Farming Like the Incas

The Incas were masters of their harsh climate, archaeologists are finding—and the ancient civilization has a lot to teach us today

Inspired by recent archaeological research, the people in the Cuzco region of Peru are rebuilding terraces and irrigation systems and reclaiming traditional crops and methods of planting. (Cynthia Graber)

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Yellowing stalks of corn, quinoa and amaranth drape over and obscure the stone walls that have already been repaired. From September through December last year, local workers rehabilitated 54 hectares of terraces. By the spring of 2012, the teams hope to rebuild nearly two miles of irrigation channels.

In the few restaurants that can be found in nearby villages, rice trucked in from cities and the coast is on offer more frequently than the local quinoa. Jayo quotes a common city refrain that can keep those in the mountains from celebrating their own bounty: only the poor eat quinoa. In the latter half of the 1900s, as remote mountain towns gained increasing access to radio, television and communication with the cities, local crops fell out of favor.

But local grains are more nutritious and better suited to the Andean land and climate. So Cusichaca Andina has conducted educational training campaigns and given away seeds for quinoa, corn and amaranth. The seeds have been planted over 45 hectares, now used as demonstration sites to highlight how traditional farming practices of planting corn, quinoa and squash together, instead of in individual plots, can yield better results, as the crops symbiotically protect and nourish each other.

The organization has also focused on rescuing seeds and varieties that have been in danger of disappearing, such as huaña, a bitter potato variety that resists hail, frost, droughts and excess rain. After being soaked for days and frozen outdoors overnight to remove the bitterness, the potato is dried and can be stored for years.

Jayo highlights the strength and resistance of this crop: “Now that we’re facing the crisis of climate change, it’s worth recovering crops such as these.” Clemente Utani, the mayor of the nearby town of Pomacocha, focuses on the historic significance of Cusichaca’s work, saying, “We’re recovering what we lost from our ancestors.”

Approaches such as these might be crucial for poor Peruvian farmers. Glacial melt and the seasonal rains, the key suppliers of water, are already affected by climate change. Rains have already shown signs of decreasing, temperature swings have become more extreme and Peru’s glaciers have shrunk about 20 percent since the 1970s.

The need for water conservation and agricultural development far outstrips the efforts and the available funding, Jayo says. But the idea does seem to be catching on. The Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, in a recent report to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, highlighted the importance of practices such as reclaiming diverse native Andean crops and rebuilding the infrastructure of pre-Hispanic irrigation.

“At first people thought I was a bit of a nutter with my terraces,” says Kendall with a laugh, “but now this is the word everywhere it seems in Peru.” And not only in Peru. The Andes stretch from Venezuela and wind down South America as far as Argentina and Chile. Kendall says some countries have terraces that have been maintained, and groups in Bolivia and elsewhere are expressing interest in learning from Cusichaca’s rehabilitation experience.

Mountainous regions around the world have a history of terracing. Kendall spoke at a terracing conference in southern China in 2010. She and 50 experts were taken by bus to view the extensive irrigated rice terraces and meet with farmers. These are not, however, the dry mountain terraces that are Kendall’s particular expertise. But through the bus windows, Kendall saw evidence of dry terraces lining the hills and mountainsides, mostly abandoned and covered with vegetation—terraces potentially ripe for rehabilitation.


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