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Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

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Forgetting Inca technology June 16th, 2019 by

No one knows how the Incas built their famous temples and palaces. Ordinary Inca houses were made of uncut field stones, with no mortar. But their palaces and temples were built in a style of fine masonry, with stones of irregular shapes, yet cut so precisely that they fit together perfectly. Inca fine masonry is one of the wonders of ancient engineering. The late Swiss historian, Armin Bollinger, writes that the stones even “dance” in place during earthquakes, before settling back into their original position.

Previous Andean cultures worked with large stones placed close together, but in simpler patterns than the unique, high art of fine masonry used during the Inca Empire (about 1425 to 1532 AD). The massive pre-Inca blocks at the prehistoric city of Tiwanaku are placed side-by-side, as rectangles, not in the Inca pattern, where each stone is of a unique size and shape.

Even the conquistadores admired the Inca stonework, yet the Spaniards never saw the walls being built. After the conquest, the Incas never built in their finest tradition again, as the Spanish directed them to build in the European style instead.

Bollinger dismissed some common theories of how the walls were made, such as the idea that the blocks were put in place, then taken off and chipped some more before being put back in place, over and over until the fit was perfect. Many of the blocks were too big for that, since they weighed over 20 tons. Another theory is that the Inca masons rubbed the stones together, back and forth until they fit perfectly together. But the stones were mostly andesite, a basalt-like stone that is too hard to work just by rubbing.

Both of these ideas rely on using mass amounts of brute force. Bollinger no doubt would have preferred a theory that also included smart engineering and careful measurement to explain how the stones were fitted. But that knowledge is simply lost. Inca fine masonry has never been documented, nor reinvented, not even with the help of machinery. Although in a recent experience, Brandon Clifford (MIT) and Wes McGee (Univ. Michigan) get pretty close, with digital technology, glue, with small blocks made of concrete, and robotic arms to do the carving.

Technology is a game of use it or lose it. Whether it is a style of masonry, or of farming, even ingenious techniques can be lost if they are not used.

Agricultural knowledge has been evolving for at least 5000 years, a lot longer than the Inca stone walls have existed. As farmers adapt their knowledge to make it relevant in a changing world, it is important to respect, document and keep that knowledge alive which is not only clever: it feeds us. It is in humanity’s interest to keep as many techniques on hand as possible, to remain adaptive. Human knowledge is fragile. It can vanish if it is not used.

Further reading

Bollinger, Armin 1997 AsĂ­ ConstruĂ­an los Inkas. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. Translated by Rainer B. Podratz. Original title So Bauten die Inka.

Clifford, Brandon, and Wes McGee. 2015 “Digital Inca: An assembly method for free-form geometries.” Thomsen, M. R., Tamke, M., Gengnagel, C., Faircloth, B., & Scheurer, F. (Eds.). Modelling Behaviour. Springer. 173-186.

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Feeding the ancient Andean state

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Anasazi beans

Related videos

Almost all of the videos on www.accessagriculture.org show a sensitive mix of local knowledge and appropriate new ideas.  For example, there is a new series on herbal medicines for livestock from India, and a series on traditional Andean knowledge of the weather.

The diesel wheat mills May 5th, 2019 by

The people of Yuraj Molino (“white mill”) live surrounded by wheat fields, in a large valley near the small town of Pocona, Bolivia. As the name suggests, there have been flour mills in Yuraj Molino for some time. But by the late 1970s, customers were complaining of how long it took to grind the wheat; they got tired of waiting all day for their flour. And then millers began to notice that with the warmer, dryer climate, the streams no longer carried as much stream water, to power the mills. Some of the mills closed. Ana and I visited the ruins of a miller’s house, the yard full of weeds, with the mill still there and a calendar for 1984 still on the wall.

Other mills survived. Local miller Juan Torrico showed us his old mill house, with the canal that once brought water from the mountains. In 2001, Juan’s brother Sergio designed a new mill at the mill house. He bought two large, new stones from a master craftsman near Epizana, Cochabamba, who still carves the massive limestone wheels. Sergio bought a diesel engine, and a used truck axel. The brothers built a new mill house and mounted the stones in it, fixed the axel upright below them, and then used a steel rod to connect the axel to the diesel engine, which Sergio put in the next room. This way they kept the diesel smoke and the engine noise out of the mill room. They don’t want the smoke to spoil the delicate flavor of the flour, which people love.

Five or six other mills in the valley are also sited where old water mills used to be, near running water. But most of them are also now powered by diesel motors.

One by one the old water mills around Pocona adapted to diesel, and one or two are still using water power. The change to diesel was gradual and there was never a break in service, never a time when the farmers had no mills to go to. The mills themselves also stayed in the same places. Although the mills were originally sited to be near water, they were also near the wheat fields, and the millers owned the land where their mills were, and they had community ties to the area. So, the diesel mills stayed right where the water mills had been.

There is no research institution providing expertise on how to motorize Bolivian water mills. At some point, the millers themselves had to blend their traditional knowledge with a lot of new information about motors and old truck parts. As always, people in rural areas are constantly creating and making sophisticated adaptations to changing conditions.

The Sajama Lines April 28th, 2019 by

A mystery unfolds around Mount Sajama, the highest point in Bolivia (6542 meters), a gorgeous snowcapped volcano. Even the base of the mountain is really high: 4200 meters, making the surrounding area too cold for farming, even though it is in tropical latitudes. And in ancient times, only farmers made grand monumental art. Yet the landscape around Mount Sajama is crisscrossed by some 10,000 km of perfectly straight lines, made by ancient people.

The lines are so poorly known that few people in Bolivia have heard of them. Many of the lines are in the Sajama National Park, although they are ignored in park literature. Yet the lines are clearly visible from the air, as I noticed last year when flying over them. They look a bit like giant, interlocking asterisks.

So, on a recent trip to Sajama, Ana and I were able to see that the lines up close. Up close, they look like roads, about 3 meters wide, stripped of all vegetation. Many lines run to hilltops. Some run far up the slopes of the highest mountains, but still end a long way from the icy peaks. Even today those peaks are impossible to climb, except by highly skilled (and slightly crazy) mountaineers.

From the Nazca Lines to the Pyramids of Giza, ancient monuments were made by agrarian societies. The labor came from off-season farmers.  Unskilled workers, specialists and priests were all fed with harvests wrested from farmers. But the area around Sajama is cold for most of the year. In April we woke up to a frost so thick that it covered the backs of the llamas with ice, like a blanket. Not even the hardy, native quinoa will grow here. Not even barley, which grows in the high, cold Alps. So local people continue to pasture large herds of llamas, like their ancestors before them. Hamlets are few, and far between.

Where did the labor come from to build these lines? Did workers migrate in seasonally, carrying their food with them?

On the ground, the lines look like nothing more than a band of sandy soil, where the native brush has been removed. It would have been an unimaginable amount of work to dig out all the deep-rooted needle grass and t’ola plants without steel tools. Millions of people-hours of labor. And, why have the plants not grown back in the last 500 years or so? The volcanic soil around the lines seems to have been only lightly disturbed. Are native plants really so slow to regenerate in this forbidding environment?

The lines are as straight as if made with a theodolite, even when crossing rivers or moving across slopes. Many of the lines come together at the small colonial churches. No doubt the sixteenth century chapels were built on the sites that the native people already held sacred, as jealous priests sought to co-opt the spiritual places of the Andean peoples.

The University of Pennsylvania conducted research on the lines a decade ago, but I’ve been unable to find one of their publications. Why this grand desert site is so under-researched is perhaps as great a wonder as the lines themselves.

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

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