Archives for January 2017

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

turbines

Chuvica’s wind pumps from Argentina. Each pump provides irrigation for 11 families and a total of 4 acres of crops.

Gladys’ father had a vision – wind driven water pumps to bring the rich, sweet waters to the dry salty, windswept, lakebed for better and more varied crop production.  Quinoa can grow well in arid environments but potatoes and fava beans, other favorite crops, need more water.  He built a wind turbine that fed a large water tank that could be tapped for gravity fed irrigation in nearby areas – carefully tending it, making repairs and improvements, until at last it ceased to function any more.  The tank cracked and the turbine gradually rotted into a metal heap but the memory of wind turbines water pumps lived on.

Last year, the tiny community of 25 permanent citizens and 60 visiting residents – families who come in for annual festivals and to plant or harvest quinoa – worked with their elected village representatives (dirigentes) to request funding for a wind pump project.  They researched the best systems and ended up choosing pumps designed in Argentina which worked like hand pumps for bicycle tires.  The turbines produce air pressure which pushes the water out of the ground and into adjacent tanks.  No electricity is generated, it’s just air pressure, wind and water.  The mayor invested $1,000 for each wind turbine ($8,000 total) and the people of Chavica provided the labor, sand, stone and cement to build eight large 1,000 liter water tanks – one for each turbine.  The eight wind pumps, light giants descended from the surrounding mountains, now greet visitors as they barrel across the floor of the vast inland sea in a rickety old bus with thick, deep-treaded tires. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the vast ocean evaporated to become the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding sand, salty ocean floor.

quinoa and gladys

Gladys and the large quinoa plants in Chuvica’s irrigated wind pump gardens.

Visiting the new gardens – which appear like an emerald oasis in a sea of dried, tan soils – we see the bright green foliage of healthy potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, wheat, beets, celery, fragrant fava beans, and of course large sheaths of quinoa seed heads already formed and robust.  Each pump fills a tank which serves 11 families who each tend to their own 5,000 square foot garden (1,500 meters).  Some use natural manure to strengthen their newly planted soils, others chemical fertilizers.

This is the first year the gardens are in use and Gladys is predicting that each family will most likely harvest at least 220 pounds (1 quintal) of quinoa for their personal use.  This comes out to a little more than 4 pounds of quinoa consumed by each family each week and seems to be the national average of quinoa consumption for people growing quinoa in both the altiplano and valley regions of Bolivia.  People in the quinoa regions consume quinoa about 3 to 4 times a week, usually in soups or toasted and cooked as rice (a dish known as psiga).  Fifty years ago, quinoa was consumed daily as a standard family staple, but that habit has changed as homegrown quinoa needs to be hand cleaned which takes time and extra work.  To clean home harvested quinoa one has to remove the outer shell of the quinoa seed along with its chaff and then do several rounds of water rinses.  This means the quinoa takes extra time to prepare while white rice and dried noodles are now easily accessible for purchase and faster and easier to cook.

On our way to the airpumps we paused to pick a tiny plant, the chupala, who’s root, about the size of a crayon, is juicy and sweet to eat raw.  We also enjoyed the bright green seeds of the mutucuro, a small, flat legume that produced small round “potatoes” deep in the earth and produces a small red seed pod with tiny bright green seeds inside.  The seeds do not have much flavor, but are fun to eat because of their color.

We checked on the quinoa too.  Noting with a shovel that the weeks of rain had only saturated the top foot of the hilled soils from last year’s quinoa fields, now fallow.  It was better if the water had sunk in deeper than that.  Never-the-less, the farmer with the tractor was plowing field this week at a cost of $20 per acre (or 400Bs a hectare) and he was coming to plow tomorrow.  The field would be plowed now in preparation for October’s planting, to let the organic matter sink in and decompose into nutrients, the humidity of the soil helping in their process.  Normally farmers would add two dump truck loads of llama manure to their acreage (a $285 investment) but this field had not been used in 5 years and Gladys felt certain it would be OK for production without extra material added.  Everywhere quinoa farmers are looking at ways to cut their costs – with reduced fertilizer usage, less pest control and less acreage in production – the low market prices and climate variations affecting these decisions.

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

industrielized-seed-sorting

Quinoa industrialised processing in the remote town of Slainas.

So now what?   It is interesting to talk of markets, cycles, prices, yields – but what about the people behind the markets, the ones whose livelihoods depend on the quinoa harvest?  Following the cycles of development, mature markets can become industrialized with new product but they can also differentiate though the product itself.  This is how Fair Trade operates in other export commodity markets such as coffee and chocolate – putting a social and environmental value on production which consumers support through their purchases.

There are advantages to Bolivia’s quinoa production which can enable it to compete in new areas of Fair Trae, quality and variety – creating a premium quinoa with a higher price.  A small study conducted by my UMass students last semester, showed consumers willing to pay 30% more for organic quinoa that has a high nutritional and cultural value. The challenge now is to organize Bolivia’s diverse quinoa community of associations, cooperatives, private businesses, NGOs and government ministries to educte outside markets and consumers about the benefits of Bolivian quinoa.

img_0075

Packaged quinoa for sale in the US – a mix of many varieties listed as just flakes with no mention of location or type of quinoa.

The first step is the development of a Bolivian Seal of Denomination for the Royal Quinoa grown in a 25 mile zone around the salt flats.  This quinoa is distinct in its high nutritional quality and large, creamy seed formation.  It is also mostly organically grown, hand harvested and blessed.  This seal will be presented at the world famous German Natural Foods Trade Show in February – and if accepted, will create the name Royal Quinoa as something solely in reference to the distinct varieties of quinoa from Bolivia’s Salt Flat zone – thus opening a new market solely for Bolivia quinoa.  This is much like the name Champagne only being able to be used for grapes and sparkling wines coming from Champagne, France.  Monitoring and enforcement of the proper Seal use will be tricky here as will the marketing of the Seal to global audiences who are unaware of the distinction.

salar map

The salt flat region where Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa Grows.

Another advantage of the Bolivian quinoa is the distinct varieties of seeds grown and their special properties – for soup, breads, energy, fast cooking…  International micro-markets for specialized gourmet quinoa exist – but they need to be found and developed.  The producers and associations are prepared to separate their quinoa by these distinct varieties (and not just white-red-black) but the market needs to also exist for the to sell this – by the container (20 tons of product at a time).  This is difficult as most market de

Loading 100 pound sacks of cleaned and weighed quinoa for final processing.

Loading 100 pound sacks of cleaned and weighed quinoa for final processing.

velopment is done through expensive and sophisticated foreign trade show participation where language and communications are huge challenges for the small Bolivian farmer or their cash-strapped association.

It would be interesting to explore the possibility of having a Bolivian quinoa presence at the US regional ExpoEast Natural Food trade show in Baltimore this fall.  But like the Seal of Origin, unique cross sector partnerships and commitments need to be formed to support this.

DAY 34 – What’s next for Bolivia’s farmers?

DAY 34 – What’s next for Bolivia’s farmers?

shipment-ready

This APQUISA quinoa is cleaned, packed and ready to go. But there’s a delay as markets and revenue streams are verified.

Across the countryside, I am finding farmers who are saving hundreds of pounds of carefully planted, harvested and hand processed quinoa in their homes.  Each 25-pound (quintal) bag represents almost $114 (800Bs) of labor and agricultural inputs such organic fertilizer and pest control systems but is currently valued at just $71(500Bs) or much less if it’s not organically certified ($50 or 350Bs).

This spring’s drought may have destroyed 40% of the planted quinoa and though some farmers are replanting, hoping to get in a little more yield before the winter frosts, it is uncertain if they will be successful in this.  Once again, worms are eating the quinoa seed heads though farmers are lax to invest in costly organic pest management systems, which are still experimental and may not always work.  Farmers have also cut costs on the organic llama fertilizer which costs $450 a truckload for about 1.5 acres of land, thus fertilizing less.  They have also reduced their land cultivation by about 80% to minimize outside labor costs which once were as high as $21 a day plus food and lodging.  Now quinoa families are managing 9 to 18 acres plots on their own – instead of the vast 130 -150 acres they previously managed.  They are selling their tractors too, to help with cash

Quinoa fields - only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Quinoa fields – only some plants are germinating due to teh spring’s extreme drought conditions.

flow.  According to Ing. Aroni, is estimated there were 2,000 tractors purchased in the Royal Quinoa region over the past decade. Now it seems at least 30% have been sold or are for sale – most to the richer, more developed Santa Cruz lowlands where vast amounts of rice, wheat and soy are grown.  When necessary, farmers will take a few quinoa sacks to the local Challapata market to sell, below production costs, to at least keep the cash flow moving.

Many of the quinoa tractors were bought from new bank loans made in the past 2 years.  It will be interesting to see what happens when this year’s harvest comes through low and without much market value and there are not enough funds for loan repayments.  Banks are not allowed to take farmers’ lands or houses and the production was the collateral for many of the loans which seem to average about $5,000 with a 12% or more apy.

forested-vs-non-forested

Empty fields in Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa zone. Many farmers saw the stagnant, low prices for quinoa on the world market and decided to not even bother planting quinoa. They explain that it would have been a loss for them anyway.

There is vast migration which has affected education systems since fewer children are in local schools.  It is common for quinoa communities to have an average of 25 permanent families and 75 residents, who live in other cities and border countries such as Chile, occasionally returning to tend to their quinoa, village meeting or festivals.  The local economy is also affected as there is now less construction of new houses, purchasing of farm equipment, food, labor and housing.  So people have less to spend, earn less and times are tough.  Some men have left their quinoa fields for work elsewhere – working as long distance truck drivers or as laborers in the city – leaving the women to tend to the quinoa alone with their children.  Others have sent their children to college and are waiting for their children to get more professional jobs as lawyers, agronomists, and business developers – though jobs for college graduates are hard to find here in Bolivia.  Entire families have left for the cities of Oruro, La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

img_1188

The desert dust bowl of some of Bolivia’s best quinoa lands.

While Bolivia’s quinoa yields for 2017 look bleak, most agree that market prices will stay steady – partly due to the vast amounts of quinoa still in storage, and not in circulation in Bolivia’s quinoa market, and the continued presence of global quinoa production.

 

DAY 33 – the difficult evolution of Bolivia’s quinoa market

DAY 33 – the difficult evolution of Bolivia’s quinoa market

IMG_2243

A farmer studies a young quinoa seed head, bent by a worm chewing on the stalk. Healthy seed heads can grow to produce up to a half pound of quinoa seed each.

What’s happening with the quinoa in Bolivia?  Well many things.  First there was the boom, brought on by decades of international development work in the quinoa fields – improved (and some not so improved!) methods of soil management, seed planting, pest control, cultivation and harvesting.

cleaning quinoa

In the market quinoa is quinoa – red, white or black. But there are actually lots of varieties and differences in quinoa that is important for consumers and farmers.

Through much trial and error –  and there were plenty of errors – the delicate volcanic soils and the unique properties of the quinoa plant became better understood.  Teams, projects and supplies from the US, Holland, Switzerland, Israel, China and more slowly trickled into the area, finally reaching a high level of production and world recognition of the ancient grain around 2004.  By 2013, the world recognition of Bolivia’s “seed of gold” was growing exponentially, and like all fledgling new markets, the demand outstripped the supply, leading to elevated prices and a period know at the “quinoa boom” with total exports totaling more than $200 million, according to Genaro Aroni, a Bolivian quinoa agronomist with over 30 years working with this ancient grain. The boom lasted from 2009 – 2015 when prices suddenly drastically dropped by more than 75% – due to the entrance of new competitors in the market – largely from Peru, but also Canada and France.  Now the Bolivian quinoa farmers are struggling to cover their costs of production.  Many are saving their quinoa until prices go up again, others have left the quinoa region altogether – in search of better work.

Today the quinoa has entered into a “mature market” cycle – with little differentiation of product, relatively low prices worldwide, more production of quinoa from other places, and a steadily growing consumer demand, which meets the slowly growing availability of the product, as new producers enter into the market.

This is not good news for Bolivia’s farmers.  They pride themselves on their hand grown quinoa, deep ancestral knowledge of the plant, commitment to organic farming methods, and their own cultural connection to the ancient grain.  These qualities are not present in the current market of – white-red-black quinoa.  In the world markets, there is no distinction of how its grown, where, by whom or even what the quinoa itself actually is (it’s a seed not a grain).  There are actually over 70 varieties of quinoa – with many only able to be grown in Bolivia’s mineral rich, high desert salt flat regions.  Within the standard white-red-black spectrum, there exists countless specific quinoa varieties with distinct characteristics that are simply lumped together and sold as a single color type.  Some say that these ancient varieties are becoming lost as the market demands the simplified image of quinoa.  But in my research I found that they are actually only lost to the consumer.  The farmers know what they are planting – and the women know how to cook it.  Each variety of quinoa come with its own uses and recipes.

In the range of white quinoa alone, there exists the Tolerado which cooks the quickest; the high protein (18%) Hachachina; the sticky Caslala which is great for making bread and noodles;  the Q’oto which is toasted and ground into the beloved Bolivian pito; and more.

IMG_2248

Quinoa farmer checking her Caslala variety of break making quinoa – commonly known as white quinoa – but having distinct properties as being soft, sticky and perfect for baking.

One way to compete in a mature market is through product differentiation and market specialization.  In my former research, I focused on industrialization – looking at how quinoa communities can improve their market access, diversify their economy, create new jobs and build value through the transformation of their raw product (bulk quinoa for export) into processed foods.  In the 18 months I have been done, some associations and communities have done just that – with good results.

For example the quinoa growers association, APQUISA, in the town of Salinas now has a quinoa bakery and a contract with the local mayor to provide hundreds of regional breakfasts for schoolchildren daily.  This enabled them to expand their operations into a full bakery producing breads, cookies, and cakes for the local community and regional trade shows. They now have a store located on the central plaza of the town and are looking to expand distribution throughout the region, once they get improved packaging for their product which will extend its shelf life better.  The quinoa producers association of SOPROQUI in Uyuni had a similar contract with their regional mayor which also enabled them to expand their processing to breads, noodles, and quinoa puffs.  They work with their parent association ANAPQUI, one of Bolivia’s oldest quinoa associations, to access the quinoa processing equipment which produces quinoa flakes, flour and puffs.  ANAPQUI now has packaged products of different varieties of quinoa seeds and flakes with export to Spain.  In addition, a growing number of producer associations such as ANAPQUI, QUIMBOLSUR, APQUISA and the community of Otuyo, have their own quinoa processing plants – with the latest technology and laboratories – that can produce export quality quinoa, though reducing their reliance on contracted cleaning and creating a new revenue flow as some also clean others’ quinoa at a cost of 40 – 120Bs per quintal.

img_1152

APQUISA’s delicious quinoa bread – fresh made daily in Salinas.

The industrialization of quinoa is looking good – but it’s not the best.  The low market prices, minimal technical knowledge, and lack of capital investment, has made the industrialization costly and difficult.  APQUISA’s president Endulfo Gabriel C. invested $100,000 into their quinoa cleaning plant and bakery – with market prices so low, even with the extra national sales and production, they are behind on their payments to members for quinoa and do not have the funds to further develop their product, packing and seek export sales.  This is the situation for many of the local quinoa industrialists I have met.  The market is not giving them the movement of funds they need to move forward – in equipment, training and market development.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post – what could be next…

DAY 32 –  The Quinoa of Atlantis

DAY 32 –  The Quinoa of Atlantis

cleaning quinoa - chachi warmi

Cleaning the quinoa on the “shores” of what might have once been Ancient Atlantis.

Some, like British aerial photographer, Tim Allen, argue that Bolivia’s Pampa Aullagas is the site of the ancient city of Atlantis – according to ancient Greek descriptions.  There is competing evidence that this may indeed be true, including local legends of floods, evidence of ancient trade with the Sumerians, found artifacts, underground rivers, and geographical features such as concentric rings and evidence of ancient canals and water systems. The region of Pampa Aullagas, once known as

taking a break

Relaxing amongst the quinoa of Atlantis.

Antisuyo, is closely connected to Lake Poopo and the Uyuni Salt Flats.  It is also the site of some of Quillacas’ most robust quinoa farming.  Here’s photos of the ancient city mountain and the encroaching flood waters of Poopo.  Was there a time when the altiplano was fully flooded and Pampa Aullagas was the place of the ancient civilizations of gods?  There are many stories of floods in the altiplano, legends about the fights of the gods, volcanoes, and the settling of the mysterious salt flat region – home to the Royal Quinoa, which according to legend, was first brought to that region by angels long ago.

 

DAY 31 – A day in the quinoa fields.

DAY 31 – A day in the quinoa fields.

What do farmers do while their quinoa is growing?

IMG_2231

Bare footed and back breaking – farmers such as Miguel, carefully tend the quinoa stalks that will be supporting heavy seed heads. Here Miguel is hilling up dirt around his quinoa plants to support stalks that had drooped to the ground as a result of last month’s drought.

IMG_2248

More women are farming alone than ever before. Irene Huyachi stops to check her seed heads for worms as she is hilling up her quinoa. Unfortunately she found several worms. “I don’t know what to do, ” she says. “I spent so much money on organic sprays from the Fair Trade technicos and it did not work – there are even more now. I don’t  the money to do anything else. This is organic quinoa. I can’t spray and I don’t want to. But now the worms are eating all of my quinoa.”

They care for it – weeding, checking for moths and worms, plant damage from frost, hail and predators, rainfall and irrigation (if available), looking at bio indicators for predictions of future crops, and they help plants that are struggling.  A well cared for seed head can weigh up to 1 pound and contains millions of precious quinoa seeds.  Famers do all they can to encourage good seed head production.  They walk their 12-15 acres of plantings, checking each plant, knowing each verity of quinoa planted and how their neighbors’ plants are doing well.  Often it means taking out the entire family out for the day.  Babies sleep in pick-up trucks or under makeshift tents, and open air lunch – usually including llama meat – is shared with all.

With quinoa prices so low (farmers make just 28 cents a pound for their quinoa), many males farmers have left the region to seek paid work elsewhere.  Women are left alone to tend the quinoa. Here are some photos taken from my six-mile hike through Quillacas’ organic, hand grown, quinoa fields.

IMG_2237

Bad times ahead? Miguel believes that malformed seed heads are an indicator of poorer yields next year. The May harvest will verify what the next season will bring.

IMG_2239

A worm-eaten seedhead.

IMG_2241

A rabbit ate this seed stalk to get access to the juicy moisture inside. Besides worms, rabbits and vicunas – a wild form the the llama are also pests who eat and damage the quinoa.

DAY 30 – From field to factory – the hand processing of quinoa

DAY 30 – From field to factory – the hand processing of quinoa

Quinoa grows in tall, tight sheaths with the seeds carefully encapsulates in a tight seed head.  The seeds need to be removed from this head before being brought to the quinoa processing plant for final saponin removal and cleaning.  Thousands of Bolivia farmers carefully hand clean their quinoa putting many hours of work into the process, using methods passed down from generations of farmers.

cleaning quinoa - chachi warmi

Celia and Miguel separate the quinoa chaff from the seeds using a sifter and the Andean winds.

Organic, Fair Trade quinoa farmers, Miguel and Celia Huaylla are members of APROCAY a quinoa growers association that sells their quinoa to Andean Naturals, one of the largest quinoa importers in the US.  I spent yesterday afternoon with them on a windy outcropping of a large lava rock, documenting the cleaning of the quinoa seed from chaf – a process I have helped out with many times on my children’s’ grandmother’s farm in the quinoa dulce growing region of Poopo.

The Quillacas church bell tower offers a panoramic view of miles of flat quinoa lands – once green with quinoa, now a patchwork of green and brown as the drought took its toll on the quinoa – drying up the tiny plants or covering them with windblown volcanic sand that make up the soils that Bolivia’s famous Royal Quinoa grow in.

stepping on the quinoa

Their daughter helps to further separate the chaff by stepping on the seeds. The seeds were previously ridden over by a tractor to break up the seed heads. Miguel laments how this does not work as well as the traditional stone threshing floors that were once used to separate the seeds – also by stepping on them.

We are processing a red quinoa that has a white seed…

seed sorter

Seed sifter

 

sorting together

Working together to pour out more mixed seed and chaff for separation. The wind blows away the lighter chaff while the heavy seeds fall to the hand woven aguayo cloth below.  The chaff and smaller, lighter seeds are fed to the family’s sheep and llamas.

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye

img_1292

Tamara taking photos from the ruins of the Spanish mill.

It’s time to move on from Salinas to Quillacas this afternoon.  It is always a bittersweet moment when we transition from one quinoa growing town to the next.  Each has its own distinct personality and ways of being.  Once you are in its rhythm, it’s hard to leave, sort of like trying to get out of a rip tide at the seaside.  Once you are in the vibe of the town, so many opportunities and surprises start opening up.  We had to decline invitations to community celebrations next week, invitations to visit new places, invitations to present at local organizations, create more programs, film more events, participate in community ceremony.  It is always sad.  It makes me want to divide myself into a million pieces so I can be everywhere at once.

Our memories of Salinas lay in the humor and kindness of its people.  Always a smile and hello from strangers we pass in the street, our growing community of plaza market sellers whom we visit regularly to eat lunch with, interview, or chat about the day’s events. Our caseras (sellers) who provide fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs and goodies for our home kitchen.  And our host Alex and the Technical University of Oruro, who made their research center available to us – giving us space to explore, write, cook and help out on reforestation projects.

img_1295

Me and my daughter, my research companion.

I think of the people we have met and budding friendships: Gladys Mayorga – the regional consejal who exports local quinoa throughout South America; Abad Huayllani – the lawyer from Santa Cruz, who also doubles as a quinoa farmer and now as Mallku in a one-year position as the region’s indigenous leader. Eloy Ignacio Mamani – a quiet quinoa farmer living in the tiny community of Soloja; Liboria Perez who cooks delicious soups for sale in her wheel barrel food cart – peanut soup, quinoa soup, llama caldo (broth) and more! Plus she toasts and grounds her quinoa into a delicious pito – a powdered, edible form of the grain.

And I think of my 13-year-old daughter’s bold act of citizen empowerment.  Noting the lack of flowers in the main plaza – while villagers all had lovely flower gardens at their homes – she wrote a letter to the town mayor in and English and Spanish asking him to plant flowers and suggesting he ask people volunteer their own flowers form their gardens if he did not have the funds to pay for flowers himself.

img_2050

Florinda Consales – instrumental in helping to make the Salinas research site a success.

Our memories also lie in the amazing beauty and resources of this tiny colonial town located under the watchful snow-capped slopes of the Thunupa volcano at the edge of the Uyuni salt flats (Salinas – means “salty” in Spanish).  The ruins of the 500 year old Spanish grain mill, the naturally carbonated mineral water springs, the volcanic soils and crunchy lava stones, and the wild emus and vicunas that glide across the vast pampas of tola bushes and tall, stiff, grasses.

Finally we are grateful to the friendship of Florinda Cansales – whom I had met in 2015 when she was the indigenous leader, Mama Mallku, of the region.  Florinda has been instrumental in making our stay and research her so successful.  She works in local education development, farming quinoa and raising sheep and llamas on her ancestral lands – taking a break from the high-profile city life she was living two years ago.  Together we hope to develop a direct-sale, heritage quinoa project with the women of her community of Otuyo.  We will continue to keep in touch…

So, it is with bittersweet thoughts we get ready for the day – a final walk out to the flooded salt flats, a final lunch in the plaza, and the women’s sustainability workshop I will deliver this afternoon with our host, the local hospital.  Then it’s on the bus – and off to Quillacas, a looming hillside community, an hour away – the site of a colonial miracle and within view of the supposed location of Atlantis – the lost undersea community of long ago.

DAY 28 – Passing the whip – changing indigenous leadership.

DAY 28 – Passing the whip – changing indigenous leadership.

leaders-of-florinda

Leaders from the quinoa growing community of Florida get ready to pass the whip to the next pair of elected indigenous leaders.

Today indigenous leadership changes.  An elected pair of representatives from each of the 8 communities of Salinas come to take over from the previous pair who ruled.  To be invited to be a leader is an honor.  As elected leaders, people take a year off from the regular work and spend their time in the communities listening to needs, solutions, and project ideas – working with the local mayor and government ministries to best direct local development.

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands

img_1937

Florinda’s house in Otuyo – neither a estande nor a residente – Quinoa farmer and leader, Florinda Consales, likes to call herself a doble domicilio (2-homes) person because of her constant presence in the quinoa community.

The quinoa villages are quiet, children away on school vacations – visiting family in the cities, or city children coming in for a weekend in the town with their family.  Most quinoa communities are now made up of 25% estantes (full timers) and 75% residentes (residents).  Residentes are weekenders (or less) who grow quinoa on their family lands, participate in community projects, celebrations and decisions but live in neighboring cities hours away.  Often these are professionals, such as professors, lawyers or developers, who bring important projects and resources to the community.

The community of Otuyo is a 30 minute ride by truck over a narrow dirt track that winds through volcanic mountain passes, past condor nesting caves, and into a long, smooth swath of salty lowlands extending far to the shores of the Uyuni salt flats miles away, is a typical quinoa community.  Their one-room school houses 12 students and one teacher.  The Otuyo community center is large enough to accommodate all 61 families though only 15 reside there full time.  The ones that live there farm the vast quinoa lands, tend sheep and llamas, and grow onions, beans, potatoes and herbs in their personal gardens.  The school has a large greenhouse that produces tomatoes and vegetables for school lunches.  Moms accompany the youngest children to school to help with the teaching of the younger grades.

img_1202

Llama dung waiting for to be spread across a fallow quinoa field in preparation for October 2017 planting.

The residents are welcome into the community and participate in celebrations bringing important knowledge and resources from the cities.  Their children are in college.  Most own their 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs, live in newly built build brick homes and enjoy shining new tiled bathrooms – compliments of a development project.

According to world standards these communities are impoverished.  The 2015 crash of the quinoa market, caused by massive production in Peru which flooded markets and drove down prices,  has produced positive and negative effects – though coupled with the recent drought, the negative is getting much larger and bigger.  The positive is a slowing down of Bolivian production.  People are now back to their regular bi-annual rotation schedules, families are farming much more manageable 5-8 hectacre plot instead of the 20+ hectacers they were racing to produce previously.  Many people from the quinoa region who had migrated the other countries in search of work and returned to grow quinoa, have returned back their foreign communities in Spain and Argentina.  People are feeling less pressure to produce and grow and feel that once again they can settle back down into their familiar family settings and work together in long term, meaningful production that benefits the community and protects the earth.

img_1154

A robust quinoa plant in a private garden.

The damage caused by the massive quinoa production of 2011 – 2015 seen in vast areas of desertified lands.  Places cleared of native vegetation and plowed dry, becoming fodder for towering dust devils that rage through the quinoa lands in dry times.  In some places, wild animals such as emus and vicunas are entering into quinoa fields and eating the delicate plants.  Some producer associations such as APQUISA, certain Fair Trade programs, and the Oruro Technical University (OTU) are working on re-establishing these damaged lands and promoting more erosion-friendly farming methods, such as ringing 2 hectare fields with hedges of tola plants – whose 2- 3 foot height act as windbreakers and protects plants from frost.

With the fall of prices also comes the migration of the males in the family – in search of better work.  The women are left on the farms, it not being culturally appropriate for them to leave for work, in addition many of them are mothers and have children to still care for.  So woman are alone in the quinoa lands, often as they were before the boom that brought the families back and together again.  I will be studying this more as my work progresses.

As far as cash flow, every home I have visited has a storeroom filled with socks of quinoa.  Farmers say they are waiting for better market prices and orders before from their cooperatives before selling their quinoa.  Every once in a while when cash is needed, a sack of quinoa may be sold, or a sheep or llama killed and its meat sold.  The animals and grains become savings accounts and security for the farmers.