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 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

DAY 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Legend has it that back in colonial times there was a tremendous rain storm.  In this storm, two brothers living in Salinas Garcia de Mendoza – the illustration town on the edge of the salt flats under the towering slopes of the Tunupa volcano – were suddenly washed away far across the salt flats and the sandy plains, carried miles away by the immense torrent of water.  The place where they finally landed became known as Capura, a tiny town dominated by “Garcias” (as a last name) and having distant ties back to Salinas.

Approaching Capura across the sandy windswept volcanic plains where Royal Quinoa reigns, we drive in a well-equipped private SUV (this time a Toyota Helix with leather sets that have video screens and phone chargers built into the backs of the headrests) along the now all too familiar bumpy dirt tracks, nameless as they zig zag for miles across the vast plains, blending into the horizon, tan upon tan.  The dull, flat taste of dust is in my mouth as we eagerly scan the endless horizon for signs of emus, a pest because they eat the quinoa but still rare enough to be of interest if they are seen.

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

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

Eric, our driver and the son of a quinoa farmer, is about to enter into a private college in Oruro to begin his studies in Economics.  Meanwhile, he helps his family with the quinoa when he can.  Like most folks of Capura, Erik lives an hour away in the large town of Challapata – where there are seven high schools.  Capura has none.

We are continuing our travels with agronomist, Tito Mendoza, Bolivia’s technical advisor for CLAC – the small farmers arm of the Fair Trade in Germany.  We are meeting with AIPROCA, a 4 year old Fair Trade, organic quinoa producing association, this year led by Gregorio Garcia.  With just 41 members, AIPROCA is certainly considered a small producer group.  Tito was in Capura to review the upcoming FLO audit which would determine whether or not the group could keep their Fair Trade status.  The three things they had to be the most astute about, explained Tito, were proving: democratic participation, transparency in all administrative costs and proper payment for goods.

The road from Challapata to Capura....

The road from Challapata to Capura….

Tito was also going over their use of the social development funds which come as a premium paid above the price for the quinoa produced.  Last year AIPROCA amassed $181,303 in social premium funds for the 697,000 tons of quinoa they had hand harvested and sold.  Tito seemed confused, he asked if the funds were in dollars or Bolivianos.  “Dollars,” the group assured.  He also repeated the amount of quinoa they said they had sold – they assured him that was correct.  That’s 17,000 tons of quinoa per family.  This seems strange since Capura families seemed to have an average of 20-15 hectacres planted in rotation each year.  Each hectare yields at best about 1.3 tons.  This totals to about 1,066 tons of quinoa total for the community.

Tito took some time to explain the difference between a small producer and a small enterprise.  Buying quinoa from others for export sale, he explained was a business (small enterprise) which was not covered under Fair Trade rules.  This was largely because there was no guarantee that the quinoa bought from others was actually organic or produced under Fair Trade guidelines which also included protection of the natural environment, equal gender representation and a commitment to minimal child labor.  Growing one’s own quinoa, assured Tito, was Fair Trade – assuming guidelines were followed.


Cream of quinoa soup – delicious!

Capura has about 30 residents – people who live there full time.  The rest, like Erik were weekend visitors or less.  Many lived in Challapata though others lived in Cochabamba, 12 hours away or Oruro – a bit closer.  They grew quinoa for export sale, though before the quinoa boom, they just grew it for themselves.  They raised llamas for their own consumption and local meat sales, owning herds of 30-40 animals each which wandered freely across the vast plains, coming in at night at the sound of a whistle. And they grew potatoes – another favorite food in the Andes – for their own use.

One young woman, Sonia, has just returned from Colombia the day before.  Her high school woman’s soccer team in Challapata was #1 in the country.  They were invited to fly to Colombia to represent Bolivia in the South American women’s high school soccer play offs.  She said she was one the smallest women there – never-the-less, the team played well but lost anyway.

The community was well organized with their funds usage and had excel spreadsheets documenting purchases and investments. Some of these, over time, included the building of a basic quinoa processing and sorting plant, (not for professional export, but for adequate cleanliness to be accepted as export quality grain for wholesale purchase), the building of tiny 2-room homes, public bathrooms and water systems, the placement of tanks and cisterns for water storage, the creation of a garbage collection and recycling system, building of a basketball court, and the distribution of large food baskets to all association members for the holidays.  For certification, all community members had to know the projects, their approximate costs and the outcome of them (well made, well used, etc.).

While some community members were professionals and professors, others were not.  Tito gave a basic accounting lesson and broke the group up into 3 teams to review the total projects done for the year.  The groups made a chart for each line item assigned to them and determined the costs, investment and outcome.  These were then shared with the larger group and saved to be hung on the walls of the main assembly building for future reference.  The AIPROCA administration was charged with putting the new data into a spread sheet to provide to the auditors.

Not everything was peachy keen at AIPROCA.  The women whispered to me that they had no say in the projects developed and the men, they said, spent too much money on what they did.  The one woman who was part of the five-member directorship at AIPROCA was in the kitchen cooking for most of the meeting, missing all that was gone over.  I publically noted this and though some men ducked out from the meeting upon hearing this, perhaps to invite her back to the meting – she still did not appear in the meeting.  I was looking forward to delving deeper into this in the women’s meeting on sustainability coming up next.


Women of Capura

Women of Capura

However to my surprise, the 20+ women I worked with in the women’s meeting, had nothing more to say about this incident or their lack of representation in AIPROCA decisions.  Instead they focused on the current drought and its impact on their quinoa production, which was slated to be at about 50% of last year’s production.


I regretted having such a short time in the town – a few hours and none else.  And was thankful that my research going forward was for the customary 5-7 day long visits which really enabled me to more deeply connect with the women and better understand their world.