Day 18 – a short respite in Potosi City.

Day 18 – a short respite in Potosi City.

It is winter in the quinoa fields and schools and universities are closed for six weeks of vacation.  Quinoa families take this time to catch up on projects in the city, hold annual meetings, and visit with family in warmer climates. The countryside is left mostly empty.  There is not much work to be done other than maintaining the life there – cooking over artisanal stoves in small adobe houses, caring for any livestock one may have such as llamas, buying vegetables and household goods in far-away markets and bringing these purchases to the countryside – or eating the quinoa, dried llama meat, potatoes and grains that are stored in the houses, washing clothes by hand, repairing houses or tools and having inter-community soccer matches.

It is a quiet time in the small rural communities without many people there – except when there is a soccer match.  In the salt flats it’s like a mini-world cup as communities play against each other – the winners of one match going against the winners of another match.  The soccer ball flying wildly across the wide dusty “canchas” or soccer fields which are really just flat, dirt official size areas with goal posts at either end and white painted rocks marking the perimeters.  There is a referee, team uniforms, and local favorites. The games go on all day and there is lots of drinking and celebration.  The small quinoa communities are filled with family and college students coming in from the city for the games.  At these times, though the remote quinoa villages are full, not many people are interested in talking about quinoa and even worse, there is no real available housing as all rooms are taken up by visiting family and friends.  Public transportation is sparse with a single ancient rickety bus taking the 3 hour journey across the salt flats a few times a week, so an overnight stay for several nights is mandatory.  With no housing, no meetings, and no quinoa work, there was not much for me to do for my quinoa research.

Wondering what to do for the weekend we had planned to be in the quinoa fields, my daughter notices a bus with the sign “Potosi” in its window.  “What’s that?” she asked me, unfamiliar with the name Potosi.  Realizing it was an important city in the quinoa history and one that I did not know and had never visited in my 18 years of working in Bolivia, I saw an amazing opportunity to expand our knowledge of that part of Bolivia and have something to do that weekend.  So off we were to Potosi, a four hour ride through winding mountain roads and vast stretches of grazing llamas.

Potosi was once the largest populated city in the colonial world – with a larger population than Paris – due to the vast amounts of pure silver found in “cerro rico” the rich mountain, which rises above the city. We explored 500 year old churches beautifully hand carved by the indigenous Bolivian’s when the Spanish first arrived and began requiring them to perform work in the city to support the colonial development.  This was part of the “minta” system that dates back to pre-inca days.  In this system, all young workers are required to perform a certain amount of work a year for the good of the community.  Historically this might have been building roads, serving in the army, or growing extra crops for the government.  In the colonial era of Potosi, this was distorted into working in the mines and arts.  Indigenous people were required to serve a 4-month mint in the mine – which then was often extended to be 6 months, a year, or until they died which was often.  It was a time of vast exploitation of the local people and wealth for the foreign colonizers.

Quinoa was present but clandestine.  It was not valued or consumed by the foreign locals but it was always present in the rural households.

Though most of the art was copied from European artists or done in a European church style with white cherubs, maidens and brave men in distress – and remained unsigned – there was evidence of small amounts of “indigenousness” being snuck into the work and the culture.  This could be seen in the way blanketed babies were tied with hand woven belts, the presence of delicately made silver chicha drinking bowls (a native alcoholic drink), the presence of suns, moons and stars in the art – sacred symbols form the pre-Inca era, and the symbolism of Mother Mary juxtaposed with the silhouette of the Cerro Rico mountain and the Pachamama – indigenous earth mother.  All three forms intermixed in a display of abundance, nurture and giving.

We traveled deep into the mines and learned of the lifestyle of miners, separated from their land and thrown into a system of wage labor and purchased goods.  Their houses, food and all livelihood depended exclusively on the mine, mining company or cooperatives, and world prices of minerals.  They had no other source of income or livelihood other than the long, dangerous hours in the mine.  And hey owned no land.  The pay was good for the young people aged 15 to 21.  They currently earn 150Bs a day and make the value of two quintals of quinoa in a week (about $128 a week).  However, like all high performance athletes, the high salaries come at a high cost.  There is no health insurance or safety oversight in the mines.  All work is hand dug using sticks of dynamite to open possible veins of valuable mineral.  There is the possibility of a mine shaft collapsing and working conditions are dusty with little respiratory protection.  The mining here is done by several large, independently run cooperatives.  Often one works as a 150Bs a day laborer, hand sorting and carrying mineral out of the mines for sale, they can move up to be a 300Bs a day leader who is in charge of finding the veins and setting the dynamite charges.  This work is more dangerous and these workers only spend about two hours a day in the mines, leaving the clearing and sorting of the debris to the 150Bs a day workers.  These workers are work in 8-12 hours shifts.  After this comes the cooperative president. Mineral earnings are shared by the ones who find them and the cooperative.

Mining is important in my research because it exists on the fringes of the quinoa lands. In Salinas there is a mining company that is actively recruiting young quinoa growers from the village to leave their fields and work in in the mines.  This is disturbing to some in the village because mines contaminate the lands and could negatively impact quinoa production.  People are also concerned about the loss of the young growers and the tradition of growing quinoa.

Enzo had been approached by a mining company that day.  He was visibly upset as he explained the incident to me.  He had gone to town to see if any tourists were coming in on the bus.  While waiting in the plaza a man and a woman approached him.  She explained how easy her life was with her husband bringing in a steady mining salary and the man explained what was needed to join the mining company.  Enzo wanted no part in either and questioned the value of “easy living” lifestyle the woman was promoting.

Currently, less than 1% of the export quality Royal Quinoa growers work in mines.  The majority of these come from the Salinas region where one study found 3% of all quinoa growers also working as miners.

Next week I am presenting a marketing workshop in export quinoa – what it is and how it works in US markets – to the Poopo community of Oruro.  This is an interesting mining community where most miners also maintain their own lands near the mines.  Men’s mining income supplements the food the miners’ wives largely grow for their families.  The Poopo community is interested in learning how to grow quinoa as a supplemental cash crop.  Though they are not in the Royal Quinoa production zone, their smaller seed, “quinoa dulce” or sweet quinoa, could still have a market share.

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica

DAY 37 – The Wind Water Pumps of Chuvica


Chuvica’s wind pumps from Argentina. Each pump provides irrigation for 11 families and a total of 4 acres of crops.

Gladys’ father had a vision – wind driven water pumps to bring the rich, sweet waters to the dry salty, windswept, lakebed for better and more varied crop production.  Quinoa can grow well in arid environments but potatoes and fava beans, other favorite crops, need more water.  He built a wind turbine that fed a large water tank that could be tapped for gravity fed irrigation in nearby areas – carefully tending it, making repairs and improvements, until at last it ceased to function any more.  The tank cracked and the turbine gradually rotted into a metal heap but the memory of wind turbines water pumps lived on.

Last year, the tiny community of 25 permanent citizens and 60 visiting residents – families who come in for annual festivals and to plant or harvest quinoa – worked with their elected village representatives (dirigentes) to request funding for a wind pump project.  They researched the best systems and ended up choosing pumps designed in Argentina which worked like hand pumps for bicycle tires.  The turbines produce air pressure which pushes the water out of the ground and into adjacent tanks.  No electricity is generated, it’s just air pressure, wind and water.  The mayor invested $1,000 for each wind turbine ($8,000 total) and the people of Chavica provided the labor, sand, stone and cement to build eight large 1,000 liter water tanks – one for each turbine.  The eight wind pumps, light giants descended from the surrounding mountains, now greet visitors as they barrel across the floor of the vast inland sea in a rickety old bus with thick, deep-treaded tires. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the vast ocean evaporated to become the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding sand, salty ocean floor.

quinoa and gladys

Gladys and the large quinoa plants in Chuvica’s irrigated wind pump gardens.

Visiting the new gardens – which appear like an emerald oasis in a sea of dried, tan soils – we see the bright green foliage of healthy potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, wheat, beets, celery, fragrant fava beans, and of course large sheaths of quinoa seed heads already formed and robust.  Each pump fills a tank which serves 11 families who each tend to their own 5,000 square foot garden (1,500 meters).  Some use natural manure to strengthen their newly planted soils, others chemical fertilizers.

This is the first year the gardens are in use and Gladys is predicting that each family will most likely harvest at least 220 pounds (1 quintal) of quinoa for their personal use.  This comes out to a little more than 4 pounds of quinoa consumed by each family each week and seems to be the national average of quinoa consumption for people growing quinoa in both the altiplano and valley regions of Bolivia.  People in the quinoa regions consume quinoa about 3 to 4 times a week, usually in soups or toasted and cooked as rice (a dish known as psiga).  Fifty years ago, quinoa was consumed daily as a standard family staple, but that habit has changed as homegrown quinoa needs to be hand cleaned which takes time and extra work.  To clean home harvested quinoa one has to remove the outer shell of the quinoa seed along with its chaff and then do several rounds of water rinses.  This means the quinoa takes extra time to prepare while white rice and dried noodles are now easily accessible for purchase and faster and easier to cook.

On our way to the airpumps we paused to pick a tiny plant, the chupala, who’s root, about the size of a crayon, is juicy and sweet to eat raw.  We also enjoyed the bright green seeds of the mutucuro, a small, flat legume that produced small round “potatoes” deep in the earth and produces a small red seed pod with tiny bright green seeds inside.  The seeds do not have much flavor, but are fun to eat because of their color.

We checked on the quinoa too.  Noting with a shovel that the weeks of rain had only saturated the top foot of the hilled soils from last year’s quinoa fields, now fallow.  It was better if the water had sunk in deeper than that.  Never-the-less, the farmer with the tractor was plowing field this week at a cost of $20 per acre (or 400Bs a hectare) and he was coming to plow tomorrow.  The field would be plowed now in preparation for October’s planting, to let the organic matter sink in and decompose into nutrients, the humidity of the soil helping in their process.  Normally farmers would add two dump truck loads of llama manure to their acreage (a $285 investment) but this field had not been used in 5 years and Gladys felt certain it would be OK for production without extra material added.  Everywhere quinoa farmers are looking at ways to cut their costs – with reduced fertilizer usage, less pest control and less acreage in production – the low market prices and climate variations affecting these decisions.

DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

Far across in the dusty Andean plains extending out from the salt flats for miles, under the huge blue sky dotted with patches of white cloud, past towering dust devils whirling in the distance, at the foot of the tall dusty hills, lies the tiny village of Belle Vista – in the region of Corono in the Department of Potosi, Bolivia.  Emerald rows of bright green quinoa break up the wildly dusty, brownish-red surreal landscape surrounding this adobe and dirt outpost of 1,500.  Belle Vista, like many quinoa towns, is equipped with a hospital and a school. The school is staffed by six teachers who serve 90 students grades one to 12.  It is now summer vacation so the teachers have all returned to their families in the city – they are not from the village, but are young, rural teachers, specially trained to work in remote educational environments – and paid extra for the work too.

Handmade mud roof copied from traditional ways of construction.

Belle Vista – handmade mud roof copied from traditional ways of construction.

Belle Vista is a two-hour ride from the former quinoa Wall Street of Challapata (now quiet and empty) accessed across sand flats and through a network of dried riverbeds and bumpy dirt roads.  Tito was invited there to introduce fair trade to the quinoa growers who were interested in becoming a registered Fair Trade organization.  I came along to meet with the women and learn more about their well-being and lives.

We started with the talking stick exercise, I developed years ago – a native American method of inviting all to speak and share ideas.  Shyly the women began opening up, quietly speaking about their lives as quinoa growers – children at their sides, planting, weeding, and harvesting by hand.  They talk about their worry about the weather and the work it takes to process the quinoa into different regional dishes – washing, removing the outer skin, drying, washing some more, drying, toasting, grinding.

The also spoke of the pride they had in being quinoas growers – the benefit of the high nutrition value it brings them and their family.  The abundance of dishes they can make from it such as pito (toasted ground quinoa that is eaten dry or made into a thick paste with hot water and sugar), breads, soups… and how they can make these things for other people too – perhaps packing it up for sales and earning extra income.  They also talked about the saved money they had in the form of stored bags of quinoa each had in their home – large 220 pound bags – worth about $44 each in the common market.

Traditional steamed quinoa dumplings made of toasted, ground quinoa and llama fat.

Traditional steamed quinoa dumplings made of toasted, ground quinoa and llama fat.

The time was short, we had just met, and I was leaving soon.  The women were recovering from heavy celebration they had been participating in the night before in the form of school graduations and community celebrations.  We did not have a chance to connect very deeply – though we did mange to determine that the women were excited to work in quinoa food processing projects to bring in extra income besides their bulk selling of the grains.  Ima Flores knew of the women’s projects in Salinas – which I was visiting in two weeks.  I promised to mention the women of Belle Vista to them and see if something could be done together.  I also gave the women the recipe for quinoa salad – new to them and a favorite in the US – and a taste of a KIND bar – a product from a NY based company that uses quinoa as a visible ingredient in their granola bars.

The women all agreed that bars were delicious however they noticed the KIND quinoa was not organic or fair trade.  I have since contacted the company to learn more about their quinoa sourcing and to see how they can fund a project with the women growers of Fair Trade, organic, Royal Quinoa in Bolivia.

Day 30 – Waiting for the kids and translating discussions.

Day 30 – Waiting for the kids and translating discussions.

Pro Evo (Bolivian President) propaganda is popular in the countryside.

Pro Evo (Bolivian President) propaganda is popular in the countryside.

There was a strike in the city of Potosi and the roads were blocked for weeks. The people did not like the large, unfinished projects that the government had promised would be completed and were not. It seems the projects funds were paid but the work not completed. Whose fault was it – the government Ministers in charge of the projects, or the local state authorities? The people wanted to know. They asked President Evo Morales to figure this out, hold the delinquent people responsible and finish the projects. The President responded with silence, for two weeks, three weeks… The stand off grew in momentum. People were getting furious. They wanted a meeting, an explanation, and a plan to move forward.

Yesterday 1,500 miners, the president’s allies, descended from the Potosi mines in protest against the President’s inaction. They traveled 10 hours and came to the city of La Paz where the President stays, climbing onto the rooftops of the houses in the hillside neighborhoods ringing the vast city of La Paz below, lighting dynamite and scaring people. 40 miners were arrested. A group of indigenous leaders solemnly walked into the city, decorated in their traditional garb, carrying their vestments of authority, demanding that the President take responsibility and hold a meeting. College students at the state university in La Paz, San Andres, went on strike hollering for the President to take action. The main roads between Cochabamba Potosi and Sucre were closed. Parts of La Paz were closed too. I had to come to Oruro to fix my computer and could not get back out to Uyuni where some of my work was going to take place. And I was unable to get to Cochabamba last night to pick up my kids and bring them here for the Poopo running of he bulls festival today as we had planned. Things were coming to a head.

By morning all was fine enough. The president agreed to a meeting and the roads were re-opened. But the kids were still in Cochabamba four hours away, and I had a full day ahead of me with nothing planned. Their dad was going to bring them to Oruro, and they were going to be late. So I went ahead and entered the last of the Salinas survey data into the computer (that thankfully Lalo of OHM Electronics was able to coble together and get to work again) and translate a 30 minuet group reflection from the workshop I had conducted in Salinas a few days ago.

What I found was quite remarkable. My 2-hour workshop starts with an open monologue with about 12 to 20 participants, preferably women, with each participant speaking on a predetermined theme (by me). This theme was, Sustainable production, quinoa and the well being of the Andean women. The way it works is that after everyone shares their thoughts on the theme, we then discuss it as a group, analyze it and come up with advantages and disadvantages. This opens up space for new ideas and opportunities to form. It’s a research method I created five years ago for my doctoral research (and still needs a proper name) and one I have used many times since all with good results. More about it is published in my book, the cultural and political intersection of fair trade and justice.

Anyway, when I was writing the interview I had with Floninda, the Mallku, I noticed my notes were sparse and I had to relay a lot on memory. This was not like me, I am usually a really good note taker. However, when I got to Florinda’s part of the monologue (this workshop was done with the Indigenous Governors and invited guests) I realized why I had so few notes. Though she does not speak fast, Florinda covers such a gush of topics in a single moment it is difficult to capture on paper. Her 10 minute monologue is clear and follows a logical thought, but with so much brought into such a small moment, I was amazed. I called her to ask for her permission to share this on the blog. I hope she says OK. We will be meeting tomorrow. She is in Oruro now too.