Archives for July 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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

Day 13 – The Fair Trade Story

Day 13 – The Fair Trade Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 12 – The Legend of the Tunupa Volcano

Day 12 – The Legend of the Tunupa Volcano

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

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


Colchani, Bolivia

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

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


Salar of Uyuni

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

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

Day 11 – The Legend of the Quinoa

Day 11 – The Legend of the Quinoa

Where did quinoa come from? This is an ancient Aymara legend that tells where quinoa came from as told by storyteller, Edgar Quispe Chambi (and translated by me).

In times long ago the Aymara people talked with the stars. They lived along the shores of Lake Titicaca where they first began cultivating potatoes on raised beds built along the shoreline. A young teenage boy guarded the raised beds at night to make sure no one stole the crops. He had a bell to ring in case he found someone there. One night he came upon what he thought was a group robbers, so he rang his warning bell. The “robbers” all left except for one, which he captured. It was a beautiful young maiden who glowed with starlight. (Remember the Aymara people knew how to talk with the stars.) The young maiden however, turned into a bird and went where the others had gone, up the sky to join the stars.


Andean Condor

As the farmers, woken by the ringing of the bell arrived, the boy stayed gazing at the sky, admiring what he had seen. He could not explain to the others what had happened. The next day he sought out a condor, a great Bolivian bird of prey and spirit animal. He climbed the highest mountain cliffs in search of this bird. He wanted the condor to take him to the stars. The condor understood and took the teenage boy to the stars on his back. They arrived at a star which was a land covered in fields of golden grains. There the boy found the young maiden from the night before. The two played together in the fields. Fields of quinoa! The star maiden invited the boy to eat the quinoa. The boy had never seen this grain before. “What is this?” he asked.

And so he stayed there and lived on the quinoa. But one day he wanted to return to earth to visit his parents. He wanted them to know he was OK and wanted to know that they were OK too. The condor sensing his wishes, returned. The teenage boy climbed on his back once more. Before the left, the star maiden gave the boy a sack of quinoa to bring back to his village. The boy left the star and soared over the land on the back of the great bird, scattering seeds of quinoa as he went.

Since then quinoa has served as a food for the Andean village, a product that until recently was unknown by the rest of humanity. Quinoa is life. Quinoa is hope. Quinoa is the past. Quinoa is the present. Quinoa is the future of humanity.

Day 10 – Some quick quinoa facts…

Day 10 – Some quick quinoa facts…

Some quick quinoa facts as I wait for a data check on my Fair Trade quinoa post…

tons quyinoa consumedThe price of quinoa in the local market here in Bolivia has dropped more than 50% since last year’s highs of 1,200Bs (Bolivianos) a quintal just 500Bs a quintal ($.32 a pound).  Consumption jumped almost as fast as prices have fallen with 14,600 tons of quinoa being consumed in Bolivia last year.  Quinoa production is also at an all time high with almost 439,000 acres under cultivation, 10% more than the previous year. 

“This national and international promotion of the “golden grain” (quinoa) has pushed production and consumption of quinoa in this country and the rest of the world. And though this grain can be produced in other countries, none has the nutritional content of the grain produced in Bolivia.” Explained Edgar Solis yesterday, the Director of the International Center of Quinoa.  

CIQThe Centro Internacional de la Quinua-CIQ (or International Center of Quinoa) was created by direction of Bolivian law #395 as a way to unify and trademark Bolivian Quinoa as an original product of origin.

There are over 3,120 different types of quinoa in Bolivia with many different properties.  Some are high in oils, others high in protein, others low in calories, and some high in saponin a byproduct that has medical and biological uses.  Quinoa also comes in a full range of colors from white to golden yellow to bright pink, red, purple and the darkest black.

Hot quinua drink

Hot quinua drink

I enjoyed some hot quinoa drink (refresco de quinoa) this morning taking the bus from Cochabamba to Oruro to meet with Jorge Guzman plan the next part of my trip – the salt flats!  The drink is a warm, watery mixture of quinoa flavored with cinamon and sugar.  Delicious!

Day 9: The Wholesale-Import Connection

Day 9: The Wholesale-Import Connection

Following the value chain now takes us to the UNFIlogo buyer who purchases Bolivian quinoa from the ports of South America and distributes it across the United States. The US bag of quinoa I am following came from a shipment of quinoa in Arica, Peru, an international port that landlocked Bolivia has access to. This quinoa arrived in New Jersey and was warehoused there until it was trucked out to the Brattleboro Food Coop. Juan Pablo Selane of the Quinoa Foods Company in Bolivia arranges these shipments. The UNFI buyer knows Juan Pablo personally, they met when Juan Pablo was studying in the US and contacted the buyer about purchasing quinoa. He values their long relationship and talks with pride of Juan Pablo’s programs that help farmers and their families he mentions the new processing plant that Quinoa Foods Company just built too.

imagesEach month UNFI receives 32,000 to 40,000 pounds of quinoa from Quinoa Foods Company, shipped by boat in 10 containers to ports in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Oakland. Though Peruvian quinoa is less expensive, it is often not organic and the UNFI buyer does not purchase it, preferring instead the quality and flavor the Bolivia quinoa. Quinoa Foods Company has the best consistency in quinoa size, color (red, black, white and mixed), and flavor. He feels the less expensive, and lesser quality Peruvian quinoa appeals more to mass markets such as Whole Foods and conventional companies that incorporate non-organic certified quinoa into many items such as baby food, energy foods and pasta.

Though supportive of organic and kosher certifications, UNFI is not fully committed to seeking out product with Fair Trade certification. The buyer feels there is enough transparency in their current sourcing and are confident in Quinoa Foods Company’s integrity. They do not feel another layer such as Fair Trade, is necessary or would justify its cost. Though UNFI buyer has never been to Bolivia (yet), he believes that suppliers in Bolivia are interwoven with the growers and companies such as Quinoa Foods Company give back to growers, similar to the way Fair Trade does too.

This week I’ll be meeting with Juan Pablo Selane in El Alto, La Paz.  Next post is about Fair Trade and quinoa….

Day 9 – Snow in Bolivia

Day 9 – Snow in Bolivia

We finaly arrived in Bolivia and brought the snow with us!  Roads were closed and people painted their eyes black to protect them from the blinding white reflections.  All was melted in a few hours. Then the roads in El Alto were closed again preparation for he Pope’s visit there on Wednesday.

The Ceja in El Alto was empty as the city began preparing for the Pope's visit on Wednesday.

The Ceja in El Alto was empty as the city began preparing for the Pope’s visit on Wednesday.

How surreal to see the busy, bustling city of El Alto so quiet and empty.  We then went on to Oruro and visited with my children’s Aunt, eating quinoa cookies made in Bolivia but purchased from my US Food Co-op.  I will try to visit the plant that made the cookies while here in Bolivia.

Andean Dream in the Andes, Oruro, Bolivia

Andean Dream in the Andes, Oruro, Bolivia

Next post: following the quinoa value chain to the US wholesaler who buys direct from Bolivia.

Day 8 – The Fulbright story

Day 8 – The Fulbright story

imgresA few days were spent in Washington, DC at a Fulbright orientation where I met hundreds of other Fulbright scholars preparing for departure to dozens of countries worldwide.  Since its beginnings in 1946, more than 360,000 Fulbrighters have participated in the Program.  According to Fulbright, alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, and university presidents, as well as leading journalists, artists, scientists, and teachers. They have been awarded 53 Nobel Prizes.

I am enjoying the access and infrastructure that Fulbright gives to my research.  It is nice to have a budget and organizations supporting my work in country.  As soon as I arrive in Bolivia I will be meeting with my counterparts: Catholic University (UPB), the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), the National Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Innovation (INIAF), the University of San Simon (UMSS), and PROINPA.

Due to cancelled flights, late flights and other American Airline delays, I am still not in Bolivia but hope to be there tonight!