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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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