Archives for February 2017

Day 52 – the Photo journey

Day 52 – the Photo journey


Understanding the quinoa story….

The following is a collection of photos and videos on flickr taken by myself and my 12-year-old daughter, Musi, during our quinoa journey.:




Day 52 – Quinoa said, unsaid, unsayable

Day 52 – Quinoa said, unsaid, unsayable


Quinoa varieties.

They said that Bolivia’s quinoa exports were leaving its people hungry, that the world delight in white quinoa was leading to the loss of other seed varieties, and that Bolivian farmers were well off.  They were wrong. While Bolivians, like all people worldwide are consuming more quinoa than ever before, today’s farmers are living on less than $2 day facing 70% crop losses due to drought and a 20% decline in export market access.

The unsaid are the broken families and abandoned women and children left to fend for themselves

Bolivian quinoa growing family.

Bolivian quinoa growing family.

alone in the vast windswept altiplano desserts as men and older siblings leave for cities and other countries in desperate search for work.

The unsaid is the stoic spiritual connection that compels the altiplano farmers to persist despite all odds.  The thousands year old shared memory of the Gods’ gift of quinoa, their role as keepers of the world’s food and the sustainers of humankind – at all costs, and their never faltering love and adoration of Pachamama, mother earth, the true mother who they will never abandon and through prayer and ritual, they hope will never abandon them.

Bolivian woman with quinoa harvest from a newer lowland quinoa growing region.

Bolivian woman with quinoa harvest from a newer lowland quinoa growing region.

The unsayable is that in the dark, dusty, adobe-walled kitchens, crude clay pots and patched flour sacks, lies a culinary treasure to rival even the greatest ingredients of Europe.  There are thousands of varieties of quinoa that to the farmers are like their own children – they love and nurture them, respecting each variety’s own special property, way of growing, formation and quality.  They caress them as seed buds, help support them as seed heads, lovingly harvest them one at a time – crushing and processing the seeds – all by hand.  Marveling at the quinoa colors, textures and properties.  The seeds are never mixed and are carefully used for specific recipes – soups, steamed dumplings, breads, cookies, as rice, cereal, and a hot and cold beverage.  These recipes originated from the ancestors and go back thousands of years to pre-Inca times.  This is how quinoa is consumed in the remote Bolivian countryside today.  And nobody knows it.

DAY 51 –Quinoa Farmers are 20% worse off than last year

DAY 51 –Quinoa Farmers are 20% worse off than last year

Circles of SustainabilityBOL2017

Bolivia’s quinoa farmers are worse off economically with much lower market access – as reflected in the Circles of Susianabitliy survey. The orange expresses a time of extreme angst. Farmers’ feeling of having market access has decreased by 20% since 2015.

So today I presented the culmination of all studies, community visits, homestays, women’s discussion groups, and the quickly tabulated significant results of the Circles surveys at the Catholic University in La Paz, Bolivia.  About 60 people attended including quinoa farmers from Salinas and Uyuni, students, the press, and various organization and department directors.  Three farmers from Uyuni prepared organic handmade quinoa bread baked in their adobe, wood burning, community oven plus cookies and pito (and hand toasted, ground quinoa, powdered energy drink) …All featuring different varieties of quinoa with unique properties.

Varieties and properties were the theme of the presentation which recognized a significant decrease in farmers’ access to quinoa markets (20% less than 2015) and the ability to function in a quinoa-based economy (15% less than 2015).  Many farmers in Oruro had unsold quinoa in their homes while those in Potosi had none.  Quinoa was sold in small quantities on the common markets as cash was needed – for example people were selling sacks of quinoa to pay for school uniforms and books for the upcoming school year.

Running the numbers it is easy to see that quinoa farmers are quickly descending back into the abject poverty they rose from in 2007 with the world interest in quinoa – and new markets.  The current market price of 450 a quintal for fair trade, organic, Royal Quinoa is based on Peru’s cheaper conventional, industrialized quinoa which dominates the world markets.  This does not cover a farmer’s costs of production leaving them to operate at a loss.  Here’s why.

The inputs for quinoa production are large.  The average family of 5 is now cultivating just seven hectacres (21 acres) due to a combination of low market prices and poor climate conditions.  With the drought, erosion, pests, frost and hail – it is expected yields will be half of what they normally are – about 12 quintals per hectare (or 132 pounds per acre).  The total cost for producing these yields are as follows:

Inputs costs
Fertilizer  $1,049
Tractor  $857
Labor  $342
Pest control  $120
TOTAL  $2,368
net earnings

Boivian quinoa farers are now living on less than $2 a day.


The gross earnings a farmer gets form this production, assuming 100% is sold at the 450 price, is $5,326 (USD).  Minus the inputs mentioned in the table this leaves a net annual earnings of $3,013 or $281 a month which is less than $2 a day for a family of five – the average family size in the rural areas.  The per capita income in Bolivia is $7,191 which means that today’s quinoa farmers earn at less then half the average family household in Bolivia.

The quinoa regions are remote.  Besides raising llamas which people maintain for personal consumption, fertilizer for the quinoa and local market sales  – there are no other economies.  Other crops do not grow in the high, dry, mineralized soils.  There is no other industry.  Though there is electricity, cell service, drinking water, elementary schools and roads to most communities – the cities which have paying jobs are hours away on bus. Many children live in state run boarding schools for access to high school education in larger cities, fathers leave for Chile or the cities for more permanent work and mothers and more often grandmothers, are left alone with toddlers in the shrinking communities to tend to the llamas, fields, raise the little children, and maintain the family farming compound – alone.


Prices have plummetted leaving both farmers and their quinoa sales associations vulnerable and in crisis.

There is no market access for these communities.  In addition, the large associations which most farmers are members of, are in difficult times too.  Grower associations and cooperatives covered their costs by receiving a percentage of total sales in membership commissions.  With low prices and lower yields they are not making enough to cover their operating costs.  Many have expressive processing equipment they received through loans of over $100,000 which now need to be repaid.  They are operating at a loss, incurring debts and unable to pay their administrative costs.  In addition, there is shrinking market access for these associations – as more quinoa production is developed less expensively, externally in countries such as Peru but also in Canada, Australia, France, China, the Netherlands and the US, the demand for premium, hand grown organic Bolivian quinoa is shrinking.  So are the markets.  In 2016, US consumption of all quinoa dropped by almost 10% – the US is the world’s largest consumer of all quinoa.  So besides low prices, there is low demand too – many associations are waiting for orders, their warehouses full and members desperately waiting for payments for quinoa sold, often six months ago.  With no sales, there is no cash flow.

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Of this town of 60 families about 12 reside there full time.  Others live in Uyuni and Chile – where they work in the informal economy of Calama, an inland mining town.  Chile has open migration laws and it’s easy for the Bolivian children to attend school college and their parents to have work and a safe, dignified life there.  Year ago, Chile granted amnesty for the thousands of Bolivian migrants living within its borders and many took advantage of that, but not all.  Some, like Miguelina’s daughter, did not want to mix her Bolivian identity with Chile so she travels back and forth across the border in a semi-clandestine way, overstaying her visits to Chile where she lives full time as an undocumented immigrant.  Even so, she enjoys a good quality of le with steady work, a house, healthcare and children in public high school and college.


Miguelina of Lluvica – wiht her mountain grown quinoa and the salt flats in the distance.

Miguelina, a 75 year old, robust quinoa farmer and our host, remembers walking with her father and his llama trains as a young child.  Usually three families would leave together – the dad and some children and about 50 llamas in total, laden with blocks of salt and sacks of quinoa for trade for fruits and other goods.  There was no currency in those days.  They simply traded, picking up different products on the way there and back.  It would be a three week journey and the children would sleep out under the stars with their dads, eating dried llama meat (charkey) and ground toasted quinoa (pito).  A highly nutritious combination of proteins and minerals which made for a very healthy, balanced diet.

Miguelina would wear handmade alpaca sandals made by her dad.  He would tan hides by soaking them in mud a few days and then fashion the sandals from the skin, putting three layers for a sole – which was slippery when climbing rocks!  Their clothes were woven or knit of alpaca hair.  Women wore dark woven skirts with heavy woven shawls and men wore white woven pants and heavy wool ponchos.  None wore socks or tights, even when the temperatures ducked down below freezing.  Our feet neve got cold explained Miguelina.

Miguelina remembers trading the quinoa for pears and other delicious fruits which would be brought back to the community.  Other times her father would travel east to Argentina, trading quinoa and salt for flour and tubs, bowls, dishes, utensils and other hard goods and manufactured items.  Tupiza, Bolivia trade to the south would bring in corn.  Every direction had their goods and season when the trades would happen.


Lluvica farmers disucss what sustianbility means to them in our talking stick workshop.

Today, the people of Lluvica still maintain their llama herds – but use them more for food than travel.  Burros help carry harvested quinoa and grain down the mountains today, they can carry more than the delicate llamas and are easier to tether and work with.

The mountain quinoa is grown in a different way than the plains quinoa.  Since there is no tractor, there is no reason to remove the stones and boulders that litter the mountainsides – the quinoa is simply planted around them.  The soil is made up more of course pebbles than sand and sits firmly on the mountainsides.  The mineral content here is so high that the first time quinoa is planted in a new area, about half of the crop is lost because the strong minerals “burn’ the plant – providing so much nutrition that it is overwhelmed and turns yellow.  The second year, the soil is left open to rest and the following year, he soiled is ready for a robust crop.  The quinoa grows well here   It does not have the effects of the drought and insects like the quinoa of the plains has. The natural pest control method of fumigating with tola smoke in the early morning is effective.  On the average the community produces 44 tons of quinoa a year.

Hand grown quinoa is hard work.  The fields are a two hour walk (or 20 min. drive) from the tiny mountainside town nestled in a crease of the Cordillera Real mountains range where a natural spring flows and apple and pear trees grow. To prepare the solid, steep mountainside plots of three to nine acres are hand hoed with surface soils scraped up into long rows in preparation for the spring planting in September.  Families often camp out at their mountain fields for weeks getting the soil ready.  The weeds are left to decompose and llamas and vicunas roam the plots depositing their rich manure.  Tractors on the other hand, can till three acres of quinoa in just a few hours.

Unlike other quinoa growing communities who keep their llamas out for several nights in a row, Lluvica llamas are brought in each night and kept corralled up.  With herds ranging from 60 to 100 llamas, this is a lot of work.  The Andean puma however is a predator of the llamas, and will attack unprotected herds at night.


The troublesome Islancha plant – what is is?

What is Islancho?

But even more bothersome than the llama is the islancho plant – an plant that recently appeared in the area most likely brought about by grazing llamas who ate the plant and defecated its seeds in the quinoa fields.  This small ground plant has purple flowers like a potato plant, deep roots and spread via rhizomes – deep underground roots.  It affects the soil making it impossible to grow quinoa here.  Though local agronomists have bene alerted to the menace of this plant, – there are now at least 10 acres of unusable land due to he impact of this plant and now that it’s established, its spreading even faster.  However, there has been little research done as to why the plant is affecting this region like this.  Or even to more scientifically identify the plant. Interestingly, I observed this plant growing alongside quinoa in other regions without any noticeable ill effect.  In addition farmer’s from other regions recognize the plant but do not consider it anything more than an annoying weed.


The Mountain Quinoa Kitchen

Mountain quinoa is carefully hand harvested, mature seed heads selected as they come into ripeness, some with variances of weeks – from the same plant.  The quinoa kitchen is just as carefully calculated and used.  Varieties such as the yellow Toledo, rose-white are used in soups.  The rosy Irampo is used for pisanqu’allo – a quinoa rice-like dish of toasted, boiled grains.  Black volcanic rocks called kalapari –  known for their high carbon content are heated in fires and used to toast quinoa and give a special flavor to thinly sliced llama meats.  In addition a finer soil, the pojera, is also used for quinoa toasting and preparation. The saruna is a deep stone bowl that is used to thresh the quinoa – to step on the quinoa and separate the seed from the chaff.

DAY 49 – The soccer championship of Puerto Lluvica

DAY 49 – The soccer championship of Puerto Lluvica


Game over. The Puerto Lluvica soccer field at dusk.

The salt flats were still flooded from the rain two weeks ago and could not be crossed by bus.  It is amazing how quickly the ancient sea that once was the salt flats can re-create itself so quickly and maintain that memory of what it once was for so long.  It’s as if the ghost spirit of the sea exists in the salt and lays resting, waiting for that single rain drop to bring it back.  So to get to Lluvica, the far away mountain-grown quinoa community at the edge of the Bolivia/Chilean border, we needed to take the rickety old local bus around the salt flats – a three hour drive past huge coral formations, salty seas and vast desert lands dotted with wild vicuna herds.

Quinoa grower and agronomist, Monica Cayo had invited us to Lluvica.  When meeting with Jancito in what seemed like years ago at the APQUISA quinoa growers cooperative headquarters in Challapata, he had mentioned Monica’s name.  I spent weeks trying to hunt her down – finally our paths crossed at a SOPROQI meeting in Uyuni.  We exchanged information and when a spare moment opened after our Anzaldo visit in the valleys, I jumped at the opportunity to travel back up to the highlands and come out to Lluvica and see the last outpost of truly traditional quinoa growing in Bolivia.

Historically quinoa was grown on mountainsides while llama herds grazed on the tola bushes in the plains below.  But with the introduction of tractors and semi-mechanized production, farmers moved their fields down to the flat plains – tractors could not work in the mountains it was too steep for them.  But the people of Lluvica maintained their mountain growing traditions and hand produced tons of hand grown, organic quinoa each year.  This quinoa – the same Royal Quinoa varieties of kaslala and Toledo, chimirir and white quinoa real of the plains – is mixed with the plains quinoa and sold in the world markets as simply “white, red or black” quinoa.  I suspected that this hand grown mountain quinoa has value in its production and should be purchased separately at a price of $.25 more per pound to the farmers and sold to consumers as a premium, hand grown, organic mountain quinoa at $1.00 more a pound.  Bu I needed to see it to be sure.

Traveling to Lluvica to meet Monica and her community will help me to understand better what Mountain Grown quinoa was and to document its production and properties.  We stayed with Monica’s aunt, Tia Miguelina, her husband and visiting daughter and granddaughter from Chile.  The bus does not go to LLuvica – the road is too narrow, long, bumpy and hardly anyone lives there anymore. So Tio met us in his SUV at the regional soccer Championships taking place at Puerto LLuvica and drove us the 45 minute route home late at night, after all had finished celebrating the annual event.

The soccer championship included teams from all the neighboring towns around the salt flats – San Juan, Chuvica, Santiago, Cholque K, Lluvica and more.  They had been paired off in showdown matches all day and now it was down to the final four teams.  After a few hours of high speed soccer played in the blowing altiplano sands at the edge of the salt flats, the Team Bolivar from Gladys’ community, Chuvica were declared the winners. Celebrations ensued including a guest appearance by the parish priest from Uyuni who opened the town church for a misa – with songs in Spanish Quechua, he guided the 30 or so people present through the mass and communion.  Then folklore music was played on pan flutes and llama skin drums.  Two tola bonfires were lit and people danced about the fires in slow circles.  A group of tourists who were staying in the salt hotels on the outskirts of town joined in the celebrations much to the towns folks humor.  The sight of a large gangly blond haired male in dreads decked out n various forms of Bolivian artesenia – sweaters, ponchos and chewing cocoa – arms flailing and heals kicking to the beat of the drum – will quickly attract a cluster of laughing Bolivians who enjoy the wild antics that are so different from their quiet, communal way of celebrating.


The winding rutted road to Lluvica…

After the traditional dancing and torchlight parade through the cold windy adobe village, we settled into the “local” or town meeting hall where a young electronic band from the city of Potosi was set up with was of speakers.  The 5-piece ensemble quickly donned matching uniforms tight pants, leather jackets, mirrored aviator sunglasses and began in choreographed unison to sway and belt out the popular cumbias for all to dance to.  The music was deafening, the base drum latterly shaking the windows and doors of the packed room.  Grandmothers, teens, some with babies, and all in between were there to watch the band.  This was not a dancing crowd.  Beer and cocktails were passed around and people left and returned milling around the dark village visiting with family and friends, all in the for the long weekend before school started that Monday – kids back from college in Oruro, work in Uyuni and migrants returning from Chile for the summer holidays.  It was a warm, friendly festive time.

DAY 48 – The women’s quinoa bakery in Anzaldo

DAY 48 – The women’s quinoa bakery in Anzaldo


Margarita with her butter bread.

Margarita Blanca had a dream.  She saw the hard working women of her and the neighboring communities all working together to grind their own wheat and make it into the best, most delicious professional bread imaginable – and selling it around the region.  She saw women working together, employed and earning a premium price for their wheat.  She saw the mayor helping out and all communities working together to pool resources, funding and successes.

            She saw this but it was not happening. The neighboring community had a gas fired oven but would not share it with people outside of their community.  Why should they give work to someone else – it’s their oven and they should be using it for their own things and that’s it, they explained – except they weren’t.  Her own community liked the idea of a shared bakery but wanted it in their community for more secure and constant access.  Margarita explained the bakery needed to be in the large town of Anzaldo, an hour away on foot, because there was where the market was.  She explained that it would be easier to distribute fresh hot bread in the town, than to bring the bread to town and have it arrive cold and no longer fresh.  She wanted to make and sell hundreds of breads all around the region and benefit all women wheat growers.  She also wanted to in improve child nutrition and add quinoa flour to the breads.  But the communities were not in agreement.


Margarita did not give up.  She traveled to meetings in the mayor’s office, met with developers and shared her vision with anyone who would listen. Little by little she started to get supporters: other women from her community and others, the school, the church and the mayor.  But the real support needed to come from the rural women themselves.  Margarita saw other communities in places such as Rachay Pampa, who had successful programs started.  She knew this could happen in Anzaldo too.

Her big break came in June 2016 when the Center for the Research and Promotion of Rural People  (CIPCA) – a Bolivian non-profit development organization – hosted a workshop with the Anzaldo mayor and community at their annual Water Festival.  Here Margarita learned CIPCA was working with rural nutrition and could help her start her bakery!

She traveled to the city of Cochabamba 2 hours away, on her own dime and time, to meet with CIPCA and present her vision for the Anzaldo bakery.  CIPCA was in!  The bakery idea met their goals of supporting rural development and nutrition and was an economically feasible enterprise – there was a market, infrastructure and opportunity. They gave Margarita the go ahead under the condition that she form an official women’s association and secure some financial backing from the town mayor.

Within a few days, Margarita had the mayor’s attention.  There was an unused medical post in town that could be lent to the women for three years – as long as they paid the utilities to use it, mainly electric lights and gas for the stove.   He later gave them a 2 month grace period on their first utility bill. Margarita went from community to community meeting with the rural leaders and soliciting support for the bakery project.  Finally she had seven communities (out of 15) on board.  It was enough to get started!

The women cleaned and painted the building a bright cheerful green, received from CIPCA a new commercial oven with electronic temperature control and the ability to not just make bread but also cakes and cookies.  Bakery members each paid either 32 pounds of wheat (a $14 value) or $7 cash – whatever they preferred, to be a member of the baking association.  This got the women the raw materials and cash they needed to begin.

The women had their local, organic wheat ground into flour and CIPCA sent down a professional baker and nutritionist from the city to help create recipes for the women.  They also sent an accountant to help the women set up the books and controls for the flow of ingredients, inputs, costs and earnings.  Production would be local, organic and of the highest quality.  The mayor put in an order for quinoa breakfast breads to be baked for school nutrition programs.  He would order 100 breads at 40 centavos each – committing an order of 100 breads delivered daily to the school.  This hardly covered the cost of producing the bread, but it gave the women a space to use their wheat and produce product.

The bakery officially opened in December 2016 and currently produces 120 breads a day for outside sales of 1Bs each.  The women sell their hot quinoa bread in the afternoon to making rounds to the local hospital, boarding school, and main plaza the town.  They have the capacity to make three times that amount but are holding off until they know there is better market access.

One goal that Margarita has is to make bread in the morning.  This will give here access to the most popular morning bread market.  To do this she (and the women members) would need to sleep in the bakery, which has a bedroom.  However, that is not allowed by husbands who need the women to be home getting the children ready for school, the farm animals ready for the day, and the afternoon meal prepared  – and not sleeping in Bakeries far away. But Margarita is patient and persistent.  She is confident that in time a solution will be found and the bakery can operate in the mornings producing the daily bread (instead of the afternoon snack).  Future plans also include sales in the large commercial center of Cliza and a distribution in the city of Cochabamba.

Besides bread, Margarita’s team makes butter rolls, quinoa bread with 17% quinoa, quinoa cakes, quinoa and cheese empanadas, and quinoa chocolate chip cookies.  Women take turns working in the bakery in pairs usually putting in two turns a week and earning 20Bs a turn.  Local ingredients used in the recipes include wheat, potatoes, dried corn and peas, cheese, honey and eggs.  The women are paid an extra 10% for their products used in production. The women are investing their savings into a fund to pay for their own building to be built when their 3-year lease is up on the borrowed health post.

DAY 47 – Quinoa gardens – valley style!

DAY 47 – Quinoa gardens – valley style!

anzaldo valley

The high tropical valleys of Anzaldo.

Two hundred miles as the crow flies and 3,500 feet lower in altitude – which is actually 9 hours of bus rides through winding mountain roads – sits the high tropical valleys of the Cochabamba Department.  Here too is the homeland of quinoa – though without the deep folklore tradition that the salt flats quinoa shares.  Most likely quinoa in this region was brought in by pre-inca ancestors (and not gods) via trade thousands of years ago.  New varieties were developed, adapted to the rich, slightly acidic, Noncalcic Brown soil present in light-pink and reddish-brown hues.  This was a big contrast to the gray desert soils, or sierozem, found in the Southern Altiplano Quinoa Real region.

Within this valley region is the colonial town of Anzaldo, home to 1,100 in-town residents and 6,000 farmers in the outlying communities. Quechua is the principal language here with Spanish being understood by almost all.

Quinoa here is grown very differently from the Royal Quinoa of the southern altiplano.  Here a handful of seeds is sprinkled amongst crops such as corn and potatoes as a supplemental crop to help ward off insects (through the saponins in the seeds) and as an extra food source.  Anzaldos’ principal cash crops are corn – mostly dried and fermented into chicha, a mild homebrew that is popular in the valley regions – and wheat which is sold at 450Bs a quintal (20% higher value than the altiplano quinoa) in the regional Cliza market. Farmers claim to sow the “criollo variety” of quinoa.  This is a general term used in the area to refer to anything that has a colonial history to it.  Chickens and cows are often referred to as being of the criollo variety too.


Quiet town of Anzaldo.

Agronomist, Jorge Rojas, my counterpart from the state  San Simon University (UMSS) Agronomy Department assures me that within this “criollo” variety actually exists hundreds of distinct quinoa varieties.  He shows me how in a single seed planting there already is evidence of four or five different varieties as distinguished by stem color and seed head formation.  Rojas proposes to develop a seed bank for the quinoa varieties in Anzaldo.  He predicts there will be at least 500 varieties identified.  It will be part of a multi-year study he is developing for the quinoa of this region.

Unlike the women of the altiplano, valley women consume their quinoa, mostly white, as a single grain – either in soups, as rice, or ground into flour and mixed with wheat flour to make high protein breads.  The valley’s stone ground, hand made breads often baked in wood fired adobe ovens are famous throughout the valley and sold weekly in regional markets.

Families claim to harvest about 90 pounds of quinoa a year for their own family use and consume it weekly.  This is Quinoa Dulce (sweet quinoa)– a lowland variety of quinoa that has a smaller seed and less saponin than the Royal Quinoa of the altiplano.  In addition, family members eat steamed quinoa leaves as a spinach product and feed the damaged seeds and chaff to their chickens and animals.


Anzaldo farmers discuss their wellbeing at our talking stick meeting.

Altiplano agronomists claim it is impossible to grow quinoa and potatoes or corn together, since both are such heavy feeders, but I witnessed healthy plants side by side in the rich valley soils – with all crops appearing robust and healthy.  Though I also noticed some quinoa with mildew and fungal diseases from the recent rain.  The people here did not tend to their quinoa, it was grown more as a wild species left to fend for itself in the fields.  Though in the fall it was harvested, cleaned and stored in an orderly way.

Anzlado Farmers usually work their crops on a four-year rotation, starting first with wheat, then planting potato (with quinoa) the next year, corn (with quinoa) the year following that, and finally beans the fourth year.  The land is then given a one year rest before the cycle starts again.  Natural and chemical fertilizers in the form of urea are applied to the soils in preparation for each growing cycle.

There is an abundance of animals in the region and farms are much smaller than the immense tracks farmed in the Altiplano.  Here people tend to a few acres of production and also have home gardens where onions, carrots, lettuce, squash, broccoli are grown for personal use.  Some have greenhouse tomatoes they tend to and others have fruit trees such as pears and peaches.  In addition, there is an abundance of animals: rabbits, chickens, hens, sheep, donkeys (for transportation) and bulls.  There are few cows raised in Anzlado because of the scarce pasture.  The grass is not abundant enough to support good milk production so instead the people mostly raise beef– managing small herds of 3 to 5 bulls (steers?) per family.


Anzaldo farmer with her crops.

The Anzaldo region is quite dry and was declared an emergency disaster area from September to December 2016 due to the extreme drought.  In some communities water tanks were installed in villages and water trucked in so residents would have enough to drink.  Today there is rain though the crops have bene planted late and all at once.  This has been stressful for farmers, who are more used to taking their time with their planting cycles – and not having all crops go in at the same time together.  Most of the farming is still done manually and migration is just a big here as it is in the altiplano.  Communities have lost an average of 70% of their residents to city migration.  Families return for festivals, but there is not much labor to be fund in the communities between festival times, when planting and farm work need to be done.

DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

Chita women

The women quinoa growers of Chita – Modesta, Nilda and Rosali – committed to coming to La Paz to present their experiences in person.

Along the dusty road leading to Uyuni lies the tiny railroad town of Chita, founded in 1939 and named perhaps for the Chita plant or rain or water – it is not certain.  Home to 40 permanent families, it once was a thriving quinoa producer zone.  Now the towering dust devils skirt past empty fields, the wind whistling through the tin roofed adobe dwellings.  A nursery is there – to grow the ancient tolla brush that once held down the dry, fragile soils.  And so is the Chita Club de Madres, a group formed over a decade ago as part of a long forgotten development project.

The 14 women club members, all quinoa growers, meet regularly to discuss needs, plan events and organize themselves for different projects.   Today’s project was the arrival of me, a quinoa researcher from the US.   The local quinoa research organization, Proimpa, invited me to the site when they heard I was looking to contact women quinoa growers – they had been working on the tola nursery there for many years and knew the women’s group well.  Martin, a Proimpa agronomist from the Chita, dropped us off as he headed off to check on the vivero and other projects.  We would be picked up again in 4 hours.

The women invited us to their meeting hall, a cold, dusty room accessed through a metal door made from an old oil drum cut apart and pounded flat and an outdoor patio where an adobe wood fired stove stood in a corner.  We proceeded with our workshop – talking of sustainability and laughing at the women’s jokes and jabs at one another.  It was a jolly group and we found ourselves having quite a fun time.  The workshop ended and we stayed on talking.

The women spoke of their quinoa varieties – 2,000 in all!  They talked of the 20-30 ecotypes they worked with the different properties of each – the yellow toledo cooked fast, the kaslala or ch’ulpi was a sticky quinoa when ground that was great for bread.  HachaChina had 18% protein and was a sport quinoa while ChuliMichi (Ojos de Azucar – eyes of sugar) was a sweet quinoa with a high sugar content…

dusty town chits

The windswept salt flat outpost and train stop of Chita.

And they spoke of their recipes – cookies, breads, pito, cakes, pisha q’alla made of red quinoa, mokuna… each variety with its own set of recipes.  I asked if the varieties could be interchanged in the recipes.  Absolutely not they all said in unison, laughing at their timing.  Bread and pito can only be made with kaslala, Toledo is only for soup, etc.  I noticed, however that outside of the quinoa growers’ kitchens very few Bolivians and no one from outside Bolivia were using quinoa that way.  For example, the many varieties of white quinoa were simply mixed together and sold as all purpose white quinoa.  When they were not all purpose at all.  In the women quinoa grower’s kitchen never would the varieties be mixed and used as an “all purpose,” impossible! Each variety had a purpose – even as medicine and healing. Quinoa preparation and cooking was a tradition build on thousands of years of ancestral experimentation and testing passed from mother to daughter.  Seeds were selected and stored to preserve the best properties of each variety.  Farmers very intentionally choose which varieties to grow, what quantity of each, and the placement of the seeds in their fields.  They know what the seed heads look like and can easily name each seed variety, even when they are closely mixed in the fields or in different stages of development.  Farmers know the leaf and stem colors, head shapes and characteristics and colors. An agronomist told me the quinoa seeds do not cross pollinate and each variety maintains its own characteristics.


Chita women sample KIND bars from the US – a processed food product that features quinoa.

In Chita this year each family is growing an average of 10-12 different varieties on 20 acres each.  In other times, they would plant 60 acres, but with price so low, the weather so varied and the drought, it made no sense to invest to much into quinoa production.  Twenty acres is just fine they explained.  Even with that, they are noting, it seems there will be a 70% loss of crops from the drought.  Yields vary from 2 tons to less than 1 ton per acre depending on climate effects – the women were expecting yields of less than a ton per acre this year. Bio-indicators, such as rodents’ homes with covered entrances, are predicting an early frost which can easily kill off developing seed heads and turn developed seeds black and unusable.  Harvest is in May.  There is no remedy for frost, they women just have to wait and hope for the best.


Chita quinoa grower.

Modesta, an older woman with graying braids asked me what I was going to do with the information they were giving me. I explained it would be presented in a presentation at Catholic University in La Paz in February.  She lamented how people are always talking about the quinoa and the women, but never let them speak for themselves.  I explained that I worked with full transparency and that the women were welcome to come to La Paz and present their story during my presentation.  She said that the would come.  At first I thought she was joking.  La Paz was very far away – a 15 hour trip by bus.  Rural women were usually shy about traveling outside their family and were rarely able to anyway, with their obligations to the family, children and farm – plus jealous husbands did not like their wives to be away from home.  But Modesta was not joking and neither were Nilda and Rosali who also said they would travel to La Paz as well.  I was stunned.  This was great!  To have real, authentic women’s voices at the presentation – what a brilliant idea.  I was in.

I quickly named them the three musketeers – which got them cracking up all over again.  We formed a plan: they would cook the bread, cookies and pito with different quinoa varieties for the presentation participants.  They would also present the Bolivian kitchen and women’s experience – about 15 minutes – with questions and answers afterward.  I would pay for their travel and food and buy the products they produced, plus give them an extra tip (yapa) for their time and effort.  They were in.

We exchanged phone numbers and planned to see each other in a few weeks, at the time of the scheduled presentation.  The time was up.  The women had to cook and check on their quinoa.  We walked along the empty railroad tracks, the wind blowing against us, sand blowing into our ears and mouth – to find the agronomist, Martin, and get our ride back to the town of Uyuni 20 minutes away.

Three weeks later – I was at the bus station in La Paz at 8 in the morning, picking up Modesta, Nilda and Rosali for the presentation!

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

dona miguelena

Lluvica highlands quinoa farmer, Miguelina in her fields overlooking the salt flats.

After weeks of trekking through the high salt flat plains, volcanic perimeters and mountain corridors, visiting over a dozen remote quinoa communities – Puerto Lluvica, Lluvica, Santiago, Belle Vista, Otuyo, Quillacas, San Juan, Capura and more – I have captured the hopes, dream and fears of the women, and some men, of these communities.  “What is sustainability for a woman quinoa farmer?” is the question all were asked.  In 90 minute meetings in stark, crumbling adobe town meeting halls with creaky, oiled, wooden floors, we would mull over this – under the light of a few florescent bulbs tacked up to the ceilings made of sewn flour sacks.  Often at 8 or 9 at night, once the women had returned from the quinoa fields, cooked dinner, attended to their children and finally had a moment to spare to meet a foreigner from the US, who had actually travelled all the way to her community and was interested in learning about her well-being and listening to her voice.


Me, the author, interviewing a quinoa farmer from San Juan.

Most times, I would be introduced to the elected town authority by the woman member of a quinoa growers’ cooperative or association who took me under her wing, let me stay with her family, visit and work in her fields, cook and eat her food, ask a million questions and get to know the community better.

I would offer the community an interactive workshop and the elected town crier would ring the church bell in the community, letting the people know there was a meeting.  Women would arrive from the dark street wrapped in shawls and ponchos, long layered skirts and thick stockings.  Even though it was the Andean summer, nighttime temperatures would drop into the 50 and 40s and our drafty meeting houses did not have heat.

The meetings began with participants in a semi-circle facing the wall where I had a large sheet of paper tacked up with my name, cell phone number, e-mail and the title of the workshop.  Transparency was important and giving out one’s cell phone number is like offering a handshake here.  I would be presented to the group by the village official and would then further introduce myself as a US professor of Solidarity Economy, a concept well known in South America, that refers to an economy of working together in a mutually beneficial way for all.  (There are a handful of “solidarity economists” in the US, mostly lumped under the title of “radical economists” and teaching in areas such as environmental economics and political economy).

quinoa family

Felix and his family take a break from hand hoeing their highland quinoa fields in Lluvica.

In the Andean tradition, I would then invite the participants to a snack – this time it was a Kind bar, made by a New York company who prides themselves on using visible ingredients so participants could see the tiny puffed quinoas that were part of the chocolate-honey-oatmeal-millet bar.  It was interesting for them to experience how others use their quinoa and all loved the sweet, chewy bars.

We then launched into a group discussion of what was sustainability to them.  I would start by drawing a wiggly line on a piece of paper signifying the earth, to give them a starting point. Then little by little other details would be added: rain, money, quinoa, llamas, manure, people – usually in that order.  I would draw and label each item as they mentioned it – learning from my friend Tito Medrano from the Fair Trade NGO, that people responded better to drawings than written words which they were unaccustomed to using.  After about 20 minutes of open conversation, I would put a positive and a negative sign in a space I had left open on the paper, dividing that section in half, and introduce the Talking Stick – a native American way of inviting all people to speak equally about a topic.  In the Andean tradition, things are talked about in balance – there is always a positive and negative to each situation and this is valued in conversation.  The participants would take turns holding the stick (passed from left to right) and adding their own ideas or re-enforcing other ideas already presented, about what they saw as the positive and negative aspects of their own sustainability and quinoa production.  The talking stick helped to even out the opening conversation which was usually dominated by a few people, and bring out the more quiet people, often the oldest and youngest women, to talk.  As things were repeated, I would put a check next to the item.  As new things were mentioned, they were added to the picture and the -/+ part of the paper.  Often jokes would be made and there would be a serious, but also playful, tone to the meeting.  By the end of the workshop, we had a pretty good idea of the needs, fears, and hopes of the people in that community.  Participants reported they enjoyed that moment to reflect together over who they were and where they were in their own lives and that of the community.  I would leave the posters hung up for people to reference later, taking a photo for my own records.

temas comunas

What quinoa farmers need for sustainable living.

What emerged was something unique and universal at once.  While each community had their own interpretation of sustainability, after six meetings with almost 100 people, 60% who were women, common themes began to emerge with varying degrees of urgency and need. The following is a quantified presentation of the six most popular themes and the negative-positive aspects of them.  The numbers represent the number of times the theme was mentioned by meeting participants.

pos-neg temas

The negative-posititve contrasts to each theme.

The most important theme was the climate.  With climate change making farming more risky and unpredictable with early frosts, sudden hail, torrential downpours and long droughts, farmers no longer could predict harvests or calculate optimal planting times like before.  After years of drought, which just ended with abundant rains this January, landscapes had changed – there was not as much forage for the llamas and wild vicunas and delicate topsoils were being carried away in the winds.  The positive aspect of the climate was the rain which had arrived and the ability to grow quinoa though the negative was the unpredictable weather which could wipe out an entire crop of quinoa.

After climate came the people.  People were pleased to be working together as an entire family in the quinoa soil prep, planting and harvest.  Many children were home from college and visiting from Chile where families had migrated in search of better work – helping with the quinoa and llamas.  However there was a lot of recognition that the Bolivian quinoa was largely hand grown in small quantities with the utmost care and quality, the earth and seeds were blessed before planting and for the harvest.  This took a lot of work.  Weeks are spent in the acres of fields hand hoeing weeds and hilling up fallen quinoa stalks, hand picking off worms, turning over soils, cutting and drying the large seed heads – one head at a time, separating the seeds from the stalks, cleaning out stones, loosening the chafe.  Women had the extra work of cooking and child care on top of this.  For the Bolivian kitchen, there was also a lot of processing of the quinoa at home.  The seeds needed to be toasted and the chafe removed by sifting it in the wind, then the seed was washed several times – often toasted again for pisaga or hand ground into pito – where it was used to make a drink, dumplings, or eaten plain with a small amount of sugar.  The seed was a culture, a source of pride that the Bolivians themselves cultivated since ancient times.  There were legends, stories and a long shared memory of quinoa – the seed of gold, the plant that is central to the Andean culture and identity – much like corn is for native Americans in the north. However the people were dictated the price for their quinoa by the Peruvian market, which with government investment and mechanized, large scale farming, was outpricing the more artisanal Bolivian quinoa.  The price of 450Bs a quintal for top quality, organic Bolivian quinoa was not meeting the small scale Bolivian farmer’s costs.

Also needed for sustainability was the quinoa itself.  The positive aspects were the presence of the Quinoa Real, a type of quinoa that only grew in the mineral rich, sandy soils surrounding the Bolivian salt flats and the traditional organic style of farming.  The negative parts were the lack of organic pest control methods, the increasingly problematic worms eating the seed heads, a lack of investment for proper farm inputs – such as ample fertilizer (organic llama manure), and preventative pest control (such as moth traps) –the over tilling of the delicate land by tractors better suited for the deep soils of the valleys, the clearing of native grasses for more quinoa production – which led to increased desertification and loss of grazing lands, the thousands of acres of abandoned quinoa lands, now tilled and barren, the fact that Bolivians cannot compete with modern mechanized world production methods of quinoa – where there are 2 harvests, deep soils, rain and ample investment, and that there is no recognition of the quality and work that goes into their quinoa and its thousands of varieties that are known to the world only as white, red, black.

The earth itself (soils) are also mentioned many times in the theme of sustainability – with recognition of its microorganisms, organic nature, mineral content and that it is a respected, living organism, the Earth Mother (Pachamama) who supports all life.  There was recognition of its need to be respected, not exploited, and cared for carefully without massive production, but with high quality, small scale, organic artisanal farming.

The animals were also of importance to the people – largely the llamas, which were native to the altiplano and were raised in balance with the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is still the fertilizer of choice for the Bolivian quinoa.  The positive was the presence of the llama though the negative was the toll the drought and loss of forage for the animals due to excessive clearing and tilling of altiplano lands – herds were smaller, animals thin and some did not have the energy to nurse their babies. In addition, due to the extreme drop in quinoa prices, many people have left the quinoa regions in search of more steady work, and no longer maintain their own herds of alpaca – though they still return to plant and harvest the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is now at a premium, as there is less now than before for use in the quinoa fields and many families have to purchase dung since they no longer have their herds to provide this for them.

Finally the economy itself was problematic.  There was nothing good to be said about this.  The current market price of quinoa – including fair trade and organic – simply did not cover the costs of production.  Dictated from Peru and pushed by foreign competition, the Bolivian quinoa farmers had no control on pricing of their product.  They had the choice to accept the market price which ranged from 550Bs (7Bs is $1US) for a quintal of quinoa to 250Bs for common market uncertified quinoa – or not sell the product at all, and save it for their own use.  Quinoa farmers however, were just that.  In the cold, arid altiplano, very few other crops grew – some produced a few pounds of potatoes, fava beans and onions for their own use, but not in quantities for market sales.  The llama meat fetched a fair market price, but the market for alpaca meat was largely limited to national sales in the highlands where there was a tradition of consuming llama.  So while largely self-sufficient farmers, quinoa growers also had a need for cash – to pay for electricity, to buy cooking oil, clothes, school supplies, and to grow the quinoa – pay for the tractor to till the soil, manure, pest control and labor.  Current prices are at half of what the farmers need for a dignified living and the is no sign of the prices changing any time in the near future.  As a result, less land is being planted, leading to less income as well, and increased migration out of the quinoa zone. Most communities only have 25% of the families living there full time – the rest are in other cities such as Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz and countries such as Chile, working in urban jobs.

Overall, there were 13 different themes mentioned with three being outliers (for example – the wild animals of the mountains, or the abundant crops and recipes of the valleys) which were specific to a particular community and did not represent the ideas of all quinoa growers.  Additional themes mentioned with less frequency included culture, wisdom, policy and tourism.

quinoa and gladys

Galdys shows off her community quinoa in Chuvica.

My thanks go out to Gladys Caral, Monica Cayo, Florinda Consales, and Ester Mamani for helping to make this study happen, and for bringing me into their lives.  We will continue to work together via the internet and WhatsApp until I return again in 2018 – keeping the connection open between the remote quinoa lands, US markets, and academic classrooms.

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

Salt hotel chuvica

A new tourism salt hotel under construction in the quinoa community of Chuvica.

When one arrives in Uyuni, the Potosi capital of the Quinoa Real, one sees a dusty, salty outpost with low adobe houses, a few cement and brick hotels, many salt flat tour offices and not much else.  This town of 10,000 people receives 60,000 tourists from all over the world, mostly European, Asian and South American backpackers – who are visiting the salt flats as part of a larger tour of Chile or Peru.  Tours take two to three days and cost more than $100 each.  The tourists are young, educated, have money and time to travel.  They are interested in the culture and natural environment of Bolivia but in Uyuni they are greeted with tourist restaurants serving beer and pizza, roadside food stands with fried chicken and thick cut French fries, Bolivian soups and dishes made of beef, rice and little else.  On the salt flat tours, tourists are served largely noodles. The tourist shops sell alpaca clothing, tiny trinkets carved from salt and little bags of salt.  No quinoa!  …Not even a plant in the plaza or a dried, decorative quinoa seed head in a hotel lobby.  These are young people who would love to learn about quinoa, eat it and then consume it in their home countries – where this is Bolivian quinoa for sale – becoming lifelong loyal Bolivian quinoa customers.  What an opportunity!

quinoa tourism - bells for meetings

The town crier rings these church bells to announce town meetings. Gladys’ niece poses for a photo- #quinoatoursim!

I was even more surprised to travel to the far away quinoa communities of San Juan, Santiago, Puerto Lluvica and Lluvica to find tourist hotels of salt, anthropology museums and tour vehicles arriving regularly, with no integration or participation with the quinoa growers themselves, who are literally living next door.

I thought of all of the agro-tourism we have alongside regular tourism in my state of Vermont, where we also have small, isolated, organic producers making largely artisanal producers – at premium prices.  I saw opportunities for tourists to learn to plan, hoe, and harvest quinoa.  To prepare quinoa for cooking in Bolivia’s many traditional ways – to have a quinoa culture center in each town where tourists can spend the afternoon thrashing seed heads, separating chaff, toasting grains over an open fire of tola plants, hand washing and grinding the grains with a stone and cooking soups, pito and pisaga.  They could herd the llamas, learn to turn the soil, even pack-up loads for llamas to carry and eat a lunch outside with the other herders. Harvest festivals and planting tours could be developed including separate quinoa tours that brought participants to the communities for several days.  Most communities had amazing pre-Inca ruins, cave paintings, and other natural wonders to explore as well – plus the community’s culture itself with ample festivals, music and traditions.

quinoa tourism - kitchen

My dughter Musi enjoys learning to cook with quinoa – Bolivian style.

Quinoa communities asked about tourism – all wanting to engage in it but not knowing how.  I told them the story of how I worked with the mayor or Mizque, 15 years ago, to develop the first Annual Fruit Festival there – which is still going on.  I helped the community of San Juan to map out their resources and see how they can work together more with the tourism industry and existing infrastructure to create a strong quinoa identity in the town of Uyuni and its surrounding communities. The communities were interested but still felt very detached from the tourists – who in one instance participated in a village festival by dancing and getting to know community members and in another instance wanted to know more about the quinoa seeds I had.  So there is interest.  The challenge is to bridge the communication and culture gap between the tourists and the Bolivians and more importantly the Bolivian tourism community and the quinoa farmers themselves.

An opportunity came by the other day when my American friend, Anna, who lives in Cochabamba and works on educational exchanges for Santa Clara students, mentioned an interest in doing more work in Uyuni.  I pitched the idea of students spending six weeks in the quinoa community of San Juan working with local people to develop a quinoa tour route and tourism.  Gladys the point person in the community was thrilled and so was my friend… we’ll where it all goes!