Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed

The long, slow dawn of farming November 20th, 2022 by

In a recent book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow summarize recent archaeological and ethnographic literature, to rethink the start of the state, social inequality, agriculture, property, monarchies, the enlightenment, and much else.

As they explain, agriculture did not start a revolution leading immediately to cities, monarchies and stratified societies with specialized artisans. Current archaeology suggests that wheat and rice may not have been fully domesticated until 3,000 years after people first began planting these crops. The early development of farming was long and slow.

When agrarian cities did eventually emerge, they were also slow to embrace autocratic rule. The earliest Mesopotamian cities, from about 3500 BC, show no signs of royal rulers for at least their first 500 years. In ancient Ukraine, sites large enough to be called cities were occupied for at least 800 years (4100 to 3300 BC) without the palaces and lavish burials left behind by kings.

Some agrarian societies also seem to have been able to shake off authoritarian rulers.  For example, in Mexico, the ancient city of Teotihuacán was certainly led by a central authority from AD 100 to 200, when the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent were built, complete with human sacrifices during the construction. But after AD 300 signs of authoritarianism vanished: for example, human sacrifices stopped, and Teotihuacán was rebuilt to provide decent “social housing” for most of the 100,000 or so residents, until this central Mexican city was abandoned about AD 550.

On the Greek island of Crete, art from the Minoan Civilization (especially from 1700 to 1450 BC) depicts women in positions of leadership, holding staffs of command, performing fertility rites, sitting on thrones and meeting in assemblies with no men present. Graeber and Wengrow speculate that women in this classic agrarian civilization may have formed governing councils which ruled by consensus.

These (and other) examples of agriculture-and-cities without monarchies have been obscured in our current view of “Western Civilization”. Certainly in the past 2000 years, monarchs ruled with absolute power. But can these warlike states with their arrogant kings and their humiliated subjects really be called “civilized”?

“How did we get things so wrong?” Graeber and Wengrow ask, without answering their own question.

After I put the book down, I thought how we are getting it wrong a second time. True, in a way the nature of authoritarianism has changed, and concentration of power has shifted. However, world governments are allowing multinational corporations to dominate the global food supply, to have control over seeds, fertilizer, and even food processing and sales.

There are things we can do to help keep agriculture close to its democratic origins.

  • Plant a garden
  • Buy food from local, family farmers
  • Buy organic and agroecological produce
  • Support local food traditions
  • Experiment with organic soil fertility and other methods that allow you to avoid using chemicals in farming or gardening
  • Lobby your government to apply anti-trust legislation to large corporations in agriculture

Further reading

Graeber, David and David Wengrow 2021 The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fuller, Dorian Q. 2010 An emerging paradigm shift in the origins of agriculture. General Anthropology 17(2): 1, 8-12.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

In Against the Grain, James C. Scott also concludes that early agriculture in the Near East was sustainable, based on self-governing villages for thousands of years before states developed in that cradle of civilization. Paul and I like his book so much that we have reviewed it twice:

The early state and the bad old days

Against or with nature

We have also written before about the rising food oligarchy

Grocery shops and farm shops

GMOs by hook and by crooks

Formerly known as food

Fighting farmers

Family farms produce more food and jobs

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Our threatened farmers

The village hunter


Micro-chefs November 6th, 2022 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

In this era when many societies have embraced fast food and convenient, ready-made meals, it was refreshing to watch a documentary on the Korean Air flight back home recently, showing how citizens, chefs and scientists across the globe are increasingly waking up to the importance of nurturing and promoting local food cultures.

Dustin Wessa, the presenter in the documentary, “The Chef of Time,” is an American chef who has been living in Korea for 15 years, specialising in fermented food and beverages, such as Makgeolli, a milky and lightly sparkling rice wine. In his opening statement, the friendly chef explains in fluent Korean that the most complex tastes are not created by people, but by millions of micro-organisms (yeasts, lacto-acid bacteria and moulds) which he playfully calls “micro-chefs”. If we want to use the help of this army of cooks, we need time and patience, which Wessa lists as key ingredients for the preparation of delicious food and beverages.

While showing nature’s beauty and picking up a handful of forest soil, Dustin Wessa illustrates the rich diversity of micro-organisms and explains that they are all around us: in the air, soil, on plants and every part of the planet. A Korean scientist explains in lay-man’s language that fermentation and decay are basically the same process whereby micro-organisms break down components in nature. But unlike decay, fermentation is of immediate benefit to people for food preservation and production.

About 4,000 years ago the first fermented breads were made in Egypt. Most likely natural yeasts flying around in the air had landed on wheat dough that was kept in the open air. From this moment on, yeasts would be part of the sourdough, causing the dough to rise.

While many societies across the world have independently developed fermentation techniques, it was not until the 19th century that people began to understand that micro-organisms were causing food and beverages to ferment or to spoil. (Helped by the discovery of the microscope, Louis Pasteur studied microbial fermentation and came to understand how heat killed bacteria. This led to the name ‘pasteurization’).

In many countries across the world, just one species of commercial yeast is used to make bread, beer and wine, namely Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Different strains of this single-celled fungus microorganism are mass multiplied in laboratories to serve different purposes. Micro-organisms in the food industry have become an expensive ingredient. Annually, Korea has imported for millions of dollars of yeast for use in its highly popular bakery and pastry industry.

Doing research on micro-organisms in nature is a complex matter as there are millions of species and countless interactions between them and their environment. Up to now, about 1,600 species have been identified which have economic importance in food preservation and preparation worldwide. A small fraction of the estimated 150,000 useful species.

When Korean scientists discovered a local yeast that could be used in bread making, they were quick to mass multiply and market it, saving the country millions of dollars.

The documentary does further justice to the importance of treasuring local microbial diversity by putting it all in a global perspective. When the entire world depends on just a few commercial species to prepare food, our food system would become highly vulnerable and prone to the vagaries of commercial and political interests.

To avoid making the same mistakes as with seeds of major food crops, which are in the hands of a few large corporations, we need to ensure that local micro-organisms remain a public good, protected from private capture. Only by doing so, we will be able to keep local food cultures alive.

Related blogs

Korean food culture

The baker farmers

A market to nurture local food culture



In dit tijdperk waarin veel samenlevingen fastfood en gemakkelijke, kant-en-klare maaltijden hebben omarmd, was het verfrissend om op de vlucht van Korean Air naar huis onlangs een documentaire te zien die laat zien hoe burgers, chef-koks en wetenschappers over de hele wereld zich steeds meer bewust worden van het belang van het koesteren en bevorderen van lokale eetculturen.

Dustin Wessa, de presentator in de documentaire “The Chef of Time”, is een Amerikaanse kok die al 15 jaar in Korea woont en gespecialiseerd is in gefermenteerd voedsel en dranken, zoals Makgeolli, een melkachtige en licht mousserende rijstwijn. In zijn openingswoord legt de vriendelijke kok in vloeiend Koreaans uit dat de meest complexe smaken niet door mensen worden gecreëerd, maar door miljoenen micro-organismen (gisten, melkzuurbacteriën en schimmels) die hij speels “micro-koks” noemt. Als we de hulp van dit leger van koks willen gebruiken, hebben we tijd en geduld nodig, die Wessa noemt als hoofdingrediënten voor de bereiding van heerlijk eten en drinken.

Terwijl hij de schoonheid van de natuur laat zien en een handvol bosgrond oppakt, illustreert Dustin Wessa de rijke diversiteit aan micro-organismen en legt hij uit dat ze overal om ons heen zijn: in de lucht, in de bodem, op planten en op elk deel van de planeet. Een Koreaanse wetenschapper legt in lekentaal uit dat fermentatie en rotting eigenlijk hetzelfde proces is waarbij micro-organismen bestanddelen in de natuur afbreken. Maar in tegenstelling tot bederf is fermentatie van direct nut voor mensen voor het bewaren en produceren van voedsel.

Ongeveer 4000 jaar geleden werden in Egypte de eerste gegiste broden gemaakt. Waarschijnlijk waren in de lucht rondvliegende natuurlijke gisten terechtgekomen op tarwedeeg dat in de open lucht werd bewaard. Vanaf dat moment maakte gist deel uit van het zuurdesem, waardoor het deeg ging rijzen.

Hoewel veel samenlevingen over de hele wereld onafhankelijk van elkaar fermentatietechnieken hebben ontwikkeld, begon men pas in de 19e eeuw te begrijpen dat micro-organismen voedsel en dranken lieten gisten of bederven. (Geholpen door de ontdekking van de microscoop bestudeerde Louis Pasteur microbiële fermentatie en kwam hij erachter hoe hitte bacteriën doodde. Dit leidde tot de naam “pasteurisatie”).

In veel landen in de wereld wordt slechts één soort commerciële gist (gebruikt om brood, bier en wijn te maken, namelijk Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Micro-organismen in de voedingsindustrie zijn een duur ingrediënt geworden. Korea importeert jaarlijks voor miljoenen dollars aan gist voor gebruik in zijn zeer populaire bakkerij- en banketindustrie.

Onderzoek naar micro-organismen in de natuur is een complexe aangelegenheid, aangezien er miljoenen soorten zijn en talloze interacties tussen hen en hun omgeving. Tot nu toe zijn er ongeveer 1600 soorten geïdentificeerd die wereldwijd van economisch belang zijn voor het bewaren en bereiden van voedsel. Een kleine fractie van de naar schatting 150.000 nuttige soorten.

Toen Koreaanse wetenschappers een lokale gistsoort ontdekten die kon worden gebruikt voor het maken van brood, waren ze er snel bij om deze massaal te vermenigvuldigen en op de markt te brengen, waardoor het land miljoenen dollars bespaarde.

De documentaire doet verder recht aan het belang van het koesteren van lokale microbiële diversiteit door alles in een mondiaal perspectief te plaatsen. Wanneer de hele wereld afhankelijk is van slechts een paar commerciële soorten om voedsel te bereiden, wordt ons voedselsysteem zeer kwetsbaar en vatbaar voor de grillen van commerciële en politieke belangen.

Om niet dezelfde fouten te maken als met zaden van grote voedselgewassen, die in handen zijn van een paar grote bedrijven, moeten we ervoor zorgen dat lokale micro-organismen een publiek goed blijven, beschermd tegen private inbezitneming. Alleen zo kunnen we lokale voedselculturen in leven houden.

Related blogs

Korean food culture

The baker farmers

A market to nurture local food culture

Prophets vs. Wizards October 9th, 2022 by

In his 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann portrays two men, contemporaries, whose competing visions of the future shaped the world we live in now. They may have only met once. Both were from humble backgrounds.

William Vogt (1905-1966), whom Mann calls “the prophet,” was raised by a single mother on Long Island, New York, when it was covered in farms and forests, dotted with villages. When Vogt was a young man, this pastoral landscape was swallowed up by systematic suburbanization, one of the first of its kind in the North America. Vogt mourned the loss of the places where he once hiked and delighted in watching birds. He carried a lifelong dread of population growth.

This view was hardened by his formative fieldwork, where he lived on the guano islands off the Pacific Coast of Peru. Sent to find out why the bird populations were crashing, Vogt realized that the cormorant population rose and fell as the El Niño events favored or killed off the coastal fish. Vogt recommended that if the government wanted to restore the island ecology, they should stop mining guano, then kill the cats, rats and chickens, and leave the islands to the birds.

Vogt may no longer be well known, but he encouraged Roger Peterson to write the first ever field guide to birds (still a beloved series of books). For a time Vogt directed Planned Parenthood, and his 1949 bestseller, Road to Survival, influenced writers like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb). Mann credits Vogt with sparking the modern environmentalism and the anti-population growth movement.

Mann’s “wizard,” Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), grew up on a small farm in Iowa. He got a chance to go to college, barely, in 1932, after his father bought a tractor, freeing up enough labor that the Borlaug children could leave the farm. This left a lifelong impression on Borlaug: technology could give people opportunities.

After studying plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug was tapped by the Rockefeller Foundation to go to Mexico to breed wheat that was resistant to rust, a fungal disease. Borlaug identified with Mexican farm families who often went hungry. He decided that it was his job to help them to grow enough to eat. Doggedly crossing and testing thousands of wheat varieties, Borlaug, who had no formal training in plant breeding, managed to produce a variety that was rust-resistant. The plants were also short, which meant that if sown with chemical fertilizer, the large heads of wheat would not cause the plants to topple over. This new wheat had an enormous impact on the world. Indira Gandhi bought 18,000 tons of Borlaug’s wheat. He sent two shiploads of seed from Mexico, allowing India to grow enough wheat to free itself of food aid. Borlaug’s model was also used to develop high-yielding rice in Asia. The International Center for Wheat and Maize Breeding (CIMMYT) in Mexico would grow out of Borlaug’s Rockefeller project.

Borlaug recommended that the new wheat be planted with irrigation, chemical fertilizer and pesticides: a package that became known as the Green Revolution, credited with saving a billion lives. The Green Revolution also led to water logging, soil degradation, chemical-resistant pests and social problems as some landlords dismissed tenant farmers after bumper harvests tempted land owners to farm all of their own land with machinery rather than with low-paid labor.

Vogt visited Borlaug once in the early days, in Chapingo, Mexico. As the prophet he was, Vogt realized that growing more wheat would let more people inhabit the Earth, and Vogt tried, unsuccessfully, to have Borlaug’s project shut down. The two men despised each other after that.

Vogt’s life ended in obscurity, and suicide. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize and lived to be an old man. He once visited the university where I worked in Honduras, and the students who met him found him to be kind and unassuming. Instead of rehearsing his accomplishments, he asked them to tell him where about they were from.

Mann’s book includes a long discussion in the middle, about the world’s main problems. Today a host of wizards and prophets debate how to find enough food, clean water, and renewable energy, while fending off climate change.

Mann avoids taking sides and refuses to try to blend prophesy and wizardry. That is for us, the readers, to do. In recent decades, the world has made real progress solving problems. Hunger and poverty are in retreat. Formal, legal slavery has ended. Human rights are more widely recognized. Like Mann, I also ask: can’t we find a way to feed, house and clothe everyone without destroying the world we live in?

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2018 The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. New York: Vintage books. 616 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Silent Spring, better living through biology


Sowing experiments April 24th, 2022 by

For nearly a century, from 1839 to 1924, the US government distributed free seeds to any citizen who wanted them. As told in First the Seed, by Jack Kloppenburg, seeds of field crops, vegetables and even flowers were sourced from around the world (often by the US Navy). The seed was multiplied in the USA, and mailed through the post by members of Congress to their constituents. The program was wildly popular and by 1861, the first year of the American Civil War, almost two and a half million seed packages (each with five packets of seed) were being shipped each year to farmers and gardeners.

As Kloppenburg explains, given the botanical knowledge of the time, and the limited ability of formal agricultural research in the United States, the free seed for farmers “was the most efficient means of developing adapted and improved crop varieties.”

I recently saw a little window into this seed program. On 7 April 2022, The Times-Independent (a newspaper in Moab, Utah), published a replica of their page one from exactly 100 years earlier. One short story, “Seeds Go Quickly” showed just how much people loved free seed. The little story reads:


In last Thursday’s issue, The Times-Independent announced that a quantity of government seeds had been received by this office for distribution to the people of Moab, and inviting those who wanted some of the seeds to call for them. Within a few minutes after the paper was delivered to the post office, local people commenced to call for the seeds, and there was a continuous demand until the supply was entirely exhausted.

I hadn’t realized that newspapers also helped to distribute the seed. In 1922, Moab’s local newspaper did not bother telling its readers what the “government seed” was. They knew it well, even though today the program is forgotten. Kloppenburg says that the government seed was not only free, but of high quality, better than what private companies were then able to supply. This partly explains the rush of townspeople clamoring seed at The Times-Independent office, but farmers’ love of innovation was also a reason for the excitement. The farmers and gardeners who swung open the glass door of the newspaper office didn’t know what kind of seed was in the little packages. There was some mystery there: each package contained several packets of different seed. Each packet was just a handful of seed, enough to try out, but not enough to plant a field.

The free seed sparked thousands of farmer experiments over decades, which formed the basis of modern, North American agriculture.

The development of the adapted base of germplasm on which American agriculture was raised is the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades.

Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed, page 56

In the early 1800s seed companies were small, but they were growing. By 1883 these companies organized as the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and immediately began to lobby against government seed. Free seed was so popular that it took ASTA forty years, until 1924, to finally convince Congress to kill the program, at the height of its popularity.

Since 1922, companies have largely wrested control of seed from farmers, who once produced and exchanged all of the seed of field crops. It’s worth remembering that small gifts of seed sparked farmer experiments that shaped American agriculture.

Further reading

Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. 1990 First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge University Press.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

The times they are a changing

Remembering an American king

Dick’s Ice box

Videos on using your own seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: experiences from Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Succeed with seeds

Maintaining varietal purity of sesame

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Storing cowpea seed

Well dried seed is good seed

Rice seed preservation

Language or dialect? It’s complicated March 13th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

People who speak different dialects of the same language can understand each other. Unlike different languages, the dialects of those tongues are “mutually intelligible.” Americans and the British understand each other (almost always), because the US and the UK speak dialects of the same English language.

However, it’s complicated, as David Shariatmadari explains. Shariatmadari, non-fiction books editor at the Guardian, starts with the old joke: a language is a dialect with an army. The classic example is Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, which are all fairly similar, but for political reasons and national pride their governments use the schools and the media to maintain the uniqueness of these languages, which are often mutually intelligible.

Arabic is an example in the other direction. Spoken in some 20 countries with important differences between each nation, the Arab countries consider themselves speakers of one language, based on a shared tradition in classical Arabic literature, and other ties.

Shariatmadari doesn’t mention Quechua, a native language still spoken in the Andes, in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The Inca Empire (Tawantinsuyu) used Quechua as the official language, because it was already widely spoken in the Andes. As the language expanded it was influenced by languages previously spoken in the Andes, acquiring broad divisions from the start. These differences are so great that Quechua is generally described as a group of languages, or a language family.

After the Spanish conquest, sixteenth century Catholic clergy encouraged the Quechua language, because it was already widely spoken, and could be used for missionary work. The missionary Domingo de Santo Tomás published a grammar of Quechua in 1560. This may have introduced some uniformity into the Quechua language, or languages.

The Dutch linguist Willem Adelaar classifies the varieties of Quechua into four main groups:

Quechua I—spoken in Central Peru

Quechua IIA—Northern Peru

Quechua IIB—Ecuador (where it is called “Kichwa”)

Quechua IIC—Bolivia and Southern Peru

In other words, there are many distinct dialects of Quechua, and some of them may be mutually unintelligible, making them languages in their own right. According to Adelaar’s classification, Ecuadorian Kichwa and Bolivian Quechua both belong to the broad “Quechua II” group.

In 2022, with Paul and Marcella, from Agro-Insight, we visited the province of Cotopaxi, in the Andes of Ecuador, Where the agronomists Diego Mina and Mayra Coro study the lupin bean with several communities. Diego and Mayra took us to a Kichwa-speaking community, Cuturiví Chico, where we got a chance to find out if the local people understood the (Bolivian) Quechua version of our video on lupines. During a meeting with the community, Diego and Mayra invited them to watch the video, explaining that it had been filmed in Bolivia.

As the Quechua version of the video played, I watched the audience for their reaction. They smiled in appreciation. After all, videos in Quechua or Kichwa are equally rare. The farmers were absorbed in the 15-minute video all the way to the end.

Afterwards, Diego asked if they understood it. One person said he understood half. Another said “More than half, maybe 60%.” Then Diego asked the crucial question, “What was the video about?”

The villagers neatly summarized the video. Diseases of the lupin bean could be controlled by selecting the healthiest grains as seed, and burying the sick ones. But the video had also sparked their imaginations. One said that in a previous experience they had learned to sort healthy seed potatoes, and now that they had seen the same idea with lupin beans, they wondered if the seed of broad beans could also be sorted, to produce a healthier crop.

Diego still felt that the farmers hadn’t quite understood the video, so he showed the Spanish version. But this time, the reaction was muted. People watched politely, but they seemed a bit bored and at the end there was no new discussion. They basically understood the video the first time.

Language and dialect are valid concepts, but “mutual intelligibility” can be influenced by visual communication, enunciation, and motivation. For example, in this video, carefully edited images showed people separating healthy and diseased lupin beans, which may have helped the audience to understand the main idea, even if some of the words were unfamiliar.

Clarity of the speech also counts; this video was narrated by professional broadcasters, native speakers of Quechua, so the sound track was well enunciated. Motivation also matters; if a topic is of interest, people will strain to understand it. Lupin beans are widely grown in Cuturiví Chico, and these farmers really wanted to know about managing the crop’s diseases.

Whether Ecuadorian Kichwa and Bolivian Quechua are separate languages or dialects of the same tongue is still up for debate among linguists. Fortunately, people also communicate visually (for example, with excellent photography); they understand more if the words are carefully and distinctly pronounced, and if the listeners are motivated by a topic that interests them.

After this experience, we filmed four videos in Ecuador, and sent the Spanish versions of the scripts to be professionally translated, in writing. When I read them, I finally felt that Ecuadorian Kichwa and Bolivian Quechua are different enough to be called two separate languages. On the Access Agriculture website, we now list Quechua and Kichwa.

Even if Ecuadorian Kichwa and Bolivian Quechua are separate languages, they are closely related ones. Sometimes it is possible for an audience to understand a video in a language closely related to their own. This is because people also communicate visually (for example, with excellent photography); they understand more if the words are carefully and distinctly pronounced, and if the listeners are motivated by a topic that interests them.

Watch the video

You can see the video, Growing lupin without disease, in Quechua, Spanish, and English (besides other languages).

Further reading

Shariatmadari, David 2019 Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Adelaar, Willem F. H. 2004. The Languages of the Andes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Note on names

The lupine bean (Lupinus mutabilis) is called chocho in Ecuador, and tarwi in Bolivia.


Thanks to Diego Mina and Mayra Coro for introducing us the farmers in Cotopaxi, and for sharing their knowledge with us. Thanks also to Mayra and Diego, and to Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for their valuable comments on a previous version of this blog. Diego and Mayra work for IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement) with the AMIGO project. Our work was funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).


Photos by Paul Van Mele and Jeff Bentley. Map from Wikimedia Commons



Jeff Bentley, 13 de marzo del 2021

Cuando la gente habla diferentes dialectos de una misma lengua, se entiende. A diferencia de los idiomas distintos, los dialectos de esas lenguas son “mutuamente inteligibles”. Los estadounidenses y los británicos se entienden (casi siempre), porque los Estados Unidos y el Reino Unido hablan dialectos de la misma lengua inglesa.

Sin embargo, es complicado, como explica David Shariatmadari, editor de libros de no ficción en The Guardian. Él comienza con el viejo chiste: un idioma es un dialecto con un ejército. El ejemplo clásico es el danés, el noruego y el sueco, que son bastante similares, pero por razones políticas y de orgullo nacional sus gobiernos usan las escuelas y los medios de comunicación para mantener cierta separación entre estas lenguas, que a menudo son mutuamente inteligibles.

El árabe es un ejemplo en la otra dirección. Hablado con importantes diferencias en una veintena de países, los países árabes se consideran hablantes de una sola lengua, basándose en su tradición compartida de la literatura árabe clásica, entre otras cosas.

Shariatmadari no menciona al quechua, un idioma nativo que todavía se habla en los Andes, en Ecuador, el Perú y Bolivia. El Imperio Inca (Tawantinsuyu) usó el quechua como su idioma oficial, porque ya se hablaba sobre buena parte de los Andes. A medida que el idioma se expandió, se influenció por otros idiomas que ya se hablaban en los Andes, así adquiriendo profundas divisiones desde el inicio. Las diferencias son tan grandes que generalmente se describe al quechua como un grupo de idiomas, o una familia de idiomas.

Después de la conquista española, los cleros católicos del siglo XVI fomentaron el uso del idioma quechua, porque ya se hablaba ampliamente y servía para el trabajo de evangelización. El misionero Domingo de Santo Tomás publicó una gramática del quechua en 1560, lo cual posiblemente introdujo un poco de uniformidad al idioma, o los idiomas quechua.

El lingüista holandés Willem Adelaar clasificó las variedades del quechua en cuatro grupos:

Quechua I—hablado en el Perú central

Quechua IIA—en el norte del Perú

Quechua IIB—en Ecuador (donde se llama “kichwa”)

Quechua IIC—Bolivia y el sur del Perú

En otras palabras, hay muchos dialectos distintos del quechua, de los cuales algunos son mutuamente inteligibles. Por lo tanto, son idiomas. Según la clasificación de Adelaar, el kichwa de Ecuador y el quechua Bolivia pertenecen al grupo grande “quechua II”.

Con Paul y Marcella, de Agro-Insight, visitamos la provincia de Cotopaxi, en los Andes del Ecuador, donde trabajan los ingenieros agrónomos Diego Mina y Mayra Coro, quienes investigan el chocho (lupino) con algunas comunidades. Diego y Mayra nos llevaron a una comunidad kichwa-hablante, Cuturiví Chico, donde pudimos averiguar si la gente local entendería la versión de nuestro video en quechua sobre lupino o tarwi. Durante una reunión con la comunidad, Diego y Mayra les pidieron que observen el video explicándoles que se había filmado en Bolivia.

Mientras se reproducía la versión quechua del video, observé la reacción del público. Sonrieron del puro gusto de ver el video. Después de todo, hay pocos videos en quechua o kichwa. Los campesinos estuvieron bien metidos en el video de 15 minutos hasta el final.

Después, Diego les preguntó si lo habían entendido. Uno de ellos dijo que había entendido la mitad. Otro dijo: “Más de la mitad, quizá el 60%”. Entonces Diego hizo la pregunta crucial: “¿De qué trataba el video?”.

Resumieron claramente el video. Las enfermedades del lupino podían controlarse seleccionando los granos más sanos como semilla y enterrando los enfermos. Pero el video también había despertado su imaginación. Uno de ellos dijo que en una experiencia anterior habían aprendido a clasificar semilla sana de papa, y ahora que habían visto la misma idea con el lupino, se preguntaban si la semilla de las habas también podría clasificarse, para producir una cosecha más sana.

Diego aún dudaba si los agricultores habían entendido bien el video, así que les mostró la versión en español. Esta vez la reacción fue más silenciosa. La gente parecía un poco aburrida, y al final no hubo ninguna nueva discusión. Pues, ya lo habían visto

La diferencia entre idioma y dialecto es real, pero la “inteligibilidad mutua” a menudo se influye por la comunicación visual, la pronunciación clara, y la motivación. Por ejemplo, en este video, las imágenes cuidadosamente editadas mostraban a personas que separaban los granos de lupino sanos de los enfermos, lo que puede haber ayudado a la audiencia a entender la idea principal, aunque desconocían algunas de las palabras.

La claridad del discurso también cuenta; este video fue narrado por locutores profesionales que hablaban quechua como lengua materna, por lo que estaba bien enunciado. La motivación también importa; si un tema es de interés, la gente se esfuerza por entenderlo. Los lupinos se cultivan ampliamente en Cuturiví Chico, y estos agricultores realmente querían saber cómo manejar las enfermedades del cultivo.

Después de esta experiencia, filmamos cuatro videos en Ecuador, y enviamos los guiones en español a una traductora profesional, para hacer las versiones en kichwa. Cuando leí los guiones en kichwa, vi que el kichwa ecuatoriano y el quechua boliviano merecen ser considerados dos idiomas distintos. En la página web de Access Agriculture, el menú incluye quechua y kichwa.

Aun si el kichwa de Ecuador y el quechua de Bolivia son dos idiomas distintos, son parientes cercanos. A veces es posible para una audiencia entender un video en otro idioma, si es parecido al de ellos. Porque la gente también se comunica visualmente (por ejemplo, con una excelente fotografía); entienden mejor si las palabras se pronuncian con cuidado y nitidez, y si los oyentes están motivados por un tema que les interesa.

Para ver el video

Puede ver el video, Producir tarwi sin enfermedad, en quechua, español, e inglés (además de otros idiomas).

Lectura adicional

Shariatmadari, David 2019 Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language. Londres: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Una nota sobre los nombres

El lupino (Lupinus mutabilis) se llama chocho en el Ecuador, y tarwi en Bolivia.


Gracias a Diego Mina y Mayra Coro por presentarnos a la gente de Cotopaxi, y por compartir su conocimiento con nosotros. Gracias a Mayra y Diego, y a Eric Boa y Paul VAn Mele por sus valiosos comentarios sobre una versión previa de este blog. Diego y Mayra trabajan para IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement), con el proyecto AMIGO. Nuestro trabajo fue financiado por Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.


Fotos por Paul Van Mele y Jeff Bentley. Mapa de Wikimedia Commons



Design by Olean webdesign