Day 36 – Out of the quinoa heartland to the high valley – Anzaldo

Day 36 – Out of the quinoa heartland to the high valley – Anzaldo

Gazing over the new astro-turf soccor field recently installed by the central government for all rural villages.

Gazing over the new astro-turf soccor field recently installed by the central government for all rural villages.

The other day the children and I arrived in Anzaldo, a tiny, adobe-clad town of 7,200 nested in the high valley, 9,000 feet above sea level and about 30 miles, or a 90 minute car ride, from the city of Cochabamba. The region was settled in 1438 as the Incas spread out from Cuzco under the reign of Kapac Yupaqui. The quechua speaking people arrived at Quocha Pampa (quechua for “moist grasslands”) and settled in the high valleys enjoying the fertile lands and varied agriculture production the highlands provided.

In 1778, during the colonial era, the region that later became Anzaldos was identified first by a Curato named, Santiago de Peredon and was re-colonized by Spanish immigrants seeking a respite from the mines of Potosi and access to Cochabamba. In 1906 the region was renamed Villa Anzaldo. Today Anzaldos is made up of the main town plus 77 surrounding communities.

Unfortunately the rich fertile, moist grasslands are no longer. Climate change, desertification, and water demands from cities, have left the region a warm, arid climate. Average rainfall used to be 550 to 600 mm (millimeters) a year, now it’s just 480. With a loss of tree cover due to the drought and the use of wood as cooking fuel, evaporation rates have increased too. Farmers eek out a living by growing self-sustaining crops. The main crops produced here are corn, potatoes, wheat, and fava beans. But none are cultivated on a level that reaches beyond the local markets. Quinoa is present, but more as a by-product than a crop valued in its own right, as the quinoa real of the southern altiplano was. In fact no one can even quote the market price for quinoa here, unlike the folks in the southern altiplano who could recite then entire history of prices over the past three years. There are other differences here too.

Land is regarded as parcels and ownership is relaxed. There are no hectacres, yield counts, massive movements towards organic pest control, association building or technical assistance. There is no real market or real economic growth. In fact, a reverse economic curve has taken place where immigration to the cities has drained the coutryside of people, leaving many towns full of empty homes, fields fallow and development slow to happen.

“It’s hard to get people together for a project when no one is present in the community,” explained the new mayor Ruben. Severina Sotin of the local Bartolina Sisa women’s group echoed this sentiment, explaining how a group of citizens organized to get a grain transforming plant built so people could make processed foods such as cookies, breads, and noodles from their local harvests. However the project fell through due to a lack of participation. With just 27,000Bs raised, this was not enough to even cover the cost of a situational analysis, explained Severina.

Biology Professor Marisol and senion, Valerio, celebrate the Bolivian anniversary with my children in the Anzaldos Plaza.

Biology Professor Marisol and senion, Valerio, celebrate the Bolivian anniversary with my children in the Anzaldos Plaza.

But people do come together the best they can. The students I visited at the large, new regional High School reported that villagers usually got along well with each other. About 33% of these students came from the region’s far off communities where they are no schools, staying in the local church-run internado or boarding school. Here for a price of 40Bs a month, they are fed, housed and cared for during the school week. On weekends they travel the long roads home. Many students proudly declare they will be going on to college, but as the mayor explained, few ever graduate. Young pregnancies, a poor adjustment to city living, and financial restraints of housing, food and course materials work against rural students attending the country’s relatively free college system.

Dry cliffs are common in the Anzaldo landscape.

Dry cliffs are common in the Anzaldo landscape.

There is a strong migration cycle here too where people return to the Anzaldos region to plant crops and then leave for more tropical regions where there are different crop cycles and they also have land to farm. By moving with the altitude to farm in different climate zones, families are able to make Anzaldo living work. The use of circular migration through different climate zones is a custom that dates back to the pre-Inca era. Other customs that hint of indigenous knowledge is the methods families have for crop rotation and intercropping. Families report growing potatoes for one year, then wheat the next year, then corn and then letting the land lay fallow for the fourth year. Another farming method is that intercropping of rows (or circles) of quinoa, beans, and corn. The quinoa keeps away the insects, the beans put nitrogen into the earth and the corn is a heavy feeder.

However increasing periods of drought have caused Anzaldo’s crop production to diminish. Talking to the technical engineers of Proimpa, a national non-profit that works with agriculture development, they mention new crops they are looking to further develop in the region. One such product is tarhi, an ancient legume that is often boiled and served cold as mote or dried and ground into flour. Fetching 600Bs a quintal at the local market, and known as Andean soy, this is a lucrative crop for the region. However, it needs a steady water supply during its six-month growing cycle and the dryness is a challenge with this production.

The state University of San Simone (UMSS) department of Agronomy and Forests is also working to better develop products for this newly changing climate. They are working with the Creole variety of cows that still exists in the is region, having been brought over by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. This race has disappeared in other parts of the world, and now there is renewed interest in this breed. UMSS is looking to diversify the types of cows that are in this region and is also bringing in a project, papa runa, to improve the potato varieties.

Local governance is different here too. The ever present Dirigentes Originarios of the southern altipano, are nowhere to be found here. Instead there are mayors, municipal government representatives and the mancommunidad, a network of local officials and mayors. The church, which in the altiplano was present in its symbolism more than its functioning, plays a strong role here, with services in Quechua, songs adapted to Bolivian instruments such as the charango and foreign priests from Spain and Venezuela wearing traditional Bolivian woven cloth in their habits. Their sermons include many references to the beauty and growth of Bolivia and the pride of the people within this country.

My office in Anzaldo.

My office in Anzaldo.

So here I reflect over the difference of the timeless movement of slow economies, the quiet ebb and flow of village wealth where though there is now, thanks to funding from the central government, metered water delivered to each house, paved roads, a central sewage system and treatment plant, electricity and internet in the main plaza, there are still many old houses in need of renovation, empty homes, few cars and people with limited financial resources. Though income is low and local opportunities scarce, this is not very different from how it ever was. People slowly move forward making do with what they can, as they always have.

This is very different from the endless new brick houses that spring from the sandy salt lands of the southern altiplano, the constant parade of private cars and trucks, the value of the land, reverse migration as urbanized families return to their ancestral lands, and the people’s pride in directing their own growth and development. Here the economic growth from quinoa brought new opportunities but they are based on an export market that local people have no control over. The reduction in quinoa value in the world markets have caused local markets to destabilize. It is hard for people to plan for the cost of their inputs when the end price of their product is unknown and so variable. Though there was, and still is, wealth, the inconsistency of the markets make it hard to economize and bring stress and doubt to the people of the region. In contrast Anzaldo’s consistent lack of a strong economy, has created a more calm level of making do with less.

Instinctively one would think a growing though variable economy might be more desirable over a slow one. Or does the regularity of the slow market prove to be more desirable than the unpredictable ups and downs of high growth, emerging markets?

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