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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Peruvian farmers learn from history
Agricultural techniques perfected by Inca farmers 500 years ago are beginning to have a dramatic effect on the incomes of today's farmers in Pampachiri, one of the poorest areas of Peru.

Inca water block in field, BBC
The Inca style is unmistakeable
An ancient water transport system, developed by the Wira people and refined by the Incas, has been restored by the Cusichaca Trust NGO using traditional methods.

Clay, stone, sand, and a certain type of cactus juice, have restored the system of canals and terraces, in turn helping repair the area's shattered economy.

"This is what we specialise in - rather than using cement or other materials brought from outside," Douglas Walsh, of the Cusichaca Trust, told the BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

"We use locally-available materials to help farmers irrigate their terraced land."

Great Inca agriculture

The region is home to around 2,500 people, and agriculture - particularly livestock farming - is the key industry.

One of the farmers involved in the project, Juan Guillen, explained why the old methods were proving so effective.

"The Incas were very good agronomists - they understood sustainable agriculture," Mr Guillen said.

"But this declined soon after the Spanish conquest. They were more interested in mining that farming."

Peruvian livestock, BBC
Agriculture and livestock are the key industry in the region
More recently, the region's industry suffered because the rise of the guerrilla movement Shining Path drove many families out to the cities, afraid of conflict between the guerrillas and the Peruvian army.

"Survival became the overriding issue - farming was secondary," Juan explained.

However, some are now returning from the cities and settling back into agriculture - and the restoration of the Inca techniques is having a massive impact.

"By providing irrigation, we're actually allowing agricultural production to increase massively in the local area," said Tom Nickalls, the project engineer.

"Traditionally, where there is no irrigation farmers will choose an area and they will plant in that area, maybe three years running, and then they'll have to abandon the land for about seven years.

"One of the reasons for this is a lack of water, because we have a rainy season and a dry season.

"Whereas by providing irrigation by these terraces, the farmers are able to produce one crop at least every year, and sometimes in certain areas they can produce two crops a year.

"So instead of producing three crops every 10 years, they're producing somewhere between 10 and 15 crops."

Better training

Additionally, there is a bonus of using the Inca systems because on a practical level, nothing needs to be imported, whereas cement has to come from miles away and is expensive - much beyond the incomes of these subsistence farmers.

The canals themselves are metre-wide channels, surrounded by a wall of stones.

Farmers involved in the Cusichaca Trust project, BBC
The project is now suffering from lack of funding
To begin the restoration, several hundred tonnes of red clay had to be brought on roads of simple stone and mud by mules.

"It's a huge contribution by the community, which reflects their priority for irrigation and support for agriculture," said Mr Nicholls.

However, some farmers are keen that the restored canals are only the start.

"Over the past few years I've grown maize and broad beans - irrigation is a help, but I'd like to see more training in better sowing methods or other ways of increasing yields," said Julio, another Pampachiri farmer.

"We're accustomed here to growing only one crop a year.

"I'd like training in crop rotation - something that means the fields are in use the whole time."

However, other problems may become more immediate before that can happen - the Cusichaca Trust's work has recently been curtailed by a lack of funding.

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