Day 43 – An impromptu visit to Sau Sau

Day 43 – An impromptu visit to Sau Sau

As I returned from visiting a now defunct tourism office built in Quillacas, the roadside quinoa sellers informed me that the Andean Family Famers crew had just passed by in their truck. I quickly called Yeris and asked where they were going. Yeris Ivo Peric, Gilha Gina Prado and the staff agronomer, Edson Choque, were on their way to visit Sau-Sau a small Fair Trade producer group located in Marka Caroma on the outskirts of the Department of Potosi, about two hours away. I asked if I could come and they turned around to pick me up, luckily there were not that far away.

After an impressive off-road drive on a barely visible, winding track through vast empty quinoa plots waiting for planting, a shallow river crossing (with no bridge), and the passing of several herds of wild vicuna, we arrived in the tiny village of Sau Sau. Here President, Teofilo Coca Martinez was directing the Annual Assembly of the Integral Association of Quinoa and Camelid Production of he Southern Altiplano (AIPQUISA-C) the community’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa growers association. His wife, Dona Maria had recently returned from a two week trip to the US to participate in the ExpoWest trade show in California. Women were preparing roasted lamb and quinoa in the large adobe wood fired oven. They used poquera, a powered volcanic rock to toast with the quinoa, adding an extra depth, heat and nutritional value to the grain. Children played about. A few trucks were parked around the dusty yard. The community had been waiting for Andean Family Farmer’s arrival and quickly invited us in to the meeting. A typed agenda was passed around showing the meeting had advanced past several parts that now it was time for the Fair Trade agenda items to be addressed.

There were some formalities to address. The community members needed to legally register themselves as small producers with less than 40 (or 30?) hectacres in production for compliance with national tax laws then Yeris reviewed the importance of maintaining organic standards with all production. Apparently some of the FLO certified producers had lost clients when pesticide residue was found in their quinoa. Andean Family Farmers wanted to prevent this from occurring with their own producer groups.

Though a small community made up of maybe 20 or so adobe houses, with 33 members total, this group had ample quinoa production. Delivering 15 truckloads (500 tons each) of Fair Trade, organic quinoa, they had earned a social premium of $520 per truckload, a total of $7,800. Now Yeris was there to help them to decide how to spend this. He had a powerpoint presentation prepared with a laptop and projector. Producers sat in the President’s large living room as the points were reviewed, most of the women remained outside cooking and caring for the children.

A definition of Fair Trade was presented with a detailed explanation of how all quinoa was organically certified by Biolatina and of this, most could be sold as Fair Trade, depending on market needs. The quinoa sold as Fair Trade received the additional social premium which was delivered annually and determined by the association on how to be used. The rest was sold at current organic market prices, which at the moment was 650 BS ($92) a quintal. Yeris reminded the people of the Fair Trade rules which seemed very similar to those of FLO and CLAC: the need for transparency and democratic functioning, the creating of opportunities and improved working conditions, long term client relations (through the processing plant Yacha Inti), fair pricing, gender equity, dignified labor conditions, care of the natural environment, a fight against child labor, the payment of Fair Trade premiums and the right for all to vote.

He explained that an independent SCS, Fair Trade certifier from FairTradeUSA and IMO (another Fair Trade organization), will be checking for records of these principles being followed. In addition a Market Access Consultant (SAM) would be present as well. Members needed to sign a 16 point contract, noting that they were and would continue to comply with Fair Trade guidelines and would develop a Fair Trade Plan for their social premium funds.   All of this signing and paperwork seemed to be making the men nervous. Hushed side conversations began to break out. They had been working together for about three to four years and this was their second year working with Fair Trade certification. It was also their first time getting a social premium. Though they knew Yeris and his wife, they did not regularly work with them. In addition Yeris was an ex-government minister, a tall man from the city, he was not one of them. However they knew and trusted Edson, the agronomist they worked with for years and who visited them at least monthly throughout the entire growing season. Edson intervened and explained to the people that these contracts were formalities and part of the Fair Trade certification process. After a short question and answer period led by Edson and Yeris, the producers seemed a bit more willing to continue with the paperwork, though there was an overall air of apprehension.

After this Yeres went on to offer several suggestions on how the group could spend their approximately 50,000Bs of social premium funds ($7,800). Thirty percent of this was required for environmental improvements. These suggestions included improving the soil’s fertility though the purchasing of llama manure. 15,000 or 30% of the funds could go towards this he explained. I noted that this would be enough to purchase about 10 truckloads of manure – enough for about 10 hectacres of land. He also recommended a storage area be built for the quinoa, noting that many farmers had their quinoa stored in the houses, alongside their beds and in their living rooms, the quinoa could get damaged being stored this way. The farmers seemed to agree. Then he also recommended that the community buy into a bulk shipment of certified organic pesticides from Peru that Andean Family Farmers had tested with six other products and felt would work well in Bolivia. The farmers showed interest in this. Finally he revealed a three-year irrigation plan that included a site visit form a geologist to source ground water spots, a well digging company to determine water quantities and flow and the installation of electric or solar solar pumps for use with an irrigation system based on Israeli technologies. He projected that this could cost $10,000 to $15,000 per system. Andean Family Farmers works with 30 different producer groups, three to four which like Sau Sau have the Fair Trade certification and social premium funding. They plan to install about 10 such systems this year anticipating that this year will be dry from November to December (when rain is needed for quinoa seedlings) with rain coming later in the season until May.

This was quite impressive and made me think of the benefits that well-trained technical, market-driven initiatives brought to projects. I did not know of any other groups or communities which had access to such direct, well-developed assistance and global resources.

However, it also made me wonder what they women were thinking. They were not there during this meeting, being busy cooking and caring for the children. They were not on the board either. Technically there men were supposed to discuss these decisions with the women privately and then collectively make a decision. But I wonder how much of this they men would explain or how much was actually understood. I also wonder what projects the women might have come up with on their own (and the men too at that point) if they were given that opportunity first.

Though the Andean Family Farmers Fair Trade approach had many merits such as market access, dedicated technical support, new technology and projects, social premiums and fair market prices, the top down approach with required signatures, pre-determined rules, and pre-packaged projects, made me uneasy. When I mentioned this to Gilhka she was very open to developing more participative approaches for he groups. Perhaps in the future Andean Family Farmers will develop a more collaborative approach to their Fair trade development.


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