The Lost Art of the Waru Waru

Surrounding Lake Titicaca, on Peru's southern border with Bolivia, is the altiplano, a vast plain 12,500 feet above sea level. Much of the land is pasture, but scattered here and there, for as far as the eye can see, are patches of corrugated land. Each patch is divided into long narrow strips separated by furrows, some of which contain puddles of water. Closer inspection reveals that the tops of the strips are populated by dry, hardy grasses whereas the vegetation in the furrows is lush and green. The local farmers call these strange topographical features waru waru or camellones. Until 1981, however, the local farmers had no idea that these represented persisting evidence of the remarkable engineering and agricultural skills of their ancestors. The fact that waru waru cover some 205,000 acres of land around Lake Titicaca suggests that the ancient inhabitants of the altiplano had hit on a system that successfully tackled the considerable environmental constraints of farming the area.

Archaeologists are now convinced that the waru waru were built specifically to protect crops from frost damage and floods. In 1981, Clark Erickson, of the University of Illinois, recognized the archaeological significance of waru waru. But he also wondered whether they might not serve modern farmers as well as they did their ancestors. Erickson began to rebuild some of the raised fields. Using traditional Andean tools, local farmers planted an experimental field with potatoes, quinoa and canihua. Waru waru potato yields were more than 8 tons per hectare, compared with the average yield for the region of 2 to 3 tons per hectare. Today some 3,700 acres of raised fields have been reconstructed. The Peruvian Department of Agriculture is convinced of the value of waru waru in the region. The government now offers loans to farmers for rebuilding the fields.

NEW SCIENTIST, 5/12/88, VOL. 118 (1612;PP. 50-51)