Archives for July 2015

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.

Bolivian woman harvesting quinoa.

Bolivian woman harvesting quinoa.

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

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. 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. 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?

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.

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.

Day 19 – Meet the quinoa experts

Day 19 – Meet the quinoa experts


Juan Pablo with his sack of quinoa that was sold at the Brattleboro Food Co-op in the US.

Following the value chain, UNFI buys their quinoa from Juan Pablo Selene of Quinoa Foods Company in La Paz, Bolivia. Selene exports 1,000 tons of certified organic quinoa a year, largely to UNFI. Of that 1,500 tons is purchased directly from the 37 certified organic producers he works with and the other 500 is purchased from other quinoa exporters to fill his orders. CERES, a German organization, oversees the organic certification process which is also recognized by the USDA. The average Bolivian market price for organically certified Bolivian quinoa is $3,500 a ton, putting Selene’s in-country investments at $3.5 million.

In 1990, Selene, a chemical engineer, received a Fulbright Scholarship to earn his MBA at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). This is where he discovered the market for quinoa, after studying the work of ANAPQUI, Bolivia’s first quinoa exporter, and deciding it was a good market for him to go into too. Quinoa goes through three stages of cleaning before it is ready for the export market, first dust and dirt needs to be removed from the seeds, then the outer cover needs to be rubbed off and finally it needs to be washed several times to remove the bitter saponins that cover the seed. Selene’s Masters Thesis was a design for a quinoa washing machine. The business side of things also interested Selene. He and a US colleague won a $3,000 prize in their UNH Entrepreneurship class for their project to import quinoa to the US. They split the prize earnings and with $1,500 in his pocket, Selene returned to Bolivia. Though this was not enough to start Quinoa Foods Co., it was enough to help him begin planning for it.

From 1994 until 2002, Selene kept the dream of having his own export quinoa company alive. He designed logos, bags, and a marketing plan. He developed contact with potential US buyers through a long, intense e-mail campaign. He got to know Bolivian producers, other exporters, engineers and developed the infrastructure needed to export a container of quinoa to the US. Meanwhile he was working as a quality control manager at Coca-Cola. Here Selene learned a lot about human resources, different quality control systems, efficiency and motivation. This helps him today to have a safety certified plant and good relations with his unionized workers. He also worked to export Bolivian made furniture when enabled him to better understand the export process from Bolivia.

Juan Pablo stands besides a container of orgnaic quinoa ready for export to the US through Arica, Chile.

Juan Pablo stands besides a container of orgnaic quinoa ready for export to the US through Arica, Chile.

In 2003 came his big break, UNFI responded to his e-mails and ordered a container of quinoa! Selena activated the business that he had designed 12 years ago renting space for quinoa to be processed, ordering the bags he designed to be made, contacting his chain of producers with the help of ANAPQUI to deliver the unprocessed quinoa, and hiring 15 women to hand clean the quinoa to export quality standards. However Selene needed $20,000 to export the container. He contacted his friend from ANAPQUI, Wilson Barco, who already was exporting containers of quinoa worldwide and asked for help. Wilson gave Selene the $20,000 credit he needed to ship that first container. However it was delayed in the Arica, Chile port while USDA inspectors mulled over who this new quinoa exporter was. Meanwhile UNFI ordered another container of quinoa. Since the first container had not been delivered yet, Selene had no funds to pay for this next container. Again he went to his friend Barco and again his friend responded with the credit needed to export another container. This one made it through Arica but was then stuck in he port of Boston while the USDA inspectors once again mulled over who this new quinoa exporter was. Not to be deterred, UNFI ordered still another container of quinoa! One more time, Selene asked Barco for support. Barco agreed but said this would be the last loan. Now $60,000 in debt, Selene crossed his fingers as he sent out his third container of quinoa to his new client. Fortunately this one arrived successfully. UNFI was very impressed with the quality and flavor of the quinoa that they ordered another container. This one also arrived safely and on time. Within two weeks, the quinoa from Boston was released and four weeks later, the quinoa from Chile also entered the US. And this is how the relationship between UNFI and Quinoa Foods Company was formed and Quinoa Foods Command officially launched.

In 2009, Selene bought land in El Alto, Bolivia to build his own quinoa cleaning plant with the quinoa cleaning machinery he had designed so many years ago. With his wife, Carol (who had accompanied him to the US on his Fulbright work) managing the business administration and accounting, Juan Pablo, works on the processing and sales. Together the two make an excellent team.

Quinoa Foods Co. with their own packaged retail bags of quinoa they hope to be soon be offereing export markets.

Quinoa Foods Co. with their own packaged retail bags of quinoa they hope to be soon be offereing export markets.

Quinoa Foods Co. has grown so much over the last 12 yeas that they needed to rent a separate space for consolidating and shipping their cleaned quinoa. Selene is in the process of building a new, larger, single plant where the washing and export processing all happens at one site. He will have a visitor center there too and hopes to open this in a year. He sees the future for his quinoa exports as being favorable even with the fall in market prices, producers not wanting to sell their quinoa at low prices, and entrance of new competition. He feels the market price drop was inevitable.

Trademark for Bolivian Quinoa.

Trademark for Bolivian Quinoa.

Selene is an active member of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Exporters which with the help of the International Development Bank, is working with the Bolivian government to trademark the name “Quinoa Real” a reference to the Quinoa Real variety produced in Bolivia. The origin is important to, so with this recognition, only Bolivian quinoa can be known as “Quinoa Real” no other country except Bolivia can have this distinction. By promoting the uniqueness and authenticity of Bolivia’s Quinoa Real (the most common white quinoa on the market), quinoa exporters hope to secure a strong and lasting place in the world quinoa market.

Day 18 – Family vacation across the salt flats.

Day 18 – Family vacation across the salt flats.

Day 18 – Family Vacation across the salt flats.

To get to the Bolivia’s main quinoa growing region, we toured the vast salt flats (Salar of Uyuni) for two days, marveling at the extreme nature and beauty of Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano. Here’s a photo essay of the trip highlights including the Salt Palace Hotel, which we visited to pick up another touring family from.

Salt mining in the salt flats.  Author with her 2 children.

Salt mining in the salt flats. Author with her 2 children.

Leaving the salt flats for the volcanoe town of Tunupa.

Leaving the salt flats for the volcanoe town of Tunupa.

 

Volcanic rock formations.

Volcanic rock formations.

At the Salt Palace Hotel.  All made of salt, even the beds and furniture!

At the Salt Palace Hotel. All made of salt, even the beds and furniture!

Day 17 – Quinoa or quinua?

Day 17 – Quinoa or quinua?

Agronomist, Maria Cayoja of INIAF, shows 2 different varieties of quinoa coming from the mid-altiplano region of Bolivia.

Agronomist, Maria Cayoja of INIAF, shows 2 different varieties of quinoa coming from the mid-altiplano region of Bolivia.

In Bolivia, the sacred grain, is called quinua and pronounced keen’-oo-ah.  This name is a Spanish modification of the original Quechua name, kinwa (though quinua is mostly found in the Aymara speaking regions of Bolivia!). It’s scientific name is Chenopodium quinoa and it is related to amaranth and pigweed. To stay in line with international spelling, we will continue to refer to Bolivian quinua as quinoa.

Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean region for over 3,000 years.  When the Spanish conquerors arrived 500 years ago, they saw it as “peasant or Indian food” and prohibited its cultivation, required people to instead grow the wheat which they brought to the region.  Never-the-less, quinoa production persisted.

Today there are hundreds of known varieties of quinoa en Bolivia ranging from all colors and sizes from the large, hardy Quinoa Real grown along Bolivia’s vast salt flats in the Southern Altiplano region to the sweeter, smaller varieties found in the mid and northern altiplano.

Characteristics of mid-altiplano quinoa - looser sead heads, and smaller seeds.

Characteristics of mid-altiplano quinoa – looser sead heads, and smaller seeds.

Known for its complete protein and high amino acid content, Bolivian quinoa also has saponins which are removed in he cleaning process (but also have industrial uses as natural cleaning agents and insecticides), and oil.  Depending on where the quinoa is produced, the oil, protein, saponin and calorie content of the quinoa will vary by as much as 10% or more.

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?

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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…