Archives for August 1, 2018

Day 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

Day 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

I was invited to the mid-sized altiplano mining town of Poopo by the indigenous leaders in charge of local development.  They were not in the Royal Quinoa export growing region, but produced quinoa for their own local markets and consumption and wanted to learn more about what was happening in the quinoa industry.  We set up a workshop date with the Mayor and for two weeks, broadcast it over the radio and through local networks.  The mayor’s secretary had a copy of my presentation on her laptop and I had made copies to distribute as well.

The day of the workshop came and I waited in the mayor’s courtyard as the time passed.  The workshop was to be at 2pm but it was now almost 2:30 and no one was to be seen.  This brought back memories of times 15 years ago when I ran a rural newspaper in the valley regions of Cochabamba.  Meetings in these sleepy towns would always happen an hour after they were scheduled and change and events passed slowly.  I was reminded that the punctual, market motivated people of the quinoa lands were not the norm of all of Bolivia.

Eventually, staff began to appear and it was confirmed that there was in fact a quinoa presentation scheduled for today.  A quinoa farmer appeared, Primo Quispe Cheqa from Quilla.  A few phone calls were made and eventually, Fausto Flores from Tola Pampa also arrived.  We were set.  It was a sunny afternoon in the cool altiplano.  Both gentlemen decided they would prefer to hold the workshop in the mayor’s courtyard instead of a cold meeting room.  So we did.

The quinoa in Poopo is grown in addition to incomes earned in mining and animal production.  Families there often had a few llamas, cows or pigs that they raised for food and extra income, mostly selling locally in their own market.  The Poopo market prices were a bit higher (about 10-15%) than those in the city an hour away.  This is because there was less competition to drive down prices and the miners had money to buy products with.  Families also farmed maintaining several parcels, which were largely 1 acre lots that were located in different micro-climate zones with varying soil types.  Her people grew largely wheat, fava beans, potatoes and quinoa for themselves and alfalfa for their cows.  In some regions where there was irrigation, small crops of lettuce and onions were also planted.

Primo and Fausto were fascinated with the markets, prices and consumer demands in the US.  How the crops arrived there and the distribution channels.  They had no desire to enter these markets, nor had the production necessary to do so.  Their quinoa yields were substantially smaller than those of the Quinoa Real region with production being about 5-8 quintals produced per family per year.  In comparison in the quinoa region families produce an average of 150 quintales a year – valued at about $1,200.

Soon the skies darkened, wind began to blow and a hail storm appeared on the horizon.  We ended our workshop in a friendly manner and enjoyed the time we had to talk informally about quinoa markets and how they worked.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

It was good seeing Monica Cayo again.  I had spent a long weekend with her family in the high mountains on the Chilean border where the organic mountain quinoa is grown.  Monica is a quinoa farmer and regional development leader.  We had held workshops in her community of Lluvica and spent time in the quinoa fields of her youth where she still cultivates several hactacres of hand grown mountains quinoa for export each year.   When I was at her home last, her teenage nieces from Chile were visiting during their summer vacation.  It was their first time back to the quinoa lands since the boom.

Monica explains how the drop in quinoa prices led to increased migration to the interstellar region of Chile and Argentina as families sought economic stability..  The 460Bs per quintal price they were receiving no longer covered their costs and quinoa was becoming once again, a task of subsistence farming for families without any other alternatives.  She saw this affecting other sectors in Bolivia as well.  Local stores closed as families moved out of the small towns and there were no more customers.  She felt that if there could be a guaranteed minimum price of 600 to 700Bs per quintal for the farmers it would motivate them to stay and farm.  But without that stability, it’s becoming harder and harder for farmers to trust in the work.  Quinoa has a 9 month growing period with costs coming up front – fertilizing, planting, weeding, pest management… all have costs and there are risks of drought, frost and hail.  The high up-front costs and risks exacerbated by climate change mixed with the low quinoa prices make it a tough choice for families who want to stay and farm.

Monica had recently arrived from an Assembly of the quinoa cooperative members where it was discussed that not all quinoa is the same and that consumers should know where their quinoa came from – if it was hand mountain grown, organically planted with tractors or large scale farmed with chemicals.  She noted that it was hard to control the production and quality of quinoa once family production exceeded 10 hectacres.  Very few families in the Assembly had production higher than 10 hectacres.

I asked her why people stayed.  Why even bother with quinoa farming anymore?  She explained that the older people have no other choice.  They are quinoa farmers and that is what they do, what they know.  It is their only livelihood and the only way of life they know.  “They are there,” explained Monica.  “To survive they grow quinoa.  It’s their life.”

The younger people, she explained change activities.  They go to the city and work as mechanics, transportation drivers with trucks, mini vans and taxis, open stores or go to the university.  With a stable economy, she believes, the young people will come back but will continue to look for work elsewhere for extra money for their children.  She notes that the llama population has dropped which traditionally provided extra income and food security for families.  Without being in the rural communities all of the time, one cannot maintain their traditional herds of 30-40 llamas per family.

Monica sees the future of quinoa as a product that will help to raise the health levels of the people of Bolivia as a nation and sees more space for the development of national, internal markets. She sees an opportunity for the government to promote more national quinoa consumption and further develop a national quinoa noodle market.  Recently there has been a rise in the number of quinoa cooperatives who now have their own product lines of packaged cookies, noodles, quinoa puffs and quinoa flakes.