Most of the comuneros used to be seasonal workers in the large landlord cotton plantations. Part of them were entitled to pieces of land after the Agrarian Reform, but they had to face a couple of serious problem. First: the water, the irrigated area were still under the control of the landlords. Second: lack of alternatives, they just knew how to grow cotton. The first problem had to be solved by the expansion of the irrigated area: a huge programme was implemeted under the direction of a Jugoslavian team and the area available for irrigation increased dramatically in the areas controlled by the comunidad
campesina. Channels have been built in pure sandy soils, they became surprisingly productive with a few appropriate cares; beside the main programme, a number of minor projects took care of the distribution of waters in the most remote areas of the Comunidad.
This is how the desert looks like before water flows in. This is the land the UCP are entitled after the Agrarian Reform, as you can easily imagine these areas are not suitable for farming without previous heavy investments. The banking system - as it acts all over the world - lends money to people who already has it, so that UCP's had little oppoortunities to develop their own areas, except that with reduced goat raising. In the years following the heavy Nino rains, the areas are completely transformed into grazing fields, they may be rented to large livestock operators, but the rentability is limited.
A very large area around Piura is irrigated since the end of 1800, with huge pumps catching the waters from the canals bringing the waters of San Lorenzo river some 40 km away at the basis of the Andes. The area was traditionally controlled by large landowners, until the Agrarian Reform decided by President Alan Garcia in the 1970's. Apart from the land, the people used to be organized in comunidades campesinas, and this goes back to the time when the Spanish conquerors arrived in Peru. The largest and most ancient peasant community is the one of Catacaos, a15 km out of Piura: "la Gloriosa y Combativa Comunidad Campesina de San Juan Bautista de Catacaos", the comunidad has been recognised as pre-existent by offical papers given by the first Spanish governors at the beginning of the XVI century. Now, it has 100,000 comuneros and the control over 400,000
hectares (300,000 of them are just sand, but... they become a rich and enormous grazing area in the years after el Niño, and this is the origin of a number of problems).
Cotton (and rice) is the traditional crop grown in the irrigated area.
The Piura variety is a very very good one, with long fibres, it is very well paid on the international market, as it is used for special tissues, such as parachutes. Similar varieties (Giza) were grown only in the Nile delta, in Egypt; but the desruption of the traditional way of farming and the increasing restricted rules of seed markets put the peasants in a marginal position. What happened is that landlords were not interested in keeping and improving the seed, as they shifted to the industrial way of production, and the local University had no funds to invest in variety improving. The people from
Texas found the variety was very well suited to their climate and could be favourably crossed with their own variety: the result is the Piura variety is no more under the control of the Peruvian farmers. They must buy the seeds from the multinational companies, so that they are paying for the supposed work of research and development of a produce which they themselves breeded during centuries. Someone compared the work of a modern genetist as the volume regulation of a CD player, which is constituted by the local varieties they use as a raw material!
When traditional farming techniques ahve been lost for a couple of generations, financial resources are scarce and political conjuncture acts against the comuneros empowerment, some basic mistakes may appear. In the case of Catacaos area, as the picture shows, the most common reason for abandoning certain areas was the excessive rate of salinity. Although it may appear very strange, the most important concern of an irrigated area is the efficiency of its drainage: water resting or the excessive elevation of the salty layer cause the land to be lost for agricultural utilisation. The comuneros had no more this knowledge as an instinct and funds for building canals were always limited so that drainage channels were left beside.
The second problem was the identification of alternative crops and the way they can be managed is not easy at all. Cotton martket is totally controlled by foreign interest and a couple of local oligopolists, so that a peasant household could never rely for their survival on the price of cotton. Market (very far from being a free market), transport (expensive and limited), water-management (the price of energy for pumping was no more a politically controlled item), growing techniques (there was no agricultural extension system available for the common farmers) made the choice very diffficult. More than this, one must also take into consideration social pressures: cotton was very important for local economy and any area not dedicated to it was noticed as an improductive
one; comunidades campesinas, as they were trying to organize internal services for agricultural extension and the education of farmers, were perceived as terrorist organisations supporting Sendero Luminoso actions. All the same, some examples of alternative management have been implemented thanks to the positive interaction of international NGO's co-operation and local farmers organisations.