Heating up the Sierra

By Nicholas Asheshov

I HAVE just discovered that you can grow almost anything on the freezing punas of the high sierra, way above the tree-line.

Here on the roof of the world the midday sun is sharp but desolate. The grass is thin, tough and grey. There are no trees, no bushes even.

But, as I say, you can grow lettuce and cabbages, roses and onions, broccoli and spinach, tomatoes and strawberries. Actually, there’s nothing to stop you growing peaches and pineapples.

The way to do it is, of course, in a greenhouse invernadero. I put “of course” but actually I didn’t know this until the other day when I went to Patakancha, 3,819ms asl, at the head of a majestic little valley that leads up into the glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba from the cobbled backstreets of the old Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Until last weekend I thought that it is the height, lack of oxygen, that prevents trees and most other plants from growing at altitude.

Fortunately, an in-house high school student has explained that while lack of oxygen affects animals, insects, whatever, it makes no difference to plants. These need CO2 which they then convert into oxygen.

As long as you have heat and water, soil and fertilizer you can grow anything you like at any height. At Patakancha I’ve just seen this in action. I am sending an urgent e-mail to my chum Ismael Benavides, Minister, of course, of Agriculture, asking him if he, too, has been told about CO2 and oxygen.

A chill early-morning breeze from distant snow peaks sweeps over bleak paths along which wander woolly llamas and thin ponies.

Inside some modest plastic sheeting+adobe greenhouses it is all fat, healthy hortalizas, hot-house fuchsias and medicinal salvia/aloe. They seem to swell in the T-shirt warmth.

This 11x6x2.50m greenhouse, costing $1,200, has changed the eating habits and finances of many families and at the same time my view of the future of the Sierra. I predict –you read it first here in Country Notes– an agricultural land rush in the high sierra of Peru and Bolivia. This will be related partly to global warming and partly to technology, starting with simple plastic-sheeting greenhouses. Solar electronics will add to the curve.

Living at altitudes of 4,000ms and above is nothing new to Peruvians and Bolivians but the tropical Andes are, in this as in many other ways, unique. In the Himalaya no one lives even at 3,000ms because from there on up it’s snow and ice. But Lake Titicaca, at 4,000ms, has been standing-room-only people for four or five thousand years. The Tiahuanaco cultures on the shores of the Lake were producing wonderful art and buildings at the same time as the Greeks, at sea level, were building the Parthenon and sculpting the Venus de Milo.

John Earls, the great Australian academic, tells us that the terraced amphitheatre of Moray, 3,550ms asl, and the whole Urubamba Valley was a great agricultural research station 600 years ago.

At 4,000 meters in the Andes it freezes most nights. Below zeroº C neither plants nor animals survive unprotected.

In the simple Patakancha hot-houses the midday temperatures get to 40ºC, like Calcutta on a bad day. Of course, someone has to open some vents otherwise all you get is broiled carrots. But with water and spray you get a jungle-type hot-house where you could grow orchids and peaches.

The Patakancha greenhouses are part of a revolution.

When I was last in Patakancha eight years ago it was a miserable dump of round stone ichu-thatch huts.

Today the houses are of whitewashed adobe and tile roofs. Many of the houses have CNN/HBO satellite telly and there’s solar-powered phone service. The llamas are no longer feebly ferrying fire-wood but haughtily hauling the North Face camping gear belonging to European tourists.

The greenhouses at Patakancha were put in by local people led by our friend Justo Callañaupa and financed by a Dutch NGO. Justo, un ingeniero agronomo, has over the past six years created a secondary-level agricultural school, centred on the greenhouses, which now has 120 pupils, including 26 girls: “That’s a big priority today; get more girls to join in. It’s happening.”

Ten years ago no one spoke Quechua into a telephone. Today Quechua is chattered into cellphones in Patakancha just like they do in Patterson, N.J.

Notas de Campo – Published in Spanish in Caretas, week of Aug 31 2007

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