LEADERSHIP & WELL-BEING IN BOLIVIA'S QUINOA FIELDS

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 44 – What the quinoa women say

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

dona miguelena

Lluvica highlands quinoa farmer, Miguelina in her fields overlooking the salt flats.

After weeks of trekking through the high salt flat plains, volcanic perimeters and mountain corridors, visiting over a dozen remote quinoa communities – Puerto Lluvica, Lluvica, Santiago, Belle Vista, Otuyo, Quillacas, San Juan, Capura and more – I have captured the hopes, dream and fears of the women, and some men, of these communities.  “What is sustainability for a woman quinoa farmer?” is the question all were asked.  In 90 minute meetings in stark, crumbling adobe town meeting halls with creaky, oiled, wooden floors, we would mull over this – under the light of a few florescent bulbs tacked up to the ceilings made of sewn flour sacks.  Often at 8 or 9 at night, once the women had returned from the quinoa fields, cooked dinner, attended to their children and finally had a moment to spare to meet a foreigner from the US, who had actually travelled all the way to her community and was interested in learning about her well-being and listening to her voice.

Interviewing

Me, the author, interviewing a quinoa farmer from San Juan.

Most times, I would be introduced to the elected town authority by the woman member of a quinoa growers’ cooperative or association who took me under her wing, let me stay with her family, visit and work in her fields, cook and eat her food, ask a million questions and get to know the community better.

I would offer the community an interactive workshop and the elected town crier would ring the church bell in the community, letting the people know there was a meeting.  Women would arrive from the dark street wrapped in shawls and ponchos, long layered skirts and thick stockings.  Even though it was the Andean summer, nighttime temperatures would drop into the 50 and 40s and our drafty meeting houses did not have heat.

The meetings began with participants in a semi-circle facing the wall where I had a large sheet of paper tacked up with my name, cell phone number, e-mail and the title of the workshop.  Transparency was important and giving out one’s cell phone number is like offering a handshake here.  I would be presented to the group by the village official and would then further introduce myself as a US professor of Solidarity Economy, a concept well known in South America, that refers to an economy of working together in a mutually beneficial way for all.  (There are a handful of “solidarity economists” in the US, mostly lumped under the title of “radical economists” and teaching in areas such as environmental economics and political economy).

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Felix and his family take a break from hand hoeing their highland quinoa fields in Lluvica.

In the Andean tradition, I would then invite the participants to a snack – this time it was a Kind bar, made by a New York company who prides themselves on using visible ingredients so participants could see the tiny puffed quinoas that were part of the chocolate-honey-oatmeal-millet bar.  It was interesting for them to experience how others use their quinoa and all loved the sweet, chewy bars.

We then launched into a group discussion of what was sustainability to them.  I would start by drawing a wiggly line on a piece of paper signifying the earth, to give them a starting point. Then little by little other details would be added: rain, money, quinoa, llamas, manure, people – usually in that order.  I would draw and label each item as they mentioned it – learning from my friend Tito Medrano from the Fair Trade NGO, that people responded better to drawings than written words which they were unaccustomed to using.  After about 20 minutes of open conversation, I would put a positive and a negative sign in a space I had left open on the paper, dividing that section in half, and introduce the Talking Stick – a native American way of inviting all people to speak equally about a topic.  In the Andean tradition, things are talked about in balance – there is always a positive and negative to each situation and this is valued in conversation.  The participants would take turns holding the stick (passed from left to right) and adding their own ideas or re-enforcing other ideas already presented, about what they saw as the positive and negative aspects of their own sustainability and quinoa production.  The talking stick helped to even out the opening conversation which was usually dominated by a few people, and bring out the more quiet people, often the oldest and youngest women, to talk.  As things were repeated, I would put a check next to the item.  As new things were mentioned, they were added to the picture and the -/+ part of the paper.  Often jokes would be made and there would be a serious, but also playful, tone to the meeting.  By the end of the workshop, we had a pretty good idea of the needs, fears, and hopes of the people in that community.  Participants reported they enjoyed that moment to reflect together over who they were and where they were in their own lives and that of the community.  I would leave the posters hung up for people to reference later, taking a photo for my own records.

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What quinoa farmers need for sustainable living.

What emerged was something unique and universal at once.  While each community had their own interpretation of sustainability, after six meetings with almost 100 people, 60% who were women, common themes began to emerge with varying degrees of urgency and need. The following is a quantified presentation of the six most popular themes and the negative-positive aspects of them.  The numbers represent the number of times the theme was mentioned by meeting participants.

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The negative-posititve contrasts to each theme.

The most important theme was the climate.  With climate change making farming more risky and unpredictable with early frosts, sudden hail, torrential downpours and long droughts, farmers no longer could predict harvests or calculate optimal planting times like before.  After years of drought, which just ended with abundant rains this January, landscapes had changed – there was not as much forage for the llamas and wild vicunas and delicate topsoils were being carried away in the winds.  The positive aspect of the climate was the rain which had arrived and the ability to grow quinoa though the negative was the unpredictable weather which could wipe out an entire crop of quinoa.

After climate came the people.  People were pleased to be working together as an entire family in the quinoa soil prep, planting and harvest.  Many children were home from college and visiting from Chile where families had migrated in search of better work – helping with the quinoa and llamas.  However there was a lot of recognition that the Bolivian quinoa was largely hand grown in small quantities with the utmost care and quality, the earth and seeds were blessed before planting and for the harvest.  This took a lot of work.  Weeks are spent in the acres of fields hand hoeing weeds and hilling up fallen quinoa stalks, hand picking off worms, turning over soils, cutting and drying the large seed heads – one head at a time, separating the seeds from the stalks, cleaning out stones, loosening the chafe.  Women had the extra work of cooking and child care on top of this.  For the Bolivian kitchen, there was also a lot of processing of the quinoa at home.  The seeds needed to be toasted and the chafe removed by sifting it in the wind, then the seed was washed several times – often toasted again for pisaga or hand ground into pito – where it was used to make a drink, dumplings, or eaten plain with a small amount of sugar.  The seed was a culture, a source of pride that the Bolivians themselves cultivated since ancient times.  There were legends, stories and a long shared memory of quinoa – the seed of gold, the plant that is central to the Andean culture and identity – much like corn is for native Americans in the north. However the people were dictated the price for their quinoa by the Peruvian market, which with government investment and mechanized, large scale farming, was outpricing the more artisanal Bolivian quinoa.  The price of 450Bs a quintal for top quality, organic Bolivian quinoa was not meeting the small scale Bolivian farmer’s costs.

Also needed for sustainability was the quinoa itself.  The positive aspects were the presence of the Quinoa Real, a type of quinoa that only grew in the mineral rich, sandy soils surrounding the Bolivian salt flats and the traditional organic style of farming.  The negative parts were the lack of organic pest control methods, the increasingly problematic worms eating the seed heads, a lack of investment for proper farm inputs – such as ample fertilizer (organic llama manure), and preventative pest control (such as moth traps) –the over tilling of the delicate land by tractors better suited for the deep soils of the valleys, the clearing of native grasses for more quinoa production – which led to increased desertification and loss of grazing lands, the thousands of acres of abandoned quinoa lands, now tilled and barren, the fact that Bolivians cannot compete with modern mechanized world production methods of quinoa – where there are 2 harvests, deep soils, rain and ample investment, and that there is no recognition of the quality and work that goes into their quinoa and its thousands of varieties that are known to the world only as white, red, black.

The earth itself (soils) are also mentioned many times in the theme of sustainability – with recognition of its microorganisms, organic nature, mineral content and that it is a respected, living organism, the Earth Mother (Pachamama) who supports all life.  There was recognition of its need to be respected, not exploited, and cared for carefully without massive production, but with high quality, small scale, organic artisanal farming.

The animals were also of importance to the people – largely the llamas, which were native to the altiplano and were raised in balance with the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is still the fertilizer of choice for the Bolivian quinoa.  The positive was the presence of the llama though the negative was the toll the drought and loss of forage for the animals due to excessive clearing and tilling of altiplano lands – herds were smaller, animals thin and some did not have the energy to nurse their babies. In addition, due to the extreme drop in quinoa prices, many people have left the quinoa regions in search of more steady work, and no longer maintain their own herds of alpaca – though they still return to plant and harvest the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is now at a premium, as there is less now than before for use in the quinoa fields and many families have to purchase dung since they no longer have their herds to provide this for them.

Finally the economy itself was problematic.  There was nothing good to be said about this.  The current market price of quinoa – including fair trade and organic – simply did not cover the costs of production.  Dictated from Peru and pushed by foreign competition, the Bolivian quinoa farmers had no control on pricing of their product.  They had the choice to accept the market price which ranged from 550Bs (7Bs is $1US) for a quintal of quinoa to 250Bs for common market uncertified quinoa – or not sell the product at all, and save it for their own use.  Quinoa farmers however, were just that.  In the cold, arid altiplano, very few other crops grew – some produced a few pounds of potatoes, fava beans and onions for their own use, but not in quantities for market sales.  The llama meat fetched a fair market price, but the market for alpaca meat was largely limited to national sales in the highlands where there was a tradition of consuming llama.  So while largely self-sufficient farmers, quinoa growers also had a need for cash – to pay for electricity, to buy cooking oil, clothes, school supplies, and to grow the quinoa – pay for the tractor to till the soil, manure, pest control and labor.  Current prices are at half of what the farmers need for a dignified living and the is no sign of the prices changing any time in the near future.  As a result, less land is being planted, leading to less income as well, and increased migration out of the quinoa zone. Most communities only have 25% of the families living there full time – the rest are in other cities such as Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz and countries such as Chile, working in urban jobs.

Overall, there were 13 different themes mentioned with three being outliers (for example – the wild animals of the mountains, or the abundant crops and recipes of the valleys) which were specific to a particular community and did not represent the ideas of all quinoa growers.  Additional themes mentioned with less frequency included culture, wisdom, policy and tourism.

quinoa and gladys

Galdys shows off her community quinoa in Chuvica.

My thanks go out to Gladys Caral, Monica Cayo, Florinda Consales, and Ester Mamani for helping to make this study happen, and for bringing me into their lives.  We will continue to work together via the internet and WhatsApp until I return again in 2018 – keeping the connection open between the remote quinoa lands, US markets, and academic classrooms.

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

Salt hotel chuvica

A new tourism salt hotel under construction in the quinoa community of Chuvica.

When one arrives in Uyuni, the Potosi capital of the Quinoa Real, one sees a dusty, salty outpost with low adobe houses, a few cement and brick hotels, many salt flat tour offices and not much else.  This town of 10,000 people receives 60,000 tourists from all over the world, mostly European, Asian and South American backpackers – who are visiting the salt flats as part of a larger tour of Chile or Peru.  Tours take two to three days and cost more than $100 each.  The tourists are young, educated, have money and time to travel.  They are interested in the culture and natural environment of Bolivia but in Uyuni they are greeted with tourist restaurants serving beer and pizza, roadside food stands with fried chicken and thick cut French fries, Bolivian soups and dishes made of beef, rice and little else.  On the salt flat tours, tourists are served largely noodles. The tourist shops sell alpaca clothing, tiny trinkets carved from salt and little bags of salt.  No quinoa!  …Not even a plant in the plaza or a dried, decorative quinoa seed head in a hotel lobby.  These are young people who would love to learn about quinoa, eat it and then consume it in their home countries – where this is Bolivian quinoa for sale – becoming lifelong loyal Bolivian quinoa customers.  What an opportunity!

quinoa tourism - bells for meetings

The town crier rings these church bells to announce town meetings. Gladys’ niece poses for a photo- #quinoatoursim!

I was even more surprised to travel to the far away quinoa communities of San Juan, Santiago, Puerto Lluvica and Lluvica to find tourist hotels of salt, anthropology museums and tour vehicles arriving regularly, with no integration or participation with the quinoa growers themselves, who are literally living next door.

I thought of all of the agro-tourism we have alongside regular tourism in my state of Vermont, where we also have small, isolated, organic producers making largely artisanal producers – at premium prices.  I saw opportunities for tourists to learn to plan, hoe, and harvest quinoa.  To prepare quinoa for cooking in Bolivia’s many traditional ways – to have a quinoa culture center in each town where tourists can spend the afternoon thrashing seed heads, separating chaff, toasting grains over an open fire of tola plants, hand washing and grinding the grains with a stone and cooking soups, pito and pisaga.  They could herd the llamas, learn to turn the soil, even pack-up loads for llamas to carry and eat a lunch outside with the other herders. Harvest festivals and planting tours could be developed including separate quinoa tours that brought participants to the communities for several days.  Most communities had amazing pre-Inca ruins, cave paintings, and other natural wonders to explore as well – plus the community’s culture itself with ample festivals, music and traditions.

quinoa tourism - kitchen

My dughter Musi enjoys learning to cook with quinoa – Bolivian style.

Quinoa communities asked about tourism – all wanting to engage in it but not knowing how.  I told them the story of how I worked with the mayor or Mizque, 15 years ago, to develop the first Annual Fruit Festival there – which is still going on.  I helped the community of San Juan to map out their resources and see how they can work together more with the tourism industry and existing infrastructure to create a strong quinoa identity in the town of Uyuni and its surrounding communities. The communities were interested but still felt very detached from the tourists – who in one instance participated in a village festival by dancing and getting to know community members and in another instance wanted to know more about the quinoa seeds I had.  So there is interest.  The challenge is to bridge the communication and culture gap between the tourists and the Bolivians and more importantly the Bolivian tourism community and the quinoa farmers themselves.

An opportunity came by the other day when my American friend, Anna, who lives in Cochabamba and works on educational exchanges for Santa Clara students, mentioned an interest in doing more work in Uyuni.  I pitched the idea of students spending six weeks in the quinoa community of San Juan working with local people to develop a quinoa tour route and tourism.  Gladys the point person in the community was thrilled and so was my friend… we’ll where it all goes!

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

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Breads made with kaslala quinoa.

Looking at the quinoa market from the producer perspective, the Fair Trade producer earns 4% of the total value of the quinoa they produce.  Producers however, consistently say this is not enough.  To cover production costs including their own labor, they need to earn 800Bs a quintal ($114 for 220 pounds) or $.51 a pound.  Plugging this amount into the current quinoa production costs it brings us to a FOB of $2,778 per ton.  This is 6% more than the current Fair Trade price.  To continue down the value chain through distribution to wholesale re-packagers down to consumer retailers, the final product arrives at a consumer price of $8.12 a pound – a 12% increase over the current Fair Trade, organic quinoa price.

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The proposed pricing for a pound of premium, heritage variety gourmet organic quinoa sold to consumers for $8.12 a pound and providing a living wage for farmers.

My UMass students conducted a market study of organic Bolivian Quinoa Real with the Mark of Original and found consumers willing to pay up to 25% more for a premium quinoa product that has higher nutritional values and cultural connections.  The Bolivian Quinoa Real is hand processed and 87% is blessed – both at planting and harvest – for the earth mother (Pachamama) to bring forth abundance, love and compassion for the farmers and the grain itself.

Being here in the Quinoa Real fields, I am noting that amongst the standard red, white and black varieties of Quinoa Real, there are many eco-types and sub-varieties with distinct properties and culinary uses which US consumers would value.  Some like the white Kaslala are great for bread making and baking while others like the white Toledo cook quickly.  Currently these are mixed and sold simply as “white quinoa” at low market prices.  From a marketing perspective, it appears there exists a unique, profitable, premium market for the rare, distinct varieties of Quinoa Real that Bolivian farmers carefully plant and harvest, but get mixed together in the general export sales of quinoa by color.  It seems that consumers are ready for the option – the challenge is to create the new market space and investment for this.

DAY 41 – Farmers earn less than 30 cents a pound for organic quinoa.

DAY 41 – Farmers earn less than 30 cents a pound for organic quinoa.

So what is the real cost of quinoa?  Looking at the entire value chain of quinoa there are complexities and challenges in all directions from the world markets competing for consumer dollars to the producers themselves, scraping to make a living from an undervalued grain that is not covering its production costs.    Here we will look at the quinoa value chain starting from the middle – the cost per ton for quinoa at the world market pricing of FOB from the Chilean seaport of Arica where sales are made to work markets.

quinoa price chart

Quinoa price differences at the FOB point of sale form the Chilean port of Arica.

Prices are from the end of January 2017 and vary depending on the quality and origin.  Small grain industrialized conventional quinoa from Peru and elsewhere is selling at $1,900 per ton while conventional Bolivian quinoa is offered at $2,100 a ton.  Organic quinoa that is largely only found in Bolivia and is most likely is the Quinoa Real variety is $2,350 a ton and the Fair Trade certified, organic Quinoa Real from Bolivia has a value of $2,600 a ton – a 27% higher price than the cheapest quinoa from Peru.  In February Bolivia expects to have the European Community legally accept their Seal of Denomination of Origin for their Quinoa Real variety which has the distinct qualities of a large, creamy seed, the highest protein and mineral  contents of any quinoa, is organically produced on small farms, and only grows within in a 30-mile radius around the salt flats.  This can help to secure a new level of pricing for Bolivia’s quinoa, or at least make it more competitive in the world market at current prices.

Fair Trade organizations, based in both in Europe as Germany’s World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and in the US as Fair Trade USA(FTUSA), are set up to protect farmers’ rights, grow community and ensure producers receive a living wage.  Just recently Fair Trade has recognized Bolivian quinoa as a potential Fair Trade product and has been offering membership and price guarantees to Bolivia producers.  Currently there are about 20 quinoa growing associations signed on as certified Fair Trade producers.  This membership comes with costs and rules – organizations pay hundreds of dollars for audits and must uphold commitments to transparency, inclusiveness and democratic decision making. In addition to receiving a minimum price guarantee, regardless of market movements, producer groups also receive an annual premium based on a % of total sales that year.

I will offer a value chain analysis of the current Fair Trace price of quinoa and see where it arrives both for the consumer and the producer to determine the fairness of that price.  Next I will offer an alternative that can help farmers get what they consider to be a fair price, and what once was the Fair Trade minimum for quinoa in 2015.

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Price break out for a pound of Fair Trade, organic Bolivian quinoa sold to a US consumer in a local grocery store.

At $2,600 a ton FOB from Arica, Chile – Bolivia’s closest sea port, Bolivia’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa prices out at $1.18 a pound.  Private Fair Trade companies are buying this quinoa from producers at 450Bs a quintal ($64 for 220 pounds) or $.29 a pound. This represents 25% of the FOB price.  The rest goes towards covering the costs of commercial processing and cleaning ($.14 or 12%) and the administration, documentation and transportation from the farm to the plant to the port ($.75 or 64% of production).  This same $1.18 a pound of quinoa is shipped by container to the US (in this case) where it is sold to wholesale buyers.  The buyer (importer) sells the container of quinoa to large companies such as Pepsi and Kelloggs who then repackage the quinoa in small quantities under different brand names and sell it to stores who then place it on their shelves for consumer purchasing.  Each step in the supply chain has its own price points.  For example in the retail food industry the common store markup for packaged food products is 30%.

Taking a $7.17 per pound price for a box of organic quinoa in my local food coop – which has a 30% markup on their packaged foods – we can work out way backwards to the FOB to see where costs are incurred in the quinoa value chain.  The store gets $1.65 per pound on the product it sells (23%), the re-packager gets $2.60 (36%) which also covers the cost of packaging, branding and administration, the importer gets $1.86 (or 26%) which covers their administration, distribution and sales costs.

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development

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Traditional housing in the remote quinoa lands.

How did the small, remote, impoverished quinoa communities of yore grow into a multimillion dollar international market?  The answer is years of development projects, investment, experiments, failure and success – starting in the 1970s

The 1970s was the time of the agriculture revolution in the development world with mechanized, chemical farming of massive acreages producing high yields of carefully developed crop varieties.  Quinoa was not overlooked in this period as hundreds of thousands of development dollars poured into the quinoa region to help develop this ancient grain for commercial use.  It was certainly a time of trial and error for the region – a place with delicate, volcanic soils, little rainfall and minimal organic material for building soil strength (nutrients).

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The vast, isolated quinoa landscape and llama.

Farmers tell tales of foreign agronomics arriving with different fertilizers, pesticides and industrialized farming methods – each time being “outsmarted” in the long run by the native wisdom and organic farming techniques of the ancestors.  Miguel Huyallas tells of the Dutch development worker who in the 1980s came with urea and other processed fertilizers for the quinoa farmers.  Miguel challenged him to a quinoa growing “contest” and offered a piece of his land to the Dutch agronomist. The first year, the Dutch’s quinoa grew better than Miguel’s – larger, taller, with higher yields.  However by the second year, the Dutch’s soils were already exhausted and his quinoa produced much less than Miguel’s organic quinoa fed with organic llama manure.  The agronomist explained Miguel, never returned after that.

There are patches of desert land where nothing grows, explains a Bolivian agronomist in Salinas.  The soils, he says, are burnt by the rigorous use of chemical fertilizers by USAID projects which did not take into account the slower decomposition of matter in arid environments and the lesser amounts of carbon in the volcanic soils.

Gladys of Chuvica talks of the pesticides which were used in abundance in 1970s development projects in her community.  She explains how the people did not have proper training in applying and caring for them, often saturating their skin and breathing in the fumes.  She attributes her mother’s early death at 50 to poisoning from the pesticides and believes there is a high rate of undocumented cancers in her region because of this.  The other day a woman farmer in Quillacas told me how once when she was hand fumigating her crop, the backpack style tank that is filled with pesticides leaked all over her clothes and through to her skin before she realized there was a leak in the tank. The farmers do not want to fumigate.  They understand the dangers of the chemicals and no one I have visited in the highlands is using chemical fertilizers in their production.

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The quinoa fields of Otuyo, Salinas.

Never-the-less, development progressed and through decades of trial and error, an export quality, semi-industrialized quinoa industry was developed.  The first quinoa producers’ association ANAPQUI was founded in the 1980s.  France helped finance the association’s presence in international trade shows in the 1990s – helping to build awareness and markets for the tiny seed.  Belgium helped fund the first tractors being used in quinoa production through CECOAT, a Bolivian NGO, revolutionizing how the tiny hand-grown mountain grain was produced.  Tractors cannot function on the traditional mountainside fields of the quinoa, so a valley method of production was created on the flat plains of the salt flats, opening up hundreds of thousands of acres of new land for quinoa production. According to long time quinoa agronomist, Genaro Aroni, by 2014 Bolivia’s quinoa industry reached $200 million a year in sales with over 60 businesses worldwide grappling for access to the Bolivian “grain of gold,” and what the United Nations termed the high protein super food for the future of mankind.

The development came at a cost though.  Aroni estimated that by 2016 there were over 2,000 tractors tearing up the delicate soils of the altiplanos plains.  With the recent drop in quinoa prices however, farmers are no longer planting the 30 to 60 acre lots they once managed opting for 21 acre plantings instead and are seeking to sell their tractors.  Worse though are the thousands of acres of desert lands now left fallow.  The slow growing tola plants and pampa grasses have been removed leaving the land to dry and soils to be carried away by the wind.  Worse, there is no longer forage for the llamas and wild vicunas which once dominated Bolivia’s vast plains.  Projects to “reforest” the plains with tola plant seedlings are underway but it’s a long, slow process.

In addition, with the new lowland farming of quinoa, new insects arrived which were never present before – including a moth whose larvae eat the immature quinoa seed heads.  This has proven to be a huge challenge for farmers who value organic production and ancestral knowledge.  Never had these insects been present before, so there was no ancestral knowledge to pull from.  Over the years both conventional and organic pesticides have been used to fight the “worms” as they are called locally, but with mixed results.  The conventional pesticides such as cyprometherine work but ruin the organic certification of the seed while organic pesticides are still in an experimental stage and not very efficient.

Perhaps the most knowledgeable in the recent history of quinoa development is agronomist Aroni.  A quinoa grower himself from the Uyuni region, he’s spent 30 years on the quinoa development largely working with Proimpa, a Bolivian NGO whose mission is to, “Promote the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, sovereignty and food security, and the competitiveness of agricultural products for the benefit of producers, the agricultural sector and society as a whole; Through research and technological innovation.”  Many of Proimpa’s programs and come from collaboration with the Collaborative Crops Research Program (CCRP) funded by the McKnight Foundation.

A recent example of a McKnight funded collaboration is the development of pheromone traps with Dutch academics.  The traps which each contain 10 different pheromones, attract male moths to prevent them from fertilizing the eggs of the female moths.   The moth larvae, a caterpillar, eats the valuable quinoa seed heads before they are formed causing thousands of dollars of damage and lost production.  This year is the first time the traps were put into use and farmers reported satisfaction with how the traps worked – noticing a substantial reduction in the number of caterpillars they were finding on their quinoa plants.

Aranoi speaks of the needs of the farmers in the areas of more funding for organic pest control systems and more investment into improving the delicate soils.  He is currently working with integrative systems where quinoa is intercropped with native grasses that hold down the soil and add much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  One such plant is the k’ela, a wild leguminous tarhui that is a nitrogen fixer and can also be foraged by animals.

As far as the future of quinoa, Aroni sees more diversification in production being key for the people in the quinoa region.  Traditionally quinoa was grown in balance with llama production with both industries complimenting each other – the llamas provided manure and transportation for the quinoa and food for the families and the quinoa stalks and 2nd quality seeds provided supplemental food for the llama.  Now llamas and quinoa are often managed separately and the sizes of the herds have not kept up with the quinoa growth. In addition, there is not as developed of a market for llama meat, especially in the international arena.  Bolivia’s low fat, high protein, free range, organic llama meat is naturally low in cholesterol and is an excellent protein source.  Aroni sees the development of the llama industry as a way for quinoa farmers to move forward in their economic development and well-being.  He also sees the development of effective organic pest control systems and a clear, transparent, realistic pricing system for the quinoa as key to the sustainability of this industry in Bolivia.  A sustainable price for quinoa producers?   800Bs a quintal – the same price that farmers themselves have been asking for from all across the salt flats.

DAY 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

DAY 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

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Marita demonstrates how quinoa was (and still is) processed by foot – grinding the grains in a course stone bowl to remove the bitter husks. This quinoa grinding bowl is 3,000 years old!

So how long has quinoa been cultivated and consumed in Bolivia? If you ask the people from the salty frontier towns of Santiago, Chuvica and San Jaun – huddled at the base of the mountain range circling the salt flats just a few miles from the Chilean border – they will tell you 3,000 years.   In this region is the ancient city of L’kalla, a large array of huge chunks of meticulously placed coral and stone forming round rooms with windows that align with each other – looking out in the four directions over a vast expanse of dry sand and distant salt flats.  Narrow corridors wind amongst the vast array of structures, leaving one to wonder what the hilltop city would have looked like 3,000 years ago when it was said to have been a busy seaside port.

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Pottery shards, an arrowhead and turquoise trading beads found at the L’kalla site.

Evidence of trade and prosperity still exist.  The town is encircled on the one side by a vast array of chulpas, stone tombs where the remains of ancestors were stored – mummified in baskets, and brought out for village celebrations. Though the mummies were removed and sent to museums long ago.  Tiny arrowheads used for fishing, pieces of intricately decorated pottery, turquoise beads once used for decoration and trade along the Chilean coast and carefully hand carved bone and shell buttons can still be found in the sandy soils amongst the abandoned village.  Years ago, a small study of the city was done dating it to 3,000 years old.  Grains of quinoa and quinoa grinding bowls can be found there as well.

DAY 38 – The royal quinoa legends of the salt flats

DAY 38 – The royal quinoa legends of the salt flats

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with a sheath of quinoa - yet to be processed.

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with colorful sheaths of quinoa.

Here is the legend of where Royal Quinoa came from:

In ancient times the Bolivian people lived like fisherman, eating the fish from the vast, deep inland seas that covered the altiplano.  Then one day they dried up andante people and nothing to eat.  They were sick, starving and prayed to the gods for help.  They claimed mounting and begged forgiveness.  The ancient goddess Quiua took pity on them and said not to work she would send them a plant that did everything – it would serve as bread, soup, meat, salad and rice.  She sent her beautiful daughter down to help plant the seeds.  The girls walked around the dread seabed and soon tiny green plants began appearing where she had walked.  The princess/daughter loved to dance and would spend the afternoons dancing around her tiny green plants, her skirts a different color each day: organic, golden yellow, maroon, light pink.  One afternoon the princess disappeared and was seen no more.  The huge, tall seed heads of the plants she left behind turned the colors of her skirts and thus the magnificent colors of the quinoa were made.

Another story:

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The Uyuni salt flats as seen from Fish island.

Uyuni means “resting place” in the local language of Aymara.

Quinoa Grower Gladys Caral’s grandfather remembers the times before electricity, cars and money – where the quinoa was the currency which people traded for other foods – the “grain of gold” as it’s known.  At different time of the year, farmers would load up their llamas with blocks of salt cut from the salt flats and sacks of quinoa.  Llamas can only carry about 60 pounds so long trains of 10-50 llamas driven by 1-3 families would be readied with their cargo.  The farmers would walk with their llamas for about a week to reach the Chilean towns where they traded their quinoa and salt for pears. Two weeks later, the children of the quinoa lands would run and greet their fathers returning with vast cargos of delicious fruit.  Other times farmers would load up their llamas and take salt and quinoa to Argentina in exchange for flour or to Tupiza in Bolivia in exchange for corn.  Thus Uyuni was the resting place – where all would return from their trades.

To prepare the llamas for crossing the salt flats, tiny leather shoes were made which would be wet and slipped over the llama’s delicate feet to protect them from the salt.  When dry they would shrink to the form of the llama’s foot.  In addition, to protect the llamas from the harsh sun glare of the white salt flats, the hair around their eyes was painted black – making it look like there were wearing sunglasses (which did not exist in that time).  Donkeys were also used to carry loads but did not need the black eye protection since they were already black.  They did not need boots either since their feet were harder and fitted with iron horseshoes.

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

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Chuvica’s wind pumps from Argentina. Each pump provides irrigation for 11 families and a total of 4 acres of crops.

Gladys’ father had a vision – wind driven water pumps to bring the rich, sweet waters to the dry salty, windswept, lakebed for better and more varied crop production.  Quinoa can grow well in arid environments but potatoes and fava beans, other favorite crops, need more water.  He built a wind turbine that fed a large water tank that could be tapped for gravity fed irrigation in nearby areas – carefully tending it, making repairs and improvements, until at last it ceased to function any more.  The tank cracked and the turbine gradually rotted into a metal heap but the memory of wind turbines water pumps lived on.

Last year, the tiny community of 25 permanent citizens and 60 visiting residents – families who come in for annual festivals and to plant or harvest quinoa – worked with their elected village representatives (dirigentes) to request funding for a wind pump project.  They researched the best systems and ended up choosing pumps designed in Argentina which worked like hand pumps for bicycle tires.  The turbines produce air pressure which pushes the water out of the ground and into adjacent tanks.  No electricity is generated, it’s just air pressure, wind and water.  The mayor invested $1,000 for each wind turbine ($8,000 total) and the people of Chavica provided the labor, sand, stone and cement to build eight large 1,000 liter water tanks – one for each turbine.  The eight wind pumps, light giants descended from the surrounding mountains, now greet visitors as they barrel across the floor of the vast inland sea in a rickety old bus with thick, deep-treaded tires. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the vast ocean evaporated to become the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding sand, salty ocean floor.

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Gladys and the large quinoa plants in Chuvica’s irrigated wind pump gardens.

Visiting the new gardens – which appear like an emerald oasis in a sea of dried, tan soils – we see the bright green foliage of healthy potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, wheat, beets, celery, fragrant fava beans, and of course large sheaths of quinoa seed heads already formed and robust.  Each pump fills a tank which serves 11 families who each tend to their own 5,000 square foot garden (1,500 meters).  Some use natural manure to strengthen their newly planted soils, others chemical fertilizers.

This is the first year the gardens are in use and Gladys is predicting that each family will most likely harvest at least 220 pounds (1 quintal) of quinoa for their personal use.  This comes out to a little more than 4 pounds of quinoa consumed by each family each week and seems to be the national average of quinoa consumption for people growing quinoa in both the altiplano and valley regions of Bolivia.  People in the quinoa regions consume quinoa about 3 to 4 times a week, usually in soups or toasted and cooked as rice (a dish known as psiga).  Fifty years ago, quinoa was consumed daily as a standard family staple, but that habit has changed as homegrown quinoa needs to be hand cleaned which takes time and extra work.  To clean home harvested quinoa one has to remove the outer shell of the quinoa seed along with its chaff and then do several rounds of water rinses.  This means the quinoa takes extra time to prepare while white rice and dried noodles are now easily accessible for purchase and faster and easier to cook.

On our way to the airpumps we paused to pick a tiny plant, the chupala, who’s root, about the size of a crayon, is juicy and sweet to eat raw.  We also enjoyed the bright green seeds of the mutucuro, a small, flat legume that produced small round “potatoes” deep in the earth and produces a small red seed pod with tiny bright green seeds inside.  The seeds do not have much flavor, but are fun to eat because of their color.

We checked on the quinoa too.  Noting with a shovel that the weeks of rain had only saturated the top foot of the hilled soils from last year’s quinoa fields, now fallow.  It was better if the water had sunk in deeper than that.  Never-the-less, the farmer with the tractor was plowing field this week at a cost of $20 per acre (or 400Bs a hectare) and he was coming to plow tomorrow.  The field would be plowed now in preparation for October’s planting, to let the organic matter sink in and decompose into nutrients, the humidity of the soil helping in their process.  Normally farmers would add two dump truck loads of llama manure to their acreage (a $285 investment) but this field had not been used in 5 years and Gladys felt certain it would be OK for production without extra material added.  Everywhere quinoa farmers are looking at ways to cut their costs – with reduced fertilizer usage, less pest control and less acreage in production – the low market prices and climate variations affecting these decisions.

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

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Quinoa industrialised processing in the remote town of Slainas.

So now what?   It is interesting to talk of markets, cycles, prices, yields – but what about the people behind the markets, the ones whose livelihoods depend on the quinoa harvest?  Following the cycles of development, mature markets can become industrialized with new product but they can also differentiate though the product itself.  This is how Fair Trade operates in other export commodity markets such as coffee and chocolate – putting a social and environmental value on production which consumers support through their purchases.

There are advantages to Bolivia’s quinoa production which can enable it to compete in new areas of Fair Trae, quality and variety – creating a premium quinoa with a higher price.  A small study conducted by my UMass students last semester, showed consumers willing to pay 30% more for organic quinoa that has a high nutritional and cultural value. The challenge now is to organize Bolivia’s diverse quinoa community of associations, cooperatives, private businesses, NGOs and government ministries to educte outside markets and consumers about the benefits of Bolivian quinoa.

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Packaged quinoa for sale in the US – a mix of many varieties listed as just flakes with no mention of location or type of quinoa.

The first step is the development of a Bolivian Seal of Denomination for the Royal Quinoa grown in a 25 mile zone around the salt flats.  This quinoa is distinct in its high nutritional quality and large, creamy seed formation.  It is also mostly organically grown, hand harvested and blessed.  This seal will be presented at the world famous German Natural Foods Trade Show in February – and if accepted, will create the name Royal Quinoa as something solely in reference to the distinct varieties of quinoa from Bolivia’s Salt Flat zone – thus opening a new market solely for Bolivia quinoa.  This is much like the name Champagne only being able to be used for grapes and sparkling wines coming from Champagne, France.  Monitoring and enforcement of the proper Seal use will be tricky here as will the marketing of the Seal to global audiences who are unaware of the distinction.

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The salt flat region where Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa Grows.

Another advantage of the Bolivian quinoa is the distinct varieties of seeds grown and their special properties – for soup, breads, energy, fast cooking…  International micro-markets for specialized gourmet quinoa exist – but they need to be found and developed.  The producers and associations are prepared to separate their quinoa by these distinct varieties (and not just white-red-black) but the market needs to also exist for the to sell this – by the container (20 tons of product at a time).  This is difficult as most market de

Loading 100 pound sacks of cleaned and weighed quinoa for final processing.

Loading 100 pound sacks of cleaned and weighed quinoa for final processing.

velopment is done through expensive and sophisticated foreign trade show participation where language and communications are huge challenges for the small Bolivian farmer or their cash-strapped association.

It would be interesting to explore the possibility of having a Bolivian quinoa presence at the US regional ExpoEast Natural Food trade show in Baltimore this fall.  But like the Seal of Origin, unique cross sector partnerships and commitments need to be formed to support this.

DAY 34 – What’s next for Bolivia’s farmers?

DAY 34 – What’s next for Bolivia’s farmers?

shipment-ready

This APQUISA quinoa is cleaned, packed and ready to go. But there’s a delay as markets and revenue streams are verified.

Across the countryside, I am finding farmers who are saving hundreds of pounds of carefully planted, harvested and hand processed quinoa in their homes.  Each 25-pound (quintal) bag represents almost $114 (800Bs) of labor and agricultural inputs such organic fertilizer and pest control systems but is currently valued at just $71(500Bs) or much less if it’s not organically certified ($50 or 350Bs).

This spring’s drought may have destroyed 40% of the planted quinoa and though some farmers are replanting, hoping to get in a little more yield before the winter frosts, it is uncertain if they will be successful in this.  Once again, worms are eating the quinoa seed heads though farmers are lax to invest in costly organic pest management systems, which are still experimental and may not always work.  Farmers have also cut costs on the organic llama fertilizer which costs $450 a truckload for about 1.5 acres of land, thus fertilizing less.  They have also reduced their land cultivation by about 80% to minimize outside labor costs which once were as high as $21 a day plus food and lodging.  Now quinoa families are managing 9 to 18 acres plots on their own – instead of the vast 130 -150 acres they previously managed.  They are selling their tractors too, to help with cash

Quinoa fields - only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Quinoa fields – only some plants are germinating due to teh spring’s extreme drought conditions.

flow.  According to Ing. Aroni, is estimated there were 2,000 tractors purchased in the Royal Quinoa region over the past decade. Now it seems at least 30% have been sold or are for sale – most to the richer, more developed Santa Cruz lowlands where vast amounts of rice, wheat and soy are grown.  When necessary, farmers will take a few quinoa sacks to the local Challapata market to sell, below production costs, to at least keep the cash flow moving.

Many of the quinoa tractors were bought from new bank loans made in the past 2 years.  It will be interesting to see what happens when this year’s harvest comes through low and without much market value and there are not enough funds for loan repayments.  Banks are not allowed to take farmers’ lands or houses and the production was the collateral for many of the loans which seem to average about $5,000 with a 12% or more apy.

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Empty fields in Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa zone. Many farmers saw the stagnant, low prices for quinoa on the world market and decided to not even bother planting quinoa. They explain that it would have been a loss for them anyway.

There is vast migration which has affected education systems since fewer children are in local schools.  It is common for quinoa communities to have an average of 25 permanent families and 75 residents, who live in other cities and border countries such as Chile, occasionally returning to tend to their quinoa, village meeting or festivals.  The local economy is also affected as there is now less construction of new houses, purchasing of farm equipment, food, labor and housing.  So people have less to spend, earn less and times are tough.  Some men have left their quinoa fields for work elsewhere – working as long distance truck drivers or as laborers in the city – leaving the women to tend to the quinoa alone with their children.  Others have sent their children to college and are waiting for their children to get more professional jobs as lawyers, agronomists, and business developers – though jobs for college graduates are hard to find here in Bolivia.  Entire families have left for the cities of Oruro, La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

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The desert dust bowl of some of Bolivia’s best quinoa lands.

While Bolivia’s quinoa yields for 2017 look bleak, most agree that market prices will stay steady – partly due to the vast amounts of quinoa still in storage, and not in circulation in Bolivia’s quinoa market, and the continued presence of global quinoa production.