Sunday, May 04, 2014

El Maíz Cabanita: El Lampeo (Helping the Plants Grow)

Four weeks after planting, the green shoots of the maize plants are already poking through the soil, giving a verdant appearance to the otherwise dry countryside that won't see significant rain until at least December. The next part of the cultivation cycle is the lampeo, whose purpose might be described as giving the maize plants a helping hand to keep growing. The word is derived from lampa (regional Spanish meaning spade or shovel), and it occurs when the maize plants are about one foot tall, around a week after they have been watered as part of the latest irrigation cycle. The main activity involves walking along the rows between the plants and using a spade to scoop earth onto the plants on each side of the row. This has a dual purpose: it surrounds the vulnerable green shoots with a supportive mound of earth; and it also removes any weeds that are beginning to encroach into their space.

Given that it involves continuous bending over and digging with a shovel, the lampeo is hard work, and ideally a team of five to six men will work together to complete a single medium-sized chacra or a couple of small ones (I was the sixth member of the team in the photo above). The aim is usually to start early, before sunrise if possible, and to work for no more than 5 to 6 hours, finishing by mid morning. The lampeo has some similarities to the solay in that the owner of the chacra will usually prepare chicha for the workers and will offer them a bowl of caldo before they head out to work. The women arrive at the chacra around mid-morning with food, more chicha and perhaps some beer or other alcohol, and there is a mini-celebration after the work is finished.

Overall, the lampeo is less ceremonial and social than the solay but less pure hard work than the harvest. It is unique in that it is one of the few activities during the cultivation cycle that is carried out with purely with human labour and does not involve any animals. I guess that's a reminder that although maize cultivation in the area goes back well into the pre-Incan period, even some of its most “traditional” aspects are strongly influenced by Spanish colonisation. There's a saying in the Peruvian sierra that “the bull is the best thing the Spanish ever brought” and I imagine donkeys and mules would follow somewhere behind (llamas can be used as pack animals but are out-performed by mules, and they are generally not suitable for agricultural work). After a few hours of back-stiffening work with a spade during the lampeo you can certainly appreciate the overall contribution that animal power makes to the maize production process.

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