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Refugee farm August 29th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It takes skill and knowledge to be a farmer. Hard work alone won’t always make you a farmer, as shown by an experiment in Bolivia in the early 1940s.

In 1938 and 1939, when most of the world’s countries were closing their borders to the victims of Nazism in Central Europe, Bolivian consulates were one of the few places where refugees could get a visa. Many were “agricultural visas,” and others were obtained by making extra payments to consular officials.

In Hotel Bolivia, Leo Spitzer tells the story of the thousands of people who found a safe haven in Bolivia. Spitzer is well placed to write the story. He is a professional historian, born in La Paz in 1939 to a family recently arrived from Austria. Although the refugees arrived penniless and traumatized, once in Bolivia they received some help from organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, based in New York), and from Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, a Jewish immigrant who had left his village near Frankfurt in the 1920s to become one of Bolivia’s three wealthy tin barons.

Hochschild was sensitive to what we would now call optics. He thought the German-speaking refugees were too visible in what were then Bolivia’s two big cities, La Paz and Cochabamba. Many refugees had opened small businesses. Spitzer’s own father, Eugen, ran a successful plumbing and electrical shop near the Plaza del Estudiante, in the heart of La Paz.

The tin baron feared that seeing so many recently arrived foreigners might spark anti-Semitism, especially since it was becoming something of a scandal that the consulates had demanded bribes. It turned out that Hochschild’s worries were exaggerated. The Bolivians were neither very welcoming, nor very hostile. They patronized the newcomers’ shops and allowed them to set up their own school, where children were taught in German.

Nevertheless, the concerned Hochschild convinced the JDC to buy three haciendas, some 1,000 hectares of mountainous land in a place called Charobamba, near the small town of Coroico, just 100 km from La Paz, but three thousand meters lower, down a narrow, winding, treacherous road.

The colony was called Buena Tierra (Good Land) and it got off to a good start in 1940. The settlers had a clinic, staffed with a refugee doctor and nurse. The settlers met often for social events, and they were organized. They received a stipend of about 1,000 bolivianos ($23, which was worth more in the 1940s). This bit of money allowed the would-be farmers to survive as they built themselves small adobe houses with cement floors and sheet metal roofs.

Unfortunately, few if any of the settlers had experience with agriculture or even with rural life. One year they were strolling down the avenues of Vienna, and the next year they were blasting a road with dynamite from Charobamba to Coroico.  Their guide for farming was an Italian-Argentine agronomist, Felipe Bonoli, who tried to repeat his success of leading an Italian colony on the temperate plains of Argentina, but the steep, tropical hillsides of Charobamba were another matter, and Bonoli soon left. A German agronomist, Otto Braun, fared no better and left in 1942 after a year after trying to teach the colonists to plant coffee and bananas, crops that Braun had no experience with. Finally, Tierra Buena hired two local farmers, Luis Solís and Luis Gamarra, and the colony did begin producing small amounts of citrus, coffee and bananas, but these are all perennial crops, and the settlers seem to have been frustrated that they took so long to bear fruit.

At the height of the experience, in 1943 there were 180 adult refugees living and working in Tierra Buena, and some hired laborers, Aymara-speaking people (some from the area, and others from Lake Titicaca). But as the World War II ended, most of the colonists returned to the city, applied for visas, and emigrated, mainly to the United States, Palestine, Chile and Brazil.

One colonist did stay. Hans Homburger lived in Tierra Buena until the farm was disbanded in 1960. By then it was being successfully farmed by the former laborers, who worked on the farm for two days a week in exchange for the right to use some of the land to grow their own crops. With their farming skills, and local knowledge, the former employees were able to make hard work pay off, and they harvested fruit and coffee to sell.

It takes more than hard work and enthusiasm to be a successful farmer. Farming takes skill and know-how, much of which must be local, and grounded in practice.

Further reading

Spitzer, Leo 2019 Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism. Plunkett Lake Press. (Especially Chapter 4).

UN REFUGIO AGRÍCOLA

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de agosto del 2021}

Ser agricultor quiere habilidad y conocimiento. El trabajo duro por sí solo no siempre es suficiente, como demuestra un experimento hecho en Bolivia a principios de la década de 1940.

En 1938 y 1939, cuando la mayoría de los países del mundo cerraban sus fronteras a las víctimas del nazismo en Europa Central, los consulados bolivianos eran uno de los pocos lugares donde los refugiados podían obtener una visa. Muchas eran “visas agrícolas” y otras se obtuvieron con una coima al funcionario consular.

En Hotel Bolivia, Leo Spitzer cuenta la historia de los miles de personas que encontraron un refugio en Bolivia. Spitzer está bien situado para escribir esta historia. Es un historiador profesional, nacido en La Paz en 1939 en una familia recién llegada de Austria. Aunque los refugiados llegaron sin dinero y traumatizados, una vez en Bolivia recibieron cierta ayuda de organizaciones como el Comité Conjunto Judío Americano de Distribución (JDC, con sede en Nueva York), y de Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, un inmigrante judío que había dejado su pueblo cerca de Frankfurt en la década de 1920 para convertirse en uno de los tres ricos barones del estaño de Bolivia.

Hochschild era sensible a lo que ahora llamaríamos la óptica. Pensaba que los refugiados de habla alemana eran demasiado visibles en las dos grandes ciudades de Bolivia, La Paz y Cochabamba. Muchos refugiados habían abierto pequeños negocios. El propio padre de Spitzer, Eugen, tenía una exitosa tienda de plomería y electricidad cerca de la Plaza del Estudiante, en el corazón de La Paz.

El barón del estaño temía que la presencia de tantos extranjeros recién llegados pudiera desencadenar el antisemitismo, sobre todo porque se estaba convirtiendo en un escándalo el hecho de que los oficiales habían vendido las visas con un sobreprecio. Resultó que las preocupaciones de Hochschild eran exageradas. Los bolivianos no eran ni muy acogedores ni muy hostiles. Patrocinaron las tiendas de los recién llegados y les permitieron establecer su propia escuela, en la que se enseñaba a los niños en alemán.

Sin embargo, el preocupado Hochschild convenció al JDC para que comprara tres haciendas, unas mil hectáreas de tierra montañosa en un lugar llamado Charobamba, cerca de la pequeña ciudad de Coroico, a sólo 100 km de La Paz, pero tres mil metros más abajo, por una carretera estrecha, sinuosa y traicionera.

La colonia se llamó Tierra Buena y comenzó bien en el 1940. Los colonos tenían una clínica, atendida por un médico y una enfermera refugiados. Los colonos se reunían a menudo para celebrar actos sociales y estaban organizados. Recibían un estipendio de unos 1.000 bolivianos (23 dólares, que valían más en la década de 1940). Este dinero les permitía sobrevivir mientras construían pequeñas casas de adobe con pisos de cemento y techos de calamina corrugada.

Infelizmente, pocos o ninguno de los colonos tenían experiencia en la agricultura o incluso en la vida rural. Un año paseaban por las avenidas de Viena y al año siguiente construían una carretera a dinamitazos desde Charobamba hasta Coroico.  Su guía para la agricultura era un agrónomo italo-argentino, Felipe Bonoli, que intentó repetir su éxito al frente de una colonia italiana en las pampas templadas de Argentina, pero las empinadas laderas tropicales de Charobamba eran otra cosa, y Bonoli pronto se marchó. A un agrónomo alemán, Otto Braun, no le fue mejor y se fue en 1942 tras un año de intentar enseñar a los colonos a plantar café y plátanos, cultivos en los que Braun no tenía experiencia. Finalmente, Tierra Buena contrató a dos agricultores locales, Luis Solís y Luis Gamarra, y la colonia empezó a producir pequeñas cantidades de cítricos, café y plátanos, pero todos son cultivos perennes, y los colonos parecen haberse sentido frustrados porque tardaran tanto en dar fruto.

En su apogeo, en 1943 había 180 refugiados adultos viviendo y trabajando en Tierra Buena, y algunos trabajadores contratados, gente de habla aymara (algunos de la zona y otros del Lago Titicaca). Pero al terminar la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la mayoría de los colonos regresaron a la ciudad, solicitaron visados y emigraron, principalmente a Estados Unidos, Palestina, Chile y Brasil.

Un colono se quedó. Hans Homburger vivió en Buena Tierra hasta que la finca se disolvió en 1960. Para entonces, los antiguos jornaleros la explotaban con éxito, trabajando en la granja dos días a la semana a cambio del derecho a usar parte de la tierra para cultivar sus propios productos. Con sus habilidades agrícolas y sus conocimientos locales, los antiguos empleados consiguieron que el trabajo duro diera sus frutos, y cosecharon fruta y café para vender.

Se necesita algo más que trabajo duro y entusiasmo para ser un agricultor de éxito. La agricultura requiere destreza y conocimientos, muchos de los cuales deben ser locales y estar basados en la práctica.

Lectura adicional

Spitzer, Leo 2021 Hotel Bolivia: La Cultura de la Memoria en un Refugio del Nazismo. La Paz: Plural Editores. (Especialmente el Capítulo 4).

Stopping malaria in Europe August 15th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie volgt hieronder

Historical breakthroughs have often been made by applying ideas from elsewhere. This dawned on me once more while reading Fiammetta Rocco’s inspiring book Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. Without the stubbornness and perseverance of a Jesuit priest in the 17th century, the population of Europe would have been further decimated by malaria, currently only known to be a tropical disease, on top of the devastating plague or black death, which killed at least 4 million people during that time.

While the kings of Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands were fighting naval battles to gain or keep control over colonies, marsh fever was common in many parts of Europe with temporary wetlands. In Italy it was called mal’aria, a contracted form of mala aria or bad air, as the disease was thought to be caused by inhaling the unhealthy vapours of marshes.

Medical science had hardly advanced since the times of ancient Greece. Fever was considered a disease, not a symptom, caused by the imbalance of the four humours or basic elements which were believed to make up the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. A patient with fever was said to be suffering from a fermentation of the blood resulting from too much bile. As fermenting blood behaved like boiling milk, producing a thick froth that had to be removed before the patient could recover, the preferred treatment for fever was bleeding or purging with laxatives, or both. The “cure” was often worse than the disease.

For a long time, advances in medical science were greatly influenced by religion. According to the philosophy of their Spanish founder, Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuits were not to become doctors but rather to focus on people’s souls, yet many took a great interest in human health, studied anatomy and played a significant role in establishing pharmacies across the globe during the 17th century. Some of them even changed the course of medicine.

Brother Augustine Salumbrino, like many of the young Jesuits who were posted in Peru, made it a priority to learn Quechua and some took a deep interest in understanding local knowledge to the native Andeans’ way of life. The rich Quechua language showed that the Incas had deep knowledge of anatomy and medicinal plants.

The Jesuits at missions in Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes at about 3400 meters altitude, noticed that after being exposed to dampness and cold the native people drank a powdered bark from the cinchona tree, dissolved in hot water, to stop shivering. Salumbrino, passionate to help the poor in Lima, on the coastal plain, decided to test the bark on a few patients who were suffering from tertian and quartan fever (two types of malaria that cause fever periodically in 48 hour and 72-hour intervals, respectively).

Salumbrino’s reasoning was a typical example of applying a basic principle to a different context: if the bitter bark stops people in the high Andes from shivering from cold, it may also stop people in the lowlands shivering from fever. As modern science now knows, the active component in the tree bark is quinine, which relaxes muscles and calms the nervous impulse that causes shivering. What Salumbrino could not have predicted, is that the bark not only stopped the shivering, but actually also cured the fever. Double luck.

While Salumbrino devoted his life to supplying quinine to Jesuit missions across the globe, he worked with local people to plant more trees, taught them how to remove the bark in vertical strips, so as not to kill the trees, processed the bark and established local and international distribution lines, one could rightly say that he laid the foundation for the quinine pharmaceutical industry. But it took some other events to have the drug recognised in Europe.

Despite the growing interest in natural history, including botany, the medical profession in 17th century Europe was still deeply conservative, with advances being further hindered by religious frictions between Catholics and Protestants. In England, Protestant physicians and pharmacists, all member of the Royal Society, openly criticised the effectiveness of what had become known as the “Jesuit powder”. They used all possible means, including the printing press, to stop its growing reputation. Yet popular demand remained high; it was hard to beat the news that the bark had successfully cured England’s King Charles II, the King of France, Louis XIV, and other royals who all praised its virtues.

Travelers coming from Rome or Belgium, by then the unofficial northern European centre of the Jesuit order, would still be wary of hand carrying or openly selling the bark to the people who needed it in southern England, because of the drug’s Catholic associations. As is often the case when people are desperate and supply cannot keep up with the demand, unscrupulous merchants soon began to adulterate pure quinine with other bitter-tasting barks.

While mainland Europe had a steady supply of Peruvian bark, larger supplies initially arrived in England mainly through pirates who seized Spanish vessels. It was only by the mid-18th century that commercial quantities of bark were shipped from Latin America to Europe. The drug industry flourished while people remained ignorant for centuries of how the disease was contracted. It was only in 1897 that Ronald Ross discovered that malaria parasites were actually transmitted by mosquitos.

While malaria is still prevalent in all tropical countries, few people now know that Europe got rid of malaria only in 1978 after swamps were drained, health infrastructure was greatly improved, and mosquitos were controlled.

Great breakthroughs often happen after people are exposed to ideas from elsewhere and when new scientific insights are gained. While this is true for humankind, most smallholder farmers in developing countries have limited opportunities to learn from their peers across borders, or from scientists. By merging scientific knowledge with local knowledge and presenting a wide range of practical local solutions, the videos hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform aim to overcome these challenges. The videos create opportunities for farmers to learn about the transmission of plant diseases through insect vectors and other topics on which farmers lack knowledge.

Credits

Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Further reading

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Related blogs

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

 

Malaria een halt toeroepen in Europa

Paul Van Mele, 15 augustus 2021

Historische doorbraken zijn vaak tot stand gekomen door ideeën van elders toe te passen. Dat drong weer eens tot me door toen ik het inspirerende boek Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world van Fiammetta Rocco las. Zonder de koppigheid en het doorzettingsvermogen van een jezuïeten priester in de 17e eeuw zou de bevolking van Europa nog verder gedecimeerd zijn door malaria, waarvan nu alleen bekend is dat het een tropische ziekte is, bovenop de verwoestende pest of zwarte dood, die in die tijd aan minstens 4 miljoen mensen het leven kostte.

Terwijl de koningen van Spanje, Portugal, Frankrijk, Engeland en Nederland zeeslagen uitvochten om de controle over koloniën te krijgen of te behouden, was moeraskoorts aan de orde van de dag in vele delen van Europa met tijdelijke moerasgebieden. In Italië werd de ziekte mal’aria genoemd, een verkorte vorm van mala aria of slechte lucht, omdat men dacht dat de ziekte werd veroorzaakt door het inademen van de ongezonde dampen van moerassen.

De medische wetenschap had sinds de Griekse oudheid nauwelijks vooruitgang geboekt. Koorts werd beschouwd als een ziekte, niet als een symptoom, veroorzaakt door een verstoring van het evenwicht van de vier humusstoffen of basiselementen waaruit het menselijk lichaam zou bestaan: bloed, gele gal, zwarte gal en slijm. Van een patiënt met koorts werd gezegd dat hij leed aan een gisting van het bloed ten gevolge van een teveel aan gal. Omdat gistend bloed zich gedroeg als kokende melk, waarbij een dik schuim ontstond dat moest worden verwijderd voordat de patiënt kon herstellen, bestond de voorkeursbehandeling voor koorts uit aderlaten of zuiveren met laxeermiddelen, of beide. Het “geneesmiddel” was vaak erger dan de kwaal.

Lange tijd werd de vooruitgang in de medische wetenschap sterk beïnvloed door de godsdienst. Volgens de filosofie van hun Spaanse stichter, Ignatius van Loyola, mochten de jezuïeten geen artsen worden, maar dienden ze zich te richten op de ziel van de mensen. Toch hadden velen een grote belangstelling voor de menselijke gezondheid, bestudeerden zij de anatomie en speelden zij een belangrijke rol bij het oprichten van apotheken over de hele wereld in de 17e eeuw. Sommigen van hen hebben zelfs de koers van de geneeskunde veranderd.

Broeder Augustinus Salumbrino maakte er, net als veel van de jonge jezuïeten die in Peru waren gestationeerd, een prioriteit van om Quechua te leren en sommigen hadden een grote belangstelling in de lokale kennis en de leefwijze van de inheemse bevolking in het Andes gebergte. De rijke Quechua taal toonde aan dat de Inca’s een diepgaande kennis hadden van anatomie en geneeskrachtige planten.

De jezuïetenmissie in Cusco, een stad in de Peruaanse Andes op ongeveer 3400 meter hoogte, merkten dat de inheemse bevolking na blootstelling aan vocht en kou een poedervormige bast van de kinaboom dronk, opgelost in heet water, om het rillen te stoppen. Salumbrino, gepassioneerd om de armen in Lima, de hoofdstad gelegen aan de kust, te helpen, besloot de schors te testen op enkele patiënten die leden aan tertiaire en quartaire koorts (twee soorten malaria die periodiek koorts veroorzaken met een interval van respectievelijk 48 uur en 72 uur).

Salumbrino’s redenering was een typisch voorbeeld van het toepassen van een basisprincipe op een andere context: als de bittere schors voorkomt dat mensen in de hoge Andes rillen van de kou, kan het ook voorkomen dat mensen in het laagland rillen van de koorts. Zoals de moderne wetenschap nu weet, is het actieve bestanddeel in de boomschors kinine, dat de spieren ontspant en de zenuwimpuls kalmeert die rillingen veroorzaakt. Wat Salumbrino niet had kunnen voorspellen, is dat de schors niet alleen het rillen tegenhield, maar ook de koorts genas. Dubbel geluk.

Terwijl Salumbrino zijn leven wijdde aan het leveren van kinine aan jezuïetenmissies over de hele wereld, werkte hij samen met de plaatselijke bevolking om meer bomen te planten, leerde hij hen hoe ze de schors in verticale stroken konden verwijderen om de bomen niet te doden, verwerkte hij de schors en legde hij lokale en internationale distributielijnen aan. Men zou met recht kunnen zeggen dat hij de basis legde voor de farmaceutische industrie van kinine. Maar er waren nog andere gebeurtenissen nodig om het geneesmiddel in Europa te doen erkennen.

Ondanks de groeiende belangstelling voor natuurlijke historie, met inbegrip van plantkunde, was het medische beroep in het 17e eeuwse Europa nog steeds zeer conservatief, waarbij vooruitgang verder werd belemmerd door religieuze wrijvingen tussen katholieken en protestanten. In Engeland bekritiseerden protestantse artsen en apothekers, allen lid van de Royal Society, openlijk de doeltreffendheid van wat bekend was geworden als het “jezuïetenpoeder”. Zij gebruikten alle mogelijke middelen, waaronder de drukpers, om een halt toe te roepen aan de groeiende reputatie ervan. Toch bleef de vraag groot; het nieuws dat de bast met succes de Engelse koning Charles II, de koning van Frankrijk, Lodewijk XIV, en andere vorsten had genezen, was moeilijk te verslaan en prees de deugden ervan.

Reizigers die uit Rome of België kwamen, tegen die tijd het officieuze Noord-Europese centrum van de jezuïetenorde, waren nog steeds op hun hoede voor het vervoeren of openlijk verkopen van de bast aan de mensen die het nodig hadden in Zuid-Engeland, vanwege de katholieke associaties van het geneesmiddel. Zoals vaak het geval is wanneer mensen wanhopig zijn en het aanbod de vraag niet kan bijhouden, begonnen handelaars zonder scrupules al snel zuivere kinine te versnijden met andere bittere schorsoorten.

Terwijl het vasteland van Europa over een gestage aanvoer van Peruviaanse bast beschikte, arriveerden in Engeland aanvankelijk grotere voorraden voornamelijk via piraten die Spaanse schepen in beslag namen. Pas tegen het midden van de 18e eeuw werden commerciële hoeveelheden schors van Latijns-Amerika naar Europa verscheept. De geneesmiddelenindustrie floreerde terwijl de mensen eeuwenlang onwetend bleven over de wijze waarop de ziekte werd opgelopen. Pas in 1897 ontdekte Ronald Ross dat malaria-parasieten in feite door muggen werden overgebracht.

Hoewel malaria nog steeds in alle tropische landen voorkomt, weten maar weinig mensen nu dat Europa pas in 1978 van malaria af is gekomen nadat moerassen waren drooggelegd, de gezondheidsinfrastructuur sterk was verbeterd en muggen onder controle waren gebracht.

Grote doorbraken vinden vaak plaats nadat mensen zijn blootgesteld aan ideeën van elders en wanneer nieuwe wetenschappelijke inzichten zijn verkregen. Hoewel dit waar is voor de mensheid, hebben de meeste kleine boeren in ontwikkelingslanden beperkte mogelijkheden om te leren van hun collega’s over de grenzen heen, of van wetenschappers. Door wetenschappelijke kennis te combineren met lokale kennis en door een breed scala aan praktische lokale oplossingen te presenteren, proberen de video’s op het Access Agriculture videoplatform deze uitdagingen te overwinnen. De video’s bieden boeren de kans om meer te leren over de overdracht van plantenziekten door insectenvectoren en andere onderwerpen waarover boeren onvoldoende kennis hebben.

Credit

Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Meer lezen

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Gerelateerde blogs van Agro-Insight

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspirerende video platformen

Access Agriculture: bevat meer dan 220 trainingsvideo’s in meer dan 90 talen over een verscheidenheid aan gewassen en vee, duurzaam bodem- en waterbeheer, basisvoedselverwerking, enz. Elke video beschrijft de onderliggende principes en moedigt mensen zo aan om met nieuwe ideeën te experimenteren.

EcoAgtube: een nieuw social media platform waar iedereen van over de hele wereld zijn eigen video’s kan uploaden die gerelateerd zijn aan natuurlijke landbouw en circulaire economie.

Silent Spring, better living through biology June 13th, 2021 by

Hey farmer, farmer

Put away that DDT now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

“Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell

It’s possible that Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics owe a debt to Rachel Carson’s (1962) book Silent Spring. Why not? The book was a major influence on the environmental movement, inspiring Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US ban on DDT, besides. Less often mentioned, the book also touched off integrated pest management (IPM).

For all that, Carson makes few mentions of farmers in her book. Many of the cases she meticulously described are of the US and Canadian governments arrogantly dropping insecticide from airplanes, blanketing forest, field, stream, pasture, and even suburban communities.

DDT and other noxious organophosphate insecticides were applied in each case to kill some specific pest: The Japanese beetle, the spruce budworm, and the fire ant, for example.

In every case, the results were disastrous. Dead livestock, and cancer in humans, but the birds were decimated. The bald eagle, national bird of the USA, was nearly exterminated by DDT. The bald eagle has since made a comeback, but many other bird species are on the decline.

The chemical companies that sold these pesticides to the government had the audacity (or the stupidity) to claim that insects would not be able to evolve resistance to the toxins. The pests would be eradicated!

But they weren’t. The bugs won the war. In every single case, the target pest species was more numerous a few years after the spraying started.

To explain this, Carson coined the analogy of the pesticide treadmill. Before a pesticide is used, an insect’s population is controlled by its natural enemies, such as spiders, wasps, ants, and birds. Insecticide kills the pest, and its natural enemies, too. The pest evolves resistance to the pesticide, much quicker than do its natural enemies (which often reproduce more slowly and absorb more of the poison). Once freed from its natural enemies, the pest population explodes. Now it has to be managed by pesticides.

In 1962, Carson mused that Darwin would have been pleased to see how well his theories were proven, as insect pests had quickly evolved resistance to pesticides. If Carson were here today, she might not be so happy to see how the chemical companies have also evolved. They have engineered maize and soy varieties that can withstand herbicides, so fields can be sprayed with glyphosate that kills all the plants, except for the ones with designer genes. The corporations that sell the seed conveniently sell the herbicide as well. Companies like Monsanto once claimed that the weeds would not be able to evolve resistance to the genetically modified crops.

But they did. At least 38 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.

As Carson said nearly 60 years ago (and it’s still true), farms and forests are biological systems. Their pest problems have to be solved with biology, not with chemistry. In Rachel Carson’s day, only 2% of economic entomologists were working on biological pest control. Most of the other 98% were studying chemicals. Funding for chemicals breeds contempt for biological alternatives.

Biological pest control uses natural enemies to control pests. Carson cites the famous case of the cottony cushion scale, a citrus pest in California. The pest was controlled in 1872, long before DDT was available, by importing a lady bird beetle from Australia that ate the scale insects. The scale insects then became rare in California orchards until the 1940s, when insecticides killed the lady bird beetles and the pests exploded.

A recent book by Biovision and IPES Food suggests that many big donors still fund conventional research in pesticides. Perhaps it’s time to invest in scientists who can pick up Rachel Carson’s challenge, and solve biological problems with biology.

Further reading

Carson, Rachel 1962 (1987 edition). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Heap, Ian, and Stephen O. Duke 2018 “Overview of glyphosate‐resistant weeds worldwide.” Pest Management Science 4(5): 1040-1049.

On chemical companies denying that weeds would develop resistance to their herbicides see chapter 5 in:

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How we can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp. (See also a review of this book in Our threatened farmers).

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food. 2020. Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

Videos on natural, biological pest control

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Fourteen ninety-one April 25th, 2021 by

Several friends have asked me, as an anthropologist, what I thought of Charles Mann’s book, 1491, so after finding a copy during Covid, I have to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I might have read it years ago if not for its subtitle: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. I was expecting something New Age, about visits from outer space. But it’s not that at all.

Mann visited some of the major pre-Hispanic sites, and read widely, but as a journalist he also interviewed a lot of archaeologists, which makes for lively reading, and an excellent one-volume history of the New World.

Long isolated from the Old World, the Native Americans independently developed agriculture, the foundation for complex societies. But because the hemisphere had been isolated, her people had no previous exposure to European ills like smallpox, measles and hepatitis. This made the Native Americans immunologically naïve, and susceptible to Old World diseases, which wiped out perhaps 90% of the New World population after Columbus. Every few years a new epidemic would carry off half the people.

In 1491 there were a lot of people living in the Americas. The Amazon Basin was not an unbroken wilderness. Cassava and other crops supported dense populations of Amazonian farmers.

High in the Andes, early farmers domesticated the potato, sweetpotato, and other roots and tubers. These crops fed the Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca Empires with their fine masonry of giant stones, and the khipu: a unique system of recording information on knotted strings.

Ancient Mexicans domesticated maize, beans, squash, and chili. These were the basis for various civilizations, like the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the Maya (who had life-like sculpture and a full-blown writing system).

Mann reminds us that American Indians have rarely been given the appreciation they deserve for their achievements, many of which were made possible by agriculture.  1491 is not so much a new revelation as a superb compilation and a compelling narrative. Mann is amazed that this part of American history is not taught in high schools. It’s not, but it should be, and his book still deserves to be widely read.

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books. 541 pp.

Mann acknowledges William Denevan for his insight that before Columbus, the Amazon Basin had been densely inhabited by farmers growing permanent crops.

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

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Photos

Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico. Machu Picchu, Peru. Stela B, Copán, Honduras. Photos by J. Bentley

Peasants, not princes: the potato finds a home in Europe April 18th, 2021 by

The French philosopher Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introduced the potato into his country by having it planted with great fanfare in the king’s gardens. Guards were posted to protect the new crop, ostensibly to prevent thefts, but really to draw attention to it. When the guards were withdrawn overnight from the now mature crop, curious farmers snuck in and dug up the potatoes to plant in their own fields, just as the clever Parmentier had intended.

Some years ago I told this story from the podium of the National Potato Congress in Bolivia. My audience of Andean potato experts loved the tale, which is one reason why I must retract it now, for it is simply a bit of fake history, penned by Parmentier’s friend and biographer, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Perhaps I should have known better, but in the potato story I learned in grad school, European peasants resisted the tuber brought back by Spanish sailors fresh from the conquest of Peru in the 1530s. Europeans were used to eating cereals, and the potato lived underground, like the devil, or so went the story.

In a recent book, British historian Rebecca Earle sets the potato record straight. She points out that European peasants did eat root crops, like carrots and turnips.

Earle also shows that European peasants embraced the potato from the start, often growing it discretely in a home garden, for once a new crop was widely grown and sold, it acquired a market value and could be taxed and tithed.

According to court records from Cornwall in 1768, a clergyman sued one of his flock because she was growing potatoes without paying him a tithe. Witnesses testified that the potato had already been grown for many generations in Cornwall. The potato was also mentioned in Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook published in Frankfurt in 1681. During the Nine Years War (1688-1697) so many potatoes were grown in Flanders that soldiers were able to survive by pilfering potatoes from peasants’ fields.

The potato was widely grown all over Europe (in France, too) before Parmentier was born. Then as now, smallholder farmers were eager to experiment with new crops. Peasants spread the potato across Europe long before the nobles paid it much attention. Earle also writes that potatoes were being grown commercially in the Canary Islands by the 1570s, and shipped to France and the Netherlands.

In Earle’s analysis, after widespread hunger in the mid-1700s fueled popular revolts, kings began to realize that a well-fed, healthy population would be more productive. Rulers finally saw that it was in their own self-interest for the state to assume some responsibility to ensure that their subjects’ had enough food to eat.

Potatoes yielded as much as three times more food per hectare than rye and other grain crops. Monarchs, like King Louis XIV (patron of Parmentier) belatedly began to understand the advantages of potatoes and entered the history books as a promotor of the new crop. Other historical inaccuracies arose. Frederick the Great is erroneously portrayed as introducing Germans to the potato.

The myth that the conservative peasants were afraid to grow and eat potatoes, or that the potato was spread across Europe by emperors and philosophers has proven a pervasive piece of fake history. These stories burnished the reputations of the elites at the expense of the peasants and home gardeners. Many of the true potato promotors were women, who tended the home gardens, ideal spaces for the experiments that helped the potato become the world’s fourth most widely grown crop, now produced in nearly every country of the world. Yet further proof that smallholder farmers have always been eager to try new crops and other innovations.

Further reading

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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CAMPESINOS, NO PRÍNCIPES: ACOGIENDO LA PAPA EN EUROPA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de abril del 2021

El filósofo francés Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introdujo la papa en su país haciéndola sembrar a bombo y platillo en los jardines del rey. Se colocaron guardias para proteger el nuevo cultivo, aparentemente para evitar robos, pero en realidad para llamar la atención. Cuando los guardias se retiraron de la noche a la mañana del cultivo ya maduro, los campesinos curiosos se colaron y desenterraron las papas para sembrarlas en sus propios huertos, tal y como pretendía el astuto Parmentier.

Hace algunos años conté esta historia desde el podio del Congreso Nacional de la Papa en Bolivia. A mi público de expertos andinos en la papa le encantó el relato, lo cual es una de las razones por las que debo retractarme ahora, ya que es nada más que una historia falsa, escrita por el amigo y biógrafo de Parmentier, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Tal vez debería haberlo sabido, pero en la historia de la papa que aprendí en la universidad, los campesinos europeos se resistieron al tubérculo traído por los marineros españoles recién llegados de la conquista de Perú en la década de 1530. Los europeos estaban acostumbrados a comer cereales, y la papa vivía bajo tierra, como el diablo, o al menos así me contaban.

En un libro reciente, la historiadora británica Rebecca Earle aclara la historia de la papa. Señala que los campesinos europeos sí comían cultivos de raíces, como zanahorias y nabos.

Earle también demuestra que los campesinos europeos adoptaron la papa desde el principio, a menudo cultivándola discretamente en el jardín de su casa, ya que una vez que un nuevo cultivo se extendía y se vendía, adquiría un valor de mercado y podía ser gravado y diezmado.

Según las actas judiciales de Cornualles de 1768, un clérigo demandó a un miembro de su congregación, porque ella cultivaba papas sin pagarle el diezmo. Los testigos declararon que la papa ya se había cultivado durante muchas generaciones en Cornualles. La papa también se menciona en el libro de cocina de Marx Rumpolt, publicado en Frankfurt en 1681. Durante la Guerra de los Nueve Años (1688-1697) se cultivaron tantas papas en Flandes que los soldados pudieron sobrevivir robando papas de los campos de los campesinos.

La papa se cultivaba ampliamente en toda Europa (también en Francia) antes de que naciera Parmentier. En aquel entonces, igual que hoy en día, a los pequeños agricultores les gusta experimentar con nuevos cultivos. Los campesinos difundieron la papa por toda Europa mucho antes de que los nobles le prestaran mucha atención. Earle también escribe que en la década de 1570 ya se cultivaban papas comercialmente en las Islas Canarias y se enviaban a Francia y los Países Bajos.

Según el análisis de Earle, después de que el hambre generalizada a mediados del siglo XVII alimentara las revueltas populares, los reyes empezaron a darse cuenta de que una población bien alimentada y sana sería más productiva. Los gobernantes finalmente vieron que les interesaba que el Estado asumiera alguna responsabilidad para garantizar que sus súbditos tuvieran suficientes alimentos para comer.

Las papas producían hasta tres veces más alimentos por hectárea que el centeno y otros cultivos de cereales. Los monarcas, como el rey Luis XIV (mecenas de Parmentier), empezaron a comprender tardíamente las ventajas de la papa y entraron en los libros de historia como promotores del nuevo cultivo. Surgieron otras inexactitudes históricas. Federico el Grande es presentado erróneamente como el introductor de la patata para los alemanes.

El mito de que los campesinos conservadores tenían miedo de cultivar y comer papas, o que la papa fue difundida por toda Europa por emperadores y filósofos, ha resultado ser una pieza omnipresente de la historia falsa. Estos relatos han servido para engrosar la reputación de las élites a costa de los campesinos y los jardineros. Muchos de los verdaderos promotores de la papa fueron mujeres, que cuidaban los huertos caseros, espacios ideales para los experimentos que ayudaron a que la papa se convirtiera en el cuarto cultivo más extendido del mundo, que ahora se produce en casi todos los países del globo. Una prueba más de que los pequeños agricultores siempre han estado dispuestos a probar nuevos cultivos y otras innovaciones.

Lectura adicional

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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