Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

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

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

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 There are no longer active families living in the quinoa communities.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

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