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mountains > features > bringing the inca canals back to life

Bringing the Inca Canals back to life

Posted: 18 Apr 2001

by Sally Bowen

For nearly 20 years one woman has been battling to restore the elaborate Inca Canals in the Peruvian Andes, which once supported a thriving population of farmers. Sally Bowen reports from Lima.

All over the Peruvian Andes, beautifully engineered Inca built irrigation canals once distributed water to elaborate terrace systems. In turn, the terrace oases of cultivation on the precipitous and otherwise barren mountain slopes provided food for hundreds of thousands.

Today, around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, most of these once impressive structures lie abandoned. Over the centuries, canals have crumbled and fallen into disrepair. For this reason and lack of incentives for farmers, the Andes supports only a fraction of the population it fed 600 years ago, encouraging migration to already overcrowded cities.

Canal construction

Since 1977, however, the extraordinary initiative of one woman has rekindled interest in rehabilitating the ancient terraces. In August, Ann Kendall presided over the inauguration of her second fully reconstructed canal. It will provide constant irrigation for some 160 hectares of agricultural terracing and be a prime source of sustenance and income for nearly 350 families, over 2,000 people.

Dr Kendall's Cusichaca Trust project is active in Ollantaytambo, 50 miles from Cuzco. With financing from Britain's Department for International Development, water started flowing to terraces fed by the first stage of the rebuilt, four-mile Pumamarca canal in 1994. Already, dozens of families have benefited from bumper crops of potatoes in an unusually dry season: without irrigation, the harvest would have been a disaster.

It will be another few months before the splendid, so-called Choquebamba terraces, almost immediately above Ollantaytambo town and watered by the same canal, are in full operation. "They are large and complex, each with a slightly differed gradient and distinct water distribution points," explains Dr Kendall. "To get the water flowing properly, you have to rebuild the traditional way."
restoring Inca terrace
Community members restore the ancient Inca terraces of Choquebamba.
© Cusichaca Trust

Well-constructed terracing creates an almost perfect biomass system. The Incas piled large stones on a clay soil base, with gravel above and finished off with a metre or so of good topsoil (brought in on the backs of labourers, sometimes from many miles away.) Water percolates slowly through each terrace to the one below, the clay allowing for some moisture retention.

"In the damp environment, organic matter gradually breaks down and is recycled upward," Dr Kendall says. "No chemical fertilisers are required in fact they, and chemical pesticides, could destroy the natural biomass system. This is genuine organic agriculture."

Ann Kendall first visited Peru as a graduate student in 1968, pursuing research for her MA thesis on Inca architecture. Later, her doctorate brought her back for further investigation into rural Inca planning.

While it was archeology that first lured Ann Kendall to Peru, a gradually increasing interest in rural development made the link a lasting one. Since 1974, she has spent every summer in Peru bar two (one of those absences due to the birth of her son).

"Rural development is extremey rewarding," she says. "It's the most fertile area I've found for investigation and for understanding Andean life: a sort of projection backwards into time." She is also continuing to project traditional technology forwards much more widely, in the restoration of terrace systems, through seminars for farmers and agricultural technicians, jointly with Pronamachcs - the active arm for agro-ecology of The Ministry of Agriculture.

Traditional technology

In the work of the Cusichaca Trust, archeology and development have proved mutually enriching. Dr Kendall's original research on the structure of Inca canals allowed locals to restore the Pumamarca waterway as it originally was, using traditional technology. That meant choosing locally available materials clay, sand, stones and cactus instead of the cement favoured by some development projects working in the same field.
inca canal
Upper Pumamarca irrigation canal restored. Nearly 6km long, it took four years to rebuild.
© The Cusichaca Trust

"Traditional technology is greatly preferable when you are dealing with valleys such as these, in areas where earth tremors are common," she explains. "Clay is a far better sealant than cement and it remains damp and plastic. In an earthquake, cement cracks and falls apart, making for greater destruction. It works against the environment."

Initially, it was hard to convince the labourers of Ollantaytambo who worked on the canal reconstruction of the bounties of "traditional" clay over "modern" cement. Now, they are enthusiastic converts to the old ways.

"We've rediscovered the techniques of our ancestors," says the aptly named David Canal, a native of Ollantaytammbo who now oversees the canal project. "There are many technologies worth saving and preserving. Naturally, we're not rejecting modern advances but, when the old methods are more appropriate, we should use them."

For Ann Kendall, archeological studies continue to throw light on today's environmental problems. This season, her team of young archeologists, many of them undergraduates from British universities, have been studying a site north east of Ollantaytambo towards the jungle. Here, there is evidence of 4,000 years of continuous cultivation.

Yet over-exploitation of agriculture, Dr Kendall says, "knocked the area out entirely for about a thousand years." Slash-and- burn farming, of the sort that is being practised again today, caused desertification. Pollen studies prove the soil took centuries to recover.

"What this shows is the similarity of the problems then and now," she says. "Archeological research can teach valuable lessons for the future, indicating how best we can develop and how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past."

Ann Kendall continues to research these lessons and finds that climatic factors, as well as social and economic ones, influenced the decision for building these early agricultural systems. For instance, dry periods challenged the Huari (c.600ad) and Inca (c.1250ad) cultures to develop more irrigated terracing. However, it was depopulation, particularly severe at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1532ad, which caused lack of maintenance and abandonment.

She says recent research by palynologists shows that, by comparison, global warming might be a positive influence for mitigating frosts and therefore encourage the rehabilitation to extend to higher altitude rainfall terraces.

Respectful of the past, Ann Kendall avoids romanticising it. "People didn't necessarily know better 2,000 years ago," she says. "They had fewer options and they made mistakes. We need to learn from them to progress."

Community development

Alongside canal restoration and research, the Cusichaca Trust has developed a series of highly practical rural initiatives. In the isolated high Andean communities around Ollantaytambo which cannot benefit from the canals, Ann Kendall's small team of Peruvians has introduced Andean greenhouses and market gardens. Breaking with strict tradition, plastic sheeting is added to adobe mud buildings. Inside, locals are able to grow unfamiliar vegetables. The experience of walking into a high-altitude greenhouse, with its interior jungle climate, to find red peppers and tomatoes, spinach and radishes flourishing, is breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, villagers from other communities frequently arrive in Ollantaytambo seeking help and advice: they too want canals rebuilt or greenhouse technology installed. Through a system of workshops, the Cusichaca Trust has trained representatives from several nearby villages. "We're proud of what we've done and we're here ready to help others," says David Canal.

In the case of the Ollantaytambo community, the land will be able to absorb new families and those returning from urban areas. However, the experience of the Chamana community near Cusichaca shows that actual family size has not increased with the improvements in life expectancy. Instead, it has tended to stabilize since the economic benefits have put people in touch with the world outside the valley and the health and family planning services available there.

"We don't want to have to share our hard won gains with too many mouths," said Victor Pacheco and his wife, who farm on the rehabilitated terraces at Cusichaca.

Cultural centre

A new cultural centre is being installed for the community and its visitors in Ollantaytambo, with principal funding from the European Union and Copesco, the Peru UNESCO agency. It will soon offer yet another way of handing down the lessons of the past to present and future generations. In a charming old Inca and colonial building close to the famous ruins, Briton Chris Hudson is designing the layout for a series of displays focusing on the history of the region, its ethnography and environment. Its training role has already taken off, with a pottery workshop and three day seminar on traditional technology.

This centre, called Catcco, was inaugurated in the Parador building by H.R.H. Princess Anne in 1997 and has been highly acclaimed for its high standard of exhibits on Andean tradition lives over the last 2500 years. "The idea is to show what the past has taught us about caring for our environment," says Dr Kendall. "What we don't want is to teach dependence."

With the canal project effectively finished and its management in the capable hands of trained locals, Ann Kendall now plans to spend more time writing of her Peruvian experiences and encouraging neighbouring Andean communities to rehabilitate their own ancient agricultural infrastructure.

Today Ann Kendall has co-founded a consortium of 5 partners called the Consortium for Terrzas y Desarrollo (COTEDES), to research the social and economic case for pan Andean rehabilitation of the pre-hispanic agricultural systems. Irrigation is seen as a priority for realising the full productive potential of terraces under bi-annual cropping systems, adding to the traditional maize and potatoes the nitrogen fixing crops and marketable crops for foreign markets.

Sally Bowen is Financial Times correspondent in Peru.

Dr Ann Kendall can be contacted at .

See also The Cusichaca Trust website.

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2006
Planting potatoes, Chimboraza, Ecuador. Photo: Jim Horner/The Hutchison Library
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