DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

Far across in the dusty Andean plains extending out from the salt flats for miles, under the huge blue sky dotted with patches of white cloud, past towering dust devils whirling in the distance, at the foot of the tall dusty hills, lies the tiny village of Belle Vista – in the region of Corono in the Department of Potosi, Bolivia.  Emerald rows of bright green quinoa break up the wildly dusty, brownish-red surreal landscape surrounding this adobe and dirt outpost of 1,500.  Belle Vista, like many quinoa towns, is equipped with a hospital and a school. The school is staffed by six teachers who serve 90 students grades one to 12.  It is now summer vacation so the teachers have all returned to their families in the city – they are not from the village, but are young, rural teachers, specially trained to work in remote educational environments – and paid extra for the work too.

Handmade mud roof copied from traditional ways of construction.

Belle Vista – handmade mud roof copied from traditional ways of construction.

Belle Vista is a two-hour ride from the former quinoa Wall Street of Challapata (now quiet and empty) accessed across sand flats and through a network of dried riverbeds and bumpy dirt roads.  Tito was invited there to introduce fair trade to the quinoa growers who were interested in becoming a registered Fair Trade organization.  I came along to meet with the women and learn more about their well-being and lives.

We started with the talking stick exercise, I developed years ago – a native American method of inviting all to speak and share ideas.  Shyly the women began opening up, quietly speaking about their lives as quinoa growers – children at their sides, planting, weeding, and harvesting by hand.  They talk about their worry about the weather and the work it takes to process the quinoa into different regional dishes – washing, removing the outer skin, drying, washing some more, drying, toasting, grinding.

The also spoke of the pride they had in being quinoas growers – the benefit of the high nutrition value it brings them and their family.  The abundance of dishes they can make from it such as pito (toasted ground quinoa that is eaten dry or made into a thick paste with hot water and sugar), breads, soups… and how they can make these things for other people too – perhaps packing it up for sales and earning extra income.  They also talked about the saved money they had in the form of stored bags of quinoa each had in their home – large 220 pound bags – worth about $44 each in the common market.

Traditional steamed quinoa dumplings made of toasted, ground quinoa and llama fat.

Traditional steamed quinoa dumplings made of toasted, ground quinoa and llama fat.

The time was short, we had just met, and I was leaving soon.  The women were recovering from heavy celebration they had been participating in the night before in the form of school graduations and community celebrations.  We did not have a chance to connect very deeply – though we did mange to determine that the women were excited to work in quinoa food processing projects to bring in extra income besides their bulk selling of the grains.  Ima Flores knew of the women’s projects in Salinas – which I was visiting in two weeks.  I promised to mention the women of Belle Vista to them and see if something could be done together.  I also gave the women the recipe for quinoa salad – new to them and a favorite in the US – and a taste of a KIND bar – a product from a NY based company that uses quinoa as a visible ingredient in their granola bars.

The women all agreed that bars were delicious however they noticed the KIND quinoa was not organic or fair trade.  I have since contacted the company to learn more about their quinoa sourcing and to see how they can fund a project with the women growers of Fair Trade, organic, Royal Quinoa in Bolivia.

DAY 7.5: Profile of a Quinoa Farmer

DAY 7.5: Profile of a Quinoa Farmer

The tiny quinoa outpost of Bella Vista

The tiny quinoa outpost of Bella Vista

Hermano* Esteban is close to 70 years old, he grew up in poverty as an only child.  He remembers not having enough to eat and days when a handful of pito – ground, toasted grains, served as his only meal.  He values work and took jobs wherever he could: harvesting crops, sewing pants– for 1 BS per pair, he completing 5 pairs in a day and with his weekly earnings of 25BS, had more than enough to eat.  Today, he laments, that would not even feed him for a day.  Esteban was also a musician, playing the sousaphone in bands in Oruro and Pa Laz, earning enough money to buy a truck and becoming a truck driver for years.  Eventually he settled down to farm and now has 30 hectares (74 acres) of land – half of which is in production and the other half is grazing land for his llamas.  He is s head of the llama and quinoa association, APROGUILGAC, and is seeking Fair Trade certification for his group.

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

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

Esteban is an example of the new quinoa rich, he owns 2 SUVs and takes us out to a BarBQ dinner of coal roasted llama and sausage with a side of rice with cheese, salad and boiled potatoes. He has five sons.  His youngest just graduated high school and is college bound, his second oldest on is already in college studying economics.  During the quinoa boom the entire family was working together to grow quinoa, now their participation is more sporadic.  Esteban says it costs him 750Bs ($107) to plant, grow, harvest and process a quintal of certified organic quinoa which quinoa exporters are paying 400Bs ($57) for.  (Note: The Bolivian currency is Bolivianos (Bs) the exchange rate is 7Bs = $1). I’m not sure if the Fair Trade price is much higher.  When I left the country in 2015, 800Bs ($114) was a dignified price for a quintal of quinoa, leaving the farmer with a 6% profit margin.  Now it’s a 53% loss!

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

Costs of quinoa production includes paid labor for harvesting, purchased fertilizers and pest control.  Fertilizer in the form of llama dung is still sold for 550Bs ($79) a truckload with 1.5 truckloads being needed per hectare, plus natural pest control methods which cost 120Bs ($17) per hectare just for moth control of one variety which eats plant leaves.  The other pest variety which eats the seeds comes in March and also needs paid organic controls.

We are traveling with Tito Mendoza the Bolivian head of the Fair Trade NGO, CLAC, which works with small farmers across Latin America..  He was contacted by Hermano Esteban to introduce Fair Trade to his group and see how they can benefit from the certification.   We have a 5am meeting to travel 2 hours in Esteban’s fully equipped Jeep (electric windows, GPS, leather seats) to the remote community of Belle Vista in Corona in Uyuni, on the Potosi border – to meet with a group of farmers who may or may not be there since the meeting was actually supposed to be yesterday and most are now in the campo celebrating graduations and other traditional celebrations.

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

We fear that especially the women will not be there since they are cooking and preparing for the parties.  Never-the-less, I pack up my raisins and crushed brazil nuts anyway.  I’m planning on teaching women to make quinoa salad using “pisara” (cooked quinoa) vinegar, oil and raw chopped vegetables – with the raisins and nuts mixed in –  a nice combination.   Raisins and crushed brazil nuts are not regularly available in the rural countryside and are a bit expensive, they will add an extra special touch to the recipe.

 

* Note:  it is customary to addresses each other as “hermano” “hermana” in the quinoa region – bother and sister.  This is not religious, rather it is inclusive and shows that each other is equal and of a single family.