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PERU: Ancient Inca Irrigation Works Restored To Raise Record Crops

Susan Litherland

LONDON, May 22 1997 (IPS) - The glossy leaves of beans, potatoes and cabbages poke through the rich soil of terraces that wind about the mountains high above the river in Peru’s Patacancha valley.

Yet for almost 500 years those same terraces lay barren, ruined when the mighty Inca empire was crushed by the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century.

The neat stone channels that carry glittering snow water from mountain tops to the crops were until two years ago heaps of tumble down stones, many of them hidden beneath burnt-out soil that provided only a meagre living for subsistence farmers.

It took an archaeologist to visualise that out of the rubble would grow bountiful crops, sown in land maintained using traditional, cost-free methods.

Back in the 1970s British archaeologist Ann Kendall was scraping away at Inca ruins in the neighbouring Cusichaca valley, also in the Ollantaytambo district, when she was struck by the possibility that the terraces could be restored.

“The farmers were practising only rain fed agriculture producing scanty crops that weren’t enough to keep body and soul together. We felt we couldn’t justify spending money on observing ancient rural life without doing anything to help them,” she says.

So in 1977 she founded the Cusichaca Trust, a British non- governmental organisation, to help raise food production in the Andean villages.

Peruvian agriculture was at an all time low, laid waste by years of economic depression throughout the 1970s and guerrilla and counter-revolutionary activities the 1980s and early 1990s. Unable to command decent prices for their crops, people had left the land in their thousands for the cities, many of them headed for slums and poverty.

The sad irony was that agricultural innovation was the basis of the country’s pre-Columbian success; the Incas were magnificent engineers and agriculturists.

In places terraces were built up dangerously precipitous hillsides with massive inclined walls supporting a metre deep fill of stones for drainage and a metre of excellent soil, often brought in from elsewhere.

Clay was used for foundations to retain water and to encourage roots to decay so that the biological activity would keep the soil a few degrees warmer than the chilly mountain air all year round.

Incan terraces still occupy about a million hectares of land but three quarters of them are abandoned, a process that began with the Spanish conquest of 1534 when the Conquistadors sent defeated rural communities to work in mines while they lived off the Inca storehouses and allowed the terraces to fall into disrepair.

The centuries of oppression that followed took their toll on villagers, robbing them of their initiative to build up agriculture once more, according to archaeologist David Drew. “First the Spaniards and then the hacienda aristocracy ordered around the indigenous locals to the point where they lost the confidence to get things done,” he says.

When the haciendas were broken up during the 1960s the land was parcelled out to peasants who limped along as subsistence farmers, without the will to work efficiently in cooperatives, according to Drew. While restoration of the terraces might appear an obvious solution to outsiders, it wasn’t to the villagers.

“It’s pretty difficult for a tiny isolated village to make that leap between observing the rubble of terraces and getting a surveyor in to see if they can be rebuilt,” he says.

Studies show that the Inca system could have supported 100,000 people from the produce of terraced lands in Ollantaytambo, a far cry from the scattering of families living there in the early 1980s who had not enough food to eat let alone crops to export.

When Kendall first investigated the terraces she discovered the soil was severely depleted from over cropping and grazing. “And being in a geologically granitic area, the soil contains lots of sand which had accumulated on the surface as the good soil beneath was washed away.”

The Trust’s first project was in Cusichaca itself to rehabilitate 45 hectares of land by restoring seven kilometres of a canal system so it could bring water to the terraces and peoples’ homes.

A surveyor pronounced the project feasible, and under the supervision of a master mason from Cusco, members of the local community set off to clear and rebuild fallen sections, some of it lying in ruins 100 metres below them.

They used simple wood and stone tools like those of the Incas before them to shape stones where necessary and lever them into place on canal foundations and walls. Like their predecessors they sealed the channels with clayey soil to make the structure impermeable.

It took a little persuasion to get the farmers to abandon their preferred cement which costs money, needs outside help to prepare and in any case is unsuitable for use in an earthquake region because, unlike clay, it has no elasticity to cope with movement.

The job took three years to complete whereupon the Trust handed out tools, seed money and planting advice. The soil has recuperated through natural farming methods and land that was barren for centuries today produces crops including the grains maize, quinoa and kiwicha. Surplus product is taken to the market and the profits have revitalised the entire community.

A bit further along the Urubamba valley, farmers in Patacancha who’d watched the burgeoning crops of their neighbours asked the Trust to work similar miracles on their own terraces. In 1991 the Trust set out to restore six kilometres of canal to irrigate 160 hectares of land, returning them to their former glory.

The job was financed largely by the British government’s aid arm the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development) and took four years to complete.

Since last year the land has been under permanent cultivation resulting in the economic transformation of the valley. The community has doubled with farming families coming back from Cusco and Lima to claim their rights to the land.

“The country way of life needs to be set up again and families reunited. Villagers were reduced to eating only potatoes and a little meat as they had no vegetable gardens or agriculture. There is a need for health programmes, nutrition and small scale enterprises such as tool shops and mills.” says Kendall.

The restoration of the Patacancha canal provided on the job training for future master masons, foremen, engineers and labourers who now have the ability to restore terraces in other valleys. With the Trust’s encouragement a local NGO called Adesa has been set up to lead such projects and incorporate credit facilities to help people get farming and small business off the ground.

Already set in motion are schemes for vegetable gardens, greenhouses, tree nurseries, guinea-pig farms, health and nutrition programmes for women and the supply of potable water to 1000 families. This year the Trust is aiming to set up a horticultural centre in Ollantaytambo which will be run by Adesa and will sell tools, seeds, and plants.

The Trust is now turning its attention to the Ayacucho and Apurimac areas, where 20 percent of the communities were displaced by guerrilla movements and are now returning to the land.

“We can only work in areas where terraces are most run down and hope other communities will come and see and be inspired by our work,” says Kendall. She adds: “It’s entirely possible that other ancient irrigation systems around the world can be rehabilitated and made to produce good crops.”

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