Day 18 – a short respite in Potosi City.

Day 18 – a short respite in Potosi City.

It is winter in the quinoa fields and schools and universities are closed for six weeks of vacation.  Quinoa families take this time to catch up on projects in the city, hold annual meetings, and visit with family in warmer climates. The countryside is left mostly empty.  There is not much work to be done other than maintaining the life there – cooking over artisanal stoves in small adobe houses, caring for any livestock one may have such as llamas, buying vegetables and household goods in far-away markets and bringing these purchases to the countryside – or eating the quinoa, dried llama meat, potatoes and grains that are stored in the houses, washing clothes by hand, repairing houses or tools and having inter-community soccer matches.

It is a quiet time in the small rural communities without many people there – except when there is a soccer match.  In the salt flats it’s like a mini-world cup as communities play against each other – the winners of one match going against the winners of another match.  The soccer ball flying wildly across the wide dusty “canchas” or soccer fields which are really just flat, dirt official size areas with goal posts at either end and white painted rocks marking the perimeters.  There is a referee, team uniforms, and local favorites. The games go on all day and there is lots of drinking and celebration.  The small quinoa communities are filled with family and college students coming in from the city for the games.  At these times, though the remote quinoa villages are full, not many people are interested in talking about quinoa and even worse, there is no real available housing as all rooms are taken up by visiting family and friends.  Public transportation is sparse with a single ancient rickety bus taking the 3 hour journey across the salt flats a few times a week, so an overnight stay for several nights is mandatory.  With no housing, no meetings, and no quinoa work, there was not much for me to do for my quinoa research.

Wondering what to do for the weekend we had planned to be in the quinoa fields, my daughter notices a bus with the sign “Potosi” in its window.  “What’s that?” she asked me, unfamiliar with the name Potosi.  Realizing it was an important city in the quinoa history and one that I did not know and had never visited in my 18 years of working in Bolivia, I saw an amazing opportunity to expand our knowledge of that part of Bolivia and have something to do that weekend.  So off we were to Potosi, a four hour ride through winding mountain roads and vast stretches of grazing llamas.

Potosi was once the largest populated city in the colonial world – with a larger population than Paris – due to the vast amounts of pure silver found in “cerro rico” the rich mountain, which rises above the city. We explored 500 year old churches beautifully hand carved by the indigenous Bolivian’s when the Spanish first arrived and began requiring them to perform work in the city to support the colonial development.  This was part of the “minta” system that dates back to pre-inca days.  In this system, all young workers are required to perform a certain amount of work a year for the good of the community.  Historically this might have been building roads, serving in the army, or growing extra crops for the government.  In the colonial era of Potosi, this was distorted into working in the mines and arts.  Indigenous people were required to serve a 4-month mint in the mine – which then was often extended to be 6 months, a year, or until they died which was often.  It was a time of vast exploitation of the local people and wealth for the foreign colonizers.

Quinoa was present but clandestine.  It was not valued or consumed by the foreign locals but it was always present in the rural households.

Though most of the art was copied from European artists or done in a European church style with white cherubs, maidens and brave men in distress – and remained unsigned – there was evidence of small amounts of “indigenousness” being snuck into the work and the culture.  This could be seen in the way blanketed babies were tied with hand woven belts, the presence of delicately made silver chicha drinking bowls (a native alcoholic drink), the presence of suns, moons and stars in the art – sacred symbols form the pre-Inca era, and the symbolism of Mother Mary juxtaposed with the silhouette of the Cerro Rico mountain and the Pachamama – indigenous earth mother.  All three forms intermixed in a display of abundance, nurture and giving.

We traveled deep into the mines and learned of the lifestyle of miners, separated from their land and thrown into a system of wage labor and purchased goods.  Their houses, food and all livelihood depended exclusively on the mine, mining company or cooperatives, and world prices of minerals.  They had no other source of income or livelihood other than the long, dangerous hours in the mine.  And hey owned no land.  The pay was good for the young people aged 15 to 21.  They currently earn 150Bs a day and make the value of two quintals of quinoa in a week (about $128 a week).  However, like all high performance athletes, the high salaries come at a high cost.  There is no health insurance or safety oversight in the mines.  All work is hand dug using sticks of dynamite to open possible veins of valuable mineral.  There is the possibility of a mine shaft collapsing and working conditions are dusty with little respiratory protection.  The mining here is done by several large, independently run cooperatives.  Often one works as a 150Bs a day laborer, hand sorting and carrying mineral out of the mines for sale, they can move up to be a 300Bs a day leader who is in charge of finding the veins and setting the dynamite charges.  This work is more dangerous and these workers only spend about two hours a day in the mines, leaving the clearing and sorting of the debris to the 150Bs a day workers.  These workers are work in 8-12 hours shifts.  After this comes the cooperative president. Mineral earnings are shared by the ones who find them and the cooperative.

Mining is important in my research because it exists on the fringes of the quinoa lands. In Salinas there is a mining company that is actively recruiting young quinoa growers from the village to leave their fields and work in in the mines.  This is disturbing to some in the village because mines contaminate the lands and could negatively impact quinoa production.  People are also concerned about the loss of the young growers and the tradition of growing quinoa.

Enzo had been approached by a mining company that day.  He was visibly upset as he explained the incident to me.  He had gone to town to see if any tourists were coming in on the bus.  While waiting in the plaza a man and a woman approached him.  She explained how easy her life was with her husband bringing in a steady mining salary and the man explained what was needed to join the mining company.  Enzo wanted no part in either and questioned the value of “easy living” lifestyle the woman was promoting.

Currently, less than 1% of the export quality Royal Quinoa growers work in mines.  The majority of these come from the Salinas region where one study found 3% of all quinoa growers also working as miners.

Next week I am presenting a marketing workshop in export quinoa – what it is and how it works in US markets – to the Poopo community of Oruro.  This is an interesting mining community where most miners also maintain their own lands near the mines.  Men’s mining income supplements the food the miners’ wives largely grow for their families.  The Poopo community is interested in learning how to grow quinoa as a supplemental cash crop.  Though they are not in the Royal Quinoa production zone, their smaller seed, “quinoa dulce” or sweet quinoa, could still have a market share.

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