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Colca's elusive waters.

AT DAWN, pink-feathered clouds of flamingos seem to nail the icy waters near the source of the Colca to the ground with their spiky legs. But the water escapes them and a newborn river meanders off on its search for the sea. Sixty miles away, an Andean condor stretches its wings, tests the thermals and settles back into a rocky niche to wait until the sun has warmed the air enough to lift its heavy body. The silver ribbon of the river, 3,000 feet below the condor's feet, now churns and foams its way to the coast.

Like the condor, the farmers of the Colca Valley for centuries have watched the Colca River below their feet, tantalizingly out of reach of their fields on its headlong plunge to the Pacific. The Colca River was never a generous provider. Near its source, where the water is easily accessible, cold and wind make farming impractical or impossible. As the river nears the fertile soils of the valley, it perversely dives deep into the living rock, becoming an artery of the earth itself, pulsing through its forbidding canyon.

Below the canyon, tractors criss-cross new fields as Colca water, diverted through a maze of dams and canals for a coastal irrigation project, begins to bring green life to some of the driest desert on earth. Above the canyon, in the valley, farmers continue to irrigate their narrow terraces using techniques that have changed only slightly over the centuries.

Site of some of the most extensive agricultural terraces in Peru, the Colca Valley, four hours north of Arequipa, stretches like an exclamation of human accomplishment between natural phenomena that come to seem common-place to a frequent traveler in the Andes. Snowcapped peaks, many of them volcanoes, close around it like parentheses. From the valley's northern side, a few hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, the hardy can climb to the headwaters of the mighty Amazon. At the downriver end of the valley, undulating terraces taper off into barren rock at the head of the canyon. At its deepest point of 10,607 feet, the Colca is more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, making it the world's deepest gorge.

The Colca Valley alternately has been isolated and exploited since prehistoric times. It was a highly productive agricultural center long before its incorporation into the Inca empire. When the conquistadors arrived in 1547, they found large herds of llamas and alpacas, a well-developed system of terrace running approximately 40 miles along both sides of the valley, and a thriving population of 60,000 to 70,000. They also discovered silver and took farmers off the land to work the mines. By the time the mines played out in the late 1700s, European epidemics and forced labor had reduced the population to a fraction of its pre-Conquest level, and the Colca Valley ceased to be a major agricultural center.

In 1929, two U.S. pilots, Robert Shippee and George Johnson, "discovered" the Colca Valley and Canyon for the modern world during an aerial geographic expedition to southern Peru. Gonzalo de Reparaz, a Spanish geographer and cartographer working for UNESCO, "rediscovered" the area in 1954, again from the air. It was Reparaz who made the first complete maps of the Colca basin and did the first hydrological studies of the river.

Scientific interest in the valley grew in the 1970's as a multinatinal consortium began construction of a series of dams and canals to diver Colca River water for an irrigation project in the coastal desert. In 1981, Canoandes, a groupd of kayakers and white-water rafters from Poland, made the first descent of the river through the canyon and attracted international tourist attention to the area. Mauricio de Romana, an agronomist who has been instrumental in keeping attention focused on the Colca, said in 1983, "Most people didn't even know the Colca existed two years ago and now every travel agency in Arequipa is offering a tour."

The construction engineers, the scientists, the adventurers and the tourists have all had an impact on the people of the Colca Valley. But it is still water, and the elemental issues that surround it--where it comes from, how it's managed and who controls it--that have the greatest impact of all.

The Colca Valley peoples' reverence for where their water comes from is reflected in the legends and traditional religious practices passed down to them by their ancestors. The Collaguas, the first known group to settle in the valley, claimed to be descended from a volcano near Cuzco and paid tribute by binding the heads of their infants into rounded cones reminiscent of the shape of their fire-breathing forefather. Rock art in shelters above the valley depicts figures with this inflicted deformity. The Cabanas, the second group to inhabit the valley, believed they came from Hualca Hualca, a volcano on the southern rim of the Colca Canyon. They worshipped the peak as the source of life-giving water. Even today, although Colca families may have their newborn baptized, some parents also will dedicate each child to a "godfather" peak for protection.

The question of how water has been managed traditionally was the focus of the Colca Valley Terrace Project, a two-year (1984-1986) multidisciplinary research effort conducted by Peruvian and U.S. scientists under the direction of William Deneven, a University of Wisconsin (Madison) geography professor. A recently-completed study by John Treacy, a graduate student at the time of the project, is the first comprehensive look at present-day farming and water management techniques in the Colca Valley, at what these methods can tell us about the past, and what they suggest for the future.

More than half a century ago, a writer described the agricultural terraces of the Andes as "staircase farms of the ancients." Today, Colca's terraces are more prosaically recognized as key components of a sophisticated water management system. Variegated greens, golds and browns stripe the valley walls at seemingly impossible angels and climb to equally impossible heights. The system was developed and fine-tuned over centuries by a society not ruled by minutes, hours or even days, but instead intimately influenced by seasons and natural cycles. The soils of the Colca are volcanic and rich, but the climate is capricious, and the terraces afforded both the stability and flexibility needed for generation after generation of agricultral productivity.

In this gravity-powered irrigation system that makes maximum use of escare water, a canal network captures spring water and snow pack runoff that would otherwise escape to the Colca River, and instead channels it to the terraces, or andenes, as they are called locally. Besides providing level surfaces for cultivation the stair-step terraces help to retain moisture and inhibit mountainside erosion. They also create micro-climate niches that protect temperatures-sensitive crops from frost. Construction is highly labor-intensive, but once in place the canals and andenes are relatively simple to maintain.

Terrace farming was being practiced in the Colca Valley as early as 400-500 A.D. By the time the Incas arrived in 1139 (according to the legends) or in 1450 (the scientists' version), the system was well-developed, with family groups settled along the principal canals to maintain them. While the Incas probably reorganized the administration of the canals and terraces to promote more efficient production of maize, they made no significant changes in the basic techniques used. The farms may have survived the disruption of the Conquest period for just that reason. Since they were a local agricultural adaptation, and thus not dependent on the matrial Inca system, they remained more or less intact even as the empire disintegrated.

More than 450 years after the Spanish arrived with their European concepts of appropriate land use, terrace farming endures today with few modifications. The most fertile andenes appear to have been cultivated continously since pre-Columbia times, in much the same way, except that individual families have replaced the Collaguas' extended family groups, and in some villages the land is privately rather than communally held. Certain terraces are dedicated to certain staple subsistence crops, such as maize or beans. Rainfall and runoff conditions are closely monitored, and non-traditional commerical crops, such as alfalfa and barley (which is sold to the brewery in Arequipa) are planted only in seasons when it appears there will be "extra" water. The communities appoint regidores (town councilors) who control the release of water to individual fields on an established rotation schedule. Friends share the demanding task of ensuring that each terrace is completely irrigated, and community work projects keep the canals in good repair.

At the point where the Colca reaches the sea, it is called the Majes River. Beginning as early as 1894, there have been a series of attempts to bring water to irrigate Arequipa's arid Pacific coast. These attempts culminated in 1974, when the Majes Consortium (MACON)--formed by Sweden, the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada and South Africa--signed an agreement for a $1 billion dam project to irrigate the desert.

The first phase of the two-stage Majes Project included an earthen dam near the source of the Colca River, almost 60 miles of aqueducts and tunnels, and a secondary reservoir and dam that would regulate the flow of water into a series of canals that runs along the southern side of the valley and then down the feed the springklers in the desert.

Like the valley's traditional system, the modern one is largely gravity-powered. Yet the latter has fallen far short of initial expectations, especially in the number of jobs created and actual hectares under irrigation. Critics point out that real return on investment can come only with completion of the second stage, which was to incorporate another dam and two hydroelectric power plants, and which has yet to be financed.

While the sealed MACON canals have not altered age-old irrigation practices in the Colca, the project accelerated the impact of the 20th century on its people in other ways. MACON built roads and an airstrip, imposed a cash economu on the traditional barter system, and created material and commercial expectations among the Colca people that the local agricultural economy could not support when the first stage was completed and the construction crews went home.

The effects were not only material ones. Historically, the people have revered unusual topographical features. The two hills between which the first-stage dam was built are an example--one is white and the other black. Caveins on both hills plagued start-up construction, and one night a worker returning to the compound claimed he'd seen a vision. Two women, one dressed in white and the other in black, were following him. When he stopped and looked back, they told him that they had been the virgin spirits of the two hills, and that the cave-ins would continue until appropriate offerings were made to them to atone for the "rape". "The really profound influence of this project on the people who live near it is not so much physical as spiritual," a Peruvian engineer at the dam site explained. "It is acceptable if an earthquake changes the course of the river, but if man does it, it's a profanation."

The profanation of their natural environment was especially hard to endure when people didn't see that the dam project particularly benefited them. Antonia Kayser, a Maryknoll sister who has lived in the Colca Valley for almost 20 years, observed, "Many of these people lost land that was bought up by the project or had one of their animals killed by the heavy traffic on the road now. They see their small fields drying up and hear Colca water running through MACON canals down to the desert and they feel cheated."

When the Majes-Project was originally conceived, there were plans to add some irrigation canals for the villages of Cabanaconde and Huambo at the southwestern end of the valley, but the idea was discarded early as costs escalated. In May 1983, when then-President Fernando Belaunde Terry inaugurated the first phase of the irrigation network showering Colca water on the desert, Cabanaconde women is their intricately embroidered costumes baptized the springklers with chica (a fermented corn drink) and danced. A few months later, an angry Cabanaconde group broke a hole in one of the MACON canals to flood Colca water for the first time onto their parched fields.

Economic analysis strongly suggests that the traditional canal system that irrigates the andenes of the Colca Valley is much more cost-effective than the modern intrusive one that waters the Pampas de Majes. Treacy calculated that it costs US$1.900 to restore one hectare of terraces in the valley, with minimal subsequent maintenace costs. Coastal irrigation costs anywhere from US$2,500-6,000 per hectare. Terrace reclamation is more expensive than clearing one hectare of Amazon rain forest, which costs approximately US$1,000. But we have centuries of proof that the canal-and-terrace irrigation system supports longterm agriculture and decades of proof that the poor laterite soils of the Amazon floodplain cannot support cultivation for more than a few years at most.

This is not to suggest that some facets of modern technology cannot be applied successfully in the Colca Valley. Six years ago, there was only one tractor in the valley, owned by a man in Yanque, a village on the southern side. When it was not idle for lack of parts (which was most of the time), he would rent it to farmers on the other side of the valley, who were the only ones who had enough wide, flat land to use it. Today, rototillers or mulas mecanicas (mechanical mules) provide the farmers who can afford them a viable alternative to plowing their terraces with a pair of bulls.

The past and the present are conspicuously juxtaposed in the Colca. Men in hardhats left over from MACON days walk the dusty roads with their wives who still wear the embroidered vests and ankle-length skirts of their vibrantly-colored native wardrobe. A MACON compound at Achoma, one of the original Spanish villages, has been converted to a tourist hostel. Herds of shaggy llamas are more accustomed now to the tourist buses that share the road on the way to Cruz del Condor on the southern side of the valley. There the passengers will scramble out to squint at the Colca River 3,000 feet below and scan the skies in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the magnificent Andean birds.

Hydrological and climatological dynamics centuries ago combined with social and political dynamics to create a highly productive agricultural system in the Colca Valley. That system thrives today, although not to the extent that it once did. The success of encouraging any future restoration or expansion of the system will depend largely on whether development planners conceive projects in Adean terms, which have stood the test of time, or in their own.

Patti Moore is coordinator of the University of Colorado's (Boulder) Rio Abiseo National Park Research Project in Peru. She has lived and worked in that country since 1979 and ran the Colca River with Conoandes in 1983.
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Title Annotation:Peru's Colca Canyon and Colca River Valley
Author:Moore, Patti
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:2511
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