Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

The countrysides are emptying out.  Driving the hundred miles from Curahuara de Canagas to Oruro one passes one brown, dusty town after another.  Empty windows, boarded up doors, deserted dirt streets, only the wind blowing between the handful of silent houses.  New schools, basketball courts and small houses made of sturdy brick topped with shiny tin roofs stand alongside eroded adobe homes – thatched roofs caving in, windows broken, doors hanging from broken hinges.  This is not quinoa lands – it is llama and sheep pasture lands and old mining towns but the remote quinoa communities to the south look very similar. There are new roads and electricity but instead of making the countryside more comfortable and productive, it has made it easier to leave instead.

Today I am talking with Melina Cayo, a 37 year old quinoa producer, agronomist, organic production expert, and mom.  We are in her small neighborhood store in the city of Uyuni where she lives with her husband, mother and two daughters one just a few months old and the other now nine years old. We are reflecting on the future of quinoa and the quinoa lands.

Melina grew up in Manicua a small quinoa growing community of the edge of the Uyuni salt flats in the Department of Potosi.  Her community was too small to have a school so she would ride her bicycle 30 minutes to attend the neighboring elementary school.  Monica loved to learn and loved to farm.  In those days, 30 years ago, quinoa was largely grown mostly for personal consumption and local market sales.  The nearest high school was in the large town of Uyuni, a three-hour bus ride away across the salt flats (salar) – if the salar was not flooded which it often was.  In order to go to high school, Melina needed to stay in Uyuni.  Her family did not have a home or other family members in Uyuni and could not afford to rent a room. So in order to afford a small room shared with her sisters, Melina worked days as a maid the local hotels and attended night school.

One day when she was home during summer break, a team of agricultural engineers from IPTA came to her community for a study.  They contracted her to help them with their work for a month and Melina was hooked.  She loved the work and was amazed that such a job existed.  Getting to know the engineers, she learned how she could go to college and learn to work like they did.   For five years after she completed high school, Melina continued her hotel  in Uyuni saving money so she could afford housing in the city of Oruro where the Technical University of Oruro (UTO), was.  Tuition was minimal but housing and food needed to be paid for.  Melina graduated college and began working as a technician, or extension agent, for different agriculture development organizations and cooperatives in her highlands region.  She worked at Centro Inti, served the CECOAT cooperative, Department of Potosi and spent five years at Real Andina where she became an expert in organic certifications: Boli-Cert, IMO, Bio-Latina.  Being a rural extension agent is difficult with long trips to remote areas and days away from home.  Little by little, Melina began building her own business in Uyuni.  When Melina had her second daughter, she left her contract work and opened her store and consultant service.  Her mother runs another store the family owns closer to the center of Uyuni where more tourists visit. It specializes in natural foods and organic quinoa products.  The family continues to maintain its organic quinoa lands in Manicua as well, rotating the fields with 3 hactacres left fallow each rotation.

Melina believes the quinoa has its stages.  When prices were high everyone returned to the quinoa lands form the far off places they had migrated.  They ripped up the delicate pampas and planted quinoa wherever and however they could, reaping its economic benefits but not much else.  When the prices dropped, they left.  Sometimes she thinks this time of high activity was good.  It reunited families, revitalized the rural communities, brought in new technologies and ideas, a revitalization of indigenous knowledge and language, and improved the rural infrastructure with new houses, better roads and services. However she notes, there was an imbalance at that moment.  People were working too much for themselves instead of the community.  The quinoa earnings went largely to the pockets of the producers and were invested in ways that bettered them.  Houses were bought in far away cities, SUVs purchased to get there and very little thought was put into building a robust rural local community with permanent residents and a good quality of life.  Today the new brick houses with shiny metal roofs lay vacant, the cleared lands lay barren exposed to wind erosion, and the new schools and health posts remain unstaffed since there are no residents for them to serve.  When there is a community anniversary, carnival celebration, or the planting/harvest season arrives – so do the migrant residents.  Otherwise, the rural communities are empty.

I asked Melina about the loss of language and native culture I was observing as families left the rural areas and lost contact with the elderly producers who tended to stay in the countryside.  The elderly are the ones who know the language, legends, bio-indicators, and indigenous farming methods which sustained centuries of quinoa growing.  As this population is marginalized by their distance from the city-living families there is no longer the exchange of knowledge that existed for thousands of years.   And as this aging population dyes off, this knowledge and language is lost forever.

Though Melina knows Aymara and her mother speaks it more often than Spanish, her children are only slightly aware of it.  Like most children of today’s quinoa farmers, they understand Aymara (or Quechua – depending on where they are from) but do not speak it.  Aymara and Quechua are the primary languages of the rural communities but are quickly replaced by Spanish – the primary language of the cities.  Though it is required that all Bolivian public schools teach the local native language, this teaching is sparse and not thorough enough for a child to fully learn the language.  The learning comes from times spent in the rural communities where the native languages dominate all conversations.

Melina tearfully acknowledged this loss of language and culture as families moved further away from their rural communities – losing those close connections with the community elders and natural rhythms of life.  It is a pain she says she lives with every day.

I ask her what she sees the future of quinoa being.  She notes that the organic certifications that she works with bring a minimal 500Bs per quintal market price to the quinoa, in contrast to uncertified quinoa that is often sold as low as 300Bs a quintal.   This $20 difference she hopes will motivate people to be more careful in their farming and not use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers which bring long term harm to the region’s delicate soils.  Melina knows that quinoa will not rise to its 1,500Bs a quintal price from its heyday, nor does she want it to.  She feels that with the too-high prices came too much greed and a lack of respect for the community and the land.  Melina thinks that with stable prices will come a stabilization of the community with more people returning to the rural areas and living a balanced, dignified life with adequate local resources, a rural revitalization and living as comfortable or more so than the city dwellers.  Like almost every producer I have spoken with, she puts this stable price at 800Bs a quintal.  Enough to support high quality farming with adequate amounts of investment into natural composted llama manure and organic methods of pest control.  She wants farmers to be able to produce moderate-high yields so less land needs to be farmed in order for producers to generate enough income to cover their costs and save for their futures.

As they see themselves, whether consciously or not, as the end of an era, the last of the language speakers, carriers of ancient wisdom and children of mother earth, Pachamama.

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