DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

Chita women

The women quinoa growers of Chita – Modesta, Nilda and Rosali – committed to coming to La Paz to present their experiences in person.

Along the dusty road leading to Uyuni lies the tiny railroad town of Chita, founded in 1939 and named perhaps for the Chita plant or rain or water – it is not certain.  Home to 40 permanent families, it once was a thriving quinoa producer zone.  Now the towering dust devils skirt past empty fields, the wind whistling through the tin roofed adobe dwellings.  A nursery is there – to grow the ancient tolla brush that once held down the dry, fragile soils.  And so is the Chita Club de Madres, a group formed over a decade ago as part of a long forgotten development project.

The 14 women club members, all quinoa growers, meet regularly to discuss needs, plan events and organize themselves for different projects.   Today’s project was the arrival of me, a quinoa researcher from the US.   The local quinoa research organization, Proimpa, invited me to the site when they heard I was looking to contact women quinoa growers – they had been working on the tola nursery there for many years and knew the women’s group well.  Martin, a Proimpa agronomist from the Chita, dropped us off as he headed off to check on the vivero and other projects.  We would be picked up again in 4 hours.

The women invited us to their meeting hall, a cold, dusty room accessed through a metal door made from an old oil drum cut apart and pounded flat and an outdoor patio where an adobe wood fired stove stood in a corner.  We proceeded with our workshop – talking of sustainability and laughing at the women’s jokes and jabs at one another.  It was a jolly group and we found ourselves having quite a fun time.  The workshop ended and we stayed on talking.

The women spoke of their quinoa varieties – 2,000 in all!  They talked of the 20-30 ecotypes they worked with the different properties of each – the yellow toledo cooked fast, the kaslala or ch’ulpi was a sticky quinoa when ground that was great for bread.  HachaChina had 18% protein and was a sport quinoa while ChuliMichi (Ojos de Azucar – eyes of sugar) was a sweet quinoa with a high sugar content…

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The windswept salt flat outpost and train stop of Chita.

And they spoke of their recipes – cookies, breads, pito, cakes, pisha q’alla made of red quinoa, mokuna… each variety with its own set of recipes.  I asked if the varieties could be interchanged in the recipes.  Absolutely not they all said in unison, laughing at their timing.  Bread and pito can only be made with kaslala, Toledo is only for soup, etc.  I noticed, however that outside of the quinoa growers’ kitchens very few Bolivians and no one from outside Bolivia were using quinoa that way.  For example, the many varieties of white quinoa were simply mixed together and sold as all purpose white quinoa.  When they were not all purpose at all.  In the women quinoa grower’s kitchen never would the varieties be mixed and used as an “all purpose,” impossible! Each variety had a purpose – even as medicine and healing. Quinoa preparation and cooking was a tradition build on thousands of years of ancestral experimentation and testing passed from mother to daughter.  Seeds were selected and stored to preserve the best properties of each variety.  Farmers very intentionally choose which varieties to grow, what quantity of each, and the placement of the seeds in their fields.  They know what the seed heads look like and can easily name each seed variety, even when they are closely mixed in the fields or in different stages of development.  Farmers know the leaf and stem colors, head shapes and characteristics and colors. An agronomist told me the quinoa seeds do not cross pollinate and each variety maintains its own characteristics.

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Chita women sample KIND bars from the US – a processed food product that features quinoa.

In Chita this year each family is growing an average of 10-12 different varieties on 20 acres each.  In other times, they would plant 60 acres, but with price so low, the weather so varied and the drought, it made no sense to invest to much into quinoa production.  Twenty acres is just fine they explained.  Even with that, they are noting, it seems there will be a 70% loss of crops from the drought.  Yields vary from 2 tons to less than 1 ton per acre depending on climate effects – the women were expecting yields of less than a ton per acre this year. Bio-indicators, such as rodents’ homes with covered entrances, are predicting an early frost which can easily kill off developing seed heads and turn developed seeds black and unusable.  Harvest is in May.  There is no remedy for frost, they women just have to wait and hope for the best.

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Chita quinoa grower.

Modesta, an older woman with graying braids asked me what I was going to do with the information they were giving me. I explained it would be presented in a presentation at Catholic University in La Paz in February.  She lamented how people are always talking about the quinoa and the women, but never let them speak for themselves.  I explained that I worked with full transparency and that the women were welcome to come to La Paz and present their story during my presentation.  She said that the would come.  At first I thought she was joking.  La Paz was very far away – a 15 hour trip by bus.  Rural women were usually shy about traveling outside their family and were rarely able to anyway, with their obligations to the family, children and farm – plus jealous husbands did not like their wives to be away from home.  But Modesta was not joking and neither were Nilda and Rosali who also said they would travel to La Paz as well.  I was stunned.  This was great!  To have real, authentic women’s voices at the presentation – what a brilliant idea.  I was in.

I quickly named them the three musketeers – which got them cracking up all over again.  We formed a plan: they would cook the bread, cookies and pito with different quinoa varieties for the presentation participants.  They would also present the Bolivian kitchen and women’s experience – about 15 minutes – with questions and answers afterward.  I would pay for their travel and food and buy the products they produced, plus give them an extra tip (yapa) for their time and effort.  They were in.

We exchanged phone numbers and planned to see each other in a few weeks, at the time of the scheduled presentation.  The time was up.  The women had to cook and check on their quinoa.  We walked along the empty railroad tracks, the wind blowing against us, sand blowing into our ears and mouth – to find the agronomist, Martin, and get our ride back to the town of Uyuni 20 minutes away.

Three weeks later – I was at the bus station in La Paz at 8 in the morning, picking up Modesta, Nilda and Rosali for the presentation!

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

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Breads made with kaslala quinoa.

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

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

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

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

DAY 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

DAY 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

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

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

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

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

DAY 38 – The royal quinoa legends of the salt flats

DAY 38 – The royal quinoa legends of the salt flats

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

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

Here is the legend of where Royal Quinoa came from:

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

Another story:

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The Uyuni salt flats as seen from Fish island.

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

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

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

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

DAY 36 – From industrialization to differentiation

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Quinoa industrialised processing in the remote town of Slainas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DAY 33 – the difficult evolution of Bolivia’s quinoa market

DAY 33 – the difficult evolution of Bolivia’s quinoa market

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A farmer studies a young quinoa seed head, bent by a worm chewing on the stalk. Healthy seed heads can grow to produce up to a half pound of quinoa seed each.

What’s happening with the quinoa in Bolivia?  Well many things.  First there was the boom, brought on by decades of international development work in the quinoa fields – improved (and some not so improved!) methods of soil management, seed planting, pest control, cultivation and harvesting.

cleaning quinoa

In the market quinoa is quinoa – red, white or black. But there are actually lots of varieties and differences in quinoa that is important for consumers and farmers.

Through much trial and error –  and there were plenty of errors – the delicate volcanic soils and the unique properties of the quinoa plant became better understood.  Teams, projects and supplies from the US, Holland, Switzerland, Israel, China and more slowly trickled into the area, finally reaching a high level of production and world recognition of the ancient grain around 2004.  By 2013, the world recognition of Bolivia’s “seed of gold” was growing exponentially, and like all fledgling new markets, the demand outstripped the supply, leading to elevated prices and a period know at the “quinoa boom” with total exports totaling more than $200 million, according to Genaro Aroni, a Bolivian quinoa agronomist with over 30 years working with this ancient grain. The boom lasted from 2009 – 2015 when prices suddenly drastically dropped by more than 75% – due to the entrance of new competitors in the market – largely from Peru, but also Canada and France.  Now the Bolivian quinoa farmers are struggling to cover their costs of production.  Many are saving their quinoa until prices go up again, others have left the quinoa region altogether – in search of better work.

Today the quinoa has entered into a “mature market” cycle – with little differentiation of product, relatively low prices worldwide, more production of quinoa from other places, and a steadily growing consumer demand, which meets the slowly growing availability of the product, as new producers enter into the market.

This is not good news for Bolivia’s farmers.  They pride themselves on their hand grown quinoa, deep ancestral knowledge of the plant, commitment to organic farming methods, and their own cultural connection to the ancient grain.  These qualities are not present in the current market of – white-red-black quinoa.  In the world markets, there is no distinction of how its grown, where, by whom or even what the quinoa itself actually is (it’s a seed not a grain).  There are actually over 70 varieties of quinoa – with many only able to be grown in Bolivia’s mineral rich, high desert salt flat regions.  Within the standard white-red-black spectrum, there exists countless specific quinoa varieties with distinct characteristics that are simply lumped together and sold as a single color type.  Some say that these ancient varieties are becoming lost as the market demands the simplified image of quinoa.  But in my research I found that they are actually only lost to the consumer.  The farmers know what they are planting – and the women know how to cook it.  Each variety of quinoa come with its own uses and recipes.

In the range of white quinoa alone, there exists the Tolerado which cooks the quickest; the high protein (18%) Hachachina; the sticky Caslala which is great for making bread and noodles;  the Q’oto which is toasted and ground into the beloved Bolivian pito; and more.

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Quinoa farmer checking her Caslala variety of break making quinoa – commonly known as white quinoa – but having distinct properties as being soft, sticky and perfect for baking.

One way to compete in a mature market is through product differentiation and market specialization.  In my former research, I focused on industrialization – looking at how quinoa communities can improve their market access, diversify their economy, create new jobs and build value through the transformation of their raw product (bulk quinoa for export) into processed foods.  In the 18 months I have been done, some associations and communities have done just that – with good results.

For example the quinoa growers association, APQUISA, in the town of Salinas now has a quinoa bakery and a contract with the local mayor to provide hundreds of regional breakfasts for schoolchildren daily.  This enabled them to expand their operations into a full bakery producing breads, cookies, and cakes for the local community and regional trade shows. They now have a store located on the central plaza of the town and are looking to expand distribution throughout the region, once they get improved packaging for their product which will extend its shelf life better.  The quinoa producers association of SOPROQUI in Uyuni had a similar contract with their regional mayor which also enabled them to expand their processing to breads, noodles, and quinoa puffs.  They work with their parent association ANAPQUI, one of Bolivia’s oldest quinoa associations, to access the quinoa processing equipment which produces quinoa flakes, flour and puffs.  ANAPQUI now has packaged products of different varieties of quinoa seeds and flakes with export to Spain.  In addition, a growing number of producer associations such as ANAPQUI, QUIMBOLSUR, APQUISA and the community of Otuyo, have their own quinoa processing plants – with the latest technology and laboratories – that can produce export quality quinoa, though reducing their reliance on contracted cleaning and creating a new revenue flow as some also clean others’ quinoa at a cost of 40 – 120Bs per quintal.

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APQUISA’s delicious quinoa bread – fresh made daily in Salinas.

The industrialization of quinoa is looking good – but it’s not the best.  The low market prices, minimal technical knowledge, and lack of capital investment, has made the industrialization costly and difficult.  APQUISA’s president Endulfo Gabriel C. invested $100,000 into their quinoa cleaning plant and bakery – with market prices so low, even with the extra national sales and production, they are behind on their payments to members for quinoa and do not have the funds to further develop their product, packing and seek export sales.  This is the situation for many of the local quinoa industrialists I have met.  The market is not giving them the movement of funds they need to move forward – in equipment, training and market development.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post – what could be next…

DAY 32 –  The Quinoa of Atlantis

DAY 32 –  The Quinoa of Atlantis

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Cleaning the quinoa on the “shores” of what might have once been Ancient Atlantis.

Some, like British aerial photographer, Tim Allen, argue that Bolivia’s Pampa Aullagas is the site of the ancient city of Atlantis – according to ancient Greek descriptions.  There is competing evidence that this may indeed be true, including local legends of floods, evidence of ancient trade with the Sumerians, found artifacts, underground rivers, and geographical features such as concentric rings and evidence of ancient canals and water systems. The region of Pampa Aullagas, once known as

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Relaxing amongst the quinoa of Atlantis.

Antisuyo, is closely connected to Lake Poopo and the Uyuni Salt Flats.  It is also the site of some of Quillacas’ most robust quinoa farming.  Here’s photos of the ancient city mountain and the encroaching flood waters of Poopo.  Was there a time when the altiplano was fully flooded and Pampa Aullagas was the place of the ancient civilizations of gods?  There are many stories of floods in the altiplano, legends about the fights of the gods, volcanoes, and the settling of the mysterious salt flat region – home to the Royal Quinoa, which according to legend, was first brought to that region by angels long ago.