Thursday, December 27, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: Riego y Barbecho (Preparing the Land)

(Previous posts on maiz cabanita: first, second. )

Once the harvest has been completed, and while the activities of de-leaving, de-graining and using or selling the maize are still occurring, the cultivation moves into its next phase. During June and July, the land will be prepared for the the next planting, which starts in early August.

In Cabanaconde most land does not have a regular fallow period and it is possible to plant maize in the same chacra, year after year. I understand this is due to the natural volcanic richness of the soil as well as the organic fertilisation methods that are used.

The first thing to do after the harvest is over is to clear the crop stubble and fertilise the soil. The most systematic way to do this is by placing a flock of sheep and goats on one's chacras. The animals eat up the crop stubble, while their droppings and urine nourish the earth. In general, during the post-harvest period, all animals are allowed to roam free through the countryside, where their eating and defecating provides a general public service. However, those who are able will gather together as many as several hundred sheep and make them sleep several nights on their land. Most people own a few sheep: the large numbers are accumulated by renting or borrowing from others. In the day the animals are allowed to wander and eat freely; in the night they are herded together onto the chacra. Those who can afford it will employ a shepherd to sleep there; others may stay themselves.

Those who don't have the time or resources to have their plots of land cleared and fertilised by animals will sometimes just burn off the crop stubble.

The next step is irrigation. Rain usually only falls in Cabanaconde between December and March, so for the rest of the year farming relies on irrigation water. For more than 1,000 years, this has been provided by the Hualca Hualca river, flowing down from the snows of the eponymous 6,025-metre mountain (see picture above), although since the 1990s this has been supplemented by additional water from the Majes irrigation canal.

For anyone interested in these posts, or in Andean agriculture and livelihoods in general, I highly recommend getting hold of a book by US anthropologist Paul Gelles called Water and Power in Highland Peru. Gelles spent years living in Cabanaconde and today is remembered by almost everybody there as having become 'just another cabaneño' (a high compliment). He wrote in detail about the highly ritualistic traditional irrigation system in which a 'water mayor' allotted the water to individual fields in complex patterns based on the Incan division of the village into hanansaya and urinsaya partialities. The role of water mayor was an arduous one, as it involved controlling the flow of water, day and night, during a whole agricultural cycle. It was a customary office which most adult men were expected to hold at some stage in their lifetime.

Nowadays, that system has disappeared and water is distributed in a straightforward geographical pattern which Gelles' describes in his book as the 'State system' and which in the past was only used when emergency irrigation had to be undertaken in dry periods during the rainy season. A water mayor oversees the process, but this is now a paid role and held only for a single irrigation cycle.

The water follows something like a half-moon shape around the village: it starts in the sectors of Seccana and Ishicc, on the canyon side of Cabanaconde; moves up to Cabra above the village cemetery, across to Cutirca and Lihuay; then down the lower-lying southern side of the village through Ayrampo, Ccollcca, Cushqui and all the way to Auki. In each sector it flows down a principal canal, into smaller canals and is then diverted by individual farmers onto their own chacras. This is done by moving large stones and clods of earth in and out of the canals which run around the chacras.

Each farmer has to take their allotted turn to irrigate when the water has reached their chacra. The water flows 24 hours a day; there is no system of holding it in reservoirs during the night. Thus, many people have to irrigate at night time. I have only been to do this once (perhaps will describe in another post) but that was enough to gain an idea of just how cold and taxing this is. It's not even possible to be sure exactly what time the water will arrive, which means that people might have to wait around in the cold and dark for several hours.  

About a week to 10 days after the first irrigation cycle begins the barbecho, which involves turning over the newly softened earth with a plough. Ploughing is a central part of both the post-harvest and planting periods. I'll talk about that in the next post.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

El Maiz Cabanita: La Cosecha (The Harvest), Part II

This is part 2 of my series on maize cultivation in Cabanaconde.

As I explained in the previous post, the main objective of the harvest is to bring the maize back into the 'corrals' which are dotted around the village, often between houses. It is transported as entire plants, in bundles of varying size, depending on whether it is carried back by truck or by donkey.

The next step is to deshojar -- literally 'remove the leaves'. Each plant will have one to three choclos or corn cobs. You extract them by peeling off the leaves -- often a nail or some other sharpish object will be used to make an initial break in the leaves near the top of the cob -- then twisting the cob to remove it. This is might seem like easy work in comparison to some of the other tasks, but it involves long hours of repetitive work, in the hot sun, with lots of bending or squatting. This task is usually done by women: as with the harvest itself, many migrant labourers come from Puno or parts of Cuzco such as Espinar looking for work. At this time of the year in Cabanaconde you will see many of these women, with their distinctive dress of a bowler hat, sweater, knee-length skirt and long woollen pants (NB: not the woman in the picture, who is very much a cabaneña).

The choclos are then laid out on sacks or blankets to dry. How long this takes depends on the level of moisture remaining in the corn, although a week in the sun is usually sufficient. The next step is to desgranar or de-grain. The grains can be worked off the cob with the fingers: once the choclo is properly dried, they come off very easily. You now have grano seco, the primary form in which the maize is stored, used or sold. People in a hurry to sell some of their maize will sometimes remove the grains and leave them to dry loose, although this makes them even more accessible to the mice and birds which are a constant menace to the stored maize.

The maize can be white, yellow, purple or multi-coloured. Although they are all mixed and matched to a certain extent, each type has its principal uses:
  • White maize is the staple type used for cancha (toasted kernels), which is easily the most common way in which maiz cabanita is consumed
  • Yellow maize is the principal ingredient for chicha, although other kinds of maize are also used
  • Purple maize is used for cancha and also in chicha morada, which is a non-alcoholic refreshment common throughout Peru

A certain proportion of the grains are retained for use as seeds. These are usually selected from the largest, most well-formed choclos and are taken from the centre of the cob.

The maize plant minus the choclo is called chala. Although the dry, spiky stalks and leaves look pretty unappealing, they are useful as animal feed during the dry season.For example, during planting season, if someone has to hire a team of  bulls to plough their fields, they're usually also required to provide a bundle of chala,which can be worth S/. 15 ($7.50 NZD). Little goes to waste.

How the maize is used will depend on the family, and can depend on the total size of their crop, where family members are living, etc. The family of a friend of mine is not untypical: they have a significant amount of land spread across many different plots throughout the campiña around Cabanaconde. She told me that approximately 5 to 10 percent was kept for seed, 10 to 20 percent was consumed, and 70 to 80 percent sold.

Many people told me that cultivating maize wasn't very profitable. "You get back about what you put in" was a frequent comment. The price for much of 2012 was S/. 4 per kilo, which is relatively good by historical standards. However, there's only one harvest per year, most people have small plots of land spread through different sectors of the countryside, and there are high fixed costs for activities like harvesting and planting. From what I was told, a one of the smaller chacras would deliver perhaps 200 kilos of dry grain, while a decent-sized one might produce 1,000 kilos. Meanwhile, some estimated that planting alone might cost  S/. 300-400. You can do the sums.

However, it wouldn't be quite correct to call it a 'subsistence' activity. First, the maize is not primarily destined for self-consumption but is largely traded and sold in the market. It is a source of security for families in that, when needed, it can provide not just food but also cash.   Second, although revenue may not exceed expenditure by any great degree, production interacts with and dynamizes other parts of the economy. Certain stages of the cultivation cycle use a considerable amount of wage labour, especially now the practice of ayni (reciprocal labour obligations) has largely disappeared.

There's lots more to write about the economy of maize in Cabanaconde: the extent to which it's consumed, traded and sold; where and for how much; and how distribtion or accumulation occur. These topics are for future posts, and perhaps for further investigation.