Day 25 – Conversation with quinoa grower Maniella Belez from Ciwalaca and other quinoa farmers.

Day 25 – Conversation with quinoa grower Maniella Belez from Ciwalaca and other quinoa farmers.

Arguing with her husband who was loudly complaining to the Salinas transportation office that he did not have enough passengers, Maniella Belez left the Salinas mini van and sat outside in the warming morning sunshine as her husband tried to round up new passengers from the old city bus terminal.  Maybe they did not want to go all the way to Salinas, but with a 3 hour drive, there were other places he could drop people off at on the way – at least he’ll make some money from their journey.

I left the van to sit beside her.  “Your husband?” I asked shifting my gaze to the driver briskly walking off across the street.

“Yes,” she said wearily. “He tires me out.”

“Hmff,” I agreed in a noncommittal way.  We sat there together in silence.

“What are you doing her?” she asked breaking the silence, shifting her heavy body to get a better look at me.  Dressed in traditional winter clothing for the altiplano countryside she had on thick tights topped with knit leg warmers with a llama design, like those sold in the tourist market.  Her faded full blue skirt came to just below her knees and other layers of white skirts with white embroidered borders could be seen poking out along the edges.  I know one of those underskirts was made of hand woven wool (qaytu) for warmth.  Her ample torso was wrapped in a thick machine woven wool shawl, her fuzzy forest green acrylic cardigan poking at the neck and sleeves.  At her feet was a large bundle wrapped in a colorful Aguayo – a strong thick machine woven fabric used to carry everything from babies to 50 pound gas tanks.  She had hauled that out of the minivan when she angrily left.  I noticed her round, lined face and long, thinning braids.  I figured she must be about 60 years old – old enough to be a grandmother with grandchildren.

I explained I was going to Salinas to finish my 3 years of quinoa research.  She told me she was a quinoa farmer, turning again to look at me, holding my gaze waiting to see what I would say.

“That’s great!” I enthusiastically proclaimed flashing her a big smile.  “Let’s talk about quinoa.” Even though it was just 9 in the morning and there was still ice and frost on the ground, she was ready for a lively morning conversation and so we launched into my incessant questioning and my delight at her answers.  I apologized explaining I was an economist and we were always seeking out data.  She was happy to show and share all she knew.

Like some quinoa growers of the “trecer edad” third age, which means post retirement, she lived in both Oruro and her quinoa community of Ciwalaka.  Her husband a transportation driver, enabled her to easily move back and forth from the city to the quinoa fields and back.  She had six children, three sons and three daughters.  They were all independent and married with careers and families.  She explained two of her sons were professionals in La Paz, she had a daughter in Chile, and another son in Oruro who was a high school teacher.  She told me how the children grew up in the countryside with llamas and quinoa but few come back to the quinoa fields any more, and only the son from Oruro continues to cultivate quinoa.  She grows quinoa though.  She owns two market stalls in Oruro, one she rents out and other is where she sells her own quinoa and other grains and dry goods.  She gets 24Bs a kilo retail for her quinoa putting it at a nice 1,200Bs per quintal price.  This is more than fair, though her sales are small since she is selling retail at a per kilo prince and not in bulk (per quintal – 50 kilos).

Her husband comes over. “We’re going,” he says walking back to the mini van.  I head back to my seat behind the driver and she leaves her “shotgun” seat next to her husband to sit back with me.

“It’s more peaceful here.” she mutters to her husband taking the rest of her things from the front seat.  He mumbles something in return and motions for his new customer, and older gentleman, to join him in the front seat.  A few more passengers amble in and we’re off.

I ask my new companion her name.

“Marcialla Belez,” she responds.  We go on chatting about quinoa inputs, costs, outcomes.  She spends about 3,000Bs per hectacre on llama manure to produce 20 to 35 qunitales of quinoa in a good harvest, and just 10 quintals in a bad one, for example when frost arrives early.

With a current wholesale market value of about 500Bs per quintal – this means Marcialla can gross anywhere from 5,000 to 17,500 Bs per hectare of land.  Other costs to consider are those of plowing the field, pest control, weeding, harvesting and processing.  In addition, there are association fees to be paid too as well as organic certification fees.  In all farmers invest an average of 4,500 to 5,000Bs per hectacre to produce an average of 20 quintales of organic, royal quinoa with an average market value of 10,000Bs and a net earnings of 5,000 per hectcre.  Families on average have 7 hectacres of quinoa in production giving them an average 35,000Bs ($5,000) in potential earnings a year – assuming they sell all of their quinoa at 500Bs a quintal average.  This translates to 2,919 Bs a month or almost $14 a day.  Divide this by four to accommodate the average size of the family and it comes to $3.50 a day.  Definitely above the $2 a day global poverty line which they used to live below before the quinoa boom, but still without significant earnings especially since average household income in Bolivia has now jumped to $47,000!  This leaves very few families relying solely on quinoa for their family earnings.

Some farmers and development workers claim that if the quinoa price rose to 800Bs a quintal and stabilized at that price, it would be incentive enough for more families to return to full time quinoa farming and rural living.  Farmers say that families have learned from their overambitious quinoa farming errors of the past and this time, with the 800Bs stable market price, would more carefully cultivate quinoa using less land but higher quality inputs.  It is imagined they could produce 30 quintals per hectacre and with 10 hectacres in production.  This could result in a 5,500Bs per hectacre cost with a potential 24,000Bs per hectacre in gross earnings and a net 18,500Bs per hectacre.  Times that by 10 hectacres and it’s a total of 185,000Bs net earnings a year or $26,000+ a year.  This is what many call a dignified living.  One which enables farmers to produce high quality products, in balance with the land and live comfortably in their rural environments with the comforts and amenities of the city but the space, fresh air, and ancestral traditions of the countryside.   It makes me wonder what agrarian reform and rural development look like in other countries.

I know in Bolivia, with the quinoa boom, that elevated farmers’ earnings closer to the $47,000 a year average income, if just for a moment, and the country’s aggressive rural development infrastructure improvements in the form of electricity, new roads, schools, athletic fields and hospitals – the result was that more families left the rural areas for the cities which had become more accessible for them…

Marciella interrupted my musings over current prices, potential prices and causes of urbanization to invite me to her quinoa fields.  Her husband, now in lighter spirits, offered to drive her into his village of Irstatas, where Marcialla was planning on staying a week to work on processing chunos from her meager potato harvest.  She will place the potatoes in the sun and let them freeze at night, squeezing the juice out of them the next day with her bare feet – repeating the process for a week, and weather permitting, getting hard, dried potatoes that last for decades retaining their nutritional and culinary value.  Chunos are rehydrated and cooked into a side dish with a bit of salt, cheese, ground peanut sauce or milk, depending on what region of Bolivia you are from.  And they are admired and loved by all!