√≠s. Por esta raz√≥n muchas de las parcelas est√°n abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidi√≥ revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos a√Īos, busc√≥ inspiraci√≥n en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enter√≥ de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino pa√≠s de Chile, que daba consejos y vend√≠a plantas. Santo Domingo est√° a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tom√≥ tan en serio las frutillas que fue all√≠ un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, tambi√©n aprendi√≥ sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con pl√°stico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, busc√≥ distribuidores en Cochabamba que vend√≠an equipos de riego por goteo y los instal√≥, junto con el mulch pl√°stico, un m√©todo com√ļn en la producci√≥n moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclin√≥ m√°s en la producci√≥n agroecol√≥gica para producir frutillas, as√≠ que se contact√≥ con la Fundaci√≥n Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociaci√≥n de productores ecol√≥gicos en Sacaba, la peque√Īa ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificaci√≥n de productor ecol√≥gico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garant√≠a Productores Agroecol√≥gicos Sacaba), Diego aprendi√≥ a hacer su propio biol (una soluci√≥n fermentada de esti√©rcol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras a√Īade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego tambi√©n hace sus propias soluciones org√°nicas, como el sulfoc√°lcico y el caldo bordel√©s. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el o√≠dium, los thrips (un peque√Īo insecto), la ara√Īuela roja, y la pudrici√≥n de cuello. Me impresion√≥. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones org√°nicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan dif√≠cil”, Diego dijo cuando le pregunt√© de d√≥nde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha dise√Īado sus propias cajas de cart√≥n delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de pl√°stico, donde la fruta se da√Īa f√°cilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecol√≥gicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecol√≥gicos.

Diego todav√≠a hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que tambi√©n tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. Tambi√©n cultiva una peque√Īa chacra de papas y est√° plantando √°rboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego tambi√©n ha iniciado una asociaci√≥n de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y j√≥venes que todav√≠a est√°n en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociaci√≥n cultivan diversos cultivos, no s√≥lo frutillas. Diego les ense√Īa a cultivar frutillas org√°nicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos m√©todos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostraci√≥n. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres √°reas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundaci√≥n, y una tercera parte con variedades modernas cultivadas a la manera antigua. Las variedades modernas no rinden bien cuando se cultivan al estilo de los abuelos. Y Diego dice que la forma antigua es mucho trabajo, principalmente por el desmalezado, el riego y las enfermedades adem√°s de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un peque√Īo hospital. Est√° justo al lado de la carretera principal a Santa Cruz, a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba donde se puede comprar o vender casi cualquier cosa. En parte por estas ventajas, algunos j√≥venes se est√°n volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas org√°nicas son dif√≠ciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto √ļnico, como las frutillas org√°nicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migraci√≥n, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los j√≥venes empiecen con un emprendimiento personal en el campo. A Diego le encanta estar de vuelta en su comunidad: para su camioneta para charlar con la gente que pasa por los caminos del pueblo. Tambi√©n trae a su propia familia a la finca los fines de semana, donde ha puesto un nuevo techo de tejas en la vieja casa de adobe de sus abuelos.

La agricultura es m√°s que la b√ļsqueda de lucro. Tambi√©n se trata de la tradici√≥n familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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