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Peru Resurrects Ancient Ways of Farming

Raised-earth system, called waru waru, protects crops against drought, floods and frost on the plains around Lake Titicaca.

August 10, 2003|Drew Benson | Associated Press Writer

ALTO CATACHA, Peru — Viewed from atop a rocky hill beside this remote hamlet, the worn earthen mounds and canals of an ancient farming system that once fed an empire stretch out to the horizon.

The method faded out of use a millennium ago. But it has been brought back to life by Indian communities on the plains around Lake Titicaca as a way to protect crops against drought, floods and even frost damage.

Known as "waru waru," in the Quechua language, the technique has proven an inexpensive way to improve crop yields and ease the punishing effects of farming at 12,500 feet above sea level on the Andean plains. Despite its demonstrated success, however, the system may again slip into history without an authoritarian civilization to ensure its maintenance.

Two decades ago, U.S. anthropologists began rebuilding the waru warus with the help of local communities in an attempt to better understand how they might have worked. Modern-day Indians used traditional tools, including Andean foot plows that have changed little in thousands of years, to cut accumulated sod out of the old canals and restore the waru warus to their former dimensions.

The scientists found that the technique not only worked, it tripled crop production.

Excited by the possibility of ancient technology succeeding where costly machinery and chemical fertilizers had failed, private development organizations and the Peruvian government rushed in to aid farmers.

"There was waru waru fever to reconstruct ancient technology back then," said Alipio Canahua, a program director for the international humanitarian agency CARE. Between 1986 and 2001, some 15 groups rehabilitated 10,100 acres, Canahua said in his Puno office, about an hour southeast of Alto Catacha on Lake Titicaca. He said that as many as 250,000 acres in the area show traces of waru warus.

Dimensions vary, but the raised fields are generally one yard high, four to 10 yards wide, 10 to 100 yards long and separated by similarly sized canals.

Potatoes and grains such as quinoa are grown in the elevated earth, while underwater ferns in the canals provide a home for nitrogen-rich green algae that provide a natural fertilizer. Water in the canals allows for "splash irrigation" and creates a slightly warmer micro-climate that protects crops from the killer frost of the harsh altiplano nights. By absorbing the strong sunlight during the day, the water retains enough solar radiation to raise overnight temperatures by nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

University of Illinois anthropologists working in Peru also confirmed another suspected benefit: The raised systems provided a buffer against the notoriously fluctuating lake.

In 1983, water in restored canals helped irrigate crops during a drought that damaged conventional fields in the area. Three years later, the elevated fields survived heavy flooding that inundated neighboring flatlands.

The University of Chicago's Alan Kolata, who rebuilt raised fields attributed to the ancient Tiwanaku culture on the lake's southern flood plain in Bolivia, has determined that the technique dates to about A.D. 500.

But beginning about A.D. 1100, a 300-year-long drought dropped the water table and dried up fields, Kolata's research shows. The ensuing collapse of the agricultural system led to a crisis that plunged the region into a pastoral dark age, he said.

"There was a sustained boom in the agricultural fields and then a serious bust when the water was cut off," he said. "They didn't diversify their investment."

Canahua said he still sees many of the raised fields being maintained since the CARE program ended in 2001. He is now looking at using them in conjunction with other ancient techniques such as interconnected irrigation lakes called "qochas" and the Inca-built terraces known as "andenes" for farming the steep Andean slopes.

"For me, the waru warus aren't the solution. They are an option -- one more option," Canahua said.

Kolata believes the success of rediscovered technology boils down to governments getting the economic incentives right.

Unlike raised fields on the Peruvian side of the border, his test fields -- "sukacollos" in the Aymara language spoken south of Puno -- were abandoned when the Bolivian government and private groups did not step in.

"There is a moral to the tale of Tiwanaku," he said. "There was a tremendous investment by the state over a 600-year period -- and it worked."

In Cutini Capilla, an Aymara community on the western shore of Lake Titicaca between Puno and the ruins of the Tiwanaku capital, Luis Tulco, 53, said the raised fields that his village built five years ago are doing well.

"Before, this area always flooded, but now we have waru warus and this land is useful," he said in heavily accented Spanish as he stood at the edge of an elevated field of purplish quinoa under an enormous blue sky.

Cesar Mamani, 45, president of the 65-family community, agreed. "Old techniques remind us of our ancestors and our ancestors had good ideas," he said.

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