Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Here’s a question that came up my final days in the quinoa fields.  This always happens a great question comes just as I am finishing my work and I don’t really have time to study it.  The two primary Fair Trade USA producers in my study from Sau Sau and Quillacas, lost their contract with their US quinoa buyer Andean Family Famers this year.  According to my calculations they made up about 20% to 30% of the total Fair Trade quinoa sold by this company.  For my research I wanted to know who else was selling to Fair Trade USA so I could have a balanced representation of Fair Trade growers from both programs.

ANAPQUI and CECOAT are two large Fair Trade Europe organizations in my study whose members are in 9 different quinoa communities I have personally visited over the last three years, some more than once.  In addition, I visited 5 non-fair trade communities and plus non- quinoa real producers in the valleys of Anzaldo and the high plains of Poopo.  Having a diverse array of experiences and approaches to learn from creates a more balanced, meaningful study.  So it was important to get more of the Fair Trade US perspective.  After more questioning I was given data by Jacha Inti on the quantity of quinoa they sold at Fair Trade prices in 2017, 30 lottes.  I compared this to the groups they said they were working with.  Each group would have to produce an astronomical amount of quinoa, about 13,000 quintals each in order to meet the full amount of the 2017 Fair Trade orders.  It did not really make sense.

This is when long term development worker, agronomer and quinoa grower Ecebio Calani explained the process to me.  Farmers are in quinoa associations.  When in the association, depending on the type of association they can produce quinoa under strict organic certification and also fair trade ones.  But they also might have other quinoa they grow differently that is not a part of the association – that they have for their own use, their markets, for security, etc.  When an order comes through the association needs to reach out to its members and ask for quinoa to be brought in.  An association may have 100 members and an order for a full tonelada of certified organic quinoa may come in.  that’s 100 bags of quinoa.  A price is given and the member farmers who have the quinoa and want to sell it bring it over for the order.  Sometimes an organization might not have enough farmers responding.  It might be a bad time of the year or the price might be low.  In that case the association needs to look elsewhere for its quinoa – usually in the markets of Challapata.  This is where the contaminated quinoa can come in and even some non- fair trade quinoa too.  The cooperatives take a risk when they buy quinoa from the common market to complete their orders – and that is hoy recently so many certified organic cooperatives have been having their quinoa shipments returned.  They failed the laboratory analysis for pesticide residues., explained Ecebio.

I contacted Jacha Inti and they said they had no Fair Trade quinoa orders for 2018 so far. I thought this was interesting since there is plenty of Fair Trade quinoa on store shelves in the US from customers for purchase quinoa wholesale from Jacha Inti as a US importer, Andean Naturals.  Plus Andean Naturals are the only Fair Trade USA Bolivian quinoa suppliers I know of in the US.

When I asked, how fair trade quinoa can be on sale in t US store shelves without any being purchased in Bolivia, I was told that maybe they had back stock on the product that they were still selling.  Maybe.

It made me wonder though, if a company is buying both Fair Trae and non Fair Trade quinoa and the only difference is the price paid, and they sell both fair trade and non fair trade quinoa products to the public, who’s to verify that the products are not being mixed?  This is a question I began asking Fair Trade leaders here in Bolivia but they had no response for the controls would have to come from Europe or the US they explained.  These questions I will continue to pursue in the US.

Day 30 – The story of the quinoa pyramid scheme

Day 30 – The story of the quinoa pyramid scheme

Enzo, a local tour guide, Salinas quinoa grower and lawyer told me this tale of the quinoa pyramid scheme of 2012-2014 which could explain the hostile, non cooperative response I received to my research in Puqi and shy the books are so off.  They most likely were affected by this.

“It sounds like a TV soap opera – except it’s true,” he said.

The scheme worked like this.  At the height of the quinoa boom people were desperately trying to amass large shipments (lottes) of quinoa which were 100 one-quintal bags of quinoa weighing a total of half a ton for export markets.  The export buyers themselves were prowling the streets of Challapata cash in hand, ready to make a deal.  Lourdes Mamani Cruz, a local Challapata resident, had a better plan.  She traveled straight out to the quinoa communities themselves – sometimes dressed as an agronomist in a heavy pantsuit, other times as a savvy foreigner in a suit with suitcase in hand, or in some instances as a cholita, a local rural woman with a heavy skirt and long braids, or as a city person in jeans and a jacket.  For whatever best fit the situation she would change her presentation.  Using different names and cash in hand she would buy a lotte up front at a 1,200 a Bs per kilo price, often higher than the current prices.  Gladly the farmers gave her their quinoa, taking the $8,500 in cash in exchange.  She promised to return for more.  They were happy to serve her.

Lourdes would return after a month or so and ask for another lotte.  She explained she would pay the farmers once the lotte was brought to her client because that is when she would be paid.  She noted down their sales in a book and all signed and witnessed it.  Excellent!  The farmers were thrilled.  How lucky they were to have such a wonderful buyer!  She came right to them, paid a good price, and had good sales contacts.  Lourdes promised to return soon for more.  In anticipation, some farmers secured loans from local banks with the guarantee of their sales to Lourdes or city homes, others invested in machinery and construction, happy to have access to such a successful future.  Lourdes returned again, again with her book, but no money.  Some farmers got suspicious, some did not want to sell to her without payment, others trusted her and felt she was working hard and with patience all would work out.  Many sold her their quinoa again, on credit.  And then Lourdes was never heard from again.

When the farmers when to find her, see what was going on, and demand payment they learned she was not who they thought she was.  Cell phone numbers were false, names false and even the book was false.  There was no such a person as the one they thought they were working with and no such businesses.  They had been duped, cheated, had, robbed.  It was a total scam!  Dozens and rural quinoa communities and 150 farmers and their families affected.  People defaulted on their loans losing property and goods, the elderly lost their life savings, couples fought, broke up, got divorced.  It destroyed families and communities.

The farmers were furious.  The went to the police, the local authorities.  It was soon learned that this mysterious woman was Lourdes and that she did not work alone. She had two other women, Paricia de Churanga and Elena Torrilo working with her.  In addition there was a man at the head of the pyramid, Lourdes’ initial contact, a businessman from Santa Cruz, the rich tropical city hundreds of miles away, so the story goes, explained Enzo.

It was found the quinoa had been sold to solid Bolivian organizations such as Irupano, Seiti and Jatari.  The bought the quinoa in good faith, not knowing the role they were playing in the scam.  Lourdes, Patricia and Elena immediately disappeared – if they didn’t they would have been killed by the angry farmers.   No one knew where they were, not even family members.  A country-wide alert was put out to find them.  Within two years from 2012 to 2014, they had stolen at least over $150,000 from local quinoa farmers according my very conservative calculations.

Enzo explained how miraculously Lourdes had been found at a police check point a few months later.  The police immediately brought her into custody for her own protection but then soon after she was discharged but in an unknown way.  It was obvious, Enzo explained, that the police had been paid off and that is why she was let go.  The farmers demanded the story get reported to the national press but the local authorities assured them that would cause the women to flee even quicker – they needed to be quiet and careful about finding them.  And then the women were never seen again.   It is rumored that Elena is in Peru Patricia may be somewhere in La Paz and Lourdes could be in Argentina or Chile – she had family in both places.  In addition, explained Enzo, it might have been that at one time Patricia was found in La Paz, but she and Elena had also been cheated by Lourdes and had nothing to show for their work in the scheme.  It had been all Lourdes’ work and she had left with all of the money.

Other rumors say that when money is begotten bad, bad things come of it too.  There are stories of Lourdes’ investment in cars, crashing and her investment of restaurants failing.  But these are rumors and imaginings of what might be happening with Lourdes now no one knows for sure.  Lourdes’ father still lives in Challapata, said Enzo.  There he works as a reclusive tailor, rarely leaving his workshop ashamed to show his face to those in the community.  Lourdes is most likely in Argentina, he thinks -the big con artist of the quinoa fields.  The curious thing, noted Enzo, is that the women were evangelist christens, Pentecostals.  He reflected how that could be and wondered why their faith in God did not prevent them from undertaking such a horrific scam that ruined so many lives.

Enzo did note that some quinoa farmers banded together to hire a private investigator to find out what happened to Lourdes and the money – though no real results have come up.  It was clear the police were accomplices in Lourdes’ escape but to what degree it is not clear.  Farmers want the story to go public – four years later.  But so far it hasn’t and the mystery continues.

Day 29 – Visiting Rodeo – a model town of sustainability and progress?

Day 29 – Visiting Rodeo – a model town of sustainability and progress?

I was supposed to stay with Martha for the night and go to Rodeo the next day.  Martha asked when we would be able to visit the plant and work on the quinoa varieties.  I said I could do it any time, tonight, tomorrow, I had a flexible schedule and was already there.  She said she had no time and it would have to happen later. I explained that there was no “after” – I was scheduled to go to La Paz to analyze my data report results before returning to the US.  That is why the visit had been set up in advance, it was a single opportunity.  I tried to not be annoyed.  I asked her if I should l go to Rodeo that night since several cooperative members lived there, a tiny town 30 minutes away by four wheel drive across some dry and not so dry river beds and sandy roads.  I could get a ride with them.  Martha was not sure.  I asked around 4pm and then at 6pm and again, after the meeting ended at 8.  By then, most cooperative members had left, but the sub alcalde just happened to be passing by.  Martha flagged him down, thanked me for my visit, and Mario took me to his home to sleep since no one else seemed to be around to welcome me to the community.

I had been invited to Rodeo, also by Pedro from FAUTAUPO who was good friends with Milan Cayne, a Rodeo resident highly committed to tourism and development.  Milan helped bring in the water catchment systems for greenhouse production, a sewer system for all homes so they can have proper flush toilet bathrooms, a nursery for rural bushes used to help combat wind erosion of soils, a solar powered communications tower, a new drinking water tank for the community, a comprehensive rotation system for the organic quinoa fields with properly constructed wind and erosion barriers, preserved pastureland for llamas, garbage collection and recycling, a retooling of used plastic water bottles for greenhouse construction (when filled with water) and pathway markers (when planted upside down in the soil and painted), and a village entrance gate and museum.  It was presented to travelers as a “model community.”  I was invited to see it as a model of “bien vivir”.

Though we had been in communication as recently at 4pm that day and several times before then, Milan disappeared upon my arrival in the town – perhaps to the party in a neighboring town.  Mario put me up in his house and I contacted Pedro to let him know all that passed (or not) in Puqi and now Rodeo.  Deeply apologetic he had hoped for different outcomes from the visits.

The sub=alcalde Mario was put in charge.  Somehow he managed to find he village key to the museum and the next day Mario and his wife Frida Huaychi Mamani were tour guides as we quickly enjoyed the view from the outlook, surveyed the different projects, toured the tiny museum of antique handicrafts and tools form peoples’ houses and grandparents’ colelctions representing the history of the village and within 45 minutes, took off down the road to Challapata/Salinas where we would depart.  Me to Salinas and him and his wife to Challapata.

Rodeo houses 60 families of which 33 are present year round.  The rest come in for the quinoa planting and harvest. Many farmers in the town are part of Sindan, a La Paz based Fair Trade quinoa buyer.  Mario recently sold half his 120 qintal quinoa production to SIndan for 440Bs a bag, 22% lower than the current market price in Challapata.  Like most publicly traded markets, timing is everything in the quinoa fields.  With prices still fluctuating, and now slowly climbing, it is always a trick to know when to sell, when to wait, but also when be loyal to the big buyers – the cooperatives that the farmers are members of.  Though the cooperatives often buy below the Challapata market prices because of buying contracts they have already made with foreign buyers, they are buying in large quantities at once.  Mario just made almost $4,000 in a single sale, enough for him and his wife to live on in a simple way, for almost a year.  It’s a trade-off and a gamble to sell a lot for less to one’s cooperative or a little for more in the local market.  Famers do both, balancing their responsibilities and commitments.

Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Quinoa production, management and sales can be tricky.  Especially in rural communities with hundreds of families being members of a quinoa cooperative with no computer.  I was invited to present my research and continue my studies at the APROQUIRI Assembly, a bi-annual event where all quinoa grower members get together to review their sales, plans and new for the next six months.  I had been invited to Assemblies before and found it to be the perfect atmosphere to conduct my quinoa research.  This consists of a it on US markets created by my US college students studying quinoa markets in the US, plus a short 20 minute survey on well being of quinoa farmers and a 30 minute private discussion amongst the women about what vivir bien meant to them.  All in all, it would involve on hour of time and full cooperation of the quinoa community.

My appointment was set up 2 weeks in advance by Pedro from FAUTAPO with the APQUIRI president Martha Poma.  FAUTAPO had been helping APQUIRI start up a quinoa processing plant to expand the types of products they offered and build more economies.  I was to visit this as a potential part of a project I was forming for my students at Landmark College – focused on the direct sale of seed varieties and processed quinoa.  The day of my visit was fast approaching. I called to confirm and was told the date had changed to Tuesday instead of Monday.  No problems I shuffled thigs around on my scheduled and even found a ride out to Puqi the remote quinoa town where the meeting was being held – an hour away from where I was staying in Salinas, the capital of the quinoa producing lands.

Puqi is located at the edge of Salviaji a small mountain which was once was a high rolling pile of foaming, frothing lava and is now dry and hardened.  The hundreds of holes and mini caves left by the immense frozen froth are dotted with mummies and artifacts from the people who lived in the region thousands of years ago, explained the sub alcalde Mario to me.  The pre-inca people considered these caves to be sacred and special. They are still preserved that way.

Mario explained that Puki had 300 residents but out of that, 50 were permanent citizens, the rest come in from nearby cities and towns to plant quinoa, attend celebrations and meetings.  Puqi is the commercial center of the 15 other small quinoa communities nearby.  It has a regional high school and rural radio station.  Some quinoa fields had already been fertilized and flowed others were waiting – piles of llama and sheep manure heaped onto the fields, along with sacks of dried quinoa chafe from the ANAPQUI processing plant.  The chafe is used to put organic matter and saponins into the soil to help with forming plant nutrients and organic pest control.

I arrived at the meeting at 11am as planned and was heartily greeted by members.  Immediately I was given a space to talk.  There was no projector because the electricity was not working but I was prepared to present without my PowerPoint presentation anyway.  Martha briefly introduced me and I shared my quinoa market data – explaining how quinoa is now being produced in a mature market cycle meaning that these is no a lot of awareness of the product and competition.  The way to compete is by diversifying one’s product offering I explained – offering different quinoa varieties and quality that cannot be found or replicated elsewhere.

“This is how you secure your permanent piece of the market”, I explained, “by offering something that everyone wants, but no one else can make.”

One quinoa farmer was suspicious.“ You want to take our seeds to the US to grow the quinoa there,”  he grumbles.  “Like the people in Colorado did,” referring to an agriculture project started at the University Of Colorado in the 1980s.  I had heard this before.  I carefully explained to him that yes, quinoa is in the US, Canada, France and 75 other countries worldwide.  Countries now have their own varieties and seeds in production.  But none is like the quinoa found in the inter-salar altiplano, not can this inter-salar quinoa be replicated anywhere else because of the soils and conditions. This, I explained is he unique selling point that APROQUIRI can take advantage of.  I looked toward Martha for confirmation.  Usually at this point the organization leader will step forward to emphasize their agreement and trust with me, and clarify any confusion. But Martha was unresponsive.  More questions ensued which I answered, but I sensed that we were losing time and I had other things to present.  I asked Martha if we should move forward but there was no clear response.  I explained I had a survey which would help to capture people’s experiences and make their voices heard outside of the quinoa fields.  I explained he importance of numbers and not just words, and how these surveys are used to count the people and put emphasis on their words.  Martha suggested we hand out the surveys after lunch and do them then.

We broke for lunch but when we returned the meeting turned to accounting, bookkeeping, unpaid loans, faulty receipts, and unbalanced books from 8 years ago.  It was amess.  The community was at odds with each other.  A handful of male farmers dominated almost all conversation.  There had been almost 1.5 million Bs in sales that year or $214,000 total.  But from this there was 400,000Bs taken out for other costs which were not clearly defined, nor had clear receipts. This left 200,000Bs were out of balance on the books and the cooperative members wanted to know why.  The balance sheet was read to members by an ANAPQUI representative – slowly reading from a laptop computer.  No paper copy was provided to anyone.  APROQUI is a cooperative member of ANAPQUI, Bolivia’s largest and longest running quinoa cooperative.

APROQUI members started accusing others and past leaders of faulty bookkeeping and unpaid loans.  It was noted too that several salaried engineers had left their work saying it was too difficult to work with the APROQUI community. The community wanted more clarity on this and wanted hard working engineers who were well trained and knew their work.  Apparently, there had been a problem with the community expectations of the engineers.  The community wanted to choose their own engineers to pay.  ANAPQUI leadership were present and granted this to the APROQUI.  They also reminded APROPQUI that they had brought in a lotte (50 quintales) of red quinoa last year that was rejected because of the presence of pesticides.  Another lotte of red quinoa was requested by ANAPQUI but was never provided.  ANAPQUI reminded the farmers of the importance to work together, trust each other, and think of the markets and quinoa buyers which we do not want to lose.  Two young leaders were chosen to represent the community.

The conversation came back to the bookkeeping.  Finally, the head bookkeeper of APQUISA’s mulit-million dollar cooperative with international sales, Celia Acyne, who I had interviewed previously, was there and we had a good conversation together.  Eventually she led the meeting forward committing the people to moving forward in their current bookkeeping and conducting an audit, which ANAPQUI will help pay half the costs of, on the previous five years of disputes.  It was estimated the cost for a professional audit would be about 50,000Bs. It took two hours to get to this point.  The day was moving on, it was almost 3pm.

Coca was being passed about to keep people alert and alcohol sipped to bless the meeting, calm nerves, and keep things moving forward.  I was hoping to have a moment to continue with my study and start with data collection – especially since this was a region that had not been in my previous studies.  That never happened.  After bookkeeping came representation, votes, other news and concerns, the meeting dragged on, the sun set.  An associate requested that the village fix the electricity so they can complete the meeting.  After a few wire reconfigurations and light bulb changes, a single bulb was light up in the long, adobe and cement meeting hall. The meeting ended at 8pm with the promise of a laptop computer to Martha with a new Orion system of accounting software that training will be provided for.  This would help the group to be more organized in their accounting system and have the books clearly noted and data accessible to all.  Celia warned that going forward ANAPQUI would be more strict with its requirements from member cooperatives and urged the folks of APROQUI to pay more attention to their expenses and reporting.

I thought about my own town and if we ever had an occasion where so many different people, over 108 families from 17 different communities, would work together.  I thought of the local organic milk buying cooperatives. Perhaps they have large meetings like this.  But with technology we would have shared spreadsheets, open accounting information, an agenda already made and a meeting of maybe 2 hours with workshops and activities for the rest of the day.  I realized the difference technology made when working together in large groups and could not imagine how hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and transactions could be managed with disparate slips of paper a pen and an open ledger that gets filled our differently by each person each time.  ANAPQUI had acknowledge this too, and attributed it to growing pains that they were learning from and are quickly working to be a well connected, professionally driven, organization with the latest technology.

I also reflected on leadership.  The fact that Martha was the President of this large cooperative was a sign of social progress.  She also was not blamed for the organizations’ shortcomings but instead given tools to improve it going forward.  I thought of her passive leadership style and the fact that she lost the opportunity to have her communities counted in the quinoa study and also lost the chance to have her product presented in the US.  I realized there was more to being a leader than just being able to speak in front of people.  Being able to anticipate needs, and situations, plan out events in advance and manage the plan going forward, direct conversations and situations, clarify details, summarize and move on discussions, suggest ideas or end points, and direct content and timing were all important leadership skills.  I will keep these in mind as I teach my own students at Landmark College.

Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

Driving back to Oruro from Curahuara, two hours away, I was able to have an open conversation with Carlos ___ Director of ___.  For 20 years he has been working in development.  He seems one of the biggest challenges being the rural people’s general conservatism and fear of change.  Though he hosted countless workshops teaching genetics and animal husbandry to llama herders, they continue to purchase lesser quality llamas in the markets to sell once they mature after a few years.  The farmers stay the same, repeating traditions they have had for centuries without incorporating new knowledge.  It reminded me of the farmers I had known 15 years ago, when working as a rural journalist.  In some ways this resistant to changes was good, it enabled farmers to avoid misdirected development schemes that ended up being costly in time and money and not working as they were proposed but at the same time they left behind things that could have been helpful.

In the quinoa fields there was a chemical fertilizer project offered by USAID years ago, an INIAF engineer explained to me, it left the soils burnt and unable to sustain life.  The dry, arid climate and low levels of organic matter, turned the fertilizers into poison instead of food.

Some development projects did not end so drastically but did end being different than what they started out to be.  Rural sanitation never fared well when latrines were offered – traditionally people in the altiplano would use the vast open plains as their fresh air bathroom.  The sun quickly drying their feces and the vastness of the area causing no real bacterial illnesses to accumulate.  However foreign development workers saw that as dirty and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building thousands of latrines across the countryside and teaching people about hygiene.  After a few months of use, explained APQUISA member and former development worker, Ecebio Calani, the latrines were dirty, smelly, filthy places to be.  So the families simply covered up the hole and used the structure as a storage shed.  Much more practical!

Calani explained there was another development project to help the challenge of finding drinking water in the desert by creating rainwater capture systems going from roofs to rain barrels like those used in Bermuda.  This was developed in Rodeo, a small rural town in the department of Oruro.  Because of the sparseness of rain and the prevalence of dust and wind, the water that did trickle down from the dirty roofs was dirty and undrinkable.  So the people of Rodeo instead turned the water capture systems into an irrigation system for greenhouses.  I visited those greenhouses and there were working very well.  Now large covered cement cisterns replace the small rain barrels.

On the theme of development, Carlos lamented on the backwardness of it all.  For example in the large commercial town of Challapata (were much of the inter-salar quinoa is sold – but not grown) people choose to have houses and live there full time – however their livelihood is in the rural countryside.  So they live in Challapata and send their children to school there.  At 8am they leave for their rural community – taking public transportation and walking.  Arriving at their small farms around 10am.  The spend the day doing farm chores, milking and grazing a handful of sheep and cows, tending crops such as potatoes, fava beans, wheat, processing harvested food for long term storage – for example making chuno potatoes, or cleaning quinoa, or irrigating fields with gravity fed water systems.  They return home around 6pm.  Meanwhile, the schoolchildren have been home alone in the town since school let out for lunch, ending around 1pm.  They sit around playing computer games and watching TV, or wandering around town with their friends waiting for their parents to come home.

Carlos’ question is why is it not reversed?  Why don’t the parents use the house in Challapata for selling products in town over the weekend and attending the market and live full time in the farmhouse, taking their children to school in the morning and having them come home to the farm in the afternoon.  That way the children are in the fresh air, learning to farm, helping the family and living a more healthy life.  This, living a dignified life in the country, with full access to all modern amenities such as electricity, transportation, and schools is what Carlos calls, “Vivir Bien.” He gets frustrated when he sees people living this in reverse.

It makes me think of my own rural community of Marlboro and how people choose to live in the mountains and forests often not out of need, but out of pleasure.  Many of us have AirBnB housing where people from the cities come to stay with us for the same reasons – to enjoy some nature and live simple and free in the countryside.  It seems this is part of what Bolivia is striving for in their Bien Vivir program, to get the recent city migrants to move back to the countryside using their city housing on occasions but having their home base being in the rural areas.  With the rural areas equipped with the modern amenities of the cities – good schools, electricity, roads, health care, cell service and wifi.  It does not sound very different from what we ask for in Vermont.  So far, the Vivir Bien program has not been so bold as to offer this “reverse migration” model.  But many of the development workers I talk to express hope that in time, and with better and more stable quinoa prices, people will begin to realize what they have left behind and make that choice to have the healthy country lifestyle once again.  As Ecebio pointed out, “the countryside is dirty, but the cities are contaminated,” – noting the difference in the quality of life in each place – with air and water pollution from unregulated industry and astronomical growth being real threats to the health of city dwellers.

Day 23 – A sustainable development paradigm that works:  Vivir Bien.

Day 23 – A sustainable development paradigm that works:  Vivir Bien.

A father daughter team, Crispin and Selina Quispe shared their experience of living in “vivir bien” the Andean paradigm for sustainable development.  Vivir bien, explained Crispin is living in balance with the animals and nature around them.  It starts with knowing who you are, your history and identity – this knowledge lets you know your role in life he explained.

“We all have a role in our life,” he stated, “we forget this.”

“People talk about Vivir Bien,” further stated Crispin, “but it’s just in adjectives.”  He went on to clarify how Vivir Bien is more than just an abstract term.  It’s a future lived with no hierarchy he explained.  It is a shared life in a community with natural responsibilities which manifest in complimentary and reciprocity – the sharing of resources and returning of favors.  He criticized how people view their domestic animals as more important than other animals, blaming it on ingrained colonial thinking.  He explained that they are creating a hierarchy of one animal being more important than another because of its economic benefits.  For example, people will hunt animals that do not have an economic benefit, such as a fox, in order to preserve those that do, such as a llama.  He stated that these ideas came from the colonial era and are a part of Vivir Bien, the original way of thinking of the ancestors, and that we should forget them.  Some people nodded in agreement while others waiting in silence to see what would come next.  All have been well versed in Vivir Bien which is now in the Bolivian constitution and is being used as a basis for country-wide development decisions though it still exists more in theory than practice.

Selina appeared to be about 24 and shared her experience of growing up in harmony with the natural world in Vivir Bien.  She explained that her family lived near a highway that crossed their rural lands.  Often injured wild animals would come to her when they needed her help and she would tend to them the best she could.  She explained that she would help the fox equally as she would help the llama, though the fox is considered a llama predator and pest.  She explained that when one respects the animals, they will respect you back.  Selina claims that even maintain lions have been present in her llama lands, but they are able to live together without much conflict.   She explained how there are many ways to live and that life has a spiritual village shared with all, not just a cultural one that is created for its members.

“One can live for money in a capitalist environment, or live for the people in a communist environment, with vivir bien, we live for life.” Stated Selina.

She explained how water, not money is the provider of life and that like the vicuna and llama, one needs to learn to live together in harmony.  She explains how the two are both sacred animals, and even though the llama brings money to the herder and the vicuna does not, they are equal in their value in that both have life.

“If you only value money,” explained Selina, “then you lose the value of the life.”

To emphasize this, Selina talked about the “internal fight” that the quinoa is provoking.

“Quinoa is destroying mother earth.” Stated Selina in reference to the quinoa boom of 2015 where thousands of acres of grazing lands were plowed up for quinoa production and financial gain.

The internal fight is the family’s need to. “plant (quinoa) for their children while also leaving (resources) for nature.  It’s a balance.

An audience member asked Celina about her views on climate change.  “Climatic changes, “ she replied,” happen all of the time.  “That’s what climates do, they change.  In our history there have been times of even more changes than now.”  Selina went on to explain, how when living close to the land and in harmony, you also learn how to recognize and work with these changes, whether made by man or nature.  She felt that it is part of being connected to the earth and is the way the ancestors survived and how we too can survive.

I asked her about her views on technology, as we were sharing these ideas via a powerpoint slide of her community, communicating via smart phones and arriving in modern transportation: cars, buses and trucks.  She explained that it was all a balance.  As with the natural world as well.  When we live in balance, she explained, we learn to share but not to distract or take away.  For example, she sees phones as being in balance with the sharing of information and connecting people and ideas, but moving out of balance when this information, or games are used to distract or take people away from their present lives or communities.

The audience showed a lot of support for her ideas.  As Vivir Bien is still more of an aspiration at the moment, it was refreshing for them to hear some more practical ways of how it is understood.  Especially from Celina, a younger member of the community.


Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

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

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

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

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

Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

The countrysides are emptying out.  Driving the hundred miles from Curahuara de Canagas to Oruro one passes one brown, dusty town after another.  Empty windows, boarded up doors, deserted dirt streets, only the wind blowing between the handful of silent houses.  New schools, basketball courts and small houses made of sturdy brick topped with shiny tin roofs stand alongside eroded adobe homes – thatched roofs caving in, windows broken, doors hanging from broken hinges.  This is not quinoa lands – it is llama and sheep pasture lands and old mining towns but the remote quinoa communities to the south look very similar. There are new roads and electricity but instead of making the countryside more comfortable and productive, it has made it easier to leave instead.

Today I am talking with Melina Cayo, a 37 year old quinoa producer, agronomist, organic production expert, and mom.  We are in her small neighborhood store in the city of Uyuni where she lives with her husband, mother and two daughters one just a few months old and the other now nine years old. We are reflecting on the future of quinoa and the quinoa lands.

Melina grew up in Manicua a small quinoa growing community of the edge of the Uyuni salt flats in the Department of Potosi.  Her community was too small to have a school so she would ride her bicycle 30 minutes to attend the neighboring elementary school.  Monica loved to learn and loved to farm.  In those days, 30 years ago, quinoa was largely grown mostly for personal consumption and local market sales.  The nearest high school was in the large town of Uyuni, a three-hour bus ride away across the salt flats (salar) – if the salar was not flooded which it often was.  In order to go to high school, Melina needed to stay in Uyuni.  Her family did not have a home or other family members in Uyuni and could not afford to rent a room. So in order to afford a small room shared with her sisters, Melina worked days as a maid the local hotels and attended night school.

One day when she was home during summer break, a team of agricultural engineers from IPTA came to her community for a study.  They contracted her to help them with their work for a month and Melina was hooked.  She loved the work and was amazed that such a job existed.  Getting to know the engineers, she learned how she could go to college and learn to work like they did.   For five years after she completed high school, Melina continued her hotel  in Uyuni saving money so she could afford housing in the city of Oruro where the Technical University of Oruro (UTO), was.  Tuition was minimal but housing and food needed to be paid for.  Melina graduated college and began working as a technician, or extension agent, for different agriculture development organizations and cooperatives in her highlands region.  She worked at Centro Inti, served the CECOAT cooperative, Department of Potosi and spent five years at Real Andina where she became an expert in organic certifications: Boli-Cert, IMO, Bio-Latina.  Being a rural extension agent is difficult with long trips to remote areas and days away from home.  Little by little, Melina began building her own business in Uyuni.  When Melina had her second daughter, she left her contract work and opened her store and consultant service.  Her mother runs another store the family owns closer to the center of Uyuni where more tourists visit. It specializes in natural foods and organic quinoa products.  The family continues to maintain its organic quinoa lands in Manicua as well, rotating the fields with 3 hactacres left fallow each rotation.

Melina believes the quinoa has its stages.  When prices were high everyone returned to the quinoa lands form the far off places they had migrated.  They ripped up the delicate pampas and planted quinoa wherever and however they could, reaping its economic benefits but not much else.  When the prices dropped, they left.  Sometimes she thinks this time of high activity was good.  It reunited families, revitalized the rural communities, brought in new technologies and ideas, a revitalization of indigenous knowledge and language, and improved the rural infrastructure with new houses, better roads and services. However she notes, there was an imbalance at that moment.  People were working too much for themselves instead of the community.  The quinoa earnings went largely to the pockets of the producers and were invested in ways that bettered them.  Houses were bought in far away cities, SUVs purchased to get there and very little thought was put into building a robust rural local community with permanent residents and a good quality of life.  Today the new brick houses with shiny metal roofs lay vacant, the cleared lands lay barren exposed to wind erosion, and the new schools and health posts remain unstaffed since there are no residents for them to serve.  When there is a community anniversary, carnival celebration, or the planting/harvest season arrives – so do the migrant residents.  Otherwise, the rural communities are empty.

I asked Melina about the loss of language and native culture I was observing as families left the rural areas and lost contact with the elderly producers who tended to stay in the countryside.  The elderly are the ones who know the language, legends, bio-indicators, and indigenous farming methods which sustained centuries of quinoa growing.  As this population is marginalized by their distance from the city-living families there is no longer the exchange of knowledge that existed for thousands of years.   And as this aging population dyes off, this knowledge and language is lost forever.

Though Melina knows Aymara and her mother speaks it more often than Spanish, her children are only slightly aware of it.  Like most children of today’s quinoa farmers, they understand Aymara (or Quechua – depending on where they are from) but do not speak it.  Aymara and Quechua are the primary languages of the rural communities but are quickly replaced by Spanish – the primary language of the cities.  Though it is required that all Bolivian public schools teach the local native language, this teaching is sparse and not thorough enough for a child to fully learn the language.  The learning comes from times spent in the rural communities where the native languages dominate all conversations.

Melina tearfully acknowledged this loss of language and culture as families moved further away from their rural communities – losing those close connections with the community elders and natural rhythms of life.  It is a pain she says she lives with every day.

I ask her what she sees the future of quinoa being.  She notes that the organic certifications that she works with bring a minimal 500Bs per quintal market price to the quinoa, in contrast to uncertified quinoa that is often sold as low as 300Bs a quintal.   This $20 difference she hopes will motivate people to be more careful in their farming and not use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers which bring long term harm to the region’s delicate soils.  Melina knows that quinoa will not rise to its 1,500Bs a quintal price from its heyday, nor does she want it to.  She feels that with the too-high prices came too much greed and a lack of respect for the community and the land.  Melina thinks that with stable prices will come a stabilization of the community with more people returning to the rural areas and living a balanced, dignified life with adequate local resources, a rural revitalization and living as comfortable or more so than the city dwellers.  Like almost every producer I have spoken with, she puts this stable price at 800Bs a quintal.  Enough to support high quality farming with adequate amounts of investment into natural composted llama manure and organic methods of pest control.  She wants farmers to be able to produce moderate-high yields so less land needs to be farmed in order for producers to generate enough income to cover their costs and save for their futures.

As they see themselves, whether consciously or not, as the end of an era, the last of the language speakers, carriers of ancient wisdom and children of mother earth, Pachamama.

Day 14 – Pregnant?  Drink Quinoa Milk!

Day 14 – Pregnant?  Drink Quinoa Milk!

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

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

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

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

Day 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.