Archives for July 12, 2015

Day 16 – Getting around in Bolivia: a photo log.

Day 16 – Getting around in Bolivia: a photo log.

Pope Francis comes to Bolivia

Pope Francis comes to Bolivia

You never know what to expect when traveling around in Bolivia! I had to re-schedule my week of city visits in La Paz when the Pope came to town. The El Alto transportation hub was essentially closed for days as people prepared the parade route. And offices were closed too. So I had to cancel many visits until Thursday, after the Pope had left.

Another roadblack in la paz

Road block during rush hour on The Prado ,La Paz´s busy downtown main street.

Then the only challenge was the road blocks. Road blocks are a common way Bolivians bring more attention to issues they think might have missed the governments attention, such as in this case, development work that was left undone in the city of Potosi.

Yellow Line - Teleferrico, La Paz, Bolivia

Yellow Line – Teleferrico, La Paz, Bolivia

Though not all is a huge challenge. The new Teleferrico cable car system makes transportation from the high altiplano region of El Alto to the center of La Paz 1,500 feet below a joy. I felt I was the Pope myself ascending down from the heavens to meet the people of La Paz, as I rode in my Yellow Line cable car for the first time. And at just $.45 (3 Bs) each way, you can’t beat the price.

Day 15 – Who will take my survey?

Day 15 – Who will take my survey?


Sample model from South Africa.

As I get ready to travel to the salt flats to begin my quinoa study, I continue to modify the Circles of Sustainability model I will be using. This model was developed by support from the United Nations. It is a qualitative, place-based model that measures one’s experiences in the areas of economic, cultural, political and environmental well-being. Until now, the models have been used in urban settings in Melbourne, Australia, Sao Paolo Brazil and Cape Town, South Africa. This will be the first time the model will be used to measure sustainability in a rural environment.

Ideally the survey takes 15 minutes to complete. It has 10 demographic questions that include cultural identity, languages used, political and business affiliations; all-important distinctions for people living in the Bolivia countryside. It also has 33 questions that pertain to the four areas mentioned earlier: economic, cultural, political and environmental well-being. These address concerns about education, the natural environment, wildlife, education, clean water, gas and electricity access, different ways earnings are made: mining, livestock, vegetables, the access to goods, and cultural participation in festivals, dress, and customs. The last thing I ask about is indigenous knowledge. What is known or shared that comes from the past?

As quinoa farming becomes more mechanized and mass-produced, what will happen to these original ways of thinking and being? Indigenous knowledge systems are often low input, low output. They are slow, adaptable and sustainable over time. Today’s “modern” methods are high input, high output producing large benefits in the short term, but not very adaptable or viable in the long term. In the theme of sustainability, the dynamic between indigenous knowledge and modern methods is one I am most curious about…

Day 14 – Are Bolivian women growing quinoa like the women growing coffee or knitting?

Day 14 – Are Bolivian women growing quinoa like the women growing coffee or knitting?


KUSIKUY´s La Imillia Fair Trade knitters. Arani, Bolivia

As I get ready for my research with women quinoa growers, I think back to my work with Bolivian knitters and coffee farmers. In 2010 I arrived in Bolivia asking the Fair Trade knitters with whom I had been working with for 12 years, why they always joked about Fair Trade, asking if it was really fair. This become the basis of my doctorate thesis and enabled me to develop my own ethnographic research method to find out the answer. The result was a surprise! The women benefitted more from the leadership, time management, project planning, and organizational skills they learned while managing orders, than from the actual product earnings, which fluctuated unpredictably. Fair Trade, it turned out was a step for them to learn to work together, bring new projects to their communities, and (sometimes) move on to more steady, desirable work.

I was curious about the women working in Fair Trade coffee and two years later, embarked on a similar study of Bolivia’s Fair Trade coffee. Here I found a completely different story! The women worked very closely with their husbands to grow a few acres of coffee. There was a complex and well established system of cooperatives with ample technical assistance, credit, market access and steady earnings. The community of Caranavi, Bolivia’s coffee capital, reminded me of an industrious little anthill (turned upside down since Caranavi was more of a valley than a hill). These women had what the Fair Trade knitters lacked; steady income. But they lacked what the Fair trade knitters had; a voice, representation and a sense of self-importance. The men ruled the farms and often made decisions without consulting the women. New programs were springing up to help build more gender equity, but these were just beginning when I was there.

Though the rules of Fair Trade are basically the same worldwide, the experiences of the people working within these rules vary tremendously. I wonder what I will find next as I enter into the study of women quinoa farmers…

Day 13 – The Fair Trade Story

Day 13 – The Fair Trade Story

ftusa On the other side of the value chain is the story of Fair Trade. Fair Trade quinoa comes with guarantees that producers are paid a fair price for their product, receive technical assistance, social development funds for community use and long term contracts with buyers. Fair Trade targets marginalized producers offering an extra level of protection by establishing a base price guarantee to farmers, regardless of market prices. Quinoa sold with this Fair Trade certification has a wholesale price that is slightly higher than non-Fair Trade quinoa. This difference represents the money going towards the social development of the producers through farmer-directed education and infrastructure investment.

Bolivia’s quinoa is produced by what once was Bolivia’s most disadvantaged producers; farmers and miners from the salty, dessert flats of the windswept altiplano where temperatures regularly go below freezing and people live in cold, adobe homes with thatched roofs and little access to electricity or clean water. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, is from this region, and with new government programs addressing the poverty of the countryside, quinoa farmers now have more access to electricity, telephone service, medical attention and schools. In the past seven years with the growth of the quinoa market, for the first time quinoa farmers are entering into the middle class, building small houses in the city and buying trucks for transportation services. Because of quinoa’s growth and value, the need for Fair Trade protections was largely overlooked by the Bolivian farmers. But now with the severe drop in the price of quinoa due to new competition from other countries, the farmers are more aware of the importance of Fair Trade guarantees, explains Sergio Nunez de Arce.

b corpNunez de Arce is a Bolivian social venture capitalist who recognized the market potential for quinoa and founded Andean Naturals, a B Corp., in San Francisco, California in 2004. Andean Naturals is now the world’s largest buyer and seller of Fair Trade quinoa. Andean Naturals also has their own brand that they sell directly to consumers.

Nunez works closely with FairTrade USA, a Fair Trade certifier that specializes in working with large corporations such as Wal Mart, Pepsi Co., Hershey, and Kellogg to bring Fair Trade brands to the consumer market. Some say FairTrade USA’s approach is controversial because they make Fair Trade accessible to large corporations with histories of human rights and environmental abuses which is exactly what Fair Trade protects against. Critics say that the large corporations are using Fair Trade brands as a way of “greenwashing” their image and appearing more socially responsible then they actually are. Some believe this contradiction erodes consumer confidence in the Fair Trade certification. Never-the-less, large wholesale-retailers such as Pepsi Co. can absorb the extra cost of the Fair Trade premium and still be competitive with their products by being both the distributor and retailer. In addition, by being customers of Fair Trade, these companies bring a tremendous amount if hope and advantage to traditionally marginalized people and help open new markets and opportunities.

The quinoa that Andean Naturals distributes comes from its sister company in Bolivia, Jachi Inti Industrial SA (JISA), which has 139 members producing certified organic quinoa and 46% who are also certified Fair Trade. According Yeris Peric, General Manager of Andean Family Farmers, the production branch of Andean Naturals, an average of 20 to 25 containers (more than 400 tons) of organic quinoa a month is exported, mostly to the US. Andean Natural’s JISA processing plant in Bolivia is safety certified and employs 170 people, processing, explained Nunez, not only the Fair Trade Andean Naturals quinoa but that of other certified organic organizations as well, such as ANPQUI. In total, 500 tons of Fair Trade quinoa was distributed by Andean Naturals in 2014.

Besides paying fair market prices, and employing Bolivians in the processing plant, Andean Naturals also contributes to a social premium fund managed by an elected group of producers. Last year Andean Naturals paid $269 per ton in social premiums contributing a total of $134,500 to social development programs. As the quinoa market matures, price protections and Fair Trade branding become more important. Nunez explains that Bolivian quinoa’s world market advantage is its organic certification, heirloom varieties, high quality production, and strong partners. Farmers who six years ago earned $35 a month for their quinoa are now earning $400 to $600 a month with Andean Naturals. Nunez looks forward to expanding the Fair Trade quinoa program and continuing to help alleviate poverty and use natural resources sustainably.

More about Fair Trade quinoa is coming as studies with Fair Trade farmers begin the end of July…

Day 12 – The Legend of the Tunupa Volcano

The salt flats of Bolivia once were a great inland sea. As the earth rose and he sea dried it became a great salt flat many feet deep. Once known as the Salar of Tunupa and now called the Salar of Uyuni (due to an error made by the conquering Spanish), this region can be seen from the moon, holds the world’s largest supply of lithium plus many other minerals, and houses many rare and carefully adapted life forms. Most of Bolivia’s quinoa production is cultivated on the cold, dry salty soils around the salt flats. But there is another story to the salt flats and this I will share now.

Long ago, the volcanoes of the altiplano walked and moved to meet and hold long conversations together. In this desert region, at 12,000 feet above sea level, there was only one female volcano: Tunupa. All other surrounding volcanoes loved her.


Colchani, Bolivia

Tunupa became pregnant and bore a small volcano whose father was unknown. All of the volcanoes that had courted her wanted to be the baby’s father. All night they fought. Finally they took the baby volcano away from his mother and hid him in Colchani .

The gods were furious and to punish the volcanoes they took away their right to move, talk and meet.
Tunupa had nursed her child, the baby volcano, and loved him very much. Now she could not find him. Volcano Tunupa, like the others, was pinned to the earth and silent in her grief. She did not know that in Colchani, a small volcano that looked much like her, now laments alone on the outskirts of town.


Salar of Uyuni

Tunupa cried and cried. Her tears and her mother’s milk ran over the arid land that ever since has been white and salty. Thus was born the great white Ténéré; the Salar de Uyuni.

Tomorrow I will be traveling with my family through the night, across the altiplano, on a cold, bumpy bus, for 7 hours to arrive at dawn at the salt flats… and the land of quinoa.