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)