Archives for August 2018

Day 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Day 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Today I was invited to attend the 1st National Congress of Ancestral Knowledge in Camelids. Camelids include llamas, alpaca and camels plus vicuna and guanaco.  All except the camel, live in Bolivia and South America.  The llamas live in the quinoa region and play an important role in quinoa production through their production of manure which is the primary source of nutrients for the delicate soils of the quinoa lands.  Llamas always go the bathroom in the same place making it easy for farmers to gather up mounds of manure to bring to their quinoa fields.  Traditionally families managed herds of 30 to 40 llamas and planted 3 to 4  hectacres of quinoa.  There was a balance between the land and the llama – 10 llamas for every hectacre of land.  Now this work has been divided.

In today’s quinoa lands, a few families manage large llama herds of mixed ownership.  They are often contracted by other families in the community to watch the family’s llamas a bit away from the quinoa fields – while the contracting family lives mostly in the city.  The families who are not watching the llamas, farm large tracks of quinoa land often 6-8 hectacres.  The llama herders earn income from their contracts which are sometimes paid partially in money and partially in quinoa, water and other goods.  They also earn from the sale of llama meat, llama manure, and llama fiber products such as ropes and handicrafts.  There is a huge market for llama manure in the quinoa region.  A large dumptruck load of llama manure sells for 3,000Bs and at least 2 are needed for each hectacre of quinoa production – a $857 investment in the hopes of producing at least 20 qintales of quinoa – which have a current market value of $1,428 (based on a 500Bs per quintal value and a 7Bs to 1US$ exchange rate).  For quinoa growers, 40% of their potential annual earnings are spent solely on fertilizer for their fields. Llama herders can provide many dumptruck loads of manure to farmers earning thousands of dollars each year through manure sales.  Other than a few sheep, no other grazing animals that can provide manure for the fields live in the quinoa lands.  So llamas matter in the quinoa lands.  That is why I attended the 2-day Llama Assembly held in the llama capital of Curahuara de Carangas in Oruro. Here I learned that llamas don’t just matter in the quinoa lands of the salt flat region, but they matter in non-quinoa growing regions further from the salt flats, extending from high in the mountains of Oruro and La Paz down to the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Llamas matter in Bolivia!

The Assembly was held in order to select the best 30 presenters out of a list of 100 to represent Bolivia in an upcoming First World Congress on Indigenous Camelid Care to be hosted by the Bolivian government and held in Oruro in November.  Hundreds of rural llama herders flocked to this event hosted by the town mayor and local development organizations.  Three local communities were present wearing natural colored hand woven llama, sheep and alpaca clothing.  They played handmade traditional instruments – drums, zamponas, tarkas and flutes and danced in circles – women opposite men in traditional style.  A man dressed as a condor – the magical spirit bird of the Andes was there as was one dressed as a silly old man.  They were part of the stories and folklore of the llama herders.

Presenters too had to be dressed in traditional garb donning hand woven natural fiber ponchos and shawls (aguayos) made by family and neighbors from their own communities.  Their shirts, pants, skirts and suits were made from “quaytu” a hand woven woolen broadcloth in solid natural colors of dark brown, grey and crème.  The quaytu was fashioned by local tailors into button down collared shirts, and well-tailored suits and pants for the men.  Women largely sewed their own large, robust pollera skirts.

Presentations were done with Powerpoint and were timed at 20 minutes with 5 minutes for questions.  A panel of 4 judges, 2 men and 2 women, would rate each presentation.  Later it would be determined which presenters would be selected for the international conference.  The presentations were offered in three different rooms and a full schedule of each presenter, theme, time and location was shared on paper and electronically on whatsap when people arrived to check in for the event.  The cost to attend was 30Bs and included a llama themed lunch and breakfast and tea for both days.  The mayor and local organizations provided free housing in the small town of about 1,000 families.

It was a well-planned, well organized, and well attended event.  Each room had at least 30 – 50 people in the audience and presenters ranged from the most remote herders to university students to Peruvian tour guides.  Many of the presentations were in Aymara, the native language of the llama herders, and Spanish mixed.  Though the powerpoint slides were largely in Spanish and Spanish was understood by all.  I saw some of my fellow quinoa growers there and recognized others presenting from the quinoa growing regions I had visited.

A group of women from Colque-K, an area featured in my previous quinoa research which had wind turbines pumping water to community gardens and ancient Inca ruins.  They presented the handicraft work they were doing with hand spun llama yarn, sweaters, shawls, and felted llama wool fashioned into hats.  They later hosted a llama clothing fashion show held that evening.

Later a man showed how a local plant, garetta, could be boiled with corn to make “Chicha de llama” a fermented beverage for llamas to drink in times of stress, drought or illness.   Another man shared his recipe for curing worms in llamas by feeding the affected animal mixture of garlic, hot pepper and onion in water.  We learned about rotations and maintenance of llama herding fields and how 300 hectacres of llama lands can be used in three rotations a year for 180 llamas.  And we learned that 45 grams of fresh llama meat would yield 9 grams of dried meat (charque).

The women talked of recipes made with llama such as blood sausages, dried meat, a breakfast dish made of cooked llama blood, tripe and spices, hahanka’ taquo – a soup made with llama blood and cornmeal mixed together with tripe and meat, and fried dough made with llama blood.  We had the chance to taste the recipes too. My favorite was the llama blood sausage!

Jesus Gomez from the Aroma community in Salinas, the heart of the heart of the quinoa lands, gave a lively presentation on his life living with llamas sharing stories and methods of how he and his father would walk for 10 weeks to Santiago, Chile and back (about 3,300 miles round trip) with large llama trains of 20 to 30 llamas trading goods and exploring the local countryside bringing quinoa and salt to trade for corn and wheat.  The lead llama was covered with decorations so the other llamas knew who to follow, Gomez explained.  He spoke of the traditional quinoa grain bags made of tightly woven llama hair in beautiful striped of browns and tans.  Each carrying about 40 pounds of quinoa.  The natural fibers keeping the quinoa well aerated while preserving its flavor.

“Quinoa from the llama bags always smells and tastes delicious,” proclaimed Gomez. I was familiar with the bags, having seen my mother in law use them at times.  Most have been replaced by woven plastic sacks instead that hold 50 pounds of quinoa are transported by SUV and truck to local markets.

It was not easy moving a llama train across different climate zones and grazing lands for 10 weeks.  There was a lot of llamas to adjust to with a change in climate, altitude and food.  Certain grasses would make the llamas sick or the altitude would affect their digestion.  The sick llamas needed to be cared for.  Gomez and his father were on constant vigil for the herd, making all were well and none strayed far.  “We went for 2 months without sleeping!” he proclaimed, getting a room full of laughter as he spun around in a lively way to emphasize his point, his poncho flaring in all directions.  They also spent 2 months and 2 weeks living on the “fast food” of llama charque – dried llama meat eaten like hardtack.

The Chilean wheat and corn were brought back to the village and covered with a rock he explained.  This was a very important part of the process.  By covering the newly traded goods with a rock, one ensured they would last the year until the llama train moved out again in its annual trade.  The wheat and corn would be blessed, a llama sacrificed to further ensure it would last, blood shared with the earth mother, Pachamama, smoke share with the mountains and ancestors, alcohol shared with all – and blessings shared again, along with a llama bar-BQ.

Gomez also spoke of the natural dyes used with the llama fiber with light green shades coming from tolla plants and deeper green/greys coming from the eucalyptus.  He noted that when washing llama yarn in water left over from the first washing of quinoa seeds, the soapy water that is thick with saponin from the quinoa seed casings, the yarn becomes thicker and takes on a clearer color.  It is also believed, he said, that washing woolens and alpaca fiber sacks in the saponin rich quinoa water helps to protect them from moths.  All present nodded in agreement.

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.