Agricultural history of Peru

Agricultural history of Peru

Much of the pre-history of Peru has been wrapped up in where the farmable land was located. The most populated coastal regions of Peru are the two parallel mountain ranges and the series of 20 to 30 rivers running through the coastal desert. In dry periods only the mountains are wet enough for agriculture and the desert coast is empty, while in wet periods many cultures have thrived along the rivers of the coast. The well known Inca were a mountain-based culture that expanded when the climate became more wet, often sending conquered peoples down from the mountains into unfarmed but farmable lowlands. In contrast the Moche were a lowland culture that died out after a long drought.

Peru is both afflicted and blessed by a peculiar climate due to the Humboldt Current. Before overfishing killed its fishery, Peru had the most productive fishery in the world due to the cold Humboldt Current. The current brings nutrients from a large portion of the Pacific floor to Peru's doorstep. On land, it results in a cold mist that covers coastal Peru to the extent that the desert plants have adapted to obtain water from the air instead of from the infrequent rainfall. The soil on the wet side of the mountains is thin, and the rivers on the dry side are few. This means all the water must be brought from the Atlantic side of the mountain ranges that split Peru.

The ancient people of Peru built water-moving and preserving technologies like the aqueducts of Cumbe Mayo (c. 1500 B.C.E.) or the Nazca's underground aqueducts (c. 600 C.E.), or the terraced gardens of the Huari. But by the mid 19th century, only 3% of Peru's land was still farmable. It lagged far behind many other South American countries in agriculture.

There were many obstacles to improving Peru's agricultural production. Since the conquest of the Inca, Peru has always been rich in natural resources such as tin, silver, gold, guano and rubber. These resources share the attribute that, at least in Peru, they were found, not grown. The train tracks laid in Peru did not connect its peoples, they connected the sources of these valuable resources to the sea. So there are few ways to bring agricultural products to market. The road system is still primitive in Peru, there is no connection to Brazil and only a little over a quarter of the 15th-century Inca road system has been rebuilt as modern highway. Another obstacle is the size of Peru's informal economy. This prevents Peru from practically applying an income tax, which means much of its revenue comes from a 13% tax on gross agricultural sales. This means Peruvian farmers must produce that much more product per dollar just to break even with farmers in countries that tax farmers on net profit. They have no chance at all of competing with agricultural products from countries that subsidize farmers, such as Japan, the United States and Europe.

In the 19th century the Inca fertilizer guano (saltpetre) became the most important resource in Peru's modern history, both for its use as a fertilizer and as firepowder. But Peru lost its guano reserves to Chile (backed by the British Empire) in the War of the Pacific. By the late 19th century, 50% of the Peruvian government's revenue was going to pay off loans that been guaranteed with guano sources that Peru lost to Chile - these debts were eventually paid by sending all the remaining guano to France when they were preparing for war. The Germans invented the Haber process shortly after the outbreak of World War I, after which guano became almost worthless.

Today Peru grows agricultural commodities such as potatoes, maize, rice, and coffee. Peruvian agriculture uses synthetic fertilizers rather than the still-abundant guano due to infrastructure issues. The collapse of Peru's bird population after the collapse of the fishery also limits future supply of the fertilizer. The maize is not exportable due to large subsidies in Europe and the United States to its high-cost producers, but coffee is exportable. In recent years Peru has become the world's primary source of high-quality organic coffee. Peru does not have a quality control program such as Kenya's but its government has worked to educate farmers on how to improve quality. Despite the glut of coffee producers in the market today, coffee production in Peru is still promising. It naturally has the high altitudes and partial shade desired by Coffea arabica, and it has much more of such land available than competitors such as Jamaica and Hawaii.

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