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Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster December 30th, 2018 by

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

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can‚Äôt be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chu√Īo from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back‚ÄĒor commuted‚ÄĒto the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Consultative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Related blog stories

Organic agriculture and mice

Awakening the seeds

Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agr√≥nomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me cont√≥ por primera vez c√≥mo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 a√Īos, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacci√≥n que yo ense√Īaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por m√≠ mismo c√≥mo el af√°n por un sano grano andino podr√≠a comer el paisaje de su pa√≠s natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hac√≠amos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agr√≥nomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que est√° a punto de cumplir 70 a√Īos, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que hab√≠a trabajado con la quinua durante 41 a√Īos, y que hab√≠a sido testigo del cambio dram√°tico de un alimento b√°sico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empez√≥ a explicar lo que hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un ni√Īo en la d√©cada de 1950, toda el √°rea alrededor de Uyuni, en el √°rido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetaci√≥n natural. La gente cultivaba peque√Īas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t‚Äôolas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el √ļnico cultivo que sobrevivir√≠a al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engord√°ndose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el m√°s grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles m√°s bajos, para trocar sal por ma√≠z y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chu√Īo de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros a√Īos de la d√©cada de 2000, el precio de la quinua aument√≥ constantemente. Cuando lleg√≥ a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que ten√≠an derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hect√°reas de t‚Äôola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzó a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsó a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era dif√≠cil ver c√≥mo podr√≠a recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. √Čl cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotaci√≥n de cultivos. Eso requerir√° investigaci√≥n. No se puede cultivar mucho m√°s que adem√°s de la quinua a esta altitud, con s√≥lo 150 mm de lluvia al a√Īo.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

Milton nos llev√≥ a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetaci√≥n nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una peque√Īa comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro est√°n ense√Īando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosi√≥n del suelo. He conocido a muchos agr√≥nomos a trav√©s de los a√Īos, pero pocos que en mi opini√≥n hac√≠an un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucci√≥n.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Consultativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Historias de blog relacionadas

Organic agriculture and mice

Despertando las semillas

Nombres científicos

Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Feeding the Inca Empire November 11th, 2018 by

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

The Inca Empire depended on a road system, called the Qhapaq √Ďan, that linked its four regions from Ecuador to Chile, moving armies, laborers and food. Like beads on a necklace, the Qhapaq √Ďan was studded with grain silos, called qollqas, where food could be stored.

The largest set of these qollqas is at Cotapachi, near Cochabamba in Bolivia, 1000 km from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, Peru. Between 1450 AD and 1500 AD, the Inca Empire built 2500 granaries at Cotapachi, on a dry ridge overlooking a small lake in the Cochabamba Valley. According to David Pereira, archaeologist and expert on the qollqas, this site was part of a vast complex, with about 1500 more qollqas on other, nearby hilltops.

Each qollqa is about 2.5 meters in diameter at its stone base and could hold perhaps 4 tons of maize. They were originally about 3 meters tall, with gently tapered cylindrical walls woven from the stems of the ch’illka plant and plastered with mud and roofed with straw of the needle grass.

In 2007, 27 of the qollqas of Cotapachi were reconstructed, so to speak. They were designed by the architect Jorge Obando Stemberg and built by soldiers from the nearby Tumusla Regiment of the Bolivian Army.  These replicas are made from adobe (mud) bricks, but they are kind of graceful in the afternoon sunlight, with the backdrop of the mountains.

Nothing is left of the other silos, except for rows and rows of stone bases.

From Cusco, the Inca could command the granary silos to be filled with maize grown in the green, irrigated fields of Cochabamba. The grain was carried to the garrison that guarded the southeast frontier at Inka Llajta, or it was sent to Cusco via the administrative settlement of Paria, in Oruro, Bolivia. A royal army passing through Cochabamba could provision its soldiers directly with the grain stored in the silos.

The grain was transported on llamas, which thrive on native Andean vegetation, but their slender backs can only carry a light pack of some 25 kg. You would need 160 llamas to haul the grain from one silo. It must have been a marvelous sight when thousands of pack llamas flowed like a river, up the stone slope to Inka Raqay, their first stop on the way to Cusco.

Like the Inka, all ancient states were built on the food and labor wrested from farmers. Some of the arrangements for commandeering and transporting that grain were as impressive as the cities they fed. The bases of grain silos may be humbler than ruined palaces, but it’s important to recognize that civilization is based on agriculture, and that farming does leave its mark on the archaeological record.

Notes

Thanks to David Pereira for sharing his insights about the Inca grain silos at Cotapachi.

The ‚Äú-s‚ÄĚ ending from Spanish is used today for Quechua plurals. In classical Quechua the qollqas would have been called ‚Äúqollqakuna‚ÄĚ.

The Inca, or Inka, was the supreme ruler of a state that was called ‚ÄúTawantinsuyu,‚ÄĚ meaning ‚Äúall four quarters‚ÄĚ.

There were actually more qollqas in the Mantaro Valley, in Peru, than in the Cochabamba Valley, but the silos in Mantaro were spread out over several sites.

Needle grass includes Stipa ichu and related species. It is called paja brava in Spanish, and ichhu in Quechua.

Ch’illka is Baccharis salicifolia.

Further reading

Eeckhout, Peter 2012 “Inca Storage and Accounting Facilities at Pachacamac.”¬†Andean Past¬†10(1):12.

Gyarmati, J√°nos and Carola Condarco Castell√≥n. Circa 2012 “Las ocupaciones prehisp√°nicas tard√≠as y el centro administrativo inkaico en la Cuenca de Paria, Altiplano de Oruro.”

Earlier blog stories

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Making new ruins

The tyrant of the Andes

Related videos

The grain kept at Cotapachi may have been stored for a while, or sent soon after harvest to Cusco. Weevils, moulds and other post-harvest problems have always been a challenge, and still are. For videos on handling the maize harvest on a small farm see:

Managing aflatoxins in maize during drying and storage

Managing aflatoxins in maize before and during harvest

Storing and managing maize in a warehouse

Good storing and conserving maize grain

Good shelling, sorting and drying of maize

Harvesting maize in a good way

ALIMENTANDO AL IMPERIO INCAICO

El Imperio Incaico depend√≠a de un sistema de caminos, llamado el Qhapaq √Ďan, que un√≠a sus cuatro regiones desde Ecuador hasta Chile, moviendo ej√©rcitos, trabajadores y alimentos. Como cuentas en un collar, el Qhapaq √Ďan estaba tachonado de silos de grano, llamados qollqas, donde se pod√≠an almacenar los alimentos.

El conjunto m√°s grande de estas qollqas est√° en Cotapachi, cerca de Cochabamba en Bolivia, a 1000 km de la antigua capital incaica de Cusco, Per√ļ. Entre 1450 y 1500 AD, el Imperio Incaico construy√≥ 2.500 graneros en Cotapachi, en una cresta seca con vista a un peque√Īo lago en el Valle de Cochabamba. Seg√ļn David Pereira, arque√≥logo y experto en las qollqas, este sitio formaba parte de un vasto complejo, con cerca de 1500 qollqas m√°s en las otras cimas cercanas.

Cada qollqa med√≠a unos 2,5 metros de di√°metro en su base de piedra y podr√≠a almacenar unas 4 toneladas de ma√≠z. Originalmente ten√≠an unos 3 metros de altura, con paredes cil√≠ndricas suavemente c√≥nicas tejidas a partir de los tallos de la planta ch’illka y estucados con barro y techadas con paja brava.

En el 2007, 27 de los qollqas de Cotapachi fueron reconstruidos. Fueron dise√Īados por el arquitecto Jorge Obando Stemberg y construidos por soldados del cercano Regimiento de Tumusla del Ej√©rcito Boliviano.¬† Estas r√©plicas est√°n hechas de adobes, pero son elegantes a la luz de la tarde, con el fondo de la cordillera.

No queda nada de los otros silos, excepto filas y filas de bases de piedra.

Desde Cusco, los incas podían ordenar que los silos se llenaran de maíz cultivado en los verdes campos irrigados de Cochabamba. El grano fue llevado a la guarnición que vigilaba la frontera sureste en Inka Llajta, o fue enviado a Cusco a través del asentamiento administrativo de Paria, en Oruro, Bolivia. Un ejército real que pasaba por Cochabamba podía abastecer directamente a sus soldados con el grano almacenado en los silos.

El grano fue transportado en llamas, que prosperan en la vegetación nativa andina, pero sus esbeltos lomos sólo pueden llevar una mochila ligera de unos 25 kg. Se necesitarían 160 llamas para llevar el grano de un silo. Habrá sido una vista todo un espectáculo ver a los miles de llamas cuando fluyeron como un río, por la ladera de piedra hasta Inka Raqay, su primera parada en el camino a Cusco.

Al igual que el Inka, todos los estados antiguos fueron construidos sobre los alimentos y la mano de obra arrebatada a los agricultores. Algunos de los arreglos para requisar y transportar ese grano eran tan impresionantes como las ciudades a las que alimentaban. Las bases de los silos de granos pueden ser más humildes que los palacios en ruinas, pero es importante reconocer que la civilización se basa en la agricultura, y que la agricultura deja su huella en el registro arqueológico.

Notes

Gracias David Pereira por compartir sus ideas sobre las qollqas de Cotapachi.

El sufijo ‚Äú-s‚ÄĚ del espa√Īol se usa hoy en d√≠a para plurales en quechua. En el quechua cl√°sico las qollqas se habr√°n llamado ‚Äúqollqakuna‚ÄĚ.

El Inca, o Inka, era el gobernante supremo de un estado que se llamaba “Tawantinsuyu”, que significa “los cuatro cuartos”.

Hay m√°s qollqas en el Valle de Mantaro, en el Per√ļ, que en el Valle de Cochabamba Valley, pero los silos en Mantaro estaban dispersos en varios sitios.

La paja brava incluye Stipa ichu y especies relacionadas. Se llama ichhu en quechua y needle grass en inglés.

Ch’illka es Baccharis salicifolia.

Lectura

Eeckhout, Peter 2012 “Inca Storage and Accounting Facilities at Pachacamac.”¬†Andean Past¬†10(1):12.

Gyarmati, J√°nos y Carola Condarco Castell√≥n. Circa 2012 “Las ocupaciones prehisp√°nicas tard√≠as y el centro administrativo inkaico en la Cuenca de Paria, Altiplano de Oruro.”

Earlier blog stories

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Making new ruins

The tyrant of the Andes

Related videos

El grano guardado en Cotapachi pudo haber sido almacenado por un tiempo, o enviado a Cusco poco despu√©s de la cosecha. Los gorgojos, mohos y otros problemas de pos-cosecha siempre han sido un desaf√≠o, y lo siguen siendo. Para ver videos sobre el manejo de la cosecha de ma√≠z en una peque√Īa granja, vea:

Manejo de aflatoxinas en maíz durante el secado y almacenamiento

Manejo de aflatoxinas en el maíz antes y durante la cosecha

Almacenar y manejar el maíz en bodega

Almacenando bien el maíz

Desgranando, seleccionando y secando bien el maíz

Cosechando el maíz bien

Dick’s Ice Box September 2nd, 2018 by

In 2005, a few years before my Mom died, she took some of her grown children and grandchildren to Dewey, Utah, a ghost town on the Colorado River, to show us one of the strangest structures I’ve ever seen. On a blistering day in July we walked through the sage brush and the red sand to a canyon wall. Mom led us through a neat little door through the cliff-face into a darkened room, surprisingly cooler than the outside and big enough for a dozen people to crowd in.

Mom‚Äôs grandfather, Richard Dallin ‚ÄúDick‚ÄĚ Westwood had carved this room from solid stone. Dick‚Äôs children called the place ‚ÄėDad‚Äôs Ice Box.‚ÄĚ Dick would stack winter ice from the Colorado River into his ice box to keep food cold all through the summer. ‚ÄúThey could even keep butter in here,‚ÄĚ Mom added proudly. My great-grandfather lived from 1863 to 1929; there was no electricity in Dewey and household refrigerators were rare before 1927.

Off and on between 1901 and 1916 Dick ran the ferry at Dewey, where the wagon road from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado crossed the Colorado River. The trip was a hundred miles (160 km), so travelers often spent the night at Dewey, where my great-grandmother Martha had a little boarding house and diner. The family had a small farm and some cattle that provided meat and other provisions. The ice box filled with food was important for Martha’s business.

That day in 2005, my Mom told us that Dick carved the ice box with dynamite. The rectangular doorway and the spacious room it led into were clearly the work of a craftsman. Carving stone with dynamite is a dangerous business, a good way to lose life or limb, and I always wondered how Dick knew what he was doing.

This remained a mystery until this year, when my cousin, Richard ‚ÄúRick‚ÄĚ Westwood wrote a book about our great-grandfather. It finally helped me make sense of Dick‚Äôs Ice Box.

Dick held many professions, from sheriff to muleskinner to Shakespearean actor, but until I read Rick‚Äôs book I never realized that Dick was also a miner. From childhood I knew that Dick had staked a mine claim, which he named ‚ÄúThe Silver Dick.‚ÄĚ I was aware that my great-grandfather had a sense of humor, but until I read Rick‚Äôs book I didn‚Äôt know that the Silver Dick was a working silver mine. Discovered in August 1908, it may have been the only one in Southeastern Utah. Dick worked the mine until 1909 when he filled a box car with valuable ore, enough to make his fortune. Sadly, this never happened, because the shipment was stolen by railroad workers en route to buyers. But Dick‚Äôs mine enriched him with the skill of working sandstone with dynamite.

The Ice Box may have been partly inspired by the root cellar, a small structure dug into the ground, topped off with a timber roof. Many families in Utah stored their food in root cellars. During their early years in Dewey, Dick and Martha‚Äôs root cellar burned down. Martha would later tell my grandmother how devastating it was to lose all their stored food. Dick took the loss stoically, saying: ‚ÄúOh we‚Äôll get us another sack of flour and another bag o‚Äô taters (potatoes) and we‚Äôll be as good off as ever.‚ÄĚ But losing the root cellar may have inspired Dick to think of a fire-proof place to store the household food. As luck would have it, Dick was well placed to get ice. Rick explains that in the early 1900s, the Colorado River used to freeze so hard in winter that Dick could drive his family over the river in a wagon drawn by a team of horses. The ferry was sited between two sharp bends in the river, near the modern-day Dewey Bridge. In the spring the ice would break with great force, and some big slabs would pile up on the bank, where they were relatively easy to collect.

In her history of ice, Elizabeth David observes the sunken ice houses made by Scandinavian farmers, but in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century USA, ice houses were typically wooden barn-like structures, made and operated by professional ice mongers, not by smallholder farmers. Dick’s Ice Box is the only one I know of carved into a sandstone cliff.

The ice box was crucial for running a family business on a small, desert farm.

Farmers’ creativity is often stimulated by new ideas, as we often say in our weekly Agro-Insight blog. Those ideas can come from science or from a technology the farmer learned somewhere else, even by mining. Dick was flexible, tough and creative. He took misfortune in stride, and adapted, just like many of the farmers we still meet today.

Acknowledgement

I thank my cousin, Rick Westwood, for letting me read his book manuscript. Thanks also to Rick and to my brothers Brett and Scott Bentley for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this story. I gratefully acknowledge Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele who gave me thoughtful feedback on this story, as they always do.

Related blog story

The Ice Harvest

Further reading

Richard E. ‚ÄúRick‚ÄĚ Westwood is publishing his excellent biography, Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood later in 2018.

See also:

Westwood, Richard E. 2010 Westwood Family History, Vol II. R. Westwood: Highland, Utah.

My great-grandmother, Martha Wilcox (1871 to 1962) wrote an autobiography, edited by her daughter, Grace Westwood Morse:

Autobiography of Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, privately printed in 1983.

And for the definitive story of ice boxes:

David, Elizabeth 1994 Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices. London: Faber and Faber. 413 pp.

The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

As the waters recede July 1st, 2018 by

Peasant farmers can be quick to seize an opportunity, and when the benefit is clearly high, farmers may skip the experimental stage and go straight to a new practice on a massive scale.

In the lower Gangetic Delta in southwest Bangladesh, people live just centimeters above sea level. Getting rid of excess water can make all the different between harvest and hunger.

In the 1960s, earthen embankments were built around certain large areas of land.

The newly dry land inside these dykes is called a polder. Successful farming in the polder depends on having large draining canals, snaking through the muddy land, to carry water to the river.

In 2000, the 10 km-long Amodkhali Canal silted up. So during the winter rainy season the water had nowhere to go. A vast area in the middle of Polder 2 became a seasonal lake. Villagers hung on, growing rice in the dry season. Many migrated for wage labour in the winter.

Then in May 2017, Blue Gold (a program implemented by the government of Bangladesh) began to re-excavate the Amodkhali Canal.  By July they had dug out 8.4 km. It was a big job. At 2.5 meters deep and 6 meters wide, thousands of cubic meters of mud had to be moved. Some was done by machinery and some by hand. Groups of women were organised into Labour Contracting Societies (LCS) to earn money doing the work.

Local people near the canal saw the work. Even those living far away heard about it, and when the rains came in July 2017, farmers could see with their own eyes that the rainwater was draining away.

Like a river, a drainage canal has a sort of watershed, called a catchment area. This canal drains a roughly tear-drop shaped area some four by six kilometres: a big place. The thousands of farmers in the area didn’t have to be begged or cajoled into planting rice: they just did it.

My colleagues and I met local farmer Nozrul Islam near the banks of the canal. He said that he was so happy with the canal. He has two hectares of land and when the water drained off, nobody told him to plant rice. He simply went to Khulna, a neighbouring district, and bought rice seed for all of his land. He hadn’t planted winter rice for over 16 years.

Nozrul’s experience was replicated all over the area. In the village of Koikhali, a group of women told us that they also planted winter (amon) rice last year.

There was no experimentation, no hesitation. People simply re-introduced a winter rice crop into their cropping system, which they had not grown for almost a generation. The total catchment area is 4326 ha. That first year they planted 2106 hectares of winter rice, and harvested 12,000 tons or rice. Much of this rice was sold on the national market.

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Acknowledgement

The Amodkhali Canal was re-excavated by the Blue Gold Program in Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. I am indebted to Joynal Abedin, Shahadat Hossain, Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones, A. Salahuddin and many others for teaching me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh.

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