Thursday, August 02, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: La Cosecha (The Harvest)

I'm going to try to do a series of posts on what I've learned about the maize cultivation cycle in Cabanaconde. Hopefully it will be a little more interesting than it sounds. One the one hand, the cultivation of maize is thoroughly linked with local customs and life, and one can't really be understood without the other. On the other, it provides an insight into the reality of organic production in difficult terrain, something that is worth understanding for anyone who advocates this as a way of life.

I'm going to have to begin at the end of the cycle, since that's where I came in.

La cosecha (the harvest) occurs in May. It is one of the busiest times of the year in Cabanaconde and, according to some, involves the hardest sustained work of the year. But it's also exciting and joyous since it's the culmination of all the effort that's gone before.

There are several distinct stages to the harvest. The first is to cut the maize, or calchar, which I believe is hispanicized Quechua. This is done by hand with a serrucho (sickle) and is a relatively straightforward task, barring the intense sun which makes everything more difficult. The whole plant is cut; the choclo or corn will be separated later. The trick is to cut the plants to more or less the same length, so they will be easier to pile up and carry. You work in rows, forming small piles of cut plants with all the stalks pointing the same way. There is something of  a technique to cutting, since the maize stalks are weak at some points but very tough at others. If you do it right, you can cut with one swipe of the sickle and don't have to bend over too much.

The next stage is to amontonar or pile up the maize. An example of this is in the photo above. You have to gather together three or four of the cut piles and then carry the load to the edge of the chacra where the plants are deposited, again with all the stalks pointing the same way. The pile is generally about ten metres wide and several layers high. This is generally done when the maize will be carried back to the village by donkey; when it will be carried by truck it is sometimes left in individual cut piles (see following section for explanation). As a complete novice, I found this somewhat harder work than cutting, since there is a technique to carrying, and you have to negotatiate uneven ground and sometimes climb up a couple of terraces to get to the place where you leave the bundle.

Traditionally, the labour to cut the maize has been provided at least in part by migrants from outside the district, particularly from the upper part of the Colca Valley and the province of Espinar in Cuzco. I worked with a couple of guys from Espinar. The older guy said he had his cattle in Espinar and also worked as a bus driver: typical of many people in rural Peru who must work in multiple occupations to make ends meet. By preference, they were getting paid in maize -- 100-120 choclos (corn cobs) per day. This was equivalent to around S/.50, a reasonable day's wage by Peruvian standards. Rather than selling or trading the maize back in Espinar, they would use it for personal consumption. Five or six days work would provide enough canchita (dried, toasted corn kernels) to last them until December.

The next step is to cargar or carry the maize back to the village. There are two ways of doing this: by truck and by donkey. These days, trucks are preferred for most areas where the vehicle can park within a reasonable distance of the chacra.  The first step is to liar or bundle up the maize plants in the chacra where they have been cut -- the idea is to make bundles about as big as a person will be able to carry. You need to lay out a large number of ropes (about 50 per chacra), and the bundles are placed on top of the ropes. These are then tied up tightly, a task which requires two people.

From there, the maize has to be carried to the truck, which may be several hundred metres away, and then carried up a ramp made from a wooden board into the truck. This I found to be the most brutally hard task of any I have experienced so far.  I estimate that the maize bundles weigh an average of 25-30 kg, but the weight is dispersed, which makes it much harder to lift and carry. Sometimes even an experienced worker needs the help of another to lift the bundle onto his back. To then carry this weight the distance to the truck, including across rough ground and terraces, requires considerable strength. In the chacra where I worked, each trip to the truck required stepping up onto a terrace that was above my waist level. With the weight of the maize on my back, it was all I could do to lift my other leg up on to the terrace and continue the journey towards the truck. Note that the 3,300 metres of altitude also has to be factored into the physical effort required.

The day I went to cargar by truck, it was with a group of young local guys, who seem to be more involved in this phase of the harvest. They get paid (in cash) per "trip", which involves riding in the back of the truck to a particular chacra, bundling up and carrying the maize, and then unloading it in the corrals back in the village. The average trip is worth S/.20, and around three trips will fit in a day, so workers earn a decent wage. When trips are longer they may make S/. 80 or even S/.100. The owner of the chacra will also provide lunch and some beer or licor at day's end. This was given to me as evidence that, although maize cultivation hardly renders above subsistence level taken as a whole, it pays well at each stage (for example, compared to potato production, where apparently a day's work may only pay S/.20) and thus gives some dynamism to the local economy.

Nevertheless, the wages are certainly well earned. The young guys are accustomed to the work and take it in their stride, but the recognition that it's intense work creates a fair amount of machismo. When I went to cargar with the truck, the chacra's owner Liliana (about my age) tried to insist that I should just watch or should help with some peripheral task. However, when they saw I wanted to work, the young guys egged me on, as did Liliana's mother SeƱora Prudencia (who has spent most of her life in the chacra, unlike Liliana who is mostly dedicated to her shop in the village). Sweating profusely and breathing heavily, I managed to carry six loads to the truck, while in the same time the young guys -- who had already made two earlier trips -- carried ten.  Another factor is that the maize stalks and leaves are rather sharp and thorny and can shred skin. My hands had not yet become accustomed to farm work, and I had neglected to obtain some appropriate gloves, so by the end of the day I was bleeding from several points, and was actually dripping blood over the bundles of maize, inspiring further admonishments from Liliana that I should stop working and take a rest.

The other, traditional, way to carry is by donkey. These days, donkeys are only used for chacras that are very close to the village or that are too far away from the road for the maize to be carried there manually. The advantage of donkeys is that they can be brought right to the chacra and loaded there. This means less human labour is required, although there is still quite a bit of effort required to tie up the maize (in larger bundles) and lift and tie them on to the donkey. The disadvantage is that even with 10 donkeys, it takes several trips to and from the village to clear an entire chacra. The men have to run back and forth to the village with the donkeys, so the process can be just as tiring as with the truck and, importantly, takes significantly longer .

Large groups of donkeys carrying loads back into the village creates the potential for chaos, and for this reason it's important to have a system of traffic control. The photo below shows the order set down for when animals can be used to carry the harvest into the village from each sector of the countryside. Interestingly, it is imposed by the Municipality (local government) rather than by the Peasant Community, the autonomous organization of community members. In contrast, loads can be brought back by truck from almost anywhere at any time, which is another advantage of using motorised transport.

That covers the harvest itself, up to the point of getting the cut maize back to the village. In the following post I'll describe what happens next.