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The world we have eaten May 17th, 2015 by

The people of London of the 1600s could never be more than a couple of miles from the green fields and pastures that surrounded the little city. There was no noise from machines or motors of any kind, writes Peter Laslett in his social history of Britain’s capital, longingly titled The World We Have Lost (1984, New York: Scribner).

London is now a grand city, probably a lot cleaner than it has ever been before, and blessed with a gracious string of wooded parks, but still a world of farms and villages has vanished beneath it. Paving over the farmland is now happening with astonishing speed in many tropical cities.

I was weeding the garden with my father-in-law a few weeks ago, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when he noticed our few stalks of corn and he said “This is a good country for maize, because years ago, all of this land was in corn.” He went on to say that as a kid in the 1940s he would come to this very same area, and study with his friends. They would bring their books and read out-loud to each other, or they would stop in the shade of a molle tree and read. Sometimes they got to goofing off and didn’t study very much. They might even go for a swim in the Rocha River.

There is now a busy avenue following the river, but back then, there was a broad forest of eucalyptus, with paths between the trees, and people would come out from town to stroll. There were always people walking, studying and just generally enjoying the peace and shade.

To put this little story in perspective, the places my father-in-law was describing as open countryside are now in the center of the city. For over 400 years, Cochabamba was a city just a few streets wide, in the bend of the Rocha River. In 1548, the Spanish conquistador G. de Camargo (and 450 native people) worked a farm in what would later be the city center. The city was founded there in 1572, and for centuries was just a small town, about two kilometers across, surrounded by farms and villages. The valley was part of a globalizing economy that sent food grains to the mines of PotosĂ­, which sent gold and silver to Spain, which were spent on manufactures from England and the Netherlands, where the precious coins were used to finance industrialization.

From the 1940s to the 1990s Cochabamba spread to an area about 10 km by 10, all over the eastern end of this large, fertile valley. Since the 1990s the city has spread up into the foothills of the cordillera and into the neighboring valley of Sacaba. Buildings stretch for miles where the maize fields once waved.  The skyline is changing from mountains to concrete as houses are knocked down to make apartment buildings.

All is not gone. In a few places you can still get a glimpse of the river and imagine how it would have tempted teenagers to drop their homework and jump in, but the water is now so filthy it stinks, and no one but the homeless and the mentally ill get in it.

Cochabamba is just a provincial capital in a small country on the remote continent of South America, but cities are eating up the countryside from Tegucigalpa to Lagos to Cairo and Dhaka. Ironically, many of them were sited where they are because the soil was rich and the settlers could grow food.

Farmland is often well managed, especially by family farmers like Johan and Vera who you will read about week. But in an open land market, farming cannot compete with city dwellers. Urbanites can usually pay more for land and water than farm families can, unless public opinion and policy realize that farmland is a scare natural resource, just like forests and streams. If the cities eat the farmland, what will we eat?

Further reading

Baptista Gumucio, Mariano (Ed.) 2012 Cochabamba: Vista a través de Viajeros y Autores Nacionales Siglos XVI al XXI. Cochabamba, Editorial Kipus.

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