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Guinea pig power

September 5, 2010

Update: Hablas español? Hay una versión para tu al fin! Spanish readers can now find a translation at the bottom of the post.

Pachacamac: Guinea pigs, those Andean rodents so beloved by European children as pets, are more than strokeable, tailless rats – they have uses. Many. The ingenious people of the rural town of Pachacamac, outside Lima, are using the furry fellas to light their homes, cook their food, grow their veggies, power their televisions and, this is Peru after all, line their bellies.

Winter veggies growing with guinea pig manure

We visit Casa Blanca, the delightful home of semi-retired professors Carmen Felipe-Morales and Ulises Moreno (who appropriately got his PhD at Ithaca (Cornell)), two plant physiologists turned agronomists, who run a sustainable agriculture programme at the nearby National Agrarian University of Molina. Their villa, set in gardens bursting with flowers, trees, vegetables and birdlife, is also a lab where they carry out their tech-transfer work or, as Ulises puts it: “We bring a lot of clever scientists here, who have spent their time studying plant genetics or researching different biochemical pathways for fertilisers, and we say ‘how about seeing right now if we can make a difference to farmers in Peru?'”

Carmen and Ulises get the most from their 'cuy' (guinea pigs)

To this end, the couple have developed different potato varieties optimised for soil and climate types and several types of organically produced fruits and cereals. Naturally, they are using their combined century’s worth of academic experience to produce these seemingly instant results, but they are keen to make the point that Peruvians can and should ‘do it for themselves’ rather than waiting for saviours from the developed world or burying researchers in labs away from the communities that could benefit from new findings.

Up to 1000 guinea pigs are kept in allocated pens

Taking up one wall of their plot is a low-roofed shed housing almost 1000 guinea pigs (Carvia porcellus) in numbered, regularly compartmented enclosures. They burble and chatter, whistle and purr as they eat their specially enriched food of plant waste matter.

They are fed a nutritionally enhanced diet

School children on an organised visit are swarming the shed, cooing over the fluffy creatures, while Carmen entertains them, answering their ‘is it a boy or girl cuy?’ questions by picking one up and manipulating its nether regions to reveal a tiny pink penis. The kids like that very much.

Carmen shows us it's a 'boy' cuy

The guinea pigs are part of a remarkable living factory that supplies the fuel and fertiliser for all the couple’s other projects. The small dry pellets that the rodents poo out are fed into a bio-digester that Ulises adapted from a Chinese model – water is added and bacteria metabolise the slurry – to produce methane gas and a dark brown liquid plant nutrient, which he calls ‘Caca Cola’.

The bio-digester. Poo goes into the right-hand hole, biogas rises from the middle hole and the left-hand one produces the liquid plant feed

It’s an incredibly efficient, non-smelly process (it’s buried underground) that produces enough gas for the family’s use (plus more) and litres of the growth hormone to sell.

Ulises shovels in the rodent poo

The 1000 guinea pigs produce 3 tonnes of poo a month – who knew they shit so much? – but the couple only uses 200 kilos of this in the bio-digester. The rest is aerobically degraded in a mixture of silage to produce high quality organic compost for their use and to sell.

The rest of the guinea pig excrement is mixed with agro-waste and decomposed to make compost. Bamboo 'breathing' tubes are planted in the piles to oxygenate the process

Even so, they produce 3 cubic metres of methane a day. Plus, 50 litres a week of the caca cola, which they sell for 2 soles (65 cents) per litre – the industrially produced equivalent goes for 150 soles (US$ 50) per litre.

A very high quality compost is produced

A pipe goes from the fermenting excrement mixture to small shed, ending in the inner tubes of tractors and truck tyres. Once a tyre is full, it can be attached to the household gas line, from which the family runs gas-powered lightbulbs, gas stoves and, excitingly, an electric generator. The household powers its electric devices from computers to TV using guinea pig shit.

The couple uses the compost to grow experimental crop varieties

“My message to the people of Peru is: don’t blame your poverty. Transform your poverty using affordable technologies and processes to improve your quality of life and happiness,” Ulises says, tucking into ice-cream made from fruit grown using cuy shit and frozen with cuy-shit-power.

The technique works well but, despite teaching people how, Ulises is frustrated by the lack of people who are using it

And the animals? Well, after they’ve pooed and copulated to the ripe old age of 18 months or so, they are sold for a good price to Lima’s upscale restaurants and organic food stores. Mmm, rico!

La versión española, con muchas gracias a Jose Antonio Morales (no conocemos la palabra marco):

Pachacamac: Cuyes, esos roedores andinos tan apreciados por los niños europeos, son mas que ‘strokeable’, ratas sin cola – en realidad tienen muchos usos. La ingeniosa gente del pueblo rural de Pachacamac, a las afueras de Lima, utiliza la furia del cuy para iluminar sus casas, cocinar su comida, hacer crecer sus vegetales, encender sus TVs y cómo no, llenar sus barrigas.

Visitamos la Casa Blanca, el encantador hogar de dos profesores semi-retirados, Carmen Felipe-Morales y Ulises Moreno, quien recibió su PhD en Ithaca (Corenell). Ambos fisiólogos de plantas convertidos en agrónomos, mantienen un programa de agricultura sostenible en la cercana Universidad Nacional Agraria de La Molina. Su villa, llena de jardines floreados, arboles, vegetales y aves es también un laboratorio en donde realizan su transferencia de tecnología. Como dice Ulises: “Traemos aquí a muchos científicos brillantes, quienes pasan su tiempo estudiando la genética de las plantas o quienes investigan diferentes routas bioquímicos para fertilizantes y con quienes discutimos como podemos lograr ahora una diferencia competitiva para los agricultores en el Peru”.

En este momento, ellos han desarrollado diferentes variedades de papas las cuales se adaptan diferentes suelos y climas. También han desarrollado varios tipos de cereales y frutas orgánicos. Naturalmente, ellos utilizan las experiencias obtenidas en los cien años que ambos suman, para poder lograr estos resultados. Ambos muestran su entusiasmo al afirmar que que los peruanos “pueden y deben” lograr por si mismos resultados, en vez de esperar por salvadores del mundo desarrollado o en vez de contratar investigación a laboratorios que se encuentran lejos de las comunidades que se benefician de nuevos descubrimientos.

Una de las paredes de su huerto ha sido utilizada para colocar un techo bajo que hospeda a casi mil cuyes (Carvia porcellus) distribuidos en compartimentos especiales. Los cuyes murmuran, conversan, silban y susurran mientras comen su comida especialmente enriquecida basada en desechos vegetales.

La Casa Blanca recibe a grupos de niños escolares quienes invaden la cabaña llena de estas dulces y esponjosas criaturas. Carmen los entretiene al responderles sus preguntas, entre ellas si el cuy es hembra o macho; ella elige uno y luego de rebuscarlo muestra a los niños su pequeño pene de color rosado. Los niños muestran su interés al respecto.

Los cuyes son parte de una extraordinaria fabrica viva que proporciona combustible y fertilizantes para todos los proyectos de la pareja. Las pequeñas bolitas que los cuyes producen como excremento son insertadas en una especie de cisterna que funciona como un aparato digestivo o “bio-digester”, el cual es una adaptación de Ulises basado en un modelo Chino. El sistema funciona al agregar agua y bacterias las cuales metabolizan la mezcla para producir gas metano y un liquido marrón oscuro que es nutriente para vegetales o “caca cola” como Ulises lo llama.

El proceso es increíblemente eficaz, no produce malos olores ya que sucede bajo tierra y produce mas que suficiente gas para el uso familiar. La pareja también vende litros de la hormona para crecimiento de vegetales.

Los casi mil cuyes producen tres toneladas de excrementos al mes – quien diría que cagan tanto?- pero la pareja solo utiliza 200 kilos en su “bio-digester”.Como si fuera poco, ellos producen tres metros cúbicos de metano al día. Cincuenta litros semanales de “caca cola”, los cuales se venden a dos soles (65 centavos de dólar) por litro. Los equivalentes industriales se venden a 150 (US$50) soles el litro.

La cisterna con la mezcla de excremento termina en un tubo que transporta el gas hacia las cámaras de unas llantas de tractor o camión. Una vez que las cámaras están llenas de gas se conectan a la linea de gas de la casa. En ella utilizan lamparas a gas, cocina a gas e incluso un generador eléctrico. La familia alimenta con energía eléctrica todos sus dispositivos electrónicos como computadoras y televisión utilizando excremento de cuy.

Ulises nos dice, mientras prueba un helado de frutas producidas con la ayuda de caca de cuy y congelado de la misma fuente de energía: “Mi mensaje para la gente del Peru es: No culpes a tu pobreza. Transfórmala utilizando tecnología y procesos para mejorar tu calidad de vida y ser feliz”.

Y los animales? bueno, luego de haber excretado suficiente y haberse reproducido hasta los 18 meses de edad, se venden a un buen precio a restaurantes de reputación y tiendas de productos orgánicos. Mmm, rico!

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara permalink
    September 5, 2010 1:10 pm

    Amazing! Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. I like Ulises’ philosophy: “Transform your poverty using affordable technologies and processes to improve your quality of life and happiness.” Adopting that mindset would benefit those of us living in the affluent part of the world, too…

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 5, 2010 1:40 pm

      True, Barbara. He’s a really inspiring guy.

  2. helenwayte permalink
    September 5, 2010 5:19 pm

    Aww, I liked it until the bit were they sell them for food (but I am a vegetarian with six pet guinea pigs, so I’m biased).

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 5, 2010 8:51 pm

      Yeah, not sure they have vegetarians in Peru, Helen!

      • Mary permalink
        September 7, 2010 3:17 pm

        of course there are people who are vegetarians in Peru, there are vegetarians everywhere in the world. What’s up with the prejudice?

        • Jose Antonio Morales permalink
          September 7, 2010 5:25 pm

          Mary looks to me like your word of the day is “prejudice”. I believe the intention is to say that peruvians like to eat and that includes multiple sorts of meat.
          I personally believe that peruvians should some time think on saying “thank you” to people trying to get the best out of our country and publish it to the world.

  3. martin permalink
    September 5, 2010 8:26 pm

    Gaia

    Of course Guinea Pigs are not just beloved by European children, but by young adults like myself.

    Our Guinea Pig poo is recycled as lawn feed. They are nature’s lawnmowers.

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 5, 2010 8:50 pm

      Is your lawn a little on the unkempt size, Martin? Tasty on the bbq, you should try them… x

  4. Jose Antonio permalink
    September 6, 2010 6:27 pm

    Gaia, what a great article.

    I’m Peruvian and I know very well the “cuy”. I was born in Lima and currently live in Europe.
    My parents are living in Lima and they have a house close to the Andes where my father goes for the weekend to take care of his vegetables. I just forwarded the article to him so he could get in touch with Ulises.

    Well, first just to mention that there are a lot of vegetarians in Peru :)
    They have a lot of great vegetables as you probably saw.

    I think that the news you bring with your article are so important that would be needed to have a version in Spanish to publish in Peruvian newspapers or just using social media.
    If you agree with that I would offer myself to translate your article. (In exchange for nothing).

    Congrats for such a great site!

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 6, 2010 9:46 pm

      Hi Jose, It would be great to have a Spanish version! When you have time, do send me something, and I’ll put it up.

  5. Mary permalink
    September 7, 2010 3:08 pm

    “Guinea pigs, those Andean rodents so beloved by European children as pets, are more than strokeable, tailless rats – they have uses.”
    I am Peruvian and I live in the USA and travel to Peru now and then. I have realized that guinea pigs are loved and cared as pets everywhere in the world, especially in Peru, not only by European children. So what is up with the prejudice?

    • Jose Antonio Morales permalink
      September 7, 2010 5:17 pm

      Working on it. I see my spanish is getting rusty

      • September 7, 2010 7:27 pm

        Jose, I could lend you a hand, in case you need any help (I’m the prowd argentinean owner of two guinea pigs)

  6. Jose Antonio Morales permalink
    September 15, 2010 11:59 am

    Hi Gaia,

    I have the translation ready. I think MaC (comment September 7) should give a check on it.
    Where to send it? You have my email so you coult send me a message, I will answer fast.

    Kind regards,

    Jose Antonio

    p.s. After you post the spanish version would be great to send the link to some Peruvian publications, news services and even journalists. Ulises sample can really make a difference.
    Actually I don’t understand why hungry Africa isn’t full of cuys!!?

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 19, 2010 11:34 pm

      Hi Jose, that’s great news, thanks. Email it to me and I’ll put it up.

      • September 20, 2010 3:17 am

        Send me a copy to my contact email and i’ll check it out

  7. September 16, 2010 2:55 pm

    Hey Gaia and Nick I hope your trip for the amazon river could be really good until Manaus, just I give a friend of my in puerto maldonado in the jungle and he loved it, they have a lot the little farmers of the guinea pigs, thank you to your report maybe they can change his lives ussing the Ulisses technology for his own. Maybe you can write to Ulises and asking to permission to put his mail into your great social media and can reply around the world in poor countries, because maybe in some anothers countries dont have a guinea pigs but maybe a horses or canguros, and they can use the poo for gas to keep worm the water, lights for his houses and a lot the uses with a free technology, thank you again my friends and take care
    saludos from home
    Francis

    • Gaia permalink*
      September 19, 2010 11:42 pm

      Hey Francis, Great idea – every country should be using their waste more usefully. We’ve just arrived in Manaus and we’re both missing you and your lovely home very much!

  8. February 4, 2011 6:19 pm

    love Guinea pig power

  9. February 24, 2011 1:56 am

    I’m going to put a link to this on my website. I don’t know if a biogas methane digester is something I can reasonably do in the suburbs (I watched the video and didn’t get a good idea of the scale of the digester) but having the plans and information available if needed strikes me as wise. Our heat and cooking fuel is natural gas right now, and it’s the highest bill we have in the winter. I’ve been thinking of running PEX tubing under the house that’s attached to solar heaters to supplement our heater (during the power outages this winter, it got COLD- we have gas heat, but the electricity is needed to make the furnace blow!)

  10. Lauretta Denton. permalink
    June 3, 2012 3:04 pm

    I LOVE this idea!! I currently have 12 guineapigs. All I need now, is a plan of the methane machine and I will make one here in the uk. :)

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