Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramos saw mw zipping up my feather jacket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

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

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

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

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

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

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

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

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

Day 1: After 3 years, now what is happening in the quinoa fields?

Day 1: After 3 years, now what is happening in the quinoa fields?

Sixteen months have passed since I was last in Bolivia as a Fulbright scholar studying the quinoa.    How has life changed in this region as prices remain low, outside competition grows and Bolivia once again seems to be falling behind and forgotten in world markets?  My life has changed. I now have a more permeant position as a Professor of Business and Economics at Landmark College – where we specialize in bright students with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and other social and communication challenges.  I no longer assume how information is shared and materials presented, instead, I am always thinking about access, scaffolding, and neurodiversity.  It slows things down and creates new challenges – especially as I teach in a project-based learning way.  In a way, I feel my world has turned upside down.  It seems hard to get the students engaged and participating in my quinoa work with it being so far away, different and as yet, undefined.  They have challenges navigating their own local environment.  So I come to Bolivia this time, feeling a bit alone.  There is no new market or economic analysis project for next semester.  Rather this has become just my story – which I feel compelled to share with the world in a book, a movie and perhaps a new quinoa business.

Day 52 – the Photo journey

Day 52 – the Photo journey


Understanding the quinoa story….

The following is a collection of photos and videos on flickr taken by myself and my 12-year-old daughter, Musi, during our quinoa journey.:




DAY 51 –Quinoa Farmers are 20% worse off than last year

DAY 51 –Quinoa Farmers are 20% worse off than last year

Circles of SustainabilityBOL2017

Bolivia’s quinoa farmers are worse off economically with much lower market access – as reflected in the Circles of Susianabitliy survey. The orange expresses a time of extreme angst. Farmers’ feeling of having market access has decreased by 20% since 2015.

So today I presented the culmination of all studies, community visits, homestays, women’s discussion groups, and the quickly tabulated significant results of the Circles surveys at the Catholic University in La Paz, Bolivia.  About 60 people attended including quinoa farmers from Salinas and Uyuni, students, the press, and various organization and department directors.  Three farmers from Uyuni prepared organic handmade quinoa bread baked in their adobe, wood burning, community oven plus cookies and pito (and hand toasted, ground quinoa, powdered energy drink) …All featuring different varieties of quinoa with unique properties.

Varieties and properties were the theme of the presentation which recognized a significant decrease in farmers’ access to quinoa markets (20% less than 2015) and the ability to function in a quinoa-based economy (15% less than 2015).  Many farmers in Oruro had unsold quinoa in their homes while those in Potosi had none.  Quinoa was sold in small quantities on the common markets as cash was needed – for example people were selling sacks of quinoa to pay for school uniforms and books for the upcoming school year.

Running the numbers it is easy to see that quinoa farmers are quickly descending back into the abject poverty they rose from in 2007 with the world interest in quinoa – and new markets.  The current market price of 450 a quintal for fair trade, organic, Royal Quinoa is based on Peru’s cheaper conventional, industrialized quinoa which dominates the world markets.  This does not cover a farmer’s costs of production leaving them to operate at a loss.  Here’s why.

The inputs for quinoa production are large.  The average family of 5 is now cultivating just seven hectacres (21 acres) due to a combination of low market prices and poor climate conditions.  With the drought, erosion, pests, frost and hail – it is expected yields will be half of what they normally are – about 12 quintals per hectare (or 132 pounds per acre).  The total cost for producing these yields are as follows:

Inputs costs
Fertilizer  $1,049
Tractor  $857
Labor  $342
Pest control  $120
TOTAL  $2,368
net earnings

Boivian quinoa farers are now living on less than $2 a day.


The gross earnings a farmer gets form this production, assuming 100% is sold at the 450 price, is $5,326 (USD).  Minus the inputs mentioned in the table this leaves a net annual earnings of $3,013 or $281 a month which is less than $2 a day for a family of five – the average family size in the rural areas.  The per capita income in Bolivia is $7,191 which means that today’s quinoa farmers earn at less then half the average family household in Bolivia.

The quinoa regions are remote.  Besides raising llamas which people maintain for personal consumption, fertilizer for the quinoa and local market sales  – there are no other economies.  Other crops do not grow in the high, dry, mineralized soils.  There is no other industry.  Though there is electricity, cell service, drinking water, elementary schools and roads to most communities – the cities which have paying jobs are hours away on bus. Many children live in state run boarding schools for access to high school education in larger cities, fathers leave for Chile or the cities for more permanent work and mothers and more often grandmothers, are left alone with toddlers in the shrinking communities to tend to the llamas, fields, raise the little children, and maintain the family farming compound – alone.


Prices have plummetted leaving both farmers and their quinoa sales associations vulnerable and in crisis.

There is no market access for these communities.  In addition, the large associations which most farmers are members of, are in difficult times too.  Grower associations and cooperatives covered their costs by receiving a percentage of total sales in membership commissions.  With low prices and lower yields they are not making enough to cover their operating costs.  Many have expressive processing equipment they received through loans of over $100,000 which now need to be repaid.  They are operating at a loss, incurring debts and unable to pay their administrative costs.  In addition, there is shrinking market access for these associations – as more quinoa production is developed less expensively, externally in countries such as Peru but also in Canada, Australia, France, China, the Netherlands and the US, the demand for premium, hand grown organic Bolivian quinoa is shrinking.  So are the markets.  In 2016, US consumption of all quinoa dropped by almost 10% – the US is the world’s largest consumer of all quinoa.  So besides low prices, there is low demand too – many associations are waiting for orders, their warehouses full and members desperately waiting for payments for quinoa sold, often six months ago.  With no sales, there is no cash flow.

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Of this town of 60 families about 12 reside there full time.  Others live in Uyuni and Chile – where they work in the informal economy of Calama, an inland mining town.  Chile has open migration laws and it’s easy for the Bolivian children to attend school college and their parents to have work and a safe, dignified life there.  Year ago, Chile granted amnesty for the thousands of Bolivian migrants living within its borders and many took advantage of that, but not all.  Some, like Miguelina’s daughter, did not want to mix her Bolivian identity with Chile so she travels back and forth across the border in a semi-clandestine way, overstaying her visits to Chile where she lives full time as an undocumented immigrant.  Even so, she enjoys a good quality of le with steady work, a house, healthcare and children in public high school and college.


Miguelina of Lluvica – wiht her mountain grown quinoa and the salt flats in the distance.

Miguelina, a 75 year old, robust quinoa farmer and our host, remembers walking with her father and his llama trains as a young child.  Usually three families would leave together – the dad and some children and about 50 llamas in total, laden with blocks of salt and sacks of quinoa for trade for fruits and other goods.  There was no currency in those days.  They simply traded, picking up different products on the way there and back.  It would be a three week journey and the children would sleep out under the stars with their dads, eating dried llama meat (charkey) and ground toasted quinoa (pito).  A highly nutritious combination of proteins and minerals which made for a very healthy, balanced diet.

Miguelina would wear handmade alpaca sandals made by her dad.  He would tan hides by soaking them in mud a few days and then fashion the sandals from the skin, putting three layers for a sole – which was slippery when climbing rocks!  Their clothes were woven or knit of alpaca hair.  Women wore dark woven skirts with heavy woven shawls and men wore white woven pants and heavy wool ponchos.  None wore socks or tights, even when the temperatures ducked down below freezing.  Our feet neve got cold explained Miguelina.

Miguelina remembers trading the quinoa for pears and other delicious fruits which would be brought back to the community.  Other times her father would travel east to Argentina, trading quinoa and salt for flour and tubs, bowls, dishes, utensils and other hard goods and manufactured items.  Tupiza, Bolivia trade to the south would bring in corn.  Every direction had their goods and season when the trades would happen.


Lluvica farmers disucss what sustianbility means to them in our talking stick workshop.

Today, the people of Lluvica still maintain their llama herds – but use them more for food than travel.  Burros help carry harvested quinoa and grain down the mountains today, they can carry more than the delicate llamas and are easier to tether and work with.

The mountain quinoa is grown in a different way than the plains quinoa.  Since there is no tractor, there is no reason to remove the stones and boulders that litter the mountainsides – the quinoa is simply planted around them.  The soil is made up more of course pebbles than sand and sits firmly on the mountainsides.  The mineral content here is so high that the first time quinoa is planted in a new area, about half of the crop is lost because the strong minerals “burn’ the plant – providing so much nutrition that it is overwhelmed and turns yellow.  The second year, the soil is left open to rest and the following year, he soiled is ready for a robust crop.  The quinoa grows well here   It does not have the effects of the drought and insects like the quinoa of the plains has. The natural pest control method of fumigating with tola smoke in the early morning is effective.  On the average the community produces 44 tons of quinoa a year.

Hand grown quinoa is hard work.  The fields are a two hour walk (or 20 min. drive) from the tiny mountainside town nestled in a crease of the Cordillera Real mountains range where a natural spring flows and apple and pear trees grow. To prepare the solid, steep mountainside plots of three to nine acres are hand hoed with surface soils scraped up into long rows in preparation for the spring planting in September.  Families often camp out at their mountain fields for weeks getting the soil ready.  The weeds are left to decompose and llamas and vicunas roam the plots depositing their rich manure.  Tractors on the other hand, can till three acres of quinoa in just a few hours.

Unlike other quinoa growing communities who keep their llamas out for several nights in a row, Lluvica llamas are brought in each night and kept corralled up.  With herds ranging from 60 to 100 llamas, this is a lot of work.  The Andean puma however is a predator of the llamas, and will attack unprotected herds at night.


The troublesome Islancha plant – what is is?

What is Islancho?

But even more bothersome than the llama is the islancho plant – an plant that recently appeared in the area most likely brought about by grazing llamas who ate the plant and defecated its seeds in the quinoa fields.  This small ground plant has purple flowers like a potato plant, deep roots and spread via rhizomes – deep underground roots.  It affects the soil making it impossible to grow quinoa here.  Though local agronomists have bene alerted to the menace of this plant, – there are now at least 10 acres of unusable land due to he impact of this plant and now that it’s established, its spreading even faster.  However, there has been little research done as to why the plant is affecting this region like this.  Or even to more scientifically identify the plant. Interestingly, I observed this plant growing alongside quinoa in other regions without any noticeable ill effect.  In addition farmer’s from other regions recognize the plant but do not consider it anything more than an annoying weed.


The Mountain Quinoa Kitchen

Mountain quinoa is carefully hand harvested, mature seed heads selected as they come into ripeness, some with variances of weeks – from the same plant.  The quinoa kitchen is just as carefully calculated and used.  Varieties such as the yellow Toledo, rose-white are used in soups.  The rosy Irampo is used for pisanqu’allo – a quinoa rice-like dish of toasted, boiled grains.  Black volcanic rocks called kalapari –  known for their high carbon content are heated in fires and used to toast quinoa and give a special flavor to thinly sliced llama meats.  In addition a finer soil, the pojera, is also used for quinoa toasting and preparation. The saruna is a deep stone bowl that is used to thresh the quinoa – to step on the quinoa and separate the seed from the chaff.