Monday, May 06, 2013

The Art of Adobe

Wherever you go in the rural villages of Peru's sierra you will see many or most houses made of adobe mud bricks. They are usually small, squat, with a couple of tiny windows and an unattractive roof of corrugated iron (calamina), sometimes held down by small rocks. They are practically a symbol of poverty and what is considered backwardness.

Yet, just preparing the basic materials for such a dwelling is a skilled and subtle task. The other week I had the opportunity to watch and assist with the making of adobe bricks. I was visiting an elderly couple who live in their little plot of land about 30 minutes walk from Cabanaconde.When I arrived I found them in the chacra above their house, with three other men who were helping make the adobes. There were already about 300 bricks laid out in rows. They needed to make a total of 900 to build a basic greenhouse where they would grow vegetables and herbs.

The first step in making adobes is to make the mud. This might sound simple, but apparently the mixture is quite hard to get right. Too much water and the adobe becomes brittle when dry, with cracks forming in the bricks. Too little, and it is "dead", not sticky enough to mould into bricks. To the mud mixture is added ichu, Andean straw grass, which will help hold together the bricks. The mixture needs to be turned over twice and then left to "mature" for one to two days.

The process I saw to make the bricks involved the following. First, an area of mixed mud had to be loosened a little with a pick. This was then shovelled into a wheelbarrow,which was wheeled over to the row of existing adobes. The mud was dolloped into a double-sided mould, where one of the workers compressed, smoothed, and added more mud until the mould was packed full. After the worker ensured that there was a little space on each side of the divider in the middle of the mould, this was pulled away to reveal two fresh adobe bricks. The bricks would then dry and harden in the sun over a number of days.

What I've always found interesting and ironic is that the poorest and most humble people are often masters of a range of arts and crafts. Just for example, saddling and securing a load to a donkey or mule, ploughing and sowing, expanding and maintaining agricultural terraces, are all practices that have many subtleties, often require precision combined with considerable strength, and are best learnt from an early age. The average farmer or agricultural labourer will be master of most or all of these tasks, and will often have a greater range of skills - you could even say greater total skills - than many people with specialized roles in the modern economy. This is why I think it's misleading to talk about  them as having "unskilled" or "unqualified" occupations.

The difference that leads to "higher productivity" in the modern economy, is the system or machine, that pulls together the disparate tasks of individuals. In an economy based on small-scale household production, there's not much point in having specialists, say, someone who just builds and repairs agricultural terraces - there wouldn't be enough work. To make this worthwhile you need some kind of organization to scale things up - I imagine that the Incan Empire, for example, did have workers highly specialised in shaping and fitting stonework.

The other difference is the use of technology. I don't think it's correct to say that the traditional peasant economy uses little technology, because all of the practices I've described above are technologies, in the sense of being practical applications of human knowledge. Rather, the difference is in the kind of technologies used. "Modern" production practices tend to make more use of systematic measurements and explicitly-defined techniques, instead of or complementary to personal skill and judgement. There's a lot of potential for such"scientific" approaches to strengthen and improve traditional practices, as long as this is done with understanding and respect for the existing strengths of those practices. Again, I'm pretty sure the Incas and their predecessors did take these approaches.

The other thing which makes modern technologies so much more productive than their traditional counterparts is the intensity which which they, directly or indirectly, make use of the energy provided by fossil fuels.

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