Archives for January 28, 2017

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

turbines

Chuvica’s wind pumps from Argentina. Each pump provides irrigation for 11 families and a total of 4 acres of crops.

Gladys’ father had a vision – wind driven water pumps to bring the rich, sweet waters to the dry salty, windswept, lakebed for better and more varied crop production.  Quinoa can grow well in arid environments but potatoes and fava beans, other favorite crops, need more water.  He built a wind turbine that fed a large water tank that could be tapped for gravity fed irrigation in nearby areas – carefully tending it, making repairs and improvements, until at last it ceased to function any more.  The tank cracked and the turbine gradually rotted into a metal heap but the memory of wind turbines water pumps lived on.

Last year, the tiny community of 25 permanent citizens and 60 visiting residents – families who come in for annual festivals and to plant or harvest quinoa – worked with their elected village representatives (dirigentes) to request funding for a wind pump project.  They researched the best systems and ended up choosing pumps designed in Argentina which worked like hand pumps for bicycle tires.  The turbines produce air pressure which pushes the water out of the ground and into adjacent tanks.  No electricity is generated, it’s just air pressure, wind and water.  The mayor invested $1,000 for each wind turbine ($8,000 total) and the people of Chavica provided the labor, sand, stone and cement to build eight large 1,000 liter water tanks – one for each turbine.  The eight wind pumps, light giants descended from the surrounding mountains, now greet visitors as they barrel across the floor of the vast inland sea in a rickety old bus with thick, deep-treaded tires. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the vast ocean evaporated to become the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding sand, salty ocean floor.

quinoa and gladys

Gladys and the large quinoa plants in Chuvica’s irrigated wind pump gardens.

Visiting the new gardens – which appear like an emerald oasis in a sea of dried, tan soils – we see the bright green foliage of healthy potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, wheat, beets, celery, fragrant fava beans, and of course large sheaths of quinoa seed heads already formed and robust.  Each pump fills a tank which serves 11 families who each tend to their own 5,000 square foot garden (1,500 meters).  Some use natural manure to strengthen their newly planted soils, others chemical fertilizers.

This is the first year the gardens are in use and Gladys is predicting that each family will most likely harvest at least 220 pounds (1 quintal) of quinoa for their personal use.  This comes out to a little more than 4 pounds of quinoa consumed by each family each week and seems to be the national average of quinoa consumption for people growing quinoa in both the altiplano and valley regions of Bolivia.  People in the quinoa regions consume quinoa about 3 to 4 times a week, usually in soups or toasted and cooked as rice (a dish known as psiga).  Fifty years ago, quinoa was consumed daily as a standard family staple, but that habit has changed as homegrown quinoa needs to be hand cleaned which takes time and extra work.  To clean home harvested quinoa one has to remove the outer shell of the quinoa seed along with its chaff and then do several rounds of water rinses.  This means the quinoa takes extra time to prepare while white rice and dried noodles are now easily accessible for purchase and faster and easier to cook.

On our way to the airpumps we paused to pick a tiny plant, the chupala, who’s root, about the size of a crayon, is juicy and sweet to eat raw.  We also enjoyed the bright green seeds of the mutucuro, a small, flat legume that produced small round “potatoes” deep in the earth and produces a small red seed pod with tiny bright green seeds inside.  The seeds do not have much flavor, but are fun to eat because of their color.

We checked on the quinoa too.  Noting with a shovel that the weeks of rain had only saturated the top foot of the hilled soils from last year’s quinoa fields, now fallow.  It was better if the water had sunk in deeper than that.  Never-the-less, the farmer with the tractor was plowing field this week at a cost of $20 per acre (or 400Bs a hectare) and he was coming to plow tomorrow.  The field would be plowed now in preparation for October’s planting, to let the organic matter sink in and decompose into nutrients, the humidity of the soil helping in their process.  Normally farmers would add two dump truck loads of llama manure to their acreage (a $285 investment) but this field had not been used in 5 years and Gladys felt certain it would be OK for production without extra material added.  Everywhere quinoa farmers are looking at ways to cut their costs – with reduced fertilizer usage, less pest control and less acreage in production – the low market prices and climate variations affecting these decisions.