Master Gardeners are a main source of gardening information for many of us less-than-master gardeners today. In Peru, however, growers are learning from Masters that are slightly different. These Master Gardeners have been dead for about 1500 years. They were the people who developed the waru waru method of coaxing food from the drought, flood, and frost plagued area of the Andes.
High in the Andes Mountains surrounding Lake Titicaca is a huge arid plain known as the altiplano. Local farmers do the best they can to make a living in the region. The altitude (over 12,000 feet), the weather (alternating between brutally hot and bone-chilling cold), and the inconsistent rainfall make it difficult however. The farmers had noticed strange patches of corrugated land spread throughout the altiplano. These patches consisted of long raised strips, usually topped with tough drought and frost resistant grasses, divided by shallow ditches. These ditches sometimes contained standing water, and the vegetation was lusher and greener than surrounding areas. The locals called these features waru waru and considered them part of the natural landscape. The areas were so vast (covering over 200,000 acres around Lake Titicaca) that no one thought they could possibly be man made. They were wrong.
In 1981 an anthropologist named Clark Erickson, of the University of Illinois visited the area and realized that he might be looking at a huge ancient farming system. He began to wonder if this method of agriculture might help the current inhabitants in their struggle to grow crops in the inhospitable land. He began to rebuild some of the raised fields. Using traditional Andean tools, local farmers planted an experimental field with potatoes, quinoa and canihua. The results were amazing! Yields in the raised fields were more than triple the average yield of surrounding areas. The Peruvian government and other groups joined together to help farmers reconstruct ancient technology. Between 1986 and 2001 over 10,000 acres of altiplano land was rehabilitated to grow crops the waru waru way. Most of the programs ended in 2001, but the Peruvian Government continues to offer low cost loans to farmers wishing to reconstruct their land. Much of the waru waru land still is being cultivated in the revived ancient way.
Waru waru is a system of raised fields, usually about 1 yard high, 4-10 yards wide, and 100 yards long alternated with canals of approximately the same size and shape. The fields are used to grow potatoes and grain while the canals provide water, nutrients and even a micro-climate that keeps the surrounding air moister and less prone to temperature changes than most of the altiplano. The canal is used to provide water in the form of "splash irrigation" and also water reaches the roots of the plants as it soaks into the soil.
Another benefit that was found when the waru waru technique was used was that the regularly occuring droughts and floods in the area didn't affect the crops as much as they did in non-rehabilitated acreage. When a severe drought hit the altiplano in 1983, the waru waru areas were barely affected. The other agricultural areas in the vicinity were wiped out. Three years later a flood hit the altiplano. Again, the waru waru areas were unaffected, while neighboring flatlands were inundated
Waru Waru techniques are believed to have been developed by the ancient Tiwanaku around AD 500. Several factors contributed to the abandonment of the methods. A 300 year drought occurred around AD 1100. Most of the area around Lake Titicaca underwent a drastic change. The culture changed from one of peaceful agriculture to one of a more nomadic war-like lifestyle. The Tiwanaku people were either killed off by the aggressive Inca or displaced by replaced by outsiders who didn't understand the waru waru meth d and thus abandoned it.
Waru waru is growing again in the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. In Cutini Capilla, an Aymara settlement on the western shore of Lake Titicaca the raised fields the village built five years ago are doing well. Cesar Mamani, the 45-year-old president of the 65-family community said
"Old techniques remind us of our ancestors and our ancestors had good ideas".