Sunday, April 07, 2013

Maiz Cabanita: El Solay/La Siembra (Planting Time) 1

The highlight of the agricultural calendar in Cabanaconde is El Solay or La Siembra, the planting season. The expression solay is unique to Cabanaconde and I understand it to be some kind of linguistic hybrid (it's neither Spanish nor Quechua). The classical Quechua expression would be sara tarpuy (literally, maize planting), and this is also used in Cabanaconde, albeit within parentheses.

The solay starts in early August. Each chacra is planted around a week to 10 days after receiving its last round of irrigation water. For planting, the earth must be turned over  and smoothed down (majoneado) twice, before in the third ploughing cycle the seeds are scattered into the furrows, which are then smoothed over for the final time. The traditional practice is to do all this in a single day with teams of bulls. However, nowadays in most cases where the chacra is accessible, people will have the first two rounds of ploughing done by tractor 1-2 days before planting. The tractor isn't considered precise enough for planting itself, but provides an efficent and less labour-intensive way of preparing the earth.

A related task during planting time is to gramear, to clear the grama or grass away from the edge of the chacra. The wiry local grass that forms the borders of the chacra is tough and invasive, and if left alone will work its roots into the soil and compete with the maize. Depending on how well the borders have been cleaned the previous year, this can be tough work: some work with pick, shovel and bareta to cleanly redefine the borders of the chacra, while others follow behind, gathering up the uprooted grass and tossing it away. In some places it is also necessary to rebuild the walls of the terraces with stones and clods of earth, a task known as to pircar. Gaps that have allowed animals to wander in and out (desirable during the fallow season) must be closed over during cultivation.

Planting is very labour-intensive: for a medium or large chacra or several smaller ones, you generally need two teams of bulls, plus a donkey, mule or horse to majonear. Each team of bulls requires someone to guide the bulls, someone to plough, someone to scatter the seed, and sometimes someone to scatter natural fertiliser (usually guano de ave, made from bird droppings sourced from the Peruvian south coast). You also need someone to lead the donkey/horse/mule and someone to ride the majona. To make best use of time, it's preferable to start the majoneando while the bulls are still ploughing, which means that someone other than the ploughing team needs to do this. Therefore, a regular day's planting can require at least eight workers.

This is complicated by a fairly strict gender role division in Cabanaconde. The two most skill-intensive tasks - ploughing and scattering the seed - traditionally must be performed by males. To be fair, ploughing requires considerable strength. However, scattering the seed could technically be performed as well or better by women, but according to local custom this would be inappropriate and could bring bad luck. Guiding the bull should also be done by a male, although it's quite common for a (male) child to do this.

No one really cares who scatters the fertiliser or does the majoneando, although a child or someone of lighter body weight is often the preferred choice for the latter task if a donkey is the only animal available. Meanwhile, the main role of the women is to prepare food and chicha for all the workers and bring it out to the chacra in time for lunch (although the men will usually take a supply of chicha when they head out in the morning). All and sundry will help with clearing the grass.

Traditionally, the large number people required at planting time wasn't a problem, as this was resolved through ayni, the reciprocal exchange of labour. People would help out their family and neighbours, and then when it was time for them to plant, the favour would be returned. People will tell you that ayni has largely disappeared from Cabanaconde, but it is still practised a bit at planting time. I estimated that at least a third of the people I worked with during the solay last year were doing it as a favour, to their family members or their compadres. Of course, they and others who pitched in were also incentivised by the plentiful food, chicha and liquor on offer.

The balance needs to be made up by paid labour. In some cases, this means hiring a team of bulls and their owner. The bulls cost S/.30, the owner gets S/. 20 himself for a day's work, and the bulls must also be provided with a large bundle of chala, or maize stalks, which is valued at around S/. 15. When people have small plots of land scattered around the countryside, and similar inputs are required for each one, it's easy to see how the costs of cultivation can escalate.

Even with a day's wage being paid, during last season's solay there were complaints that it was difficult to get people to work in the chacra, given the competing offers of non-farm work in various construction and local government projects, which paid from S/. 45 to S/. 70 per day. No hay gente! was a phrase I heard more than once.  The labour shortage, along with the fairly strict gender roles, were among the reasons why I, despite being an almost complete incompetent, was able to take such an active part in the solay last year.

There's so much to say about the solay that I'm going to split it across two posts. The next post will describe the actual course of events during a day of planting.

1 comment:

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