DAYS 16-18 – X-Mas Break – a question to mull over.

DAYS 16-18 – X-Mas Break – a question to mull over.

Dry fields in summer drought.

Bolivia’s dry fields in summer drought.

What’s the difference between suitability and maintenance?  As I’m here in the dry quinoa fields, seeing the dust fill the carefully plowed rows, hearing farmers tell me how they did not plant the regular crops this year – fava beans, wheat, potatoes, onions – or if they did, it was a very much reduced amount – because of the drought and unpredictable weather.  Though it has rained a bit, it is too late in the growing season to really plant anything now.  The harvest and frost comes in June.

I ask them how they will eat and live in the coming months, without a harvest to sell.  As always the Bolivians are thrifty and resourceful.  Some show me their quinoa storerooms, full with unsold grains – they are waiting for the prices to raise again.  Which, if the drought has reached Peru, we might actually see if less quinoa comes to market in May 2017.

Others, I observe, choose to return to the mines and work there, or turn back to smuggling unregistered cars from Japan across the Chilean border and through the Atacama desert, some become taxi drivers in the city with their newly purchased vehicles, others had already invested their quinoa earnings into large 18 wheel trucks and switch to becoming long distance truck drivers hauling loads of rice, wood and other cargo from the hot tropics of Santa Cruz to the high mountains of La Paz.  All are in cooperatives, working together to share the administrative work of dispatch, marketing and earnings.

I ask the wholesale market buyers what they think about the future food security for Bolivia.  Prices right now are staying steady, there are early harvests of corn and tropical fruits such the red mango which are plentiful.  In addition, there seems to be no limit to the bananas, oranges, papayas which are regular producers in the tropics as well as plenty of potatoes, wheat and barley from the 2016 harvest.  It seems the full impact of the drought will hit Bolivia in May 2017.  The market buyers think that they prices will go up and they will be buying more food from Chile and Peru.  I ask them if they know if Chile and Peru are facing the same drought challenges as Bolivia – they look at me blankly – they have no idea.

I ask the agronomists and engineers I work with what the government is doing to prepare for this apparent upcoming food shortage, the response is nothing.  Apparently the multitude of government ministries, though they overlap in their work, are not coordinated or working together.  In addition, explained the engineers, it is not in the government’s habit to think ahead, they simply react to what is currently happening.

So I turn to the indigenous leaders, the elected officials from the local communities who wield total power over the rural lands, what their ideas are on this.  They also are not sure.  It is not something they have worked with before, but they are sure it will pass, it always had before, if not, then they will worry about it as it comes and once they know what it is.

I’m starting to feel like Chicken Little, her asking about food insecurity while the country is rife with restaurants, markets filled with fresh foods, and fully stocked grocery chains growing in all the cities.  Never-the-less, I’m still perplexed.  Isn’t the anyone who is interested in studying what is happening, thinking about solutions, and preparing for a more secure food future?

I ask the university professors, if this would be a class project or area of research they are interested in.  No, I’m told, the education here is different than the US.  Here it’s theory and classroom practice.  There is no applied learning – unless a student took it upon themselves to study the impending drought and food crisis as a thesis project.  Since most of the students are focused on getting good jobs in the city, few have interest to look at the rural countryside, especially after the president kicked out all of the foreign development organizations in the 2014 and essentially banned non profit organizations of any kind.  He claimed there were undermining the government and being manipulated by foreign interests.

The women in my focus group speak of Suma Qamana, the Bolivian philosophy of “Living Well” where leadership and resources are managed and shared by all, as a matter of fact – the way that things have become.  Now, instead of corrupt, government appointed cronies, community members themselves work together to make community based regional decisions, that have a conservation perspective to them (ie preserving the land, not overusing natural resources, recycling, composting) and include an even distribution of resources.  Mayors buy local foods for school snacks, indigenous traditions are taught in the classroom, local associations donate gifts and food to the community and its membership.  While this is all well and good – and there has been a noticeable change in the quality of life in the rural areas – literacy rates climbed from 60% to 98% and electricity, potable water and food seem plentiful, it does not seem to be enough.

What is lacking is the innovation – the drive to do something more, to make a change, to find a solution before there is a huge problem, to be curious, proactive and inventive – is not there.  I have always equated the Sumaj Qamana philosophy to sustainability, looking at how it carefully includes all and places the earth’s rights first, its longevity in its indigenous roots, expending back thousands of years, ad meeting the needs of today’s complex world.  But is it?

I think back to neo-liberalism and capitalism – the kingpin of these dominate ideologies being the drive for competition – to be better, do more.  And efficiency, to do it faster, smarter – much at the cost of human welfare and the natural environment.  However through the chaos and ruckus of the winner-loser game that these two philosophies play, comes the innovation and invention that drives us forward.

So how can there be both?  George Monboit in his April 15, 2016 article, Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems?, in The Guaradian calls for, “ A coherent alternative… an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.”

Me from my rocky, dusty outpost in Bolivia feel I may be calling for the same.   Is the Suma Qamana sustainability really simply maintenance? The stirring of the ingredients in the same old pot, just mixing it up, but not making anything new?  What happens as the stew evaporates and the ingredients begin sticking to the bottom?  What happens when there is no more to stir?  Is sustainability simply maintenance or is it something more – does it need to maintain while also evolving, innovating – like nature systems, adapting… but at what rate?  In what why?  The Iroquois always spoke of the seven generations – planning ahead for 150 years.  Where is the balance here?

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

“I did not even plant potatoes this year, explained Hugo Mamanai, “why bother.  It’s too dry.  Nothing will grow.  In vain I will be working.”  Hugo like many people in El Alto, maintain their family lands in the countryside, traveling out on weekends to grow crops for family consumption in the city.  “I love being in the countryside, it is my meditation,” explained his wife, Nica, who also lives in El Alto, running a corner store and telephone service, “but it’s harder and harder to go there, especially when there is nothing to do, it is a lot of work.”

With President Evo Morales’s recent land reform and re-development of traditional land management methods, which include a rotation of community leaders overseeing land use and development, Hugo had returned to his ancestral lands to re-claim them, reconstruct the small house there and cultivate potatoes, a native crop.  But now with the drought and uncertain agriculture conditions, he is leaving it empty again.


What fields look like with traditional grasses holding down the topsoils. Contrast this to the featured photos of a drought affected field and no grasses.

Traveling from La Paz to Oruro, it looks like winter.  The once light green hills are now vast empty places of dry, plowed dirt, surrounded by fringes of wild green plants – the remnants of what once were slopes dotted with scrubby brush, tolla grasses and tufts of green patches.  Dust devils are lifted with the wind.  Industrialized agriculture has taken over the highlands by storm – via donated Chinese tractors from what I heard.  Unfortunately, the climate and appropriate use of technology have not kept up.  Fragile, highland soils are now plowed in inappropriate ways, leaving the top soils vulnerable and eliminating important carbon inputs such as natural grasses and animal dung.

It seems the wheat, quinoa and potatoes that were meant for those lands were either not planted or were planted but did not germinate.  Where are the university programs with the students making analysis, innovations and teaching best practices?  Where are the extension agents?  The Department of Agriculture?  The infrastructure we are so accustomed to in the US, is not present here.

“University students do not do field work here,” I’m told again and again, “it’s not like the US.  Here they work with theory in the classroom, that’s it.”

I’m told that even the Center for Quinoa Research built in the quinoa heartlands of Salinas, and managed by Oruro’s state university (UTO), is no longer staffed and its key has been lost.  I hope to be out there in a few weeks to learn more about this myself!