After spending two months working with Habitat Pro in Lima, I have now swapped the big, bustling capital for the small fishing village of Huanchaco. I have come to work with the Mochica Chimu fishing community, as part of Habiat Pro’s project to recover the traditional fishing practice with totora reed boats, and build a Mochica Chimu cultural centre. In this blog series ‘The Mochica Diaries’ I will be sharing my experiences and insights of my time here in Huanchaco.

Huanchaco may not be big, but it has great historical and cultural importance. It is home to the Mochica Chimu people, one of Peru’s many Indigenous communities. The Mochica Chimu community has existed since as early as 900 AD, and are well known for their ceramics, textiles and reed fishing boats. Huanchaco was the main port during the height of the Moche empire.

Walking along the beach, the first thing that stands out are the caballitos de totora, or reed fishing boats.  Caballito de totora, the name the Spanish gave to these boats, literally translates as little reed horses. The reeds grow in ponds, and the fishermen harvest them and leave them to dry for two weeks. Then the reeds are ready to be made into a boat, which takes approximately two hours to make. Each boat can be used for approximately one month before it becomes waterlogged and too heavy to use. Fishing with these boats is an ancient Mochica Chimu tradition that has been passed down to the new generations for more than 5,000 years.

Seeing the caballitos on the beach made me wonder how the idea of fishing with reed boats came about in the first place. I found myself reflecting on the resourcefulness of the ancient Mochica Chimu civilization, not to mention the skill and craftmenship of the fishermen. In Huanchaco, the cabellitos de totora is not only a livelihood for the fishermen of Huanchaco; these boats are a symbol of Huanchaco and at the core of the identity of the village.

Community members told me with pride that it’s a great possibility that the origins of surfing started here in Huanchaco. The caballitos de totora are reminiscent of surfboards, and Mochica Chimu fishermen have been using them to ride the waves in a similar way.

This tradition of fishing with caballito de totora is sadly at risk from disappearing due to a number of factors including pollution and erosion. Elder community members showed me photos from many years ago, where fishermen would make smaller rafts out of totora for children to play with, as a way to encourage them to learn to love the water and as a starting point for them to learn how to fish with the totora boats. I learnt that this is not a common practice anymore. This is partly due to the shortage of totora but also because fishermen are less inclined to encourage their children to follow the same trade.

Despite being culturally important, many are turning their backs on this tradition due to the fact that the amount of fish in the water has diminished in part as a tragic consequence of climate change. Pollution and increasing sea temperatures have drastically impacted the amount and the variety of fish that can be found. For this reason, it is increasingly difficult to make a living as an artisan fisherman. However, with their sustainable fishing practice, the Indigenous peoples of Huanchaco have the opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change, as the growing of totora helps to balance groundwater and promote biodiversity – a key reason why we must act with urgency to revive this practice.

It is apparent that the old ways of transmission of this cultural practice are becoming less common. Transmission to the new generations is key to the survival of any cultural practice. This neglect jeopardizes the continuation of fishing with reed boats, which would mean the loss of culture and an opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change in a sustainable way.

I am really excited to spend more time learning the history of this ancient civilization and to meet more community members. In my next post I will be writing about my visit to the totora ponds and meeting with fishermen and learning about their daily life.

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