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 cabaneƱo' (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.

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