Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development

DAY 48 – The women’s quinoa bakery in Anzaldo

DAY 48 – The women’s quinoa bakery in Anzaldo


Margarita with her butter bread.

Margarita Blanca had a dream.  She saw the hard working women of her and the neighboring communities all working together to grind their own wheat and make it into the best, most delicious professional bread imaginable – and selling it around the region.  She saw women working together, employed and earning a premium price for their wheat.  She saw the mayor helping out and all communities working together to pool resources, funding and successes.

            She saw this but it was not happening. The neighboring community had a gas fired oven but would not share it with people outside of their community.  Why should they give work to someone else – it’s their oven and they should be using it for their own things and that’s it, they explained – except they weren’t.  Her own community liked the idea of a shared bakery but wanted it in their community for more secure and constant access.  Margarita explained the bakery needed to be in the large town of Anzaldo, an hour away on foot, because there was where the market was.  She explained that it would be easier to distribute fresh hot bread in the town, than to bring the bread to town and have it arrive cold and no longer fresh.  She wanted to make and sell hundreds of breads all around the region and benefit all women wheat growers.  She also wanted to in improve child nutrition and add quinoa flour to the breads.  But the communities were not in agreement.


Margarita did not give up.  She traveled to meetings in the mayor’s office, met with developers and shared her vision with anyone who would listen. Little by little she started to get supporters: other women from her community and others, the school, the church and the mayor.  But the real support needed to come from the rural women themselves.  Margarita saw other communities in places such as Rachay Pampa, who had successful programs started.  She knew this could happen in Anzaldo too.

Her big break came in June 2016 when the Center for the Research and Promotion of Rural People  (CIPCA) – a Bolivian non-profit development organization – hosted a workshop with the Anzaldo mayor and community at their annual Water Festival.  Here Margarita learned CIPCA was working with rural nutrition and could help her start her bakery!

She traveled to the city of Cochabamba 2 hours away, on her own dime and time, to meet with CIPCA and present her vision for the Anzaldo bakery.  CIPCA was in!  The bakery idea met their goals of supporting rural development and nutrition and was an economically feasible enterprise – there was a market, infrastructure and opportunity. They gave Margarita the go ahead under the condition that she form an official women’s association and secure some financial backing from the town mayor.

Within a few days, Margarita had the mayor’s attention.  There was an unused medical post in town that could be lent to the women for three years – as long as they paid the utilities to use it, mainly electric lights and gas for the stove.   He later gave them a 2 month grace period on their first utility bill. Margarita went from community to community meeting with the rural leaders and soliciting support for the bakery project.  Finally she had seven communities (out of 15) on board.  It was enough to get started!

The women cleaned and painted the building a bright cheerful green, received from CIPCA a new commercial oven with electronic temperature control and the ability to not just make bread but also cakes and cookies.  Bakery members each paid either 32 pounds of wheat (a $14 value) or $7 cash – whatever they preferred, to be a member of the baking association.  This got the women the raw materials and cash they needed to begin.

The women had their local, organic wheat ground into flour and CIPCA sent down a professional baker and nutritionist from the city to help create recipes for the women.  They also sent an accountant to help the women set up the books and controls for the flow of ingredients, inputs, costs and earnings.  Production would be local, organic and of the highest quality.  The mayor put in an order for quinoa breakfast breads to be baked for school nutrition programs.  He would order 100 breads at 40 centavos each – committing an order of 100 breads delivered daily to the school.  This hardly covered the cost of producing the bread, but it gave the women a space to use their wheat and produce product.

The bakery officially opened in December 2016 and currently produces 120 breads a day for outside sales of 1Bs each.  The women sell their hot quinoa bread in the afternoon to making rounds to the local hospital, boarding school, and main plaza the town.  They have the capacity to make three times that amount but are holding off until they know there is better market access.

One goal that Margarita has is to make bread in the morning.  This will give here access to the most popular morning bread market.  To do this she (and the women members) would need to sleep in the bakery, which has a bedroom.  However, that is not allowed by husbands who need the women to be home getting the children ready for school, the farm animals ready for the day, and the afternoon meal prepared  – and not sleeping in Bakeries far away. But Margarita is patient and persistent.  She is confident that in time a solution will be found and the bakery can operate in the mornings producing the daily bread (instead of the afternoon snack).  Future plans also include sales in the large commercial center of Cliza and a distribution in the city of Cochabamba.

Besides bread, Margarita’s team makes butter rolls, quinoa bread with 17% quinoa, quinoa cakes, quinoa and cheese empanadas, and quinoa chocolate chip cookies.  Women take turns working in the bakery in pairs usually putting in two turns a week and earning 20Bs a turn.  Local ingredients used in the recipes include wheat, potatoes, dried corn and peas, cheese, honey and eggs.  The women are paid an extra 10% for their products used in production. The women are investing their savings into a fund to pay for their own building to be built when their 3-year lease is up on the borrowed health post.

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development


Traditional housing in the remote quinoa lands.

How did the small, remote, impoverished quinoa communities of yore grow into a multimillion dollar international market?  The answer is years of development projects, investment, experiments, failure and success – starting in the 1970s

The 1970s was the time of the agriculture revolution in the development world with mechanized, chemical farming of massive acreages producing high yields of carefully developed crop varieties.  Quinoa was not overlooked in this period as hundreds of thousands of development dollars poured into the quinoa region to help develop this ancient grain for commercial use.  It was certainly a time of trial and error for the region – a place with delicate, volcanic soils, little rainfall and minimal organic material for building soil strength (nutrients).


The vast, isolated quinoa landscape and llama.

Farmers tell tales of foreign agronomics arriving with different fertilizers, pesticides and industrialized farming methods – each time being “outsmarted” in the long run by the native wisdom and organic farming techniques of the ancestors.  Miguel Huyallas tells of the Dutch development worker who in the 1980s came with urea and other processed fertilizers for the quinoa farmers.  Miguel challenged him to a quinoa growing “contest” and offered a piece of his land to the Dutch agronomist. The first year, the Dutch’s quinoa grew better than Miguel’s – larger, taller, with higher yields.  However by the second year, the Dutch’s soils were already exhausted and his quinoa produced much less than Miguel’s organic quinoa fed with organic llama manure.  The agronomist explained Miguel, never returned after that.

There are patches of desert land where nothing grows, explains a Bolivian agronomist in Salinas.  The soils, he says, are burnt by the rigorous use of chemical fertilizers by USAID projects which did not take into account the slower decomposition of matter in arid environments and the lesser amounts of carbon in the volcanic soils.

Gladys of Chuvica talks of the pesticides which were used in abundance in 1970s development projects in her community.  She explains how the people did not have proper training in applying and caring for them, often saturating their skin and breathing in the fumes.  She attributes her mother’s early death at 50 to poisoning from the pesticides and believes there is a high rate of undocumented cancers in her region because of this.  The other day a woman farmer in Quillacas told me how once when she was hand fumigating her crop, the backpack style tank that is filled with pesticides leaked all over her clothes and through to her skin before she realized there was a leak in the tank. The farmers do not want to fumigate.  They understand the dangers of the chemicals and no one I have visited in the highlands is using chemical fertilizers in their production.


The quinoa fields of Otuyo, Salinas.

Never-the-less, development progressed and through decades of trial and error, an export quality, semi-industrialized quinoa industry was developed.  The first quinoa producers’ association ANAPQUI was founded in the 1980s.  France helped finance the association’s presence in international trade shows in the 1990s – helping to build awareness and markets for the tiny seed.  Belgium helped fund the first tractors being used in quinoa production through CECOAT, a Bolivian NGO, revolutionizing how the tiny hand-grown mountain grain was produced.  Tractors cannot function on the traditional mountainside fields of the quinoa, so a valley method of production was created on the flat plains of the salt flats, opening up hundreds of thousands of acres of new land for quinoa production. According to long time quinoa agronomist, Genaro Aroni, by 2014 Bolivia’s quinoa industry reached $200 million a year in sales with over 60 businesses worldwide grappling for access to the Bolivian “grain of gold,” and what the United Nations termed the high protein super food for the future of mankind.

The development came at a cost though.  Aroni estimated that by 2016 there were over 2,000 tractors tearing up the delicate soils of the altiplanos plains.  With the recent drop in quinoa prices however, farmers are no longer planting the 30 to 60 acre lots they once managed opting for 21 acre plantings instead and are seeking to sell their tractors.  Worse though are the thousands of acres of desert lands now left fallow.  The slow growing tola plants and pampa grasses have been removed leaving the land to dry and soils to be carried away by the wind.  Worse, there is no longer forage for the llamas and wild vicunas which once dominated Bolivia’s vast plains.  Projects to “reforest” the plains with tola plant seedlings are underway but it’s a long, slow process.

In addition, with the new lowland farming of quinoa, new insects arrived which were never present before – including a moth whose larvae eat the immature quinoa seed heads.  This has proven to be a huge challenge for farmers who value organic production and ancestral knowledge.  Never had these insects been present before, so there was no ancestral knowledge to pull from.  Over the years both conventional and organic pesticides have been used to fight the “worms” as they are called locally, but with mixed results.  The conventional pesticides such as cyprometherine work but ruin the organic certification of the seed while organic pesticides are still in an experimental stage and not very efficient.

Perhaps the most knowledgeable in the recent history of quinoa development is agronomist Aroni.  A quinoa grower himself from the Uyuni region, he’s spent 30 years on the quinoa development largely working with Proimpa, a Bolivian NGO whose mission is to, “Promote the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, sovereignty and food security, and the competitiveness of agricultural products for the benefit of producers, the agricultural sector and society as a whole; Through research and technological innovation.”  Many of Proimpa’s programs and come from collaboration with the Collaborative Crops Research Program (CCRP) funded by the McKnight Foundation.

A recent example of a McKnight funded collaboration is the development of pheromone traps with Dutch academics.  The traps which each contain 10 different pheromones, attract male moths to prevent them from fertilizing the eggs of the female moths.   The moth larvae, a caterpillar, eats the valuable quinoa seed heads before they are formed causing thousands of dollars of damage and lost production.  This year is the first time the traps were put into use and farmers reported satisfaction with how the traps worked – noticing a substantial reduction in the number of caterpillars they were finding on their quinoa plants.

Aranoi speaks of the needs of the farmers in the areas of more funding for organic pest control systems and more investment into improving the delicate soils.  He is currently working with integrative systems where quinoa is intercropped with native grasses that hold down the soil and add much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  One such plant is the k’ela, a wild leguminous tarhui that is a nitrogen fixer and can also be foraged by animals.

As far as the future of quinoa, Aroni sees more diversification in production being key for the people in the quinoa region.  Traditionally quinoa was grown in balance with llama production with both industries complimenting each other – the llamas provided manure and transportation for the quinoa and food for the families and the quinoa stalks and 2nd quality seeds provided supplemental food for the llama.  Now llamas and quinoa are often managed separately and the sizes of the herds have not kept up with the quinoa growth. In addition, there is not as developed of a market for llama meat, especially in the international arena.  Bolivia’s low fat, high protein, free range, organic llama meat is naturally low in cholesterol and is an excellent protein source.  Aroni sees the development of the llama industry as a way for quinoa farmers to move forward in their economic development and well-being.  He also sees the development of effective organic pest control systems and a clear, transparent, realistic pricing system for the quinoa as key to the sustainability of this industry in Bolivia.  A sustainable price for quinoa producers?   800Bs a quintal – the same price that farmers themselves have been asking for from all across the salt flats.

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye


Tamara taking photos from the ruins of the Spanish mill.

It’s time to move on from Salinas to Quillacas this afternoon.  It is always a bittersweet moment when we transition from one quinoa growing town to the next.  Each has its own distinct personality and ways of being.  Once you are in its rhythm, it’s hard to leave, sort of like trying to get out of a rip tide at the seaside.  Once you are in the vibe of the town, so many opportunities and surprises start opening up.  We had to decline invitations to community celebrations next week, invitations to visit new places, invitations to present at local organizations, create more programs, film more events, participate in community ceremony.  It is always sad.  It makes me want to divide myself into a million pieces so I can be everywhere at once.

Our memories of Salinas lay in the humor and kindness of its people.  Always a smile and hello from strangers we pass in the street, our growing community of plaza market sellers whom we visit regularly to eat lunch with, interview, or chat about the day’s events. Our caseras (sellers) who provide fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs and goodies for our home kitchen.  And our host Alex and the Technical University of Oruro, who made their research center available to us – giving us space to explore, write, cook and help out on reforestation projects.


Me and my daughter, my research companion.

I think of the people we have met and budding friendships: Gladys Mayorga – the regional consejal who exports local quinoa throughout South America; Abad Huayllani – the lawyer from Santa Cruz, who also doubles as a quinoa farmer and now as Mallku in a one-year position as the region’s indigenous leader. Eloy Ignacio Mamani – a quiet quinoa farmer living in the tiny community of Soloja; Liboria Perez who cooks delicious soups for sale in her wheel barrel food cart – peanut soup, quinoa soup, llama caldo (broth) and more! Plus she toasts and grounds her quinoa into a delicious pito – a powdered, edible form of the grain.

And I think of my 13-year-old daughter’s bold act of citizen empowerment.  Noting the lack of flowers in the main plaza – while villagers all had lovely flower gardens at their homes – she wrote a letter to the town mayor in and English and Spanish asking him to plant flowers and suggesting he ask people volunteer their own flowers form their gardens if he did not have the funds to pay for flowers himself.


Florinda Consales – instrumental in helping to make the Salinas research site a success.

Our memories also lie in the amazing beauty and resources of this tiny colonial town located under the watchful snow-capped slopes of the Thunupa volcano at the edge of the Uyuni salt flats (Salinas – means “salty” in Spanish).  The ruins of the 500 year old Spanish grain mill, the naturally carbonated mineral water springs, the volcanic soils and crunchy lava stones, and the wild emus and vicunas that glide across the vast pampas of tola bushes and tall, stiff, grasses.

Finally we are grateful to the friendship of Florinda Cansales – whom I had met in 2015 when she was the indigenous leader, Mama Mallku, of the region.  Florinda has been instrumental in making our stay and research her so successful.  She works in local education development, farming quinoa and raising sheep and llamas on her ancestral lands – taking a break from the high-profile city life she was living two years ago.  Together we hope to develop a direct-sale, heritage quinoa project with the women of her community of Otuyo.  We will continue to keep in touch…

So, it is with bittersweet thoughts we get ready for the day – a final walk out to the flooded salt flats, a final lunch in the plaza, and the women’s sustainability workshop I will deliver this afternoon with our host, the local hospital.  Then it’s on the bus – and off to Quillacas, a looming hillside community, an hour away – the site of a colonial miracle and within view of the supposed location of Atlantis – the lost undersea community of long ago.

DAY 22 – Research versus Development

DAY 22 – Research versus Development


ANAPQUI’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa bread being made for local consumption in Salinas.

As I enter into the quinoa lands which I have grown to know so well both in my initial 2015 field research and subsequent projects and research performed in UMass classrooms, I have a better idea of needs, possibilities and opportunities.  In addition, I spent several years studying women producers in the Fair Trade and coffee industries too.  I feel I have a good grasp of the needs and wants of Bolivia’s Fair Trade women producers.  I am also an economist and have a theoretical grounding in development economics.  And am a natural business developer, marketer and partnership builder.  I teach marketing to graduate students and started my own advertising agency out of college until leaving it to come to Bolivia in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer – working in Business Development.  While in Bolivia I developed several businesses, mentored students in being marketing consultants, and worked with Bolivian businesses to create export and national marketing opportunities for natural foods and other products.  Though I’m not an expert, I have an idea of things that can get done in Bolivia, how they can happen and what the opportunities are – especially in a US market.

So how does this impact my role as a researcher?

As I talk with women and hear them complain about low quinoa prices and their desire to make processed food products from their quinoa to create new incomes and jobs – it reminds me of the women coffee farmers who wanted the same thing.  Consulting with Bolivia’s Fair Trade CLAC (Latin American small farmers) representative, Tito Mendoza, he confirms that there are women working with Fair Trade chocolate, sesame seed, and brazil nuts who all want to do that same. – process their raw materials to create alternative industries and not just export raw materials in bulk.  The men however, I found in my coffee research and others in the quinoa industry have confirmed, enjoy the big numbers and ease of bulk export and do not want to bother with complicated food processing.  Though Fair Trade is supposed to work together equally amongst gender, men tend to dominate the decisions about where community funds are invested, and usually disregard the women’s projects – leaving them with no funding or support.  Their ideas stay as ideas – more often than not.

In economic development theory, the next step from the mass export of raw material is the industrialization and processing of that material by the producing country – the is where technology, innovation, marketing, product differentiation, and job creation come into play. In my previous research, I have recommended that farmers invest into product industrialization.

Now in the quinoa fields I ma met with women again, who want to transform product, create jobs for their community, feed the people of Bolivia and export their product to new markets.  However they don’t know where to start – need recipes, equipment, training, packaging, and investment.  They do have the raw materials, land, tiem and desire to make osmethign happen.

One items I brought with me to introduce women to the ways quinoa is being consumed in the US is a case of KIND bars which are made in New York and have popped quinoa as a viable ingredient.  The women were inspired by the bars and wanted to make their own.   When I contacted KIND about this they told me that each month they had a $10,000 fund that women could assess one time if they wrote a project proposal that won a monthly crowd funding competition.  Suddenly the idea of a feminine Fair Trade energy bar made from women-grown Fair Trade quinoa, brazil nuts, sesame seed and chocolate seemed feasible.  There is also Fair Trade honey in Bolivia but there are some restrictions with its use as an export food that need to be explored.  When I mentioned the KIND fund and quinoa bar to the women they are very excited and want to work on the project.

But what project?

I’m here as a researcher – not a developer.  Am I overstepping my role to start forming projects here too?  And where will the project take place?  Who will administer it?  Coordinate it?  See that funds are properly invested?  And of course someone needs to write the grant and get the funds in the first place.  Suddenly this seems really huge.  But it is also a great opportunity.  I think of the food processors I already know- making puffed quinoa, flakes, breads, cookies… Some are Fair Trade cooperatives such as ANAPQUI, or associations such as APQUISA, and others large private businesses such as Coronilla and Frencessa.  Can we share resources, or contract them for the project?  Or do we start with a quinoa community such as Otuyo – which is well formed and has resources (and also inaccessible due to mud) and begin on our own from there?  Tito from Fair Trade CLAC likes the idea and is willing to introduce the project to the other women in Fair Trade.  But it needs more support and collaboration than just that.  I also don’t want to get too distracted from my research.  However the final Part III of my research is in 2018 and that is time to get something set up perhaps – though from the US it would be difficult.

Thais is an open question I am still mulling over – what do you think?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?


Me in Salinas – walking the quinoa trail alone?

What is the role of a researcher? It can be that of a non-participant observer, like one watching Aristotle’s cave. An interpreter of images on a wall.  Or is it can be a data gather.  A survey taker – rushing in to measure something looking for quantity, measurements and numbers –  Coming up with thousands of responses and statistical significance showing causal effects of something.  It is also a gather or other’s data – a cruncher of numbers and purveyor of literature – re-combining others’ ideas in new ways.

For me what’s important is the context.  What is the point of view where the data was collected?  How does it fit into the larger picture?  What influences may cause it to be presented or interpreted in different ways?  What was not reported?  How was the researcher perceived by those being studied?  How does this affect the information given?

Looking for guidance from Robert Chambers and his “participatory rural appraisal approach” creates a place for the researcher to be a part of and apart from the people being studied.  By participating in daily activities trust and experience is built.  Instead of writing that farming is hard, the researchers do the hard farming themselves.  This takes time, commitment and moments of unease and discomfort.  But then relationships are born and friendships made.

Now I’m in stage II of my research – back with my friends made over last year’s first steps into the quinoa lands.  I now know the people places, stories, histories and backgrounds.  That initial, self-conscious, deep reflection, first immersion is gone.  I know the towns, neighboring areas, the best place for lunch and dinner, it’s familiar and feels almost too easy to just relax into what I already know and verify that it’s what I think it is.  I’m beginning to feel anecdotal as I ask women quinoa farmers how their quinoa is and they tell me it’s bad, market prices are down, there are not good sales, they are owed money by their associations from past sales, they are saving their quinoa and not selling it until prices rise.

The farmers want a minimum of 600BS per quintal ($86 per quintal or about $0.39 a pound) or preferably 800Bs ($.52 a pound) which is what was considered a dignified price by the Fair Trade associations a year ago.  This is double the current 300Bs per quintal price most Fair Trade organizations are paying farmers for their quinoa.  300B does not cover production costs.  I noted this to the Fair Trade buyers and was told that farmers exaggerated their production costs and can actually accommodate quinoa production at 300Bs.  Seeing that just for a 3-acre plot (1 hectare) that produces about 5 quintals of processed and cleaned quinoa there is a $100 cost for llama manure, $30 cost for pheromone traps and $100 cost for paid labor, $230 total – the numbers do not match up.  At current prices of 300Bs a quintal total earnings are just $214.  For a year’s worth of work, the farmer makes $16 per hectare of quinoa planted.  In the heart of the quinoa lands farmers are cultivating about 8 hectares each.  This is much less than the 15-20 hectacre plots being managed when quinoa prices provided a living wage.  At current planting rates, the total yield for the year is about $128, which in Bolivian currency is enough to sustain a family of 5 for about a month.  When I tell this to the buyers, they explain that farmers need to improve their yields which the buyers are working on helping the farmers to do.  However – the delicate lands of the quinoa region do not bode well with massive production – they quinoa is a heavy feeder, pulling vast amounts of minerals and nitrogen out of the earth.  These take time to replace.  So it is an evolving problem-solution story.

After eight years of ever more quinoa production and ever higher prices – increasing at a rate of 20% a year and hen plummeting in 2015 by 300% in just two months and staying at this low price level –  this is the first time, that issues of soil loss, unpaid expenses and economic instability have emerged.

But where is the research here?  I have piles of surveys, but the high school seniors who used to do the surveying for me are away on their two-month summer vacations.  I can visit quinoa communities for observation and to offer women’s workshops but the rains finally came but now the quinoa communities are left inaccessible as the slippery dirt roads that climb the vast mountain scape become impassable.  I can offer workshops in the (accessible) larger quinoa towns, but many farmers are not present as this is time for families to be together and many have left for the cities and abroad in search of better work.  In addition, my NGO counterparts have left as their organizations have moved onto other projects.  I have lost a lot of my infrastructure and backing – and am now here in towns with friends, stories and observations.  I feel lucky and lot at the same time.

I worry about my data.  My work is about the life of the women and I worry my friends are not representative of that, or that the few people I am having informal conversations with in passing – the woman on the bus, the indigenous leader in the plaza, the lady butcher – who are all women export quinoa farmers – are not a significant data base.  I don’t want my data to be anecdotal (not really accurate or measurable) and I also don’t want to be missing important data this is not being collected.

I want to do the study that was done before one again, but now the time has changed.  Do I plug away with my old research method anyway trying my hardest to get the surveys out myself, set up workshops on my own?  Or is there something different I can be doing instead?  Or is a hybrid of a bit of both – some surveys and workshops and more participant observation, informal interviews and modified workshops?  The clock is ticking.

My friends are sympathetic and trying to help out – they introduce me to a doctor that I can tag along with for a rural site visit and offer a workshop to women while he is checking baby weights, another engineer offers to take me to his town where there is a women’s group I can meet with and hold a workshop with.  But I already started with this type of research, working with Tito as he visited Fair Trade communities – spending a few hours in each one. And I feel that a few hours spent collecting data in a community creates more questions than answers and does not give me the deep understanding I need to properly interpret the data nor does not build the trust I feel when I’m with a community for several days.  It’s just numbers – not understanding.

I feel we are applying patches rather than a real, deep plan.  But I also feel I’m in an important place in that I do have these connections and understanding.  So the big question is quality versus quantity, the degree of bias from small sample sizes, how much to measure and what…

Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Day 28 – An interview with Bolivia’s first woman Mallku

Florinda Consales is Bolivia’s first woman Mallku, or regional indigenous leader. Residing over the Marka (region) Salinas, she is the elected leader of over 120 communities represented by approximately 12 elected indigenous governors, and 120 takis (communicators) and 120 helicoteres (community leaders). Local people refer to her as The Mother, state officials respectfully call her the Liscenciada Florinda Mallku, putting importance on her college degree.

            Born in1955, Florinda, as a child, lived in the community of Otuyo, a few miles from the dusty town of Salinas at the edge of the vast salt flats in a land surrounded by volcanoes, lava cliffs and scrubby pampas under a wide blue sky. Her parents were subsistence farmers, eking out a living from the mineral rich soils that grew Bolivia’s highest quality quinoa and potatoes. There were two natural springs in the community and the people were able to grow irrigated vegetables such as carrots and fava beans as well.

            Though her mother had nine children, seven had died by the time Florinda was born. Her oldest sibling, a boy, went to the city of Cochabamba in search of work and new opportunities never to return. To this day Florinda still does not know what happened to him. Most likely he had died too. So Florinda was raised as an only child, something unusual in Bolivia where the average rural family has five to seven children. By the time she finished third grade, the highest level her community school went to, her father moved the family to the city of Oruro five hours away where Floinda was enlisted into the city school system and graduated High School. There was a drought in the countryside which made farming very difficult. In the city, her father worked as a baker, making the fresh, round breads he sold each day. Somewhere around this time, her mother died of an apparent stroke. She was in her early 40s. Being an only child, Florinda did not have the share scant family resources with her siblings and her father was able to send her to college.

            She went to the larger city of La Paz to attend the state University of San Andres where she first studied Social Work, then switched to Sociology, graduated, and entered into Law School though after a year she was offered a good job and in 1980 she took the job, got married, and left the law program, something that to this day she regrets. At San Andres, Florinda learned of social movements and human rights. She was one of the few women in college, most families only had resources to send their sons to college, if that. While in college, she and her male colleagues worked well together, and inspired by CatholicPriest,Luis Espinal, who ran a leftist newspaper, staged hunger strikes demanding autonomy for the college, worked on many different social change plans for the country and joined political movements. Bolivia was in a state of turmoil and chaos at the time, after a series of military coups, failed economic development, and a strong centralized government that favored the foreign elite, the people were restless for change.

            Much to his dismay, Florinda would descend upon her father’s home with her comrades in tow talking of new laws, ways of governance and civil liberties. She dressed liked them too, preferring jeans and boots over skirts and shawls. her father wanted her to have a simple, quiet desk job, her mom had wanted her to be a teacher. He could not understand the radicalism that his daughter was engaged in. Flroinda describes herself at the time as being very energetic and strong minded, she took no head o her father’s misgivings and continued to follow her passions.

            Her marriage ended a soon after her first job where from 1980 to 1980 she worked on the Plan de Padrinos  (the Godfather Plan). After that, she went to work as a dirigente de secratario (governor of the secretary) at the Center for the Promotion of Miners (CEPROMIN ) with the miners, the strongest and most radical of all citizen groups at the largest state run mine, Siglo XX, which was famous for its human rights abuses. This is the place where Domitilla Sagani, a mining housewife and internationally know leader, rose up forming the Committee of Miner Housewives demanding better mine safety, housing, food social security when a husband died or was injured in the mine, healthcare education, all of the basic needs that most mining families were denied. They lived at the mines, within the high, cold, windy mountain ranges of the Altiplano, did not own land or homes and were depending on the mining companies to care from them. Housing was often a corrugated metal or adobe shack with a dirt floor in which a family of seven would huddle together for warmth. There was no heat, little water, few sanitary facilities. mortality rates were high. The miners were one of the most exploited populations of Bolivia. Domitilla was jailed, tortured and exiled form Bolivia for the work she did.

            Now Florinda is arriving a few years later to address the needs of the women who worked outside of the mines, collecting minerals from tailings and discarded debris. Women were not allowed to work inside the mines, it was thought they wold bring bad luck to the men inside. Working with two other powerful women, Florinda helped to unite the women mine workers wiht the mining housewives committee to create a larger, consolidated presence of women in the mining community. To do this, she needed the permission of the mining union. The men in this union did not want to recognize the rights or needs of the women. So in 1985, Florninda and her colleagues organized a meeting of all of the mine women, both housewives and workers and invited the union men to come and address them. When they men saw the hundreds , maybe thousands, of women who were assembled, they agreed to let the committee be formed.

            Soon state politics entered the mine and the SEPROMIN split to branch out to join MIR and represent mining professionals. Florinda’s work became more aligned with MIR. Dismayed by this division, she retired from her position. Soon after she was invited to be the Coordinator for the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives. Now she was moving from large, state-run mining to the small independent mining cooperatives that worked alongside the powerful state unions, picking through the left overs from the larger mining operations in old mining tunnels. These cooperatives, largely made up of ex-state miners, lacked the resources and technical skills of the state mines. Work was dangerous and earnings small. Florinda’s work took her to mining communities in La Paz, Oruro and Potosi. Here she united the women who worked both inside and outside the mines. The cooperatives were more desperate for work and money and some allowed women to enter into the mines to work. Death rates were high. Children were the most malnourished she had ever seen, with stunted growth and evident disabilities probably from mineral contamination such as mercury, arsenic and lead. Conditions were horrible. Florinda recalls how in the Ilimani mines outside the city of La Paz, women, mostly widows, were hoisted down into mines by ropes tied around their waists. There they dangled, being lowered down by comrades, until they reached the dark mining floor hundreds of feet below. Many women died in this mine, remembered Forinda. never-the-less, Florinda persevered, seeking out projects to help the cooperatives. She was able to get a $6 million project that provided credit to help cooperatives with mine exploration and the development of a turbine system.

            Her success caught the attention of the US based non-profit, CARE and in 1996 she was offered a position to work in the tropical Yungas region on newly formed agricultural projects in the town of Carnavi. Intrigued by the new work, she accepted the position. While working with the miners, Florinda had fallen in love and married one in 1992, so both of them moved to the Yungas. Here Florinda learned abut coffee, citrus fruits, bananas and rice. She began networking with other agricultural development organizations such as ANAPQUI and CITCA where she met Veterinarians without Boarders. Soon Florinda began working on food security programs, self development of lands and land rights. She worked with economic development projects too such as the development of hibiscus jelly.

            With her new work, she was able to travel to many other places in the world, visiting Spain, France and taking a longer tour of Latin America visiting Educator and Guatemala. Her most favorite place was Guatemala where she worked with CIDA and land rights issues for women. There large corporations owned much of the land. Husbands would frequently sell the scant land they had to the cooperation for quick money for themselves without consulting the women, or sharing earnings with them, leaving the women with no resources to live on. Guatemala developed a new law that prevented cooperations from purchasing land from men, it could only be purchased from women or children. Florinda was impressed by the fertility of the land, “a rock could grow a plant there,” she explained with a smile. But she was dismayed by how little land the people had. There was hardly anything to work with at all.

            Through her travels, Florinda gained more admiration for her own country of Bolivia and the land, space and resources the people had there. Sh did want to live anywhere else. ironically, a good friend she made in Guatemala came to Bolivia in an exchange program. When Florinda took her to her childhood community of Otuyo to show here the land there that she loved so much, the women explained in dismay, “how can you live here so far away, so isolated, so arid and cold!”

            Her work came full circle when in 2011 she was asked to be the Governor of the rentistas (Diregent de las rentistas ) in La Paz. Here she became active in the development of indigenous leadership. She was a technical coordinator and helped to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the rediscovery of indigenous wisdom, the concept of Chaca-warmi,  men-women pairing, where the two together made up a whole, that without one of the other could not be complete. She helped to strengthen the ayllu, community, system of governance and the roles of the people within it. This work was funded by the European Community who were supporting the development of community governance, fair trade, sustainable production, and the strengthening of native wisdom brought her back to her community of Salinas. When the time came for her childhood community to elect their Mallku, the regional leader, Florinda was selected.

            Surprised and dismayed, Forinda at first did not want to be the Mallku, a title of great respect and importance, she wanted to work more on land rights for women, development and other programs. She did not want to spend a year in her community as a leader. But the community insisted, and obligingly, Florinda good heartedly donned the traditional clothing of the countryside; the large, full skirt, wool leggings, sweaters and shawls, braided her hair, and hoisting a large aguaro (woven blanket) across her back, filled with coca leaves, notehooks and her cell phone, she joined the other elected leaders for a year of governance in the Salinas Marka. her husband at first laughed when he saw her in her country garb, now a Minister in La Paz, he does not have much time to be in the rural region of Salinas 12 hours away. Most people think the Mother is single anyway. She does not mind.

            And the time flies. Now we must all hurry to get ready for the inauguration of a quinoa processing plant in Floinda’s community of Otuyo. The Minister of Rural Development and other dignitaries and people of importance will be there and Florinda, once a peer with these people, will now would be representing her humble, rural region and thanking the dignitaries for their generosity and thoughtfulness in helping to build the processing plant, bringing new hope and opportunity to the people of this region.