“This is a blessing for Pachamama to make sure we have a good harvest,” explains Don Pancho (pictured), as he scatters small green coca leaves over the pile of seed potatoes ready for planting.
Here in the highlands of Bolivia, whenever food or drink – or coca leaves – are shared, they are also shared with Pachamama, or ‘Mother Earth’, by throwing or spilling some on the ground.
It isn’t waste, it’s gratitude. A regular visual reminder that we depend on the natural world for everything we need.
Nor is it a bribe: give something to Pachamama and get the good harvest you want.
People here realise that without a healthy respect for Pachamama and a commitment to look after the land rather than exploit it, there is no hope of a decent harvest.
Don Pancho is well-known in his community for his knowledge of Pachamama and of the local environment. His tiny eyes, hidden behind huge sunglasses, are always watching closely.
Through careful observation of the birds, plants, rocks, ice and rainfall, he can tell you whether this year will be rainy or dry, how heavy the rain will be and therefore which of potato you should plant in what kind of soil. There are ways to limit the damage in a bad year by adapting to the different conditions that are predicted.
A good harvest means that difference between months of security and months of hunger, so it’s important to know how to make sure that your harvest will succeed. The climate is a major factor.
Don Pancho’s wisdom is preserved in sayings and proverbs, which he stops the conversation at random to tell me.
“If the weather’s clear on 1 August,” he says, pointing in the air for emphasis, “then you can’t plant early, you will have to plant late and your plot will produce less. But if it’s cloudy on 1 August, it will be a good year.”
To my western ears, these ways of predicting the weather sound a little like old wives’ tales, no more scientifically accurate than ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’.
Except they work. For the last 20 years, our local partner CENDA has been collecting data from Don Pancho and other indigenous “weather forecasters”, publishing the advice in its Quechua language newspaper and then following up how accurate they were after each harvest.
CENDA is now preparing a scientific paper with CAFOD to present the results of their findings and to share some of this wealth of indigenous knowledge with the international community.
Don Pancho learnt how to understand the natural world from his parents and grandparents. “We didn’t have schools,” he remembers. “But my parents were constantly saying ‘son, look here’, ‘son, look there’, ‘look at the sky’. My grandfather was a spiritual leader and he was very close to Pachamama.”
These ways of predicting the weather stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years, but they are now under pressure from a rapidly changing climate.
“The weather is changing,” Don Pancho insists, opening his hand to show me one of his seed potatoes. “We have had hailstones the size of this potato. When I was little the rain fell softly, now there are really heavy rains. The river fills up violently now.”
In recent years, CENDA has found the forecasts are becoming less accurate. This year when collecting their data as usual, they found unusually divided opinions over what kind of year it would be, with some saying it was now impossible to tell.
This close knowledge of the natural world has helped provide ways of coping with harsh and extreme weather in the past. If they are maintained and supported with up-to-date scientific knowledge, they can help people cope with the changing climate they experience today.
But we too have a responsibility to respect Pachamama: by taking action to stop the causes of climate change so that Don Pancho and his community can continue to make a living on the land that sustains them.
Posted by SarahHH
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