Archives for July 23, 2015

Day 29 – Private versus socialist run enterprises….

Day 29 – Private versus socialist run enterprises….

Wilson Barcos in Salinas

Wilson Barcos in Salinas

Today I met with Wilson Barcos, founder of QUIMBOLSUR in 2009, and the man who helped Juan Pablo Selene of Quinoa Foods Co. with his first quinoa export shipment. I was impressed by the sophisticated, smoothly operating , operation I discovered at the edge of Salinas on the shores of the salt flats and also left wondering about the challenges and benefits of private versus socialist business models. Here’s the story.

            Wilson grew up in Salinas, the son of a long legacy of quinoa growers, his father grew quinoa, his grandfather, great grandfather, along down the line. Being on the edge of the salt flats, they produced the most nutritious, hearty quinoa in all of Bolivia. A lot of this was due to the high mineral content of the soil which the plan absorbed and stored in its seeds and also the cold, arid conditions of the region. Like most people in the region, quinoa was grown for one’s one personal consumption and was an important family staple. This changed for Wilson in 2003 when world markets began stirring and more technical assistance became available for Bolivian quinoa farmers. This is when Wilson began thinking of quinoa as an income generating crop, not just a family food source.   He started with sales in the regional quinoa market of Chayapata, three hours away, this is where he met Juan Pablo in 2010. Juan Pablo was looking for someone to help him export quinoa to a new USA client and asked Wilson to help.

            Contrary to what Juan Pablo has presented in his interview, this was Wilson’s first time exporting quinoa too. Somehow they were able to secure the funds and export the containers in the way Juan Pablo had presented, starting with one, then another and another until the delivery chain was well established and the quinoa easily entered in to the US market. Wilson said the two worked together for the next six or seven years, exporting containers together, though payment to Wilson for his quinoa from Juan Pablo kept coming more and more slowly. Finally the two decided to work more independently and split up, going their separate ways.

            Meanwhile, Wilson had been developing his own US contacts and exporting quinoa to ENRI, a US distributor. However this relationship ended when the company was purchased by Smuckers and they stopped placing orders. Wilson does not speak English and is at a disadvantage when it come to soliciting business for the US and other countries. He can not conjure up new business at large US natural foods trade shows such as Expo East and Expo West, like many other exporters do, nor can he search for new contacts online very easily. His daughter is studying commercial food processing in El Salvador perhaps she will return home and help him grow the business more, he hoped.

            Meanwhile Wilson is focusing on what he has and what he can do. He exported five containers of quinoa in 2014, is preparing to export his fourth container so far this year, and hopes to soon be strengthening ties to Fair Trade exporters who are more accessible to him since they come to Bolivia seeking product and speak Spanish. He also has a new drying system waiting get installed, a 2,000 square meter processing plant right in Salinas, the quinoa capital, and is currently processing mid-altiplano quinoa, a smaller variety of quinoa than what Wilson grows, for Jacha Inti, the processing arm of Sergio’s Andean Naturals company.

Me, after touring the plant.

Me, after touring the plant.

Wilson has two full time agronomists working with him and a total of eight employees who take of processing. The processing has many more steps than the other plants I have visited so far. There is the initial cleaning of the grain, then the washing. Wilson has ultraviolet and high filtration cleaning systems installed so the wash water is of the highest quality. After washing, the grains are then dried and the outer seed covers removed. Anther cleaning phase ensues and then the seeds go through two selection stages where colors and sizes are separated, resulting in a very clean, unified product. All of this is done though immense processing machines. Quinoa naturally has variation in its seed colors ranging from black to maroon, red, pink, yellow and white. Wilson makes sure that Sergio’s quinoa is pure white.

            Wilson hopes to be competitive in his quinoa production by specializing in the highly nutritious Quinoa Real of the southern altiplano. Here he has 135 certified organic producers who provide him with quinoa. He is working with his agronomists to cultivate higher yields for them. Each farmer has about eight to 15 hectacres to cultivate and no more, so they way to cultivate more product without using more land, explained Wilson, is to increase yields. His method largely includes using higher amounts of organic fertilizer. The farmers that work with him collectively have a total of about 800 llamas. Currently the average regional yields are about five to eight quintals per hactacre. Wilson claims has been able to increase this by more than 500%, producing 45 quintales per hectare, largely by using more llama manure.

            In 2009, Wilson helped his producers to form the Association of Organic Producers of Inter-Salara Quinoa Real (APROQUIERES). He hopes with the independent association, he can get a fair trade certification from the Fair Labeling Organization (FLO) who works with Bolivian quinoa certification and provides training, infrastructure and export market access. This certification will cost Wilson $7,000, but it is something he sees a good future in. He is also working to strengthen his connection with Andean naturals and enter into their Fair Trade market, certified by Fair Trade USA as well.

            I was impressed by how much Wilson had achieved on his own. All of the other plants in the region had been gifts to the people from other organizations; the Bolivian government, European Union, and were managed by a vast membership who shared risks, costs and through their organization, qualified for many technical assistance programs and benefits. Here was a local man who apparently of his own accord, amassed quite a sophisticated operation on his own and did not receive any outside help. In fact the Bolivian government, who is very pro-producer, does very little to support private enterprise and has a general mistrust of private enterprise development in general.

            I also thought back to my conversation with Emily Kawano of the US Solidarity Economy Network (US SEN) in the US. Here she explained the difference between a social enterprise, which is a business that provides a social good or service, such as fair wages, and a positive environmental impact versus a socialist enterprise, which is one that is managed and directed by the workers themselves. Though both businesses can end up achieving the same social results, for example, fair wages and a positive environmental impact, the people in the social enterprise are dependent on the kindness and good intentions of the owner to maintain the business. I asked Wilson about his thoughts on this, as a private business owner, in a region where social business ownership was positively valued and more the norm. I reminded Wilson that he was affected by the vulnerabilities of private ownership, when Smuckers bought ____ and he lost an important client. We both thought about this for a while. I mentioned observations I had made in prices. Juan Pablo, an organic distributor was paying around 600BS a quintal for his quinoa, sourcing it largely from the Challapata free-market. Wilson said he was paying about 700Bs for his own locally produced, organic inter-salar brand, the members of the Fair Trade APQUISA organization were looking to get about 900 to 1000Bs for their organic production.

            Wilson smiled and turned to me, “Yes,” he said, “they will be paying 900 to 1000 Bs for their quinoa but what will they have left for maintain their machinery, making repairs, buying new equipment? This was given to them as gifts. They do not know the cost of maintenance and improvement. These association work for a while, but then there are decisions that need to be made and there is no agreement in them and things fall apart. That is the difference.” I know that APQUISA does maintain a fund for the organization, but it will be interesting to see how they manage and value this at the annual meeting next week.

            I think back to the PPQA meeting the other day and the abandoned plant with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, unused and ruined, and had to nod in agreement. And I think of development economics and the dependency models that develop as people are given handouts without having a chance to earn them or provide a service in return. Then I think of the new plant in Otuyo, with so much community buy-in and large amounts of matched funds. I ask Wilson if he things that a more hybrid approach of ownership where the community has more of a stake in the outcome could make these types of producers associations more efficient or careful in how they operate. He shrugs. He points out that his apronomers are in the producer communities every day, that is where they work. Meanwhile the APQUISA agronmer sits in his office. That is true, the APQUISA organization has more of a train-the-trainer approach to technical assistance where the main agronomist trains member representatives in techniques as needed.

            Wilson points out that he operates in a small region where everyone knows each other. They grew up together. He says that the APQUISA association is essentially his competition. Twenty-five percent of the people from a given community produce for Wilson, the rest are mostly associated with APQUISA. If, Wilson points out, he did not treat his producers well, and create value for them, they would not produce for him. They would leave and go to APQUISA or another organization. The proof of his good work, he explains, is from the people who choose to work with him. He can guarantee them much more market stability, growth and efficiency. He has his entire life invested into this company and has the power to see it succeed. This is where his private enterprise differs from the associations and where he sees his long term advantage.

            I had to agree, and I wondered as I return for more studies years down the road, what the future holds for APQUISA and the socialist growing organizations in the countryside. I wonder if there exists a hybrid model of this, a quasi-worker owned, quasi-central leader private market mix. There must. Doe sit always have to be either or. Can it ever be both?

Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Florinda Consales is Bolivia’s first woman Mallku, or regional indigenous leader. Residing over the Marka (region) Salinas, she is the elected leader of over 120 communities represented by approximately 12 elected indigenous governors, and 120 takis (communicators) and 120 helicoteres (community leaders). Local people refer to her as The Mother, state officials respectfully call her the Liscenciada Florinda Mallku, putting importance on her college degree.

            Born in1955, Florinda, as a child, lived in the community of Otuyo, a few miles from the dusty town of Salinas at the edge of the vast salt flats in a land surrounded by volcanoes, lava cliffs and scrubby pampas under a wide blue sky. Her parents were subsistence farmers, eking out a living from the mineral rich soils that grew Bolivia’s highest quality quinoa and potatoes. There were two natural springs in the community and the people were able to grow irrigated vegetables such as carrots and fava beans as well.

            Though her mother had nine children, seven had died by the time Florinda was born. Her oldest sibling, a boy, went to the city of Cochabamba in search of work and new opportunities never to return. To this day Florinda still does not know what happened to him. Most likely he had died too. So Florinda was raised as an only child, something unusual in Bolivia where the average rural family has five to seven children. By the time she finished third grade, the highest level her community school went to, her father moved the family to the city of Oruro five hours away where Floinda was enlisted into the city school system and graduated High School. There was a drought in the countryside which made farming very difficult. In the city, her father worked as a baker, making the fresh, round breads he sold each day. Somewhere around this time, her mother died of an apparent stroke. She was in her early 40s. Being an only child, Florinda did not have the share scant family resources with her siblings and her father was able to send her to college.

            She went to the larger city of La Paz to attend the state University of San Andres where she first studied Social Work, then switched to Sociology, graduated, and entered into Law School though after a year she was offered a good job and in 1980 she took the job, got married, and left the law program, something that to this day she regrets. At San Andres, Florinda learned of social movements and human rights. She was one of the few women in college, most families only had resources to send their sons to college, if that. While in college, she and her male colleagues worked well together, and inspired by CatholicPriest,Luis Espinal, who ran a leftist newspaper, staged hunger strikes demanding autonomy for the college, worked on many different social change plans for the country and joined political movements. Bolivia was in a state of turmoil and chaos at the time, after a series of military coups, failed economic development, and a strong centralized government that favored the foreign elite, the people were restless for change.

            Much to his dismay, Florinda would descend upon her father’s home with her comrades in tow talking of new laws, ways of governance and civil liberties. She dressed liked them too, preferring jeans and boots over skirts and shawls. her father wanted her to have a simple, quiet desk job, her mom had wanted her to be a teacher. He could not understand the radicalism that his daughter was engaged in. Flroinda describes herself at the time as being very energetic and strong minded, she took no head o her father’s misgivings and continued to follow her passions.

            Her marriage ended a soon after her first job where from 1980 to 1980 she worked on the Plan de Padrinos  (the Godfather Plan). After that, she went to work as a dirigente de secratario (governor of the secretary) at the Center for the Promotion of Miners (CEPROMIN ) with the miners, the strongest and most radical of all citizen groups at the largest state run mine, Siglo XX, which was famous for its human rights abuses. This is the place where Domitilla Sagani, a mining housewife and internationally know leader, rose up forming the Committee of Miner Housewives demanding better mine safety, housing, food social security when a husband died or was injured in the mine, healthcare education, all of the basic needs that most mining families were denied. They lived at the mines, within the high, cold, windy mountain ranges of the Altiplano, did not own land or homes and were depending on the mining companies to care from them. Housing was often a corrugated metal or adobe shack with a dirt floor in which a family of seven would huddle together for warmth. There was no heat, little water, few sanitary facilities. mortality rates were high. The miners were one of the most exploited populations of Bolivia. Domitilla was jailed, tortured and exiled form Bolivia for the work she did.

            Now Florinda is arriving a few years later to address the needs of the women who worked outside of the mines, collecting minerals from tailings and discarded debris. Women were not allowed to work inside the mines, it was thought they wold bring bad luck to the men inside. Working with two other powerful women, Florinda helped to unite the women mine workers wiht the mining housewives committee to create a larger, consolidated presence of women in the mining community. To do this, she needed the permission of the mining union. The men in this union did not want to recognize the rights or needs of the women. So in 1985, Florninda and her colleagues organized a meeting of all of the mine women, both housewives and workers and invited the union men to come and address them. When they men saw the hundreds , maybe thousands, of women who were assembled, they agreed to let the committee be formed.

            Soon state politics entered the mine and the SEPROMIN split to branch out to join MIR and represent mining professionals. Florinda’s work became more aligned with MIR. Dismayed by this division, she retired from her position. Soon after she was invited to be the Coordinator for the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives. Now she was moving from large, state-run mining to the small independent mining cooperatives that worked alongside the powerful state unions, picking through the left overs from the larger mining operations in old mining tunnels. These cooperatives, largely made up of ex-state miners, lacked the resources and technical skills of the state mines. Work was dangerous and earnings small. Florinda’s work took her to mining communities in La Paz, Oruro and Potosi. Here she united the women who worked both inside and outside the mines. The cooperatives were more desperate for work and money and some allowed women to enter into the mines to work. Death rates were high. Children were the most malnourished she had ever seen, with stunted growth and evident disabilities probably from mineral contamination such as mercury, arsenic and lead. Conditions were horrible. Florinda recalls how in the Ilimani mines outside the city of La Paz, women, mostly widows, were hoisted down into mines by ropes tied around their waists. There they dangled, being lowered down by comrades, until they reached the dark mining floor hundreds of feet below. Many women died in this mine, remembered Forinda. never-the-less, Florinda persevered, seeking out projects to help the cooperatives. She was able to get a $6 million project that provided credit to help cooperatives with mine exploration and the development of a turbine system.

            Her success caught the attention of the US based non-profit, CARE and in 1996 she was offered a position to work in the tropical Yungas region on newly formed agricultural projects in the town of Carnavi. Intrigued by the new work, she accepted the position. While working with the miners, Florinda had fallen in love and married one in 1992, so both of them moved to the Yungas. Here Florinda learned abut coffee, citrus fruits, bananas and rice. She began networking with other agricultural development organizations such as ANAPQUI and CITCA where she met Veterinarians without Boarders. Soon Florinda began working on food security programs, self development of lands and land rights. She worked with economic development projects too such as the development of hibiscus jelly.

            With her new work, she was able to travel to many other places in the world, visiting Spain, France and taking a longer tour of Latin America visiting Educator and Guatemala. Her most favorite place was Guatemala where she worked with CIDA and land rights issues for women. There large corporations owned much of the land. Husbands would frequently sell the scant land they had to the cooperation for quick money for themselves without consulting the women, or sharing earnings with them, leaving the women with no resources to live on. Guatemala developed a new law that prevented cooperations from purchasing land from men, it could only be purchased from women or children. Florinda was impressed by the fertility of the land, “a rock could grow a plant there,” she explained with a smile. But she was dismayed by how little land the people had. There was hardly anything to work with at all.

            Through her travels, Florinda gained more admiration for her own country of Bolivia and the land, space and resources the people had there. Sh did want to live anywhere else. ironically, a good friend she made in Guatemala came to Bolivia in an exchange program. When Florinda took her to her childhood community of Otuyo to show here the land there that she loved so much, the women explained in dismay, “how can you live here so far away, so isolated, so arid and cold!”

            Her work came full circle when in 2011 she was asked to be the Governor of the rentistas (Diregent de las rentistas ) in La Paz. Here she became active in the development of indigenous leadership. She was a technical coordinator and helped to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the rediscovery of indigenous wisdom, the concept of Chaca-warmi,  men-women pairing, where the two together made up a whole, that without one of the other could not be complete. She helped to strengthen the ayllu, community, system of governance and the roles of the people within it. This work was funded by the European Community who were supporting the development of community governance, fair trade, sustainable production, and the strengthening of native wisdom brought her back to her community of Salinas. When the time came for her childhood community to elect their Mallku, the regional leader, Florinda was selected.

            Surprised and dismayed, Forinda at first did not want to be the Mallku, a title of great respect and importance, she wanted to work more on land rights for women, development and other programs. She did not want to spend a year in her community as a leader. But the community insisted, and obligingly, Florinda good heartedly donned the traditional clothing of the countryside; the large, full skirt, wool leggings, sweaters and shawls, braided her hair, and hoisting a large aguaro (woven blanket) across her back, filled with coca leaves, notehooks and her cell phone, she joined the other elected leaders for a year of governance in the Salinas Marka. her husband at first laughed when he saw her in her country garb, now a Minister in La Paz, he does not have much time to be in the rural region of Salinas 12 hours away. Most people think the Mother is single anyway. She does not mind.

            And the time flies. Now we must all hurry to get ready for the inauguration of a quinoa processing plant in Floinda’s community of Otuyo. The Minister of Rural Development and other dignitaries and people of importance will be there and Florinda, once a peer with these people, will now would be representing her humble, rural region and thanking the dignitaries for their generosity and thoughtfulness in helping to build the processing plant, bringing new hope and opportunity to the people of this region.

Day 27 – The inauguration of the Otuyo quinoa processing plant

Day 27 – The inauguration of the Otuyo quinoa processing plant

The Ministera of Rural Development at the Otuyo plant innauguration.

The Ministera of Rural Development at the Otuyo plant innauguration.

 Otuyo is a small quinoa growing community located along a winding dusty road that stretches between the salt flats, quinoa fields and free-range llama herds before climbing the volcanic ridges, until it meets Chile. About 60 families have houses here though when the growing season starts, it looks like a large city with lines of cars and trucks as family members drive in from far off places to participate in the quinoa production. It was not always like this. Otuyo used to just be a dusty outpost on the edge of the salt flats, but with President Evo Morale’s development programs in the countryside, it now has electricity, a church, a new school, a covered central meeting place and as of yesterday, a full operating, export quality, quinoa processing plant.

            Yesterday, I traveled with the indigenous governors and the Mallku, the regional leader, to participate in the inauguration of he plant. The mayor of Salinas, Oruro, representatives of the Pro Bolivia program and the Minister of Rural Development herself would all be in attendance. This was a big thing. The community came together to enter into a national competition for a rural development project. Out of the 150 applicants, Otuyo was selected as the one whose project would be realized. This was not an easy achievement. In 2011 they had entered into a similar competition, and was not selected. Not to be deterred, they banded together anew with more organization and coordination with community members contributing more than 3,500 Bs towards the project. With almost 360,000Bs raised ($51,428 – though remember1Bs has the buying power of $1 in Bolivia), and a nephew in the mayor’s office who was able to give them good advice and feedback on the proposal writing, they won the project.

Newly functioning Otuyo organic quinoa processing plant.

Newly functioning Otuyo organic quinoa processing plant.

The intent of the plant is to give the people more direct access to local markets, by being able to process and develop their own quinoa for use in school lunch programs in the Department of Oruro, local markets, and export. It was the first step in a much larger process which would include getting further funding for further plant expansion to include a food processing laboratory and equipment, storage space for warehousing quinoa and a walled-in solar drying space that would protect the seeds from dust, but have access to the strong Andean sun.

            The place was artfully designed by local architect, Alfredo Perez, the cousin of one of the Indigenous Governors, I was traveling with. It was made of brick with high ceilings, ample windows and skylights, and many room for administration, packing, processing plus lots of room for expansion. The festivities began around 3pm. There was a parade with Andean musicians, dancing, a plethora of speeches, blessings, honoring of dignitaries with wreathes of flowers, the spreading of good luck to all by copious amounts of mistura (bits of colorful confetti) placed on people’s heads, alcohol, beer, cocktails and blessings said by all. Then followed a tour of the plant and a demonstration of the quinoa processing machinery by engineers in while lab coats and face masks. More blessings, music and cheer resumed and then a traditional meal of roasted llama meat, quinoa and boiled potato was served to all. In all about 150 people were present. After the meal, cases of beer were brought out and people began heartily celebrating again.

            I went over to talk to the representative from the Pro Bolivia program that funded the project to ask her about her work and the objective of Pro Bolivia, a government program I was not familiar with. She explained the program started in 2010 as a way to build more economic development within the country, mainly though business development projects. They were mostly city based and it was unusual they were working in the countryside. I noticed her city attire and her apparent discomfort with the rural traditions and celebrations. She asked me about my work and when I explained I was a professor for eh US studying women’s well-bing and quinoa production, she immediately lit up.

            “That is a very important topic,” she said. “The women here are totally repressed, they say they do everything together with the men, but they do not. They do it all themselves and all the men do is this,” she nodded over to a group of men drinking beer. “If you come out here when they are working you will see this.” I was surprised by the vehemence of her convictions. I admitted that from my work so far, it does seem that women are marginalized, though not just by the men but y each other as well. However from my studies so far, I had heard many stories of hard the work people put into the quinoa growing from both men and women, and could not imagine only women being able to do all of that work. Plus I myself often witnessed the women and men working together in the countryside. However, I did not want to get into an argument. I asked her how much experience she had with the Bolivian countryside. She admitted not much. Then she began talking about how women were not valued in the entire country of Bolivia, not just the countryside and how countries like the US and Europe had much better ways of respecting and honoring women valuing their college studies and such. I was surprised again by her anti-nationalist way of speaking, especially being a government representative, that was a thing of the past, I had thought. She then went on to explain it was not just Bolivia, it was all of Latin America that was like this.

            I reflected a moment and then admitted that yes there had been studies done in the US, showing Latina women putting more time into childcare and importance into family than non-Latina women. But I also pointed out the negative effect of US children being put in child care at an early age, having limited family interactions with everyone being so busy pursuing their own ambitions and the overall disintegration of the US family (high divorce, lack of contact with elders, loss of family connections). I explained there needed to be a balance between the two extremes. She seemed unconvinced.

            I politely invited her to my presentation on Andean women August 19th at the prestigious Catholic University in La Paz, and excused myself from the conversation. I did no feel like arguing whose country favored women best or the negative aspects of Andean women, though I did make of note to be more vigilant in my studies. I returned to sit with the women indigenous Governors, leaders who were working more directly towards improving lives for Andean women.

            As the sun was setting over he volcano-ringed salt flats, a car appeared in the distance.

            “It’s the Minister! She is here!” came the cry picked up by all.

Arrival of the Ministera

Arrival of the Ministera

All piled outside into the rose colored dust of the evening light. The Minister stepped out of the blue Toyota SUV (the only car that function in Bolivia’s harsh environment) and was greeted with cheers, hugs, and a cell-phone and camera-bearing mob that reminded me of paparazzi scenes from the movies. She wore traditional dress with braids, a full pollera skirt from the highland region, wool leggings, a sweater and shawl. The people called her mother and the band as all quickly paraded through the new plant.

            Out front, more speeches were presented in the dying light as the cold wind whipped down from the mountainsides. The Minister was brought a shawl which she wrapped around herself, listening to the numerous presentations. The Mallku thanked her for finding time from her busy day to visit (she had been driven down from La Paz 12 hours away, earlier that day). The architect thanked her for giving the Bolivian people pride in themselves and helping them to direct their own development with funds from the government and themselves, instead of foreign gifts. This he felt brought dignity and respect to the people. All cheered for the village of Otuyo, Hyllalla Otuyo!, the Bolivian president whom some speakers described as a “brother of the countryside”, Hyllalla Evo Morales! and the marka (region) Salinas, Hyllalla Salinas!

            The Minister thanked everyone and praised the farmers for their quinoa production, their honoring of Pachamama through the teaching of their grandparents down to their children. She said they set an example for the rest of the world, who now looks towards Bolivia as a leader in sustainable development. She noted the Pope’s words in this and also the respect shown by other Latin American leaders and FOA, the United Nations agriculture programs. She thanked the people for their patience and preserving in their work and expressed her wish for people to live in the countryside, and not the cities, and enjoy a healthier, happier life.

            As the sun disappeared behind the last volcano and the moon and stars came out and air became colder, she explained, “Here the challenges of the countryside are the cold and the wind but in the tropics where I lived the challenges were the mosquitoes and the rain. It’s all the same. The county side has its challenges, but it also has its beauty and this is where we are all brothers and sisters in the beauty and respect of the countryside.”

            This elicited a roar of approval and more Hyllalla cheers for all. A hot quinoa drink was distributed and two beautifully decorated quinoa cakes were presented to the Minister. Then all hurried indoors to enjoy celebrating a bit more. I left with the Original Governors, sitting in the back of an open pickup truck watching the Southern Cross dance across he Milky Way which extended from the dark tops of the volcanoes far down to the lightly glowing salt flats.

Day 26 – The first meeting of quinoa growing women

No one showed up. Hopefully tomorrow morning they will… (they did).

Day 25 – Making decisions within a Bolivia Association

Day 25 – Making decisions within a Bolivia Association

When I met with Juan Pablo of Quinoa Foods Company, in La Paz, one of the things he mentioned was his amazement that there were so many fully functioning, export quality, quinoa processing plants in the countryside that were a gift to the people from President Evo Morales almost nine years ago, and almost none are functioning.

PPQS processing plant, closed and no longer functioning.  WIll it re-open or be sold?

PPQS processing plant, closed and no longer functioning. WIll it re-open or be sold?

One of these non-functioning plants is in Salinas, on the outskirts of this tiny town. Once it was a fully functioning plant with its own generator (there was no electricity in Salinas at the time), four machines to remove the outer seed cover (trilladora), an industrial washing and drying machine, plenty of water, even a seed popper to make quinoa puffs, clean dry storage and a truck to transport the product in. Run by the 120+ members of the Quinoa Processing Plant of Salinas (PPQS), operations came to a grinding halt five or six years ago after a series of mismanagement, lost funds, poor book keeping and possible corruption.

            Today members of PPQS, all of whom are quinoa farmers and most now members of APQUISA, met to once again try to get an agreement as to the future of the plant. They sat in plastic lawn chairs assembled in rows in the storeroom of the APISQA quinoa association they were also members of. Coca was distributed to all. Some people wanted APQUISA to take over the older plant, others wanted to re-open it themselves. The problem was that the years left unattended caused the machinery to rust, disintegrate, rubber to dry out, and some machines to become unusable. There was also a buyer who wanted to pay $3,500 each for two of the trilladoras.   The people needed to make a decision: liquidate or re-open.

            The meeting originally scheduled for 10am in the middle of the four-day-long town festival, had to be re-scheduled until 12:30 so members could wake-up and be ready enough to attend. A majority plus one was needed to make a decision. In the careful manner of Bolivian democracy, the bylaws were often referenced in determining which step to take when. First PPQS president, Jaime Charcas went into a long history of past taxes that were due on he plant dating back to 2007 and amounting to about 5,500Bs (remember, 1Bs is the equivalent buying power of $1 in the US so this was quite a substantial amount of money due.) Then it seemed 592Bs of overtaxes had been returned another year but there was no record of it. Charcas had traveled several times to the city of Oruro, four hours away, to resolve this but with no luck. The paperwork was a mess, forms incomplete, data missing, and no one could figure out what to do about it, neither lawyers, nor accountants, nor the tax collectors. Over the years, said Charcas, it seems a total of 20,000Bs had been spent in one way or another to get a clear audit, history and assessment of the plant, all to no avail. (I think this might have been an exaggeration but the people did not protest the amount so maybe it was accurate). Chacas estimated it would take at least 100,000Bs to open the plant again, if that was even possible. Liquidating the plant now while there was a buyer and before the machinery got even worse, seemed like a good idea.

            However decisions in Bolivia take time to make, and what seems like a simple, straight forward solution usually is not. Older men made long speeches about the glory days of the operating of the plant, the money that flowed through it and the richness that it brought to all. They blamed the farmers for not staying with the plant and bringing their grain elsewhere for processing; for not working their required hours as a member; and for finally, without any quinoa to sell anymore, causing the plant to be abandoned. Or was it? The old timers wanted the members to raise up and open the plant up again.

            “You can do it!” they said. The response was silence.

            Several other members remembered a large cache of processed quinoa being left in the plant unsold. Four hundred bags. “Where was it now?” they asked. Their quinoa was theirs and they had never been paid for it. $100 a bag was owed to them and they had many bags there. However there was no paperwork of this, no receipts and no books acknowledging it. But there was a memory of it.

            Then there was the issue of the $25,000 loan that might have been received and paid back, or not. And might have been distributed amongst many members, some of whom had paid part of their amount owed and others who did not, however the paperwork on that was missing too. No one really knew.

            “Forget abut the past, think of the future,” said one member. “Lets start fresh and do this right. Sell what’s left, split the earnings and move ahead.” Most folks seemed to like this idea.     

            Whew, after an hour of discussion it seems the members came to a good decision. I picked up my things preparing to leave.

            “Where are you going?” Leonida Mamani, a PPQS member whispered to me.

            “I’m leaving,” I said, “they made their decision.”

            “Wait,” she said. “This is just the beginning, we still need to have a vote. People are not done talking yet.”

            I asked her how long she thought the meeting would run and she said at least another three or four more hours. Oh. My heart sank. But then I remembered I was doing important ethnographic research and was glad to be present to witness Bolivian democracy and decision making and settled back down.

            Sure enough more people wanted to speak. Some said it would cost $350,000 to get the plant running again, others reiterated the wrongs of the past naming people who were suspect in taking money or computers from the project, others talked of next steps to take to operate the plant well in the future, others bemoaned that the group did not recognize the good fortune of having a buyer for the machines now, others felt that selling the machines would create new competition for the group, and on and on it went. Some folks left to get fresh air and warm up, it was cold sitting in the storeroom for hours on end. Others dozed. Though the women tended to gather around the back of the room and outside the door where it was warmer in the sun, they stayed engaged in the meeting and spoke up when they felt it was necessary. The men seemed to accept their ideas, which were mostly about the lost quinoa or being in support of the liquidation and sale of the plant.

            Three hours passed. Just when it seemed things were coming to a vote, paperwork was suddenly presented by members who had been in the meeting since the start. An audit from 2007-2010 was produced with a recommendation by the auditor that the plant get liquefied because the books were a mess, it was completely inoperable and irresolvable. Then an inventory from an unknown period of time appeared. And finally, a written account from the first president’s son – documents he said his bedridden father gave him in La Paz 12 hours away to bring to the meeting and clear his name. Exasperated, the president asked why these documents were not presented before the meeting.

            The bylaws were consulted again and it was decided that a new meeting would have to be scheduled so members would have time to go over the documents. The buyer would have to wait. In a few weeks the people would meet again and hopefully come to a vote. All seemed satisfied with the outcome, though the next day I heard quite a bit of mumbling, name calling, and finger pointing from different people. In my surveys, a lot of people said they did not trust their neighbors. This behind-the-back name calling seems to confirm why.

            And thus is the participatory democracy of Bolivia and a partial answer to Juan Pablo’s question as to why the plants were no longer operating.

Day 24 – A night with the Dirigentes

Day 24 – A night with the Dirigentes

 So after a day of getting to know the Fair Trade organic quinoa growing association APQUISA, I stopped by the office of the Indigenous Governors, another organization I was quickly introduced to by my counterpart. It was Thursday evening. I wanted to meet with the Mallku, the regional indigenous governor and confirm plans for hosting a workshop for women this coming Monday. The Mallku (elected provincial leader), a woman named Florinda Consales, was just on her way out to a weekend long workshop in a community far away and would not be back until Sunday night. She asked that week meet early Monday morning to get everything ready for my workshop. I agreed, and in a flurry of goodbyes, she was off.

Women indigenous  leaders in red skirts with the Mallku in front parading at the  Salinas festival.

Women indigenous leaders in red skirts with the Mallku in front parading at the Salinas festival.

As the heavy wooden door clicked shut my eyes began adjusting to the dim light of the single energy saver florescent bulb. I was in a long, large, bare cement room with cement ledges lining the walls where people sat. There was a crudely made wooden table piled high with stones, coca leaves and small bottles of grain alcohol. An open case of the regional Huari beer lay on the floor before the desk and the floor was wet with spilled beer and coca leaves. Eight of the dozen or so indigenous governors were there, in their official clothing, plastic cups of beer in their hands. They greeted me heartily with hugs and kisses, called me “sister” and invited me to join them. I was given a cup of beer, everyone else’s beers refilled and we all toasted to the Pachamama, a good time (buena hora), the mountains and volcanoes, and the fortune we had to all be here together; spilling splash of beer on the cement floor each time we thought of something to bless or invite.

            This was interesting. I was very used to the indigenous customs of blessing the Pachamama and sharing coca, beer and alcohol, but I had never seen or heard of women being elected as an indigenous leaders, I had never heard the term buena hora being used, or the custom of people calling each other brothers and sisters, outside of the evangelist church. Being indigenous, I knew there was no way they would have been evangelist since evangelism prohibits the indigenous ways of being. I settled down for a night of interesting exchange, lots of new learning and the jokes and laughter that comes from it.

The first joke began of course when I had to ask the leaders if there were evangelical since, I explained, I have family members who were Pentecostal and Jehovah Witness, and amongst their congregants was the only place I knew of where people called each other brother and sister as a way of greeting. I knew darn well that these people were not evangelical, as I explained before, so this got a roar of laughter from the group as they explained that as indigenous people and members of the Earth, we were all brothers and sisters. I later found using this term in my everyday meetings with people in Salinas was very advantageous and immediately had people smiling and opening up to me. Normally I would have addressed someone as Señora, Señorita or Dona.

 I also learned that people addressed each other mainly on a first name basis. Even the people I interviewed gave little importance to their full names, which traditionally carried a lot of weight indicating one’s amount of indigenousness, place of origin and if they had a legal father or not. This was interesting and I am not sure if it was because of the smallness of the community or a sign of changing times. Hermano Valerio, a man of large stature with an imposing presence that immediately captured ones attention and respect, who sat alongside the Mallku, explained that because we were brothers and sisters and nothing more, titles did not mean anything. He explained that the Mallku was a sociologist and he was an economist, but that those things were not spoken of and had no importance amongst the people. This was a good tip and I made sure never to introduce my self as “Doctora” a title that commanded respect in the city. When asked, I would humbly explain that I was Tamara, an independent social economist and teacher from the US conducting a study of sustainability and quinoa growing also the well-being of women working with quinoa.

 The next joke came when the conversation moved towards the Aymara lanaugage which I was unfamiliar with, having spent most of my time in Bolivia with Quechua people. Many people in Salinas speak both Quechua and Aymara, so there was some exchange of phrases and pleasantries in Quechua which I was able to conjure up. But then Valerio declared that the leaders there all were awa tiri, a term I misheard as yatiri. A yatiri is a colonial era legend of an evil spirit in the disguise of a Franciscan monk with a hooded frock who killed people by cutting out their guts. This happened to people who were outdoors in the very early morning who usually had drank too much the night before and did not make it home. The yatiri is a legend from the valley regions and here I was in the highlands, I was not sure if they knew what a yatiti was but I knew they meant no harm to me and I must have misunderstood something so I played along with it and feigned fear that they were yitiri plotting to kill me. A few did know the yitiri legend and quickly explained it to the others, again elicited a roar of laughter. Everyone explained that a awa tiri meant pasturar as in “pasturar la gente,” essentially, to care for people as one would tend their flock or herd, an image often found in the Catholic religion. 

This led to a long explanation of how they functioned as elected indigenous governors which I found quite fascinating. I had read of the new laws that President Morales had instated reviving the traditional ways of governance and had witnesses indigenous governance on my mother-in-law’s rural farm, but this was my first time seeing it in full form. Valerio explained with the nodding approval of the others that most of the elected governors were married couples. I was surprised because as was their tradition, the women governors and visitors sat on one side of the room and the men governors and visitors on the other. Usually, in an unofficial setting such as this, couples would sit together. It had never occurred to me they were couples. I quickly asked the women I was sitting with who their partners were and was surprised at the matches. Valerio’s wife was, Natividad, the the tall quiet woman sitting right next to me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. They came from Chayuma and Quilli Aretani. The vivacious Eva, who quickly became my closer friend and helped me set up other women’s meetings, was paired with Fidel, an equally gregarious man. They were from Achoco. Another pair was Luisa and Vladimir, a younger couple who came from Tunupa, the community on the other side of the volcano at the entrance to the great salt flats (Salar de Uyuni). They had five children at home, ranging from age 15 to 5 who were caring for each other while mom and dad were gone. Tomas was single, as sometimes happens, the women explained and governed Cora Cora in the same region as Fidel and Eva which apparently was quite a large area.

Each pair was responsible for an ayllu, an area made up of about 18 to 20 communities. Each community had an elected Taki or corridor (runner) who responded to the needs of the people. Sometimes there was a land dispute, animal problem, or neighbor disagreement. The corridor would arrive with his poncho and baton of authority to listen to the dispute. Other people of the community would be present and act as historical witnesses and memory. Usually these disputes would be resolved by the people themselves, by remembering past histories.

I offered the example of a dispute I had witnessed 15 years ago when my mother-in-law discovered that a neighbor had moved her land marker and tilled a corner of her field as his. She called in the local authority, in this case the Helicotere. Word spread of the dispute, neighbors gathered, the helicotere arrived a few hours later and she explained that the marker rocks had been moved and that an old tree that had marked the property line, though dead many years ago, still had a few roots showing where it once stood.   A neighbor confirmed this, remembering the tree from long ago. Others also noted evidence of rocks recently moved. However it was unclear exactly where they rocks had been in the first place. Finally after over an hour of deliberation, beer drinking and earth blessing, the helicotere decided that most of the land was my mother-in-laws’ but some was actually the neighbors and divided it as so, with the rocks moved into a new place, a pole set to make the marker more clear and the rocks painted white so they are well noticed.

 The indigenous governors approved of the story and noted that every region had their own way of interpreting indigenous law and that in this situation, they would have had the taki (corridor) first try to resolve the issue quietly between neighbors. If ths did not work, then the community helicotere would be called in. If there still was no resolution, then the taki would contact the dirigentes (indigenous governors) to come and resolve the issue. The dirigentes had the highest voice, they explained, even lawyers and legal documents could not overrule their authority. They said their word was protected by the state by the law of Justicia Originaria (indigenous justice) and they had absolute power over the people they represented. That is why they were elected by the people each year, so that the rule was fairly shared by the people who the community trusted.

As governors, they explained, they received no monetary compensation for their duties and had to essentially take the year off from work since the demands from the communities were so high. However, being a dirigente (governor) was a position of importance and great pride and no one would turn down the honor of being one. As governors they had certain responsibilities. They needed to be dressed in their uniform. For men it was hand woven black wool pants, a natural colored hand woven alpaca poncho, a fedora stye hat, a whip wrapped about their shoulders, and a hand woven coca bag worn around the neck that was always full. The women had hand woven red wool polleras (full skirts made of many layers of fabric), a colorful aguaro (woven blanket worn across the shoulders to cary things in), a llama hair slingshot wrapped around their shoulders, a bowler style white hat and of course the hand woven coca bag decorated with large pompoms and full of coca. Once their turn as dirigente ended, these vestments of honor were stowed away and the next elected official would purchase or make their own outfit of authority.

At the very point of this small mountain-hill is a marker where rocks for good luck are taken for good luck.

At the very point of this small mountain-hill is a marker where rocks for good luck are taken for good luck.

The last tradition we shared as the night grew late and the festivities outside reached a new crescendo, was that of the rocks on the desk. There are two capilas, or stone cathedrals on the two mountains surrounding the town of Salinas. It is considered good luck to climb the mountains at certain times of the year to bless and bring down a large rock. The larger the rock, the more luck one would have. The large rock on the desk was from that and represented the Virgin The two smaller ones on either side were from other places and represented baby Jesus and grown Jesus. The custom of bringing sacred rocks down from mountains for good luck is a common practice in many areas though the placement of them on the indigenous governors’ desk as symbols of the virgin and Jesus was new for me. Perhaps they were pulling my leg, I thought, though they seemed sincere enough. I remembered back to my interviews that day and how some people proudly stated that they were Catholic, though they often participated more in village celebrations than church ones.

The governors now had switched to discussing more pressing matters at hand. They had to walk together amongst all of the communities of the marka (region) visiting each one. How was that to get done? How would the people know when they were coming and have food and housing set up and be ready to great the authorities with respect and admiration? As they deliberated, the turned to me, they were leaving July 28th and returning around August 6th, would I like to join them? It was tempting, what an opportunity! They recently had an anthropology student, Kevin, from Germany spend three months with them and were happy to invite another foreigner along. It was a great way to get to know the countryside, indigenous traditions, interview people at their farms, yet I would also be missing other programed events I had set up for my research. I reluctantly declined. Just in case, I contacted my counterpart in the city of Oruro, explaining the situation. He too, felt it was best I stay on track with my scheduled research. Maybe next time!

 With a final round of thanks to all, buena hora and all the rest, I slipped out the door and walked the dark streets back to the military base where I was staying, sucking on the big wad of coca leaves in my mouth and thinking back to all that had passed.

Day 23 – The electronics are only as good as the electronics…

Day 23 – The electronics are only as good as the electronics…

My room at the military base, Camacho, in Salinas.

My room at the military base, Camacho, in Salinas.

So why is is that you have not heard from me in so long and suddenly there is a ton of activity on this blog? It’s for several reasons. One is the limits of technology. As my charger died so did my access to the internet. Here in the small town of Salinas Garci de Mendoza (also known as Salinas Tunupa) located behind the watchful eye of the Tunupa volcano, on the edge of the vast salt flats, internet service comes once in a while. Twice when I visited the town’s only internet cafe on the corner of the Main Plaza next to the Mayor’s office, who runs the cafe, I was about to post a beautiful story of the Salinenitas Festival here that for four days has had people dancing in the streets all day and all night, with fabulous carnival costumes and children’s’ parades, when the internet cut out and that was it. Even with my faithful Mac laptop, my trusty Bolivian Entel modem did not work. So you will be receiving this on Wednesday, after I have returned to the city of Oruro where with a population of over 50,000, I have internet access, wifi and perhaps even someone who can fix my computer charger.


Children and carnival dancers get started in day 1 of the 4-day parade and festival.

Children and carnival dancers get started in day 1 of the 4-day parade and festival.

Meanwhile, today is Saturday, July 18 or 18 Julio as they like to write it here. As part of my ethnographic research, I’m obligated to include my own observations and reflections as part of the study. So this post will be about me. I’ve been working and living in Bolivia off and on since 1996 when I arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’ve worked as a Small Business consultant and founded a rural monthly newspaper here too. I have a business KUSIKUY Clothing Co., that since 1998 has been producing hand knit alpaca sweaters in Bolivia for export. In addition, my two children’s dad is Bolivian and I have close ties to family members in many parts of the country. It is safe to say that Bolivia is like my backyard to me. I am here every two to three years. My children saw their Bolivian family more than their US family when they were young and also feel comfortable and free when in this country. It is always a joy for all to come to and be in BoliviBolivia also feels like a small town. The Bolivians are very gracious and always make me and my children feel at home. For example when my son was noisy and disruptive in a restaurant, the other customers asked the restaurant owner to hurry up and serve the boy, because obviously he was hungry and restless. It was suddenly the restaurant owner’s responsibility to calm my child, not mine! Over time people and places are known, things change slowly, customs are routine and people have a long memory. The children love the lax rules, no seat belts, children are free to wander the streets and countryside as they wish, and as of the age of 12 can pretty much come and go as they wish.

I feel fortunate here because it’s a place where I can relax. Things happen slowly and people speak slowly and softly. If one tries to speed things up, everything just stops instead. It is with calm and tranquility that things quietly move along here, and even when things seem they will never move along, with time they actually do. For example, I came here to Salinas to conduct the first part of my quinoa study of Andean women. My counterpart arrived an hour late and quickly whirled around the town in his truck introducing me to people and seeking out a place for me to stay. What he did not know, coming from the city of Oruro four hours away, is that Salinas was about the begin their town festival so no one was working, the Quinoa Research Center where I was to stay did not have any water and was closed for the week, and no one was in the countryside, they were all in the town for the celebration. We ate lunch, the festival was about to start and it was getting late. My counterpart was in a rush to get back to the city four hours away so he quickly contacted the local army base and arranged for me to stay there for the week. I was given two padlocks, keys and assured that no one would enter my room. My counterpart sped off with my children and their dad in tow. I stood alone in the darkening dusty street as the festival began all around me.

Davil dancers in the Salinas Parade.

Davil dancers in the Salinas Parade.

I know Bolivian festivals and I know the later it gets the drunker the men are. I enjoyed the beginning of the festival, laughing as a dancer in an elaborate devil costume carried me off to the parade route, making a parody of the devil and the foreigner being hand in hand. I played along with it dancing with the devil in the parade and eliciting laughs and photos from the townsfolk. “What a way to make an entrance into a new town,” I thought. Once we came to the parade end and the mayor was thinking everyone and all were invited to chew coca leaves, I slipped away to my military base, not wanted to make more of a spectacle of myself before even starting my research.

At the base, I found myself in a cold room with many beds and windows, and fortunately blankets. I quickly put blankets over the windows, which were partially painted white but offered little privacy or warmth. Then I discovered that the elaborate system of padlocks only worked from the outside and once I was in my room, there was no way to secure any door, even from the wind. With some ingenuity and wire, I was able to secure the front door and a desk and chair secured to door to my room. I was not taking any chances, plus it was cold and I did not want the wind blowing into my room.

At night I sleep under 7 heavy wool blankets with my coat, sweater, mittens, hat, long john and pajamas. I am sure it is about 40 degrees in my room in the morning. There is ice in the street until about noon when temperatures soar to the 60s and all melts away. This is winter in the Andes. Fortunately I am of hardy stock and take this all in stride, enjoying the cool freshness of the morning and the hot warmth of mid day. I am used to drinking a hot tea before going to bed at night but have not had much luck finding this custom here, so that is a bit of a discomfort.

Delicious quinoa soup in served in the fresh air of the Salinas Plaza.

Delicious quinoa soup in served in the fresh air of the Salinas Plaza.

Meals are taken in the plaza where women come with home cooked meals to sell during the festival. It is wonderful to eat a hot chicken, rice and chuno (dried potato) soup in the fresh air, outside in the plaza in the early morning with the sun just raising over the mountains. All of my meals I eat outdoors in the plaza. Today I had a breakfast of quinoa topped with a wonderful stew of dried llama meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, cumin, and hot sauce, a ball of cooked ground quinoa, an orange and a chocolate bar for lunch (I forgot the name for the ground quinoa item), a snack of salchipapa, thinly sliced hotdog and french fries with ketchup, mayonnaise and hot sauce (llachwa) and a dinner of fried chicken with french fries and rice. Not the most healthy meals, but the day before I ate two chicken soups and a spicy noodle dish, so I felt ready fro some “junk food” today. Tomorrow I hope the person selling the api, a hot corn drink flavored with cinnamon, is still in the plaza because I want to get breakfast from her. As the festival is slowing down, so is the food being sold in the fresh air of the plaza.

I am here until Tuesday night when I return to Oruro and try to get my electronics back in shape and prepare for the next leg of my journey to Uyuni. Tomorrow I will hike to the nearby mineral water springs, fill my bottle, and do some watercolor painting of the volcano Tunulpa and the now quieting down town of Salinas. In the afternoon, I have my first workshop with the women quinoa growers. I hope many women show up and we have a successful exchange. I have another workshop with the women the indigenous leaders will bring in Monday morning and a meeting with the largest commercial quinoa exporter, Wilson Barcas on Tues. afternoon. Then at 5″30 I leave. The tie here is going fast. I already feel at home and the people here have been so helpful. APISQA has opened their doors to me giving me computer access whenever I want, supporting my work, surveying, and giving me meeting space for tomorrow’s meeting. Without their help and the help of the elected indigenous leaders (dirigentes originarios) all I have done and learned so far would not have been possible.

This last bastion of communication, my iPad now is also low on battery power. Last night it did not charge well. I hope tonight will be better and I will be able to continue writing information from the countryside. Farewell for now….

Day 22 – Meet APQUISA – A Fair Trade, organic, producer-run association.

Day 22 – Meet APQUISA – A Fair Trade, organic, producer-run association.

APQUISA main offices and processing plant in Salinas with the Tunupa volcano and salt flats in the background.

APQUISA main offices and processing plant in Salinas with the Tunupa volcano and salt flats in the background.

The Association of Producers of Salinas Quinoa (APQUISA), was founded in 2007 under the new laws of Bolivia that encouraged producer-formed groups and grass roots development. As a legally recognized association, APQUISA was able to access technical assistance from agronomists at state universities, organic certification from Bolicert, a state-run organic certifier whose certification is internationally recognized, and solicit the Federal government to build a quinoa processing plant in the town of Salinas. This gave the now 372 members just enough support to successfully enter into the export quinoa market and independently develop their own international markets.

APQUISA is run by a five-member board of directors made up of association members; a president, vice president, communicator, secretary and treasurer. The board is democratically elected by closed ballot system every three years. A secondary Vigilance Committee is made up of an elected president and secretary. They work independent from the Board and oversee all the board does providing full transparency for Association members. Each year an Assembly is held where all members attend and at least an entire day is spent going over all accounts: sales, expenses, buying prices, sales prices, marketing, promotions, information systems, equipment, salaries and also procedures, needs and successes.

APQUISA supports members by providing the infrastructure needed for successful export sales. They keep track of how much land each member has in production, their member codes, registration, the variety and quantity of quinoa produced, their location and maintain both Fair Trade and organic certification records. There are on average once monthly workshops where Franz Quispe, the APQUISA staff agronomic travels to the 54 neighboring communities providing technical assistance to the promoters, elected members of the association who live in each community and in charge of sharing the information or organic growing techniques that Franz provides. Themes often covered in these workshops include the initial cleaning of the grain, washing, drying, classifying, final cleaning techniques, packaging and pricing, plus soil management and organic pest control. Members produce mostly white quinoa but also black and red quinoa.

Salinas`quinoa fields waiting to be tilled next month.

Salinas`quinoa fields waiting to be tilled next month.

APQUISA covers two zones, the south that mostly works with quinoa production and the north which works mainly with llama production. The two compliment each other as the llama manure is a key element for soil management and fertilization for the organic farmers. During the day llamas run free range on the altiplano plains and mountainsides and at night are corralled so their dung can be collected and they are protected from the cold and predators. Llamas always use the same space to defecate so it is easy to collect. Their manure sells for $200 a metric ton and their meat, promoted by the Bolivian government for its high protein, low fat content, has a large market appeal too. (price of llama meat). Franz explains, the average quinoa farmer will purchase 40 tons of llama manure a year, a value of $8,000 and a good income source for llama farmers. This market for llama dung new and arrived with the national organic certification program and law of organic production.

A truck of organic llama manure. The producer wanted 2000Bs for the manure ($285) which local farmers said was too high. They said they would pay about 1500Bs or less ($214).

A truck of organic llama manure. The producer wanted 2000Bs for the manure ($285) which local farmers said was too high. They said they would pay about 1500Bs or less ($214).

APQUISA also maintains a Fair trade Certification form the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) a European based, internationally recognized Fair Trade certifier. To qualify as a Fair Trade producer, there needs to be a democratic process, a formed association, representation from all members, transparency in payments all the way to the level of the peones, and proper care of the land and communities. On their part, FLO helps to provide steady market access through direct sales to end buyer, a secure market price and gives producers a Social Premium Fund which amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. At the annual Assembly, members vote on how these funds will be used, usually opting to invest them into equipment, and to offset costs of technical assistance, administration, and materials.

APQUISPA is growing at an average rate of 12% a year with about 40 new members entering the organization and three to four leaving. To become a member one has to write a letter of request to the Directors noting their capabilities, good work and qualifications to be in he organization. The Directors then vote on who will be permitted to enter.. If the person has a good reputation, is a good community member, honest and careful farmer, then at the cost of a quintal of quinoa, paid in quinoa, they are elected into the organization.

Farmers leave APQUISA because they want to sell in other markets or they do not agree with the methods or decisions of APQUISA. Once someone is an APQUISA member, they promise to deliver a certain amount of quinoa to the association each year. These promised amounts are what the association uses to secure markets and contracts for its production each year. It is expected that they keep that promise and do not sell to other organizations instead. Most farmers do not commit all of their quinoa harvest to AQPUISA, instead keeping a smaller percentage for themselves and occasionally, for sale in local markets.

The APQUISA buying price today is 900Bs a quintal while the local market price is just 500Bs a quintal and private organic export buyers, such as Quinoa Foods Company, are paying 650 a quintal. In Bolivia the Boliviano, local currency, is equivalent in local buying power to the value of 1 US$ dollar. So its’ really in the grower’s own interest to sell as much quinoa as they can to APQUISA.

While APQUISA buys quinoa at $285 a ton, they sell it at $1,400 a ton. The costs in this mark-up includes transportation, salaries, taxes (which are sometimes as high as 25% of all export value), water, energy, infrastructure, administration, and a minimal amount of savings. All of this is reviewed and approved by members at the annual Assembly. (Note: find out annual export amounts, sales, social premium, etc. and who the markets are, and how they are contacted.)

Day 21 – How much does it really cost to grow quinoa?

images-5A good quinoa yield is 5 quantiles per hectacre (1/2 ton per 2.5 acres). What does it cost to grow 5 quintales of quinoa on one hectacre of land with a market price of $178 a quintal and a total net value of $890? Talking to Omar Nina, administrator of APQUISA, one of the largest quinoa associations in the Salinas region, he explained there are several steps involved in quinoa production, each with their own costs.

Most of Bolivia’s quinoa is produced by hand. Though more farmers do have tractors, most prefer to hand plow and plant the quinoa because they have more control over the use and placement of seed and soil management. Studies have shown that these artisanal methods produce superior quinoa in flavor, protein content, and quality. The farmers are very proud of their hand grown quinoa. To do this, day laborers are needed. In the Salinas area most day laborers come from communities several hours away in the neighboring state of Potosi. Each farmer has a set of laborers that return year after year. The average farm size is 15 hecracres and requires 2 to 5 laborers at certain times of the year. The laborers know when to arrive. The biggest time for labor is the end of August when the soil needs to be prepared, manure and compost spread, rows hoed and seed planted. In Salinas the average price paid for day labor is $28 which, for a 10-hour day, is still higher than the national minimum wage of $   an hour. Omar explains that it takes 4 peones about 4 days to properly prepare and plant a hecracre of quinoa, a total cost of $448, more than half of the farmer’s entire harvest earnings.

This step is so important that almost all farmers offer blessings to the Earth Mother (Pachamama) for a good year, ample rain, and minimal frost before beginning the planting season. Each family often performs a q’olla which is a burnt offering made up of a “white plate” built by medicine women in the Oruro markets. The plates often include a llama fetus, died llama wool, colorful foil, sugar tiles representing a good harvest, herbs and incense. These can cost as much at $10 or more which for a majority population living on less than $4.00 a day, is an investment. In the evening the family gathers around a fire made of dried brush in the fields. The q’olla is brought and placed on the hot coals. As it burns the smoke raises to the mountains delivering the gods the prayers of the people. The family spills alcohol and beer on the ground in respect for the Pachamama, asking for her help and generosity in bringing forth a favorable harvest. Coca is chewed by all and leaves dropped on the ground for the Pachamama and in the coals for the mountain gods.

The farmers themselves manage the pest control creating their own organic insecticides by boiling together select local herbs known for their bitter taste and smell, such as muna (pennyroyal) and n’anka, with the saponin-rich wash water from the previous harvest’s quinoa. Saponin is a natural pesticide which is present on quinoa grains and needs to be removed so the quinoa has a fresh, nutty flavor. If not, the quinoa tastes sour and is unpleasant to eat. Each family, explains Omar, maintains about 6 drums each filled with 200 liters of the saponin-rich water for use in pest control for the coming year. One hundred liters of this natural insecticide tea is applied to each hectacre of land about tow to three times a year. Peones usually do the application and can complete two hectacres a day. This puts the fumigation cost for a single hecracte sprayed twice at $28.

There is also weeding which needs to be done throughout the 9-month long gorwing season.

The May harvest is another time when farmers will take a moment to gather their family and bless the Pachamama, asking for a rich harvest and many grains of quinoa. Sometimes a sheep or llama is slaughtered at this time with the blood being spilled on the earth as an offering for he Pachamama and the still-beating heart placed in the fire as an offering to the mountain gods and ancestors. Farmers explain they must have faith, and these ceremonies help them to gain the faith and support of the Pachamama, mountain gods and ancestors to move forward with assurance in their work. Farmers tend to do the harvest themselves with the help of family members. However the processing of the harvest again falls on the peones’ shoulders. Once the quinoa is cut and gathered, it needs to be thrashed to remove the tiny seeds from the plant. This is often done by foot with peones stepping on the plant to remove the seeds. Then the chaff and dirt need to be separated from the seed. This is often done with large sifters and with the help of the afternoon wind. Afterwards seeds are rubbed, sometimes by machine, to remove the outer coating and then washed to remove the saponin. They are then air dried until they reach 8-10% humidity. Omar estimates it takes one peone about a day and a half to clean and process the quinoa seeds produced from a hectacre of land, with a total cost of $36.

This leaves the farmer with a total labor cost of: $512 (plus weeding ). Other inputs include organic fertilizer. A dump truckload of llama and/or sheep manure costs $140 and covers a hectacre of land.  Many farmers have begun composing vegetable matter and household waste (such as paper and kitchen scraps) for use as fertilizer. Others maintain small herds  of llamas for both meat and manure. The farmer collects and sows his own seeds so there are no costs in this. The best varieties are sought and planted to preserve and improve the genetics.

There is also much ancestral knowledge (indigenous knowledge) that goes into quinoa farming; the light from a star, appearance of a bird, pattern of frost, are important indicators of things to come. Farmers of all ages report the importance of learning, using and passing on indigenous knowledge and consider it an honor and obligation to insure the preservation and continuity of knowledge and the wellbeing of the people. Almost all farmers are at least bi-lingual in Spanish the national language, and either Aymara or Quechua, two regional indigenous languages. Many speak all three languages. Spanish is used in more formal communication while Quechua or Aymara is spoken amongst family members and in the countryside.

So after all is said and done, 5 quintales of quinoa takes a hectacre of land, 8 months of growth and harvest, and $652 to produce, yielding a gross return of $238. With an average of 15 hectacres planted, this brings the farmer a total gross return of $3,570 a year or $297 a month, which is about double from what he earned before the quinoa. Most farmers report being satisfied with their quinoa earnings but are cautious about what the future will bring with both climate change and growing world competition in quinoa. They can just about manage today’s prices but are fearful about what will happen if they drop any lower, especially with so many fixed costs for production.

Day 20 – Meet my brother-in-law and organic quinoa grower, Efraim Argilar.

We’ll be talking a lot about the Bolivian altiplano now. Here’s some background info: Bolivian Altiplano.

Efraim Argilar, Bollivian orgnaic quinoa farmer.

Efraim Argilar, Bollivian orgnaic quinoa farmer.

I have not seen my brother-in-law Efraim Argilar in many years. Last I knew he had a good job in a national paper company. Things changed. With the raise in value of quinoa, Efraim left his company job and became a quinoa farmer. Fifty-five years old, with a high school education and learned knowledge of farming from his family (he had grown up on a small farm) Efraim returned to his family lands in Playa Verde and began to plant quinoa. Other farmers in his community began to do the same. Soon Efraim had 30 hectareas  (74 acres) of quinoa in rotation with 15 hectares (37 acres) planted each year. The farmers in the region realized that they needed to work together in order to improve their production and market access. Seven years ago in 2008, with the help of ANAPQUI (define and explain ) they registered themselves as a legal association; the Producers of Quinoa and Camelids (mainly llamas), PQCAS, with 72 members. With this legal recognition, ANAPQUI provided technical assistance teaching the farmers soil management, organic growing techniques and natural pest control.

One pest control method included hanging lanterns in the fields at night with tubs of soapy water underneath. The moths, drawn to the light, would then drown in the soapy water. It was a lot of work, explained Efraim, and all PQCAS members needed to coordinate the work together so all moths could be destroyed at once. Even so only about 80% of the moth population was destroyed. Bolivia has made organic farming a law and many universities are working on effective organic methods of pest control.

Efraim produces about 150 quintals  (put into pounds and verify yield of 5 quintals/hectacre) of  quinoa a year. He yields an average of 5 quintals per hectare. With last year’s quinoa prices set at $178 a quintal, he net almost $27,000 which is more than double the earnings of the average non-quinoa growing family in that region. Farmers who traditionally lived in adobe homes with thatched roofs, dirt floors and no running water or electricity, now had electricity, brick or wood floors, tiled bathrooms with running water and a hot shower or at least a latrine, explained Efraim. Some of this was developed through the quinoa earnings though some projects such as the running water and electricity were provided by the state through new laws developed under the new (2007 or 2009) constitution.

This year, with international competition, prices have dropped 60% to $71 a quintal. This was a huge loss for quinoa farmers who were paying $42 a day labor rates for the quinoa which was triple the customary $14 a day rate that was the standard six years ago, before the quinoa boom. Fortunately PQCAS recently received their organic certification and can now be earning $128 a quintal for their quinoa, 45% higher than the non-certified rate.

For the last two years, Efraim was an elected dirigente (or leader) of his region. He wore the traditional outfit of a hand woven tan colored poncho made of llama wool, hand woven black wool pants, carried a whip across his shoulders and a specially decorated stick that symbolized his authority. He networked with quinoa buyers and organizations to get the best prices for his region. All PQCAS members meet quarterly and also in times in between when a problem or concern arises. In the meetings, members share techniques, problems and solutions. Technical support from ANAPQUI  is solicited when the group feels thy have an issue they can not solve.

Individually members also use traditional methods to care for their land and crops. Efraim explains that he regularly has a qu’olla or blessing at the start of the planting season where a burnt offering of specially selected herbs, incense, 2″ tiles made of sugar in different forms to represent different needs, llama hair, sometimes a dried llama or sheep fetus is made to the Earth Mother (Pachamama), alcohol and the local Huari beer also accompanies the ceremony that the farmers themselves carry out on their own lands. Sometimes authorities are invited to call in the rain which indicates the start of the growing season with a larger ceremony that includes a llama or sheep sacrifice. One tradition Efraim has is on the morning of the first day of August, a rock is picked up, if it has frost on it, that means the growing season will begin as normal. If it does not, that means a drought is coming the and the start of the growing season will be delayed.

PQCAS members have a Book of Actions where these customs are noted and also details on who owns what land, work that was done and any problems that might have come up.