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 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Day 22 – Wisdom of the llamas and a 6-week walk to Chile.

Today I was invited to attend the 1st National Congress of Ancestral Knowledge in Camelids. Camelids include llamas, alpaca and camels plus vicuna and guanaco.  All except the camel, live in Bolivia and South America.  The llamas live in the quinoa region and play an important role in quinoa production through their production of manure which is the primary source of nutrients for the delicate soils of the quinoa lands.  Llamas always go the bathroom in the same place making it easy for farmers to gather up mounds of manure to bring to their quinoa fields.  Traditionally families managed herds of 30 to 40 llamas and planted 3 to 4  hectacres of quinoa.  There was a balance between the land and the llama – 10 llamas for every hectacre of land.  Now this work has been divided.

In today’s quinoa lands, a few families manage large llama herds of mixed ownership.  They are often contracted by other families in the community to watch the family’s llamas a bit away from the quinoa fields – while the contracting family lives mostly in the city.  The families who are not watching the llamas, farm large tracks of quinoa land often 6-8 hectacres.  The llama herders earn income from their contracts which are sometimes paid partially in money and partially in quinoa, water and other goods.  They also earn from the sale of llama meat, llama manure, and llama fiber products such as ropes and handicrafts.  There is a huge market for llama manure in the quinoa region.  A large dumptruck load of llama manure sells for 3,000Bs and at least 2 are needed for each hectacre of quinoa production – a $857 investment in the hopes of producing at least 20 qintales of quinoa – which have a current market value of $1,428 (based on a 500Bs per quintal value and a 7Bs to 1US$ exchange rate).  For quinoa growers, 40% of their potential annual earnings are spent solely on fertilizer for their fields. Llama herders can provide many dumptruck loads of manure to farmers earning thousands of dollars each year through manure sales.  Other than a few sheep, no other grazing animals that can provide manure for the fields live in the quinoa lands.  So llamas matter in the quinoa lands.  That is why I attended the 2-day Llama Assembly held in the llama capital of Curahuara de Carangas in Oruro. Here I learned that llamas don’t just matter in the quinoa lands of the salt flat region, but they matter in non-quinoa growing regions further from the salt flats, extending from high in the mountains of Oruro and La Paz down to the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Llamas matter in Bolivia!

The Assembly was held in order to select the best 30 presenters out of a list of 100 to represent Bolivia in an upcoming First World Congress on Indigenous Camelid Care to be hosted by the Bolivian government and held in Oruro in November.  Hundreds of rural llama herders flocked to this event hosted by the town mayor and local development organizations.  Three local communities were present wearing natural colored hand woven llama, sheep and alpaca clothing.  They played handmade traditional instruments – drums, zamponas, tarkas and flutes and danced in circles – women opposite men in traditional style.  A man dressed as a condor – the magical spirit bird of the Andes was there as was one dressed as a silly old man.  They were part of the stories and folklore of the llama herders.

Presenters too had to be dressed in traditional garb donning hand woven natural fiber ponchos and shawls (aguayos) made by family and neighbors from their own communities.  Their shirts, pants, skirts and suits were made from “quaytu” a hand woven woolen broadcloth in solid natural colors of dark brown, grey and crème.  The quaytu was fashioned by local tailors into button down collared shirts, and well-tailored suits and pants for the men.  Women largely sewed their own large, robust pollera skirts.

Presentations were done with Powerpoint and were timed at 20 minutes with 5 minutes for questions.  A panel of 4 judges, 2 men and 2 women, would rate each presentation.  Later it would be determined which presenters would be selected for the international conference.  The presentations were offered in three different rooms and a full schedule of each presenter, theme, time and location was shared on paper and electronically on whatsap when people arrived to check in for the event.  The cost to attend was 30Bs and included a llama themed lunch and breakfast and tea for both days.  The mayor and local organizations provided free housing in the small town of about 1,000 families.

It was a well-planned, well organized, and well attended event.  Each room had at least 30 – 50 people in the audience and presenters ranged from the most remote herders to university students to Peruvian tour guides.  Many of the presentations were in Aymara, the native language of the llama herders, and Spanish mixed.  Though the powerpoint slides were largely in Spanish and Spanish was understood by all.  I saw some of my fellow quinoa growers there and recognized others presenting from the quinoa growing regions I had visited.

A group of women from Colque-K, an area featured in my previous quinoa research which had wind turbines pumping water to community gardens and ancient Inca ruins.  They presented the handicraft work they were doing with hand spun llama yarn, sweaters, shawls, and felted llama wool fashioned into hats.  They later hosted a llama clothing fashion show held that evening.

Later a man showed how a local plant, garetta, could be boiled with corn to make “Chicha de llama” a fermented beverage for llamas to drink in times of stress, drought or illness.   Another man shared his recipe for curing worms in llamas by feeding the affected animal mixture of garlic, hot pepper and onion in water.  We learned about rotations and maintenance of llama herding fields and how 300 hectacres of llama lands can be used in three rotations a year for 180 llamas.  And we learned that 45 grams of fresh llama meat would yield 9 grams of dried meat (charque).

The women talked of recipes made with llama such as blood sausages, dried meat, a breakfast dish made of cooked llama blood, tripe and spices, hahanka’ taquo – a soup made with llama blood and cornmeal mixed together with tripe and meat, and fried dough made with llama blood.  We had the chance to taste the recipes too. My favorite was the llama blood sausage!

Jesus Gomez from the Aroma community in Salinas, the heart of the heart of the quinoa lands, gave a lively presentation on his life living with llamas sharing stories and methods of how he and his father would walk for 10 weeks to Santiago, Chile and back (about 3,300 miles round trip) with large llama trains of 20 to 30 llamas trading goods and exploring the local countryside bringing quinoa and salt to trade for corn and wheat.  The lead llama was covered with decorations so the other llamas knew who to follow, Gomez explained.  He spoke of the traditional quinoa grain bags made of tightly woven llama hair in beautiful striped of browns and tans.  Each carrying about 40 pounds of quinoa.  The natural fibers keeping the quinoa well aerated while preserving its flavor.

“Quinoa from the llama bags always smells and tastes delicious,” proclaimed Gomez. I was familiar with the bags, having seen my mother in law use them at times.  Most have been replaced by woven plastic sacks instead that hold 50 pounds of quinoa are transported by SUV and truck to local markets.

It was not easy moving a llama train across different climate zones and grazing lands for 10 weeks.  There was a lot of llamas to adjust to with a change in climate, altitude and food.  Certain grasses would make the llamas sick or the altitude would affect their digestion.  The sick llamas needed to be cared for.  Gomez and his father were on constant vigil for the herd, making all were well and none strayed far.  “We went for 2 months without sleeping!” he proclaimed, getting a room full of laughter as he spun around in a lively way to emphasize his point, his poncho flaring in all directions.  They also spent 2 months and 2 weeks living on the “fast food” of llama charque – dried llama meat eaten like hardtack.

The Chilean wheat and corn were brought back to the village and covered with a rock he explained.  This was a very important part of the process.  By covering the newly traded goods with a rock, one ensured they would last the year until the llama train moved out again in its annual trade.  The wheat and corn would be blessed, a llama sacrificed to further ensure it would last, blood shared with the earth mother, Pachamama, smoke share with the mountains and ancestors, alcohol shared with all – and blessings shared again, along with a llama bar-BQ.

Gomez also spoke of the natural dyes used with the llama fiber with light green shades coming from tolla plants and deeper green/greys coming from the eucalyptus.  He noted that when washing llama yarn in water left over from the first washing of quinoa seeds, the soapy water that is thick with saponin from the quinoa seed casings, the yarn becomes thicker and takes on a clearer color.  It is also believed, he said, that washing woolens and alpaca fiber sacks in the saponin rich quinoa water helps to protect them from moths.  All present nodded in agreement.

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:


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.