Join me on a 60-day Journey through Bolivia's quinoa summer growing season with Tamara as she conducts Stage II of her Fulbright research. Now that the world markets have crashed and wind and hail destroyed 28% of last year's crop - what does the future of quinoa hold for today's farmers?

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.

Day 19 – a recipe.  Cream of quinoa soup, by Melina Cayo.

Day 19 – a recipe.  Cream of quinoa soup, by Melina Cayo.


¾ cup of dry quinoa

2 ½  cups of chopped/grated fresh vegetables of your choice. Suggestion: 1 large white onion finely chopped, 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped, 4 stalks of celery finely chopped, 4 carrots grated, ½ cup of fresh peas, 3 small whole potatoes peeled

Fresh chopped parsley

6 cups of water

1 tbs. oil




Saute the onions and garlic until slightly browned and add the water and vegetables.  Cook on a medium flame until boiling.  Lower the flame and continue to boil. Meanwhile, toast the quinoa in a dry skillet (cast iron works best) stirring frequently until just slightly browned.  Grind the quinoa in a clean coffee grinder (or as they do in Bolivia hand grind it with a stone).  Add this to the soup stirring frequently.  Lower the heat and continue to stir for 5 minutes.  The soup will thicken.  Add salt and pepper to your liking and top with fresh chopped parsley.  Yum!

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Can fair prices that respect Bolivia’s love and connection to the earth and each other revitalize the ancient ways of being to re-form the robust, sustainable, rural communities of the past united with the technologies of today?  Maybe.

The quinoa culture is disappearing observes Melina Cayo, organic quinoa grower and agricultural engineer.  She notes five ways in which it is impacted:

  1. There are abandoned lands, empty pasturelands that were plowed up in the height of the quinoa craze and now years later still lay barren. Plants grow slowly in the high dessert quinoa lands often needing decades to develop.  This was once forage for the wild vicunas – a shy, graceful fawn-like animal that resembles a llama crossed with an antelope.  Vicunas have the finest wool in the world with a mere pound of fiber being valued at over $60.  These animals cannot be domesticated and roam the vast altiplano in small harams led by a single male and 5 or 6 females.  Once hunted almost to extinction, these animals are now protected and have made a comeback.  However with the recent loss of pastureland they have been forced to mingle with llama herds, come close to quinoa communities and even eat quinoa plants.  Once revered as a sacred, mystical, beautiful gift, vicunas some quinoa farmers, observed Melina, are now calling them pests and some are starting to hunt them again.
  2. Less land is being farmed, noted Melina as well. Families that once farmed 15 to 20 hectacres of land are now farming a mere 7 to 12 hectacres.  And these small amounts of land are being farmed poorly due to the lack of financial resources for investment which are a consequence of the low quinoa prices.  Organic composted llama manure is now more expensive because there are less llamas due to drought, loss of pastureland and largely because quinoa families have migrated to the cities and no longer maintain their own llama herds.  So quinoa growers often use half of the amount of manure they need for their fields.  This results in lower yields and weaker plants, but the farmers feel it’s a trade-off they have to make.
  3. There are no longer active families living in the quinoa communities. Rural quinoa communities that once had 30-40 families living in them now just have seven.  There is no one to come to the community meetings, to make decisions, request resources, lead development, and talk about what is needed.  The 30+ families who have left their communities are now considered passive members – they come to the quinoa communities one or two times a year for a short festival and that is it.  All families return to their communities in January during carnival and summer vacation to have a q-olla – a traditional Andean celebration of thanks celebrated with fires, dance and respects paid to the earth and that’s it.  The children no longer have the tradition or habit of being in the countryside and feel more comfortable in the cities.  To them, going to the countryside for summer vacation is a punishment.
  4. Children have also lost the habit of consuming quinoa, explained Melina. With the quinoa boom came the new habit of families buying cheap rice and noodles instead of eating their expensive quinoa which they preferred to sell.  Before the quinoa boom, families couldn’t afford the cheap rice and noodles and ate quinoa they grew themselves three to four times a week or more.  Now with noodles and rice being affordable, quinoa moms noticed how much easier they were to cook and prepare and even with the low quinoa prices, prefer to cook with noodles and rice.  Children are now used to sugary processed foods and do not like to eat the mild flavored quinoa when it is prepared.
  5. Melina also noted the communities lost the tradition of “ayllu” where everyone chips in together to help each other in a constant exchange of favors and reciprocity. Ayllu had no monetary value but instead carried tremendous cultural and personal value.  Now all work in the quinoa fields is paid for.  Tractors are hired instead of borrowed, labor is paid instead of shared, manure is purchased instead of collected.  All earnings go directly back to the family with no investment into the rural community.  Family houses are not kept up and continue to deteriorate more each year.

Development directors and academics I have spoken with are hopeful that the new Vivir Bien – Live well – model can help to rejuvenate the rural communities and animate people to value and invest in the rural areas one again.  Meanwhile Melina tearfully reflects upon the tremendous changes and losses that have happened in the past 10 years – often happening so quickly that without giving a pause to think of how it once was not so long ago, it is easy to overlook or forget.

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.

Day 19 – A day in the life of a Fulbright mom.

Day 19 – A day in the life of a Fulbright mom.

I sit in the bed, computer on my lap, listening to the sounds of tropical birds and roosters.  The fuzzy silhouette of palm trees gradually sharpens against a brightening morning sky visible through the thin pink bedside curtains which cover a screened wall.  There was a moment of early morning calm as the all-night wedding came to an end and celebrants took to the streets singing as they stumbled their way home. After the dogs stopped barking at the celebrants’ arrival, an unusual silence enveloped the still dark village.  That is until the roosters awoke a short hour later.

In the tropics we are all in each other’s world.  Open screens, windows, walls and doors let the thick air move and mingles our lives together as well.  I hear a cell phone ring and an early mumbled conversation, the neighbor across the way gently snoring, a mom waking her child up for school.  In the tropics we all live together, no matter who we are.  The soft hush and deep growl of cars and trucks on the nearby highway slowly begins and the small, sleepy town of Villa Tunari wakes up.

I have left the cold, snow covered quinoa fields for a weekend in the tropics to pick up my son who just finished a month of volunteer work caring for traumatized monkeys, too damaged to live free in the wild.  They are in the care of an organization that works to make their life as stimulating and natural as possible living in large cages in their natural habitat surrounded by fellow monkeys who are re-socialized and free.  My son cleans the cages, feeds the 40+ monkeys, takes them out on walks on leashes and cuts fresh branches and greens for the surrounding jungle for them to play with.  Over the month, he went from being a team worker to managing the team.  At age 17, he and his classmate were the youngest ones in the program which mostly attracts 20-something college graduates from Europe and Australia. When I picked him up, there were about 40 other helpers in the program, all staying for the minimum month or more required to work with the animals – monkeys, ring tailed raccoon like critters, and parrots.  More information on the organization, Inti Wara Yassi can be found here: https://intiwarayassi.org/index.php?id=488

My 14 year old daughter is with me as well, as she has been on this entire trip so far and my previous one as well.  She is my photographer and videographer – managing my equipment, schedule, and capturing the moments that I am too engrossed in working with to think about filming.  She has shot excellent footage of farmers, fields, meetings, and specializes in individual portraits of quinoa farmers – candid, un-posed, up-close and personal.  Her work was displayed in two gallery showings last year and will be featured in an upcoming book and film I will be making when I return to the US.

And now they are returning to the US.

Today we will continue our travels across the rainforest winding down even lower to the vast expanse of Santa Cruz, the “Miami of Bolivia” with sparkling new shopping malls filled with Gucci, Forever21, Calvin Klein, Justice, and Timberland.  “Chicken’s Kingdom,” a Bolivian fried chicken and french fries chain is the favorite here with 52,000 likes on its Facebook page and an active social media campaign across many platforms.  Santa Cruz is now the only city in Bolivia that American Airlines, the airline approved for use by Fulbright, flies to anymore.  They used to fly to the highland city of La Paz, but decided the 14,000 foot high airport in the middle of the rapidly growing city of El Alto was too high and dangerous to continue to land in. So for the first time in 15 years, I’m now traveling through Santa Cruz, coming and going from Bolivia.

On our way to Santa Cruz we will stop by my nephew’s home in Bulo Bulo where he has a week off from his job as a police sergeant in Villa Tunari and we can visit with his family and see their dairy farm for a moment.

It’s nice to take a respite from the quinoa work, to relax with family, have a refreshing weekend in the topics, swim in the pool, explore the river, watch the fisherman balance on three logs lashed together using a weighted net to catch small fish.  My quinoa friends are in touch on whatsap, facebook messenger, e-mail, my local cell phone number.  We have a month planed together as soon as my children leave for the US on Tuesday.  I will continue my work in Bolivia alone as they stay with their Bolivian dad in the US, enjoying their final month of summer vacation in the mountains of Vermont, swimming in the cool lakes and rivers there.

I am not Bolivian but my summer is the Bolivian winter.  I welcome it.  I enjoy the cool mornings, wrapped in blankets, ponchos, hats – the air crisp and clear.  It’s strangely comforting sleeping under a heavy load of wool blankets, never taking off your down-filled winter coat, welcoming the morning as a new adventure that has just been achieved.  We are rugged folk, us quinoa people.  Braving the altitudes, wind, cold and a world of tans and blues.  The barren windswept altiplano planes and the stark clear blue of the Andean sky, 14,000 feet up, where the once high cirrus clouds now seem to sit on your head.

My 14 year old nephew is with me now (a different nephew from the 40 year old police sergeant we are visiting with today).  It is his first time to ever leave the Oruro altiplano.  He is not a commercial quinoa farmer but he does care for the family’s llama herd and helps to plant and harvest highland potatoes, wheat and quinoa for the family’s own consumption.  Here in the tropics surrounded by lush vegetation, crops that grow wildly without even being planted, rivers teaming with fish, plenty of wood for cook fires, it’s easy living in shorts and t-shirts in an abundance of food, water and leisure.  I ask him as we are sipping coconut water from coconuts we found fallen from the trees if he would like to live here.  If he would like to stay in the easy warmth of the tropics.  We see the schoolkids playing in the streets and yards, hear them singing from their open classrooms, markets are filled with colorful fruits, stores piled with toys and colorful inflatables for the many hotel pools.  Around us is lots of new construction and growth – new roads, hotels, homes.  It is a time of prosperity after years of coca wars, and civil unrest.  My nephew looks around and shyly smiles, “no” he said. He explains he would miss his family, playing soccer in the highland canchas, and being in the mountains with the llamas.

It’s interesting.  That is what most of the quinoa farmers tell me too.  Most at some time in their lives have been to the topics, big cities and other areas of Bolivia, even living in those places for a few years, but always returning to the highlands because it is a place they love more.  The peace, tranquility, wide open spaces, fresh cool air, lack of contamination are all reasons people cite for staying in the quinoa lands.  Despite the cold, hardships, work and low wages, there is something more than money and need that brings and keeps them there.  Like my nephew, I am enjoying this tropical respite but am also looking forward to returning the highlands as well.

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.

Day 14 – Pregnant?  Drink Quinoa Milk!

Day 14 – Pregnant?  Drink Quinoa Milk!

In 2015 the European Community working with social investment organization Pro Bolivia run by Bolivia’s Ministry of Productive Development and Plural Economy and partner, Foundation FAUTAPO, a Bolivian foundation formed in 2005 with help from the Dutch embassy, helped open the world’s first quinoa processing plant here in Uyuni. Costing $160,000, the quinoa milk processing plant was 80% funded by the European Community and 20% funded through FAUTAPO.  The local quinoa growers cooperative, Central de Cooperativa Agropecuarias Operación Tierra (CECAOT), was chosen as the recipient of the plant.

Today the plant makes quinoa milk for the national pregnant and lactating moms program – providing organic quinoa milk to moms across the nation.  The first year of the program went well and the product in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors, has been well received.  CECOAT just got its quinoa milk contract renewed with the national government for another year, proudly explained cooperative treasurer, Lourdes Ticona.  Today I am meeting with Ticona, the treasurer of this 280-member cooperative.  CECAOT is formed by 12 smaller cooperatives who each are members of CECOAT.  Founded in 1973, it is one of Bolivia’s oldest cooperative organizations.  It is managed by a 50-50 balance of men and women leaders.  Ticona herself is the daughter of quinoa growers and her father was a member of CECOAT.  Before being voted as Treasurer, Ticona spent three years working with micro-credit loans and worked 8 years at CECOAT as well.

The CECOAT quinoa milk contains many amino acids, mainly lysine, which in children, helps memory retention by multiplying brain cells, according to the US National Academy of Sciences.  Public schools in Bolivia provide this to children as part of their school breakfast – especially in the ColchaK region where much of the quinoa is grown.  The milk is essentially made with quinoa, sugar and colorants, explained Ticona.  It stays fresh in sealed packages for 15 days without refrigeration and 3 to 6 months with refrigeration. Costing just $.20 for a 50ml. pouch of milk, this is an affordable snack for Bolivia’s school children.  Many Bolivian mayors are contracting CECOAT’s quinoa milk this as part of their school breakfasts.  Besides making milk, CECOAT also makes quinoa bread, cookies and cakes.  In all, this consumes about 10-15% of their annual quinoa production, explained Ticona.  The rest is exported under Fair Trade and organic certificates which CECOAT manages with the strictest controls.  “It’s easy for us to manage our certificates,” explained Ticona, “working ins mall cooperatives we are able to verify all of the norms of production for each producer.”  CECOAT also have a team of ag. technicians who help with production and a Committee of Control with a Vice President who is a part of the CECOAT board.

I remembered several times, years ago, when CECOAT was struggling with its leadership and development. I asked Ticona about this and she agreed, CECOAT had gone through some rough times.  Working as a cooperative, she explained sometimes this happens. However, the cooperative structure demands that members work together.  In time leadership changed and now the organization is in a period of strength and growth.  They are hoping to close a deal on 8,000 quintals (661 US tons) of quinoa that they recently got a contract for from a Peruvian trade show.  They are waiting for the laboratory analysis to come back to confirm the organic nature of the quinoa.  CECOAT pays $3,000 a year for their organic certificate from IMO Cert.  Ticona feels confident their quinoa will come back with a clean laboratory review and will be accepted for the organic, Fair Trade quinoa contract.

Day 13 – Visiting Oscar – a US quinoa exporter in Uyuni – Real Andina

Day 13 – Visiting Oscar – a US quinoa exporter in Uyuni – Real Andina

Visiting with Oscar Mamani Ramos is like meeting with a long-lost uncle.  His affable, personal manner makes him easy to talk to and work with.  He is a creative entrepreneur who grew up as a quinoa producer in the Nor Lipez region of Southeast Potosi.  For years he held the reigns at ANAPQUI, the large quinoa cooperative in which he was a member.  He fought to keep Bolivian quinoa in Bolivia – when agronomists at the University of Colorado tried to patent Bolivian varieties of the seed in 1996.  And he fights now to keep quinoa clean, organic and benefitting the producers from his regions.  He maintains an organic certification and attends international trade shows including Expo East in the US and Bio Faq in Germany – the two biggest natural foods trade shows.  He is a mid-sized exporter having shipped 18 containers of quinoa in 2015 at the height of the quinoa boom and 12 containers in 2017.

Ramos’ customers are from Canada, the US and Australia and he works with private label, small orders and specialty goods.  His latest venture has been into Tarija’s pink salts, similar to the popular pink slats from Tibet in the US.

I introduced the idea of selling quinoa by varieties.  He showed me the varieties he was unloading from a shipment in from Nor Lipez at the moment.  The farmers were there to assist with the transportation. They proudly opened their bags to show the robust seed, talk about the quinoa varieties, and quality of the harvest.

I liked that Ramos, like the few other mid-sized quinoa exporters I had met over the years, had strong direct ties to the producers in his home community and kept his production local, right in Uyuni, the land of the quinoa growers.  In contrast, large quinoa exporters have usually located hundreds of miles away in La Paz and do not have a strong direct contact with the quinoa producers and often do not share a family connection either.

Ramos showed us his quinoa cleaning facility – complete with optical and magnetic sorters, a two-stage saponin removal system – both dry and wet, professional drying equipment – to keep quinoa at its required 10% humidity, and its well-managed storerooms.  A shipment of quinoa was being readied for Australia.

I stepped out of my role as an economic researcher, as that this project was now nearing its end and I saw opportunities to do more with the information I have learned.  I told Ramos of my idea to offer quinoa by varieties in the US but by starting small first, with a few sacks of cleaned, sorted product to get started with instead of a container.  It would be a great project for my Entrepreneurship students at Landmark College where I was now assistant faculty.  He felt that was a marvelous idea and said he often sent containers with mixed product to the US – for example, the pink salts.  Ramos offered to put me in contact with his US clients to see if we could coordinate something.  I look forward to following up on this.