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 12 – The “right” way to cook quinoa.

Day 12 – The “right” way to cook quinoa.

We have thousands of quinoa recipes in the US now – most are delicious, my favorite being quinoa salad made with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, raisins, almonds, kale, lemon juice, and a few grated carrots and beats for color.  Yum!

The Bolivians have been cooking quinoa for thousands of years and have come up with some sure-fire ways to prepare and consume it – often several times a week.  Alicia shared some of her favorites with us:

Pisara – consumed as a side dish, much like rice.

Ingredients (makes 2 portions)

1 cup of white quinoa

1 ½ cups water


  1. Wash the quinoa seed by putting it in a large bowl and covering it with about 3” of water. Roughly rub the quinoa seeds together under the water with your hands.  Soon your water will be turning cloudy.  Take a fine strainer and pour off the cloudy water, being sure not to lose your quinoa seed in the process.  Repeat this 2-3 times until the water runs (mostly) clear.  Now your quinoa is clean and ready to cook with.  Even the most professionally processed quinoas, still have remnants of saponins on them.  Always wash your quinoa before you cook with it and you will have light, fresh tasting dishes.  Cooking with “dirty” quinoa leaves a bitter flavor.
  2. Heat up a dry cast iron frying pan (preferred though a stainless steel pan works too – do not use Teflon or aluminum since the heat will release toxins in your food). Toast the damp quinoa using a medium heat, stirring often, until the little seeds begin turning slightly yellow and start “popping.”
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saucepan bring to a boil 1 ½ cups of water.
  4. Once your quinoa is dried and toasted (light yellow in color), transfer it to the boiling water. Turn down the flame and let it simmer for minutes.
  5. Turn of the flame. Cover the pot and let the quinoa sit for 5 minutes more.
  6. Fluff up the grains with a spoon and you now have Bolivian pisara. The quinoa can be lightly salted and enjoyed in its natural state.  Other flavorings can be added too.  This is a dryer, nuttier tasting way of eating quinoa.

Pito – I still believe there is a place for this in the US culinary craze.  Pito is a toasted, powdered form of quinoa that is traditionally consumed mixed into drinks for a lovely chocolate-like flavor, or eaten dry with sugar sprinkled in it.  I think it will go well with power shakes, Bullet recipes, blender drinks and sprinkled over yogurt. Here’s how to make it.

Ingredients (makes a week’s supply if used daily)

1 cup of clean, washed white quinoa


  1. Heat up a dry cast iron frying pan (preferred though a stainless steel pan works too – do not use Teflon or aluminum since the heat will release toxins into your food). Toast the dry quinoa using a medium heat, stirring often, until the little seeds begin turning slightly yellow and start “popping.”
  2. Wash the hot quinoa seeds by putting them in a large bowl of cold water with about 3” of water covering the seeds. Roughly rub the quinoa seeds together under the water with your hands.  Soon your water will be turning cloudy.  Take a fine strainer and pour off the cloudy water, being sure not to lose your quinoa seeds in the process.
  3. Pour fresh water over the quinoa again and leave it to soak for the night. It may begin to sprout – that is fine.
  4. In the morning, pour off the water and re-toast the quinoa until it is dry using the same hot skillet method as before.
  5. In a clean grinder (like the Krups coffee grinders) grind up the dry, toasted quinoa seeds until it is a semi-fine powder. This is your pito!

How to eat pito like a Bolivian:

  • Pito can be eaten in a shallow bowl with a spoon with sugar sprinkled over it – be sure to have some tea of coffee nearby to help it go down – it’s dry. Use ¼ cup of pito and 1 teaspoon for granulated sugar for starters.
  • Pito can be made into a hot or cold drink called Refresco. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of pito to a cup of boiled water (or ½  cup milk and ½ cup water) and stir.  Add a teaspoon of sugar or honey if you wish.  A cinnamon stick can be boiled in the water/milk too.  Drink this either hot or room temperature, stirring frequently.

Alicia’s recipes for Pito and Pisara are best made with chana moka quinoa – which is currently not available in the US.

Another recipe Alicia and thousands of native quinoa farmers prepare is a gelatin using caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa – also not available in the US is a very simple and highly nutritious gelatin.  This recipe is similar to pisaga but does not toast the quinoa and uses 3 cups of water and a cinnamon stick instead of 1 ½.  A cup of washed caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa is cooked down in the water until it becomes thick.  Then it is poured into little cups and left to cool overnight, becoming gelatin the next day.  Sugar, honey or maple syrup can be sprinkled on top.

Caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa is also used in flour when baking quinoa bread, cakes or cookies.  Traditional Andean people  would never dream of using any other variety other than caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa when they bake.  In the US we have no access to the caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa variety of quinoa so our quinoa baking flours are often mixed with tapioca, chickpeas, or potato starch to make them glutinous.  Cslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa has the stickiness needed for banking, naturally.

I am interested in working with quinoa growers, exporters, and distributors to develop markets for quinoa varieties.  It would be a good classroom project for my Entrepreneurship college students too.  There are so many more creative uses we can get with our quinoa when we have access to the special Royal Quinoa varieties only found in Bolivia.  These varieties have been stables of Andean households since pre-Inca times.  Andean women would never dream of cooking with the mixed up quinoa we use today.  Cooking by varieties (and not color) brings the full flavor, texture and character of the quinoa to the palette.  Using the authentic Royal Quinoa varieties gives consumers the most nutrition, vitamins, omega 3s, and full proteins – more than any other type of quinoa one can buy.

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Agricultural engineer Alicia Lucas collects quinoa seeds, professionally.  She has helped to cultivate and preserve hundreds of native varieties, developing seedbanks and working with her true passion, Bolivia’s royal quinoa.

After becoming used to the small grain quinoa that dots our supermarkets and co-ops across the US, I am amazed at the huge, robust size of the authentic, true “Royal Quinoa” of Bolivia.  This grain can only be grown from its birthplace alongside the shores of Bolivia’s highland salt flats.  The salty, volcanic soils, high radiation, dry cool air, organic llama fertilizer, and high altitude (13,000 feet) all work together to create an amazingly huge seed, about twice the size of those found in the US which mostly are from Peru with some Bolivian seed (the larger ones) mixed in.

Smaller seeds here are called “sweet quinoa” and are considered tough, hard, and mostly used as chicken feed when they do appear.  “Not fit for human consumption,” is what most farmers say about small seed quinoas.  Lucas explains it is called “chini” in her native Aymara language and is left as an offering for mice and rats.

Lucas calls the Royal Quinoa region, a small strip about 50 miles wide surrounding the Uyuni salt flats, the “heart of the quinoa.”  She grew up in the small mountain community of Unicay in the Department of Potosi with the mountain quinoa – the most authentic, and culturally steeped quinoa still planted and harvest by hand, even today.

Currently the Unicay quinoa, like all hand grown mountain quinoa, is mixed with all others and sold as “Royal Bolivia Quinoa.”  I hope in time we can start valuing the differences between the different quinoa properties, cultivations, and varieties.  Much as Thailand has different ways of selling its nine main varieties of export rice from a cheap “white rice 25%” at $364 FOB as of July 11, 2018 to the premium Thai Hom Mali rice selling at more than three times the price, for $1,197 FOB the same date (http://www.thairiceexporters.or.th/price.htm) .  Lucas’ hand grown, organic,  mountain quinoa would be the Bolivian quinoa equivalent of the Thai Hom Mali rice.

Mountain quinoa is a labor of love, explains Lucas.  Famers work from 5am to 6pm.  Planting and weeding the tiny quinoa seedlings “al pulso” – by hand.  Planting means digging a large round hole about 2 feet wide and 8” deep in which to plant a single tiny seed.  The depression protects the seeds from frost and helps to funnel scarce water to seed as well.  It takes a week to hand plant a hectare of mountainside land like this.  Meanwhile, down below in the flat plains that extend out from the skirts of the mountains, tractors can be seen quickly plowing and planting their quinoa – managing an average of 10 – 15 hectare lots (about 40 acres) and planting the quinoa in long, deep furrows.  In a day their multiple acreage of flatland quinoa is planted.  A single hectare of hand planted mountain grown quinoa takes a week and a half to plant.

“We take care of them like babies, like our own children,” explained Lucas describing how the families cultivate small, one-hectare plots (about 2.5 acres) personally getting to know each plant.  Farmers painstakingly gather thorny branches from Leguminosae, a native plant in the Cassia family.  They carefully place a small amount of thorns each around each tiny, emerging seedling to protect it from birds and rabbits who can nibble on the tender green shoots, being careful to still give the seedlings room to grow.

Planting is not the only act of love when it comes to quinoa, explains Lucas.  There is also the constant weeding.  With water scarce, weeds can quickly drink up the water the quinoa needs to grow.  There is no irrigation here, so getting rid of weeds is essential for the plants to have enough to drink.

Then comes the harvest and cleaning.  Quinoa ripens at different rates over a two month period of time with different varieties and sectors of the quinoa ripening at different times.  So the harvest extends over a good two-month period of time, explained Lucas.  During this time, people hand cut the huge sheaves of quinoa – with each weighing many pounds and often being more than 6 feet tall.  The sheaves are laid on tarps and hit with heavy clubs to release the seeds from the seed head.  Some farmers run them over with trucks or tractors too.  These sturdy seeds are winnowed, sifter and sorted several times using different grades of sifters, to remove the chaff and stems.  The people harvesting the larger quantities of plains quinoa down below do not have time for such labor-heavy work and have more earnings too.  They often have small machines that help with the thrashing and sorting of their quinoa.

Once the mountain quinoa is cleaned to a certain degree, the hard saponin coating needs to be removed.  This coating, explained Lucas, is what protects the seed from birds and insects – its bitter flavor is unpleasant to most animals.  It is unpleasant to humans too and must be completely removed in order for the quinoa to have its light delicate creamy flavor which is lo loved by all.

Here is where mountain grown quinoa really begins to be different.  In order to sperate the saponin coating, the people use “poquera” a very special type of hard, powdered earth (like “white flour” described Lucas) that is only found in certain mountain areas.  They lightly wet the poquera and mix the quinoa with this and then grind it with their bare feet in ancient “taquiranas” or hollowed out stones that they inherited from their ancestors and which have been dated back to 5,000 years.  “They last forever,” explained Lucas.

Lucas loves her varieties.  She starts naming the most well known: pandela; chana moq’o – a white quinoa used to make pito, an edible quinoa powder;  and the toledos: rojo, Amarillo and naranja (red, yellow and orange) – all white quinoas which are great for soup, mo’kuna (a dry steamed quinoa dumpling with llama meat in the center), and graneada de quinoa or qu’ispa (granulated quinoa – toasted and prepared similar to rice). Then comes the quinoa roja (red quinoa) whose red sees is delicious when toasted and the quinoa negra (black quinoa) whose sweet, black seeds are also great for pito and mo’kuna –with a bit of sweetness.  Finally she speaks of my favorite, the quispina or ch’ilpi, the crystalline mountain grown quinoa seed that when cooked down becomes gummy and chewy.  It makes great quinoa gelatin and is a favorite for grinding into flour for quinoa breads, cookies and cakes.  I imagine it being used to make “quinoa sushi” rolled in seaweed leaves and stuffed with fresh bits of carrot, cucumber, picked beats, chives, and salmon – yum!  In the next post, Lucas will share some of her favorite quinoa recipes with us.

So I ask Lucas, the question I have been asking everyone in the quinoa fields.  “Why are you still here?”  There are so many opportunities in other places, jobs in the cities, easier lives elsewhere.  Why stay in this hard, cold, isolated, rustic environment?  With global quinoa market prices still low, no one in Bolivia is making enough with their quinoa to cover their production costs, little let alone cover their own living costs and save for their children’s future.  Why not just leave?  Lucas answers as many have since I started asking the question, she is accustomed to this lifestyle.  She knows how to do it. She is secure in her skills and abilities and is very good at it.  She has good yields, cares for the seeds and protects and nurtures the plants.  For seven years she was president of FAUTAPO, a large national agricultural development organization.  She was also the elected leader of her community, the Authoridad.  This is where her home and heart is.  She believes in “living well” the Andean ways of sustainability.

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

It was 4:00pm but the hot Andean sun would be setting soon enough and then the icy cold, dark Andean night would envelop us.  Uyuni was a good 3-4 hours away.  We set our belongings down at the side of the road and prepared to wait.  A bus had just passed, but it was full.  We’ll wait for the next, maybe it will come in an hour or so.  I figured we would eventually find a bus with room and arrive in Uyuni some time around 9:00pm.

The woman next to me, also with her belongings and teenage son placed curbside had just begun to sharply question our origin, where we were going, what we were doing, etc.  when a battered white station wagon scooted up.

“Uyuni?” asked the woman to the driver.  He nodded and quick she scooped up her belongings throwing them in the back he had just opened and whisked her and her teen inside.

“Lets go,” she shouted at me.  I hesitated.  It was not a taxi and I had been warned many times about being careful not to get into private cars without knowing the drivers.  I asked the driver how much it would cost.  30Bs he said.  I was not sure.

This was a woman and she seemed confident.  The driver, a non-descript, pudgy, middle aged man, was still outside waiting for us to load our items.  My daughter dutifully stayed with them as I leaned inside the car and whispered to the woman, “Is it safe?”

“Yes, Yes,” she said, “we’re lucky. I’m just going to Seravuyo, but he’s going to Uyuni.  It’s fine.  Lets go.”

  1. It was late, night was coming and if we were lucky we would get to Uyuni by dusk.

“Lets do it,” I called to my daughter and we all piled into the car and sped down the long, straight, recently paved highway.   I hoped I had made a good call.

The woman it turns out was a quinoa farmer named Eva, who had just sold some quinoa in the local Challapata market and was heading home after the weekend.  Prices were climbing, she had made a good sale (570 a quintal) and her spirits were high.

Eva talked in length about her excellent quinoa farming boasting how she gets 60 quintals per hectacre from the 10-15 hectacres she plants (the average production boast is 20 quintals and most farmers actually clear about 12-15 quintals once the quinoa is sorted and cleaned).

She then went on to talk about Daniel, a red-haired , 28 year old researcher from the US who spent six years studying Sevaruyo’s llamas, learning the Aymara language, dressing in traditional woven wool pants, and eating all of the crazy, exotic dishes the women would cook for him.  The communities loved him and all of the women claimed him as their “son-in-law.”  Finally, the fateful day came when Daniel’s hard work at learning the language and writing about llamas paid off and he was offered a chance at a full time position somewhere in the US academic system and was never heard from again.  How she loved him.  But Eva said they were glad he never returned because it meant he had found good work in the US.  They are still saving his motorcycle and meek belongings left being though, “just in case.”  It’s been 6 years since he left…

Time went fast with Eva’s constant conversation and soon we were pulling into the dusty train yard of Sevaruyo.  She directed the driver where to stop and hopped out the car with her teenage son and leaving me with her cell number and an invitation to come and spend the weekend with her, left me and my daughter with the still unknown driver and a long desolate road ahead of us.

I took a deep breath.

“Come sit up here with me,” invited the diver reaching over to open the front door.  Not wanting him to fall asleep on the monotonous drive, I climbed into the bouncy, worn out front seat.  After all it was customary to accompany drivers on long rides to keep them awake.

With folklore music brightly playing we headed across the bumpy train yard and out to the open road once again.  The sun was progressing across the sky and I checked my phone – it seemed we would make it there by 6:30.

The driver saw me.  “We’ll be there by 6:30,” he assured me.  I agreed.

My daughter settled down into the wide back seat that was left all to her and we sped down the highway.  “Unknown Road” my phone’s Maps App likes to call Bolivia’s Route 5.

The driver identified himself as Alberto Ramos, a quinoa farmer from the times of his ancestors.  He was raised on quinoa, potatoes and llama in Santiago del Alto, where his family hand planted, hand weeded and hand harvested their quinoa.  Thrashing it and winnowing it to remove the chafe, scraping it several times to remove saponins by grinding it by foot in an ancient bowl cut stone, and then washing it several times before cooking with it.  “Quinoa is work,” he said.  “But we love it.”

He said he has 10 hectacres under production, using tractors, which he sells himself year-round.  He takes a few sacks (quintales) to market in Challapata every other week or so to smooth out the cash flow.

Ramos explained he was returning to Uyuni from Challapata where he is building his retirement home.  It is comfortable he explained, with 4 bedrooms, a kitchen living, room and dining room  It’s two stories.  And he’s building it himself by hand.  Though I am sure he has occasional tradesmen coming to help as well – brick layers, roofers, electricians.  Family members can be helping him too – especially if he is making adobe bricks, etc.  It is not unusual for people to slowly build their own houses – often over a 2-3 year period of time.

Ramos’ steady work comes from the Sofia chicken agency he sells for.  He has his own small “frial” or chicken and luncheon meats store where he also sells condiments such as mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.  All from the Sofia Ltda., a well-known 40 year old Bolivian company. He sells about 35 slaughtered and cleaned chickens a week getting them delivered about twice a week in refrigerated trucks from Santa Cruz more than 18 hours away. Mark-ups are about 30% making the final price 14Bs ($2) for a smallish bird feet and all, and giving Ramos enough to live on.

The next day was to be Uyuni’s anniversary.  Ramos was planning on marching in the parade with the other Sofia distributors and frials.  Founded in 1889 as an outpost for moving minerals across the dessert to the Chilean ports, Salinas was now celebrating its 129th anniversary.

I’ll come by with my friends and visit you on the way to the parade!” Ramos promised.

We picked up another woman on the side of the road.  We were getting close to Uyuni and it was just starting to get cold and dark.

Ramos saw mw zipping up my feather jacket.

“What?” he asked. “It’s warm here.  This is not cold yet.  It’s warm.  If anything I should open the windows!”  he teased laughing.

The other woman settled herself in the backseat with my daughter.  Her thick knit tights apparent under her vast layers of ruffled skirts.  Wrapped in a knit sweater, dusty and dirty, with a huge amount of treasures tucked into an “aguayo” a large woven cloth she wore across her back, she somehow made it all fit in the back seat.  We ambled on.  The woman’s black dog was valiantly running after us nipping at the tires and barking loudly.

“He will tire and go home,” the woman assured us, unconcerned about her dog running around the darkening highway at night.

It had been a nice ride.  We saw scores of once elusive vicunas along the side of the road, driven closer to communities due to pasture loss from the 2014 quinoa invasion when all lands were plowed and planted for the soaring market prices quinoa was bringing.  When the prices crashed in 2015, so did many people’s desire to farm quinoa. The once tilled fields now lay fallow waiting for the slow growing highland dessert plants to reestablish themselves and anchor down the blowing topsoils and to bring food once again to the beautifully wild, elegant vicuna.

Uyuni appeared like crystal diamonds on the horizon.  Lights twinkling next to the volcanoes that appeared to float on the salt flats.  Visually lifted upwards from the expanse of white salt around them contrasting with the subtle tans and occasional tufts of dusty greens of the surrounding winter pasture.

It was 6:30.  The cold wind blew as the last of the rosy sunset slipped behind the mountains.  We pulled onto the grid of pacing stones, Uyuni’s downtown.  It still felt like the wild west outpost it had once been.  People wrapped in shawls and chulu hats with earflaps pulled down low on the head walked by.  We hurried into our hotel.  Happy to be “home” again.  The ride cost $4.50.  A room here is $11 a night.  North America’s poor become rich when in Bolivia.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

At 8:30 Carlos and Miguel showed up to our Salinas hotel in a new Toyota Hilux to take us to AIPROCA’s monthly quinoa meeting in Capura, their rural quinoa community, a short 1 ½ hour drive away across dusty roads dotted with wild vicuna herds.  We had visited Capura in December 2016 for our Fair Trade quinoa research and it will be nice to see how things have progressed since then.  I remember Capura as being very organized, clean – a model quinoa town.  I asked the young men in their 20s if it was still like that and they agreed, smiling.  Miguel and Carlos are both from the large commercial town of Huari where the regional brewery is housed.  Carlos married into the community and is related through this marriage to Miguel.  He works as a carpenter in Oruro and Miguel is a taxi and private driver also in the large city of Oruro – 3 1/2 hours away.   They come to Capura for the monthly quinoa meetings and when any quinoa work needs to happen.  Otherwise the town is left under the care of just 2-3 families who stay there largely to take care of the llama herds.  There is a school and health post, but like most rural centers now, they ae no longer staffed or used because there is no need for them.  There is no one in the community of closed up homes.

AIPROCA is a large producer community with its 100+ members each cultivating about 15 hectacres of land under their Fair Trade, organic certifications – with a market value of about $30,000.  They are careful to follow the guidelines set by Fair Trade Europe and keep accurate records of investments into certified sprays, natural fertilizers, testing, and other projects such as recycling, greenhouse gardening, and erosion control. We were invited to a breakfast and lunch and shared a prepared powerpoint presentation with them explaining market cycles, sales chains, and consumer research my UMass and SIT students had completed in earlier semesters – as we examined the existence of markets for Certified Royal Quinoa and rare gourmet quinoa varieties.  The good news that came from my studies was that the Fair Trade price farmers wanted for their quinoa and were not getting, 800Bs per quintal ($0.51 a pound or a 30% increase over today’s certified Fair Trade organic prices) would result in the cost of a finished packaged box of quinoa raising from the current price of $7 at the Brattleboro Food Coop to $8.  Most consumers, remembering the days when quinoa cost upwards of $12 a pound, said they would gladly pay that if the product had a better nutritional value and quality (which it did).

I shared this “proof of market” study with the US distributors, wholesalers and importers in the quinoa market chain.  None were interested in pursuing the marketing of quinoa varieties yet – there were busy enough with marketing the quinoa they did have – computing with others for new market sectors and loyal customers.

The quinoa producers from Capura enjoyed the presentation – though there were shocked at the final price that their $0.29 quinoa was sold at – they understood more clearly how and why the prices rose as the grain moved down the marketing chain.  They also understood what a mature market was and how product differentiation and the development of different market sectors were important for them to maintain their market position.

AIPROCA sells through SINDAN a large Fair Trade, organic quinoa exporter to Europe.  They are not so tied in with the European markets and who the final clients are of their quinoa, SINDAN handles that for them. The producers of Capura focus on what they do best, working together to grow large amounts of clean, healthy quinoa.  When not in the quinoa fields, families like Miguel’s and Carlos’ live in Oruro or Cochabamba, preferring the opportunity, education and ease of living these places bring – over the beautiful though windswept and dusty isolation of Capura.

After we finished our presentations, surveys, workshops, took photos, had lunch and said our goodbyes, Carlos and Miguel took us to Challapata – 1 ½ hours away, to drop us off at the bus stop to Uyuni and leave us for the next part of our quinoa adventure.

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Sitting on the warm sunny patio of Hotel Suk’arani, Thunupa, Neives and I spoke over glasses of “refresco” a sweet, ground toasted wheat drink which needed stirring each time a sip was taken. Thunupa was named by his mother for the volcano which dominates the Salinas landscape and is the beloved mother of so many folk lore tales.  Both Thunupa and Nieves had graduated from the Salinas high school a few years apart from each other.  Each chose to marry, raise families, and live in Salinas while working in their ancestral quinoa fields, Nieves’ being to the north and Thunupa’s being in the south.  This is where their similarities ended.

Thunupa quietly followed in his families’ footsteps growing quinoa as they always had, though with the additional help of a tractor now and as a member of the local APROQUIR producer group. He had 2 hectacres in production since prices were so low and with light fumigation, produced about 20 quintales of finished quinoa per hectacre which provided a supplemental income for the family and a health food source for his children.  He invests about $12 in fumigation, using natural pesticides, and earns about $3,000 a year (before paying membership fees for his growing group) with his quinoa production.  This is enough to cover basic costs but not provide much for investment or savings. “It’s for maintenance, nothing more,” explained Thunupa, referencing his small quinoa earnings.

Nieves was a much more active producer.  Since a child she was enthralled with organic quinoa production and has always been interested in nutrition, organic eating, and organic production.  She is a member of PROQUIRCA, another Salinas quinoa group with an organic certification from IMO-Cert that costs 3,000Bs ($428) per hectacre to maintain.  Nieves grows her certified organic quinoa in the community of Chayuquota and plants it both inside and alongside a vast crater left by a meteorite thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.  I asked if the quality or characteristics of her quinoa changed whether it was planted inside or outside of the crater and she said it as the same.  I had thought perhaps some special space minerals left from the meteorite would favor the quinoa inside the crater!  She takes much care with her quinoa investing into prevention applying more expensive, certified organic insecticides almost bi-weekly in the early growing season of the quinoa.  She talks eagerly of the different quinoa varieties she plants, psaqalla for puffed quinoa, chilpi to make ground toasted quinoa with for beverages, and the pantela and toledo used in soups.  She also produces black quinoa toasted and used as a chocolate flavor.  Nieve’s certified organic quinoa fetches a 15% – 20% higher market price than Thunulpa’s non-certified production.  However, as many producers point out, the costs in money and time for organic production, do not cover the extra they earn in the market.  Never-the-less, they maintain their certifications anyway, largely because of the commitment they feel for producing heathy food and caring for the earth.

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Since 2015 I have been traveling to Salinas, the world quinoa capital and the site of some of the earliest evidence of cultivated quinoa, 5,000 years ago.  I’ve stayed at military bases and Quinao Research Centers and felt I knew the tiny town well, tucked into a corner of the high Bolivian altiplano, fed by fresh springs and guarded by the Thunulpa volcano to the south and the vast salt flats to the east.  However what a surprise I found when this time when I was invited to stay at Hotel Suk’arani, a combination of the Aymara worlds, Suka Rani,“always full.”  This gem of a hotel, which had been in Salinas for 10 years, was tucked away into the mountain skirts above the hospital where I had last held meetings with the women quinoa growers – under the leaking room of the unfinished emergency room.  I had never noticed the rustic hotel perched above the village offering amazing views of the volcano, quinoa fields and distant salt flats.

Enzo the hotel attendant and well-known tour guide was taking a year off from his hectic life conducting tours in La Paz and Uyuni to relax a bit in his own home town of Salinas, reconnect with the family, land and people, catch up on his own archeological research, and help to improve the tourism for Salinas.  A largely undiscovered gem from a tourism perspective, Salinas offers the quiet colonial town pace of life paced by the noon time ringing of the lone church bell, carefully placed by the Spanish in the adobe tower they built 500 years ago, and the 8am and 6pm honking of the bus horn signaling its departure to the city of Oruro, now just 4 hours away.  Other than that, the silence of the sturdy hills and vast flats is dotted with bird twitters, children’s laughter, the put-put of a motorcycle motor coming in from the neighboring countryside, and an occasional barking dog.

Salinas offers, besides a vast network of quinoa production and export – natural carbonated mineral waters which are said to be a cure for most any ailment, and a vast array of ruins from pre-inca civilizations.  Once called “The Machu Pichu of Bolivia” by the Peruvians, the largest of the ruins, Alcaya, was located a short 1 ½ hour walk away.  First I had meeting scheduled with Thunupa Garcia and Nieves Catari, two young quinoa growers in the region.  Later Enzo promised he would arrange for us to have a tour of Alcaya.  It was turning out to be a great day.

Hugo Lopez, a Bolivian folklore music professor at the city university and native of Salinas, built the hotel in 2006 as a way to invite guests to his hometown.  The hotel has native design features such as cactus wood doors and furniture, a round stone structure for its central rooms and tall, round thatched roofs.  Walls are made of adobe.  Floors are polished tropical woods.  Handmade art and woven tapestries add color to the muted tones of peach, sand and white walls.  My favorite feature was the array of handmade tables featuring glass overlaid boxes which housed a large array of local treasures such as pre-colonial ceramic pieces, hand knapped arrowheads and stone axes, minerals, and different types of quinoa seeds.    We were welcomed every morning to a smiling Enzo with hot coffee, yogurt, puffed quinoa and toasted bread.  He was a gracious host treating us to little snacks during the day and a hot tea at night before bed.   Used to roughing it on our own or staying with busy families, it was nice to be treated as such a special guest for a moment.

Day 5.  The European Fair Trade challenge.

Day 5.  The European Fair Trade challenge.

ANAPQUI, a member of European Fair Trade, is the oldest quinoa cooperative in Bolivia explained Celia Arcaine, the CEO of this multi-million dollar cooperative.  Managing 70 workers, 5,000 family farmers from the departments of Oruro and Potosi plus two processing plants is no easy feat, nor is it cheap.  Fair Trade Europe does not cover our costs, explains Arcaine.  The prices come from Peru, now the world’s largest quinoa producer, and the German Natural Products trade show where all orders are placed each year for all of Europe.  Fair Trade Europe needs to compete with other market forces to set a price the is as sellable and fair as possible.  “Today,” Arcaine said, “a ton of Fair Trade, organic quinoa is $2,200 – $2,400 FOB” (freight on board – this is to say at the time the shipment of quinoa leaves the port of origin for its export destination).

I think about this.  This is 15% less than it was a year ago – and even then, farmers were complaining the price did not offer them a “living wage” as Fair Trade guaranteed.  A previous study in mine in 2017 confirmed that $3,000 a ton FOB was a fair price.  This translates to a 800Bs a quintal price for organic quinoa farmers.  Today’s common market is at 570Bs. This gap has maintained itself since the extreme drop of quinoa prices in 2015, the year my study began.

Arcaine explains the extreme methods and special care the ANAPQUI takes with all of its production.  Besides having their own team of agricultural agents, they also give each member their own warehouse for their quinoa – locked with a ley and tag that can only be removed by the member itself.  When a sale comes that includes that member’s quinoa, they personally come to the plant to open their warehouse and submit their quinoa for final testing.  This way the quantity of their quinoa is always known up front to be 100% pure, organic and ready for market, explained Arcaine.

ANAPQUI owns and manages its own Fair Trade Europe certification and as a group chooses how to apply the premium they earn through their sales.  “Each year we rotate,” explains Arcaine.  “One year we favor the producer, another the region, and the then plant.”  She invited me to visit the new plant they had built in the El Alto industrial zone of La Paz, where they produce the highest quality gluten free, quinoa noodles and cookies.  This week is the annual assembly of the cooperative.  Leaders will come together to determine how the premium will be distributed, this time to the producers.  This year it is their turn, explained Arcaine proudly.

Arcaine spoke of her childhood in Salinas where she grew up as a quinoa farmers, growing quinoa and potatoes with her family for their own consumption.  Back then quinoa was easy to grow, no market pressures, and no insects, and animals eating it.  No droughts, dust storms or early frosts.  It was an easy time, she explained.  A hectacre of land easily produced 20 quintals of seed and the families consumed it themselves.  If it was sold, it was valued at a rate of two bags of quinoa for one bag of rice or sugar.  Arcaine explains how even today she continues to enjoy the traditional quinoa growing methods she learned as a child, working alongside her husband, in the Andean chachi-warmi style, to hand plant seeds; blessing them with a q’olla offering to the earth mother, Pachamama; nurturing them as they grow by decorating the fields with confetti, paper snakes and streamers during carnival; and hand cutting and collecting the robust, colorful seed heads for processing into quinoa.

Day 4. – What happens when US Fair Trade goes south?

Day 4. – What happens when US Fair Trade goes south?

US Fair Trade is managed largely by private import companies who contract out to farmers who together with the importers agree to follow predetermined guidelines of an adequate minimum trade price, good working conditions and a healthy production environment.  US Fair Trade in Bolivia is managed through Jisa, a quinoa buying and processing company owned by Andean Naturals in the US.

Today I talked with Eufraem Huyallas, the founder of APROCAY, a large quinoa association with 407 members who historically produced upwards of eight metric tonnes of quinoa a year valued at over $32,000.  We were in the city of Oruro, far from the Quillacas quinoa fields where I first met Huyallas in 2015.  For the past five years he explained, they worked with Jisa (once known as Andean Family farmers) as a Fair Trade producer.  They benefitted well he explained, receiving access to better natural pesticides, a mechanized processing plant, warehouse, and machines to make quinoa flakes and puffs.  All of this was purchased with the Fair Trade premiums they earned through their Fair Trade quinoa sales and investments made by the Association itself.

This year, that relationship ended.  As the quinoa market prices dropped so did Jisa’s sales from APROCAY plummeting from eight tonnes in 2015 to just two by 2017.  With fewer sales came less investment for future production.  Farmers for the first time since becoming Fair Trade members had to make personal investments into natural pest control and fertilizers.  Some members might not have purchased the highest quality products as before, explained  Huyallas, causing a container of quinoa to be returned in 2017 – at his own cost.  APROCAY’s quinoa did not pass Jisa’s strict organic standards in a laboratory test of random samples.  The second order came through OK but it turned out to be the final order from JISA.

“The returned my letter, (Fair Trade certificate)” explained Huyallas.  “Always they (Jisa) managed this and paid with our premiums and our money.” He continued.  He explained the certificate cost $4,000 a year to maintain not including the cost of maintaining the organic certification as well.  “I’m not a sales person,” lamented Huyallas.  “I produce quinoa.”   This year APROCAY will work with irrigation projects and will produce more quinoa.  However, they do not know where to sell it because the only (US) Fair Trade buyer is Jisa and Jisa is no longer giving them contracts.

Hyallaes ran through numbers talking about there much higher cost of producing quinoa according to Fair Trade organic standards including more expensive fertilizers, pest control and the added cost of certifications.  In all, he explained it would cost the farmers more than they could ever make back if they continued as an organic, Fair Trade producer group estimating that each farmer would lose about 50 to 70 Bs for each quintal produced (about a 12% loss).  He explained even with his past Fair Trade market access, the prices paid did not adequately cover production costs, though the premiums did help the strengthen the organization.

Now facing no Fair Trade market access at all and having to sell on the common market which he has had little interactions with for the past six years, Huyallas is considering dropping APROCAY’s Fair Trade and organic certifications.   “There is not enough to be made with organic certifications which cover the cost of that certification either,” explained Hyallaes.  Organic quinoa fetches a 10% higher market price than conventional quinoa and through organic certifications seem to cost about the same as Fair Trade ones, a 12% extra cost.

I asked what his next steps will now be since he does not have guaranteed access to the local markets.  He expressed interest in working more on his quinoa processing into puffs and flakes and selling quinoa as an ingredient for school breakfasts.

“Who knows?” he asks, turning to face me, “maybe we’ll end up producing onions.  If all goes well with the irrigation project we will be very good onion producers.”

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development