Sunday, January 27, 2013

El Maíz Cabanita: El Arado (The Art of the Plough)

Previous posts on Cabanaconde and maíz cabanita: first, second, third, fourth

Once the land is irrigated, it is time for the barbecho, which refers to the process of turning over and resting the soil before the next planting begins.  This post describes el arado (ploughing), which is an important part of both this stage and the planting season.

The traditional way to plough is with a yunta (a team of two bulls joined by a wooden yoke). However, over the previous decade, tractors have increasingly been used, particularly for this step of the cycle. Ploughing with bulls is more technically precise, and for this reason they are still used by the majority for planting, but the barbecho just requires the earth to be turned over.  Hiring a tractor costs about S/. 60 per hour, which is enough  time to plough a medium-sized chacra. By contrast, a team of bulls costs S/. 30 per day, they also require feed, and if their owner works at ploughing he needs to be paid as well. So the costs come out about the same, and using a tractor is significantly quicker. Some chacras are too steep or inaccessible to use a tractor, so even the barbecho is done with a yunta; also, for those who have their own bulls the relative costs may be different.

Ploughing with bulls is an activity steeped in tradition and surrounded by a fair amount of machismo. Objects and practices have special names: some of them are neither Spanish nor standard Quechua, and some of them may be unique to Cabanaconde. For example, the long wooden pole which is dragged by the bulls is called la pero (note, not perro) and the stick of dense wood which the person steering the plough uses to poke the bulls and keep them straight is called el allejón.

The bulls used in work in the chacras are mostly serrano cattle, small and lean, curious like all cattle, and easily spooked or distracted by their peers, but mostly tame and obedient. This is fortunate, because the first step involves them standing still while they are tied by the horns to the yunta (and thus to each other).

The plough consists of a long pole of dense wood (la pero) which is placed in a loop of rope hanging from the yunta. At the end of the pole is a roughly v-shaped piece of wood (see photo below). At one end is a sort of tiller which is held by the person ploughing. To the other end a steel furrow is attached with an extremely strong and supple leather tie (what is being done in the photo).

To begin ploughing, one person walks in front of the bulls, who obediently follow. This is known as to guide or guiar. There's some skill involved, as you need to need to make sure the bulls follow the line the furrow needs to enter. This has been described to me as 'like driving a car', but it's a rather skittish and mechanically unpredictable car. It's particularly tricky when the chacra is oddly shaped  or the terrain is uneven around the edges. Sometimes in order to ensure that the furrow gets all the way to the end of the chacra you need to jump up on the wall or terrace at the end of the chacra so the bulls will follow you. To make tight turns you may need to tap one of the bulls on the nose with a small stick, or even grab it by the horn and physically drag it around. I acted as guia quite a lot during the planting season, and became reasonably adept at the task.

Doing the ploughing itself requires real skill. It doesn't look so hard but there is strength and dexterity required to hold the plough straight, ensure the furrow is deep and true, make the turns accurately and encourage the bulls while poking them with the allejón to keep them in line.  I had several attempts but never mastered it.

When the earth has been ploughed, it has to be smoothed over. This process is to majonear, named for the majona, a flat wooden board that is tied to a horse, mule or donkey. Someone leads the animal around the chacra while another person stands on the board, effectively skiing along and closing over the furrows (as in the picture below). Quite often a child will be used to majonear, since a donkey (the easiest animal to get hold of) finds it difficult to drag a full-grown adult, and the weight of a child may be sufficient to smooth over the earth. In other cases, someone will stand on the board with only one foot, more like skating than skiing, and quite quite physically challenging. Where the earth is heavier, an adult standing with both feet on the board towed by horse or mule will be required.

After the barbecho, there is one more irrigation cycle, and then in August the planting season begins. This is the centrepiece of the agricultural cycle in Cabanaconde.

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