Day 52 – the Photo journey

Day 52 – the Photo journey

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Understanding the quinoa story….

The following is a collection of photos and videos on flickr taken by myself and my 12-year-old daughter, Musi, during our quinoa journey.: https://www.flickr.com/photos/148318021@N07/albums

Enjoy!

-Tamara

 

Day 52 – Quinoa said, unsaid, unsayable

Day 52 – Quinoa said, unsaid, unsayable

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Quinoa varieties.

They said that Bolivia’s quinoa exports were leaving its people hungry, that the world delight in white quinoa was leading to the loss of other seed varieties, and that Bolivian farmers were well off.  They were wrong. While Bolivians, like all people worldwide are consuming more quinoa than ever before, today’s farmers are living on less than $2 day facing 70% crop losses due to drought and a 20% decline in export market access.

The unsaid are the broken families and abandoned women and children left to fend for themselves

Bolivian quinoa growing family.

Bolivian quinoa growing family.

alone in the vast windswept altiplano desserts as men and older siblings leave for cities and other countries in desperate search for work.

The unsaid is the stoic spiritual connection that compels the altiplano farmers to persist despite all odds.  The thousands year old shared memory of the Gods’ gift of quinoa, their role as keepers of the world’s food and the sustainers of humankind – at all costs, and their never faltering love and adoration of Pachamama, mother earth, the true mother who they will never abandon and through prayer and ritual, they hope will never abandon them.

Bolivian woman with quinoa harvest from a newer lowland quinoa growing region.

Bolivian woman with quinoa harvest from a newer lowland quinoa growing region.

The unsayable is that in the dark, dusty, adobe-walled kitchens, crude clay pots and patched flour sacks, lies a culinary treasure to rival even the greatest ingredients of Europe.  There are thousands of varieties of quinoa that to the farmers are like their own children – they love and nurture them, respecting each variety’s own special property, way of growing, formation and quality.  They caress them as seed buds, help support them as seed heads, lovingly harvest them one at a time – crushing and processing the seeds – all by hand.  Marveling at the quinoa colors, textures and properties.  The seeds are never mixed and are carefully used for specific recipes – soups, steamed dumplings, breads, cookies, as rice, cereal, and a hot and cold beverage.  These recipes originated from the ancestors and go back thousands of years to pre-Inca times.  This is how quinoa is consumed in the remote Bolivian countryside today.  And nobody knows it.

DAY 47 – Quinoa gardens – valley style!

DAY 47 – Quinoa gardens – valley style!

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The high tropical valleys of Anzaldo.

Two hundred miles as the crow flies and 3,500 feet lower in altitude – which is actually 9 hours of bus rides through winding mountain roads – sits the high tropical valleys of the Cochabamba Department.  Here too is the homeland of quinoa – though without the deep folklore tradition that the salt flats quinoa shares.  Most likely quinoa in this region was brought in by pre-inca ancestors (and not gods) via trade thousands of years ago.  New varieties were developed, adapted to the rich, slightly acidic, Noncalcic Brown soil present in light-pink and reddish-brown hues.  This was a big contrast to the gray desert soils, or sierozem, found in the Southern Altiplano Quinoa Real region.

Within this valley region is the colonial town of Anzaldo, home to 1,100 in-town residents and 6,000 farmers in the outlying communities. Quechua is the principal language here with Spanish being understood by almost all.

Quinoa here is grown very differently from the Royal Quinoa of the southern altiplano.  Here a handful of seeds is sprinkled amongst crops such as corn and potatoes as a supplemental crop to help ward off insects (through the saponins in the seeds) and as an extra food source.  Anzaldos’ principal cash crops are corn – mostly dried and fermented into chicha, a mild homebrew that is popular in the valley regions – and wheat which is sold at 450Bs a quintal (20% higher value than the altiplano quinoa) in the regional Cliza market. Farmers claim to sow the “criollo variety” of quinoa.  This is a general term used in the area to refer to anything that has a colonial history to it.  Chickens and cows are often referred to as being of the criollo variety too.

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Quiet town of Anzaldo.

Agronomist, Jorge Rojas, my counterpart from the state  San Simon University (UMSS) Agronomy Department assures me that within this “criollo” variety actually exists hundreds of distinct quinoa varieties.  He shows me how in a single seed planting there already is evidence of four or five different varieties as distinguished by stem color and seed head formation.  Rojas proposes to develop a seed bank for the quinoa varieties in Anzaldo.  He predicts there will be at least 500 varieties identified.  It will be part of a multi-year study he is developing for the quinoa of this region.

Unlike the women of the altiplano, valley women consume their quinoa, mostly white, as a single grain – either in soups, as rice, or ground into flour and mixed with wheat flour to make high protein breads.  The valley’s stone ground, hand made breads often baked in wood fired adobe ovens are famous throughout the valley and sold weekly in regional markets.

Families claim to harvest about 90 pounds of quinoa a year for their own family use and consume it weekly.  This is Quinoa Dulce (sweet quinoa)– a lowland variety of quinoa that has a smaller seed and less saponin than the Royal Quinoa of the altiplano.  In addition, family members eat steamed quinoa leaves as a spinach product and feed the damaged seeds and chaff to their chickens and animals.

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Anzaldo farmers discuss their wellbeing at our talking stick meeting.

Altiplano agronomists claim it is impossible to grow quinoa and potatoes or corn together, since both are such heavy feeders, but I witnessed healthy plants side by side in the rich valley soils – with all crops appearing robust and healthy.  Though I also noticed some quinoa with mildew and fungal diseases from the recent rain.  The people here did not tend to their quinoa, it was grown more as a wild species left to fend for itself in the fields.  Though in the fall it was harvested, cleaned and stored in an orderly way.

Anzlado Farmers usually work their crops on a four-year rotation, starting first with wheat, then planting potato (with quinoa) the next year, corn (with quinoa) the year following that, and finally beans the fourth year.  The land is then given a one year rest before the cycle starts again.  Natural and chemical fertilizers in the form of urea are applied to the soils in preparation for each growing cycle.

There is an abundance of animals in the region and farms are much smaller than the immense tracks farmed in the Altiplano.  Here people tend to a few acres of production and also have home gardens where onions, carrots, lettuce, squash, broccoli are grown for personal use.  Some have greenhouse tomatoes they tend to and others have fruit trees such as pears and peaches.  In addition, there is an abundance of animals: rabbits, chickens, hens, sheep, donkeys (for transportation) and bulls.  There are few cows raised in Anzlado because of the scarce pasture.  The grass is not abundant enough to support good milk production so instead the people mostly raise beef– managing small herds of 3 to 5 bulls (steers?) per family.

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Anzaldo farmer with her crops.

The Anzaldo region is quite dry and was declared an emergency disaster area from September to December 2016 due to the extreme drought.  In some communities water tanks were installed in villages and water trucked in so residents would have enough to drink.  Today there is rain though the crops have bene planted late and all at once.  This has been stressful for farmers, who are more used to taking their time with their planting cycles – and not having all crops go in at the same time together.  Most of the farming is still done manually and migration is just a big here as it is in the altiplano.  Communities have lost an average of 70% of their residents to city migration.  Families return for festivals, but there is not much labor to be fund in the communities between festival times, when planting and farm work need to be done.

DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

DAY 45 – the women of Chita and Heritage Quinoa

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The women quinoa growers of Chita – Modesta, Nilda and Rosali – committed to coming to La Paz to present their experiences in person.

Along the dusty road leading to Uyuni lies the tiny railroad town of Chita, founded in 1939 and named perhaps for the Chita plant or rain or water – it is not certain.  Home to 40 permanent families, it once was a thriving quinoa producer zone.  Now the towering dust devils skirt past empty fields, the wind whistling through the tin roofed adobe dwellings.  A nursery is there – to grow the ancient tolla brush that once held down the dry, fragile soils.  And so is the Chita Club de Madres, a group formed over a decade ago as part of a long forgotten development project.

The 14 women club members, all quinoa growers, meet regularly to discuss needs, plan events and organize themselves for different projects.   Today’s project was the arrival of me, a quinoa researcher from the US.   The local quinoa research organization, Proimpa, invited me to the site when they heard I was looking to contact women quinoa growers – they had been working on the tola nursery there for many years and knew the women’s group well.  Martin, a Proimpa agronomist from the Chita, dropped us off as he headed off to check on the vivero and other projects.  We would be picked up again in 4 hours.

The women invited us to their meeting hall, a cold, dusty room accessed through a metal door made from an old oil drum cut apart and pounded flat and an outdoor patio where an adobe wood fired stove stood in a corner.  We proceeded with our workshop – talking of sustainability and laughing at the women’s jokes and jabs at one another.  It was a jolly group and we found ourselves having quite a fun time.  The workshop ended and we stayed on talking.

The women spoke of their quinoa varieties – 2,000 in all!  They talked of the 20-30 ecotypes they worked with the different properties of each – the yellow toledo cooked fast, the kaslala or ch’ulpi was a sticky quinoa when ground that was great for bread.  HachaChina had 18% protein and was a sport quinoa while ChuliMichi (Ojos de Azucar – eyes of sugar) was a sweet quinoa with a high sugar content…

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The windswept salt flat outpost and train stop of Chita.

And they spoke of their recipes – cookies, breads, pito, cakes, pisha q’alla made of red quinoa, mokuna… each variety with its own set of recipes.  I asked if the varieties could be interchanged in the recipes.  Absolutely not they all said in unison, laughing at their timing.  Bread and pito can only be made with kaslala, Toledo is only for soup, etc.  I noticed, however that outside of the quinoa growers’ kitchens very few Bolivians and no one from outside Bolivia were using quinoa that way.  For example, the many varieties of white quinoa were simply mixed together and sold as all purpose white quinoa.  When they were not all purpose at all.  In the women quinoa grower’s kitchen never would the varieties be mixed and used as an “all purpose,” impossible! Each variety had a purpose – even as medicine and healing. Quinoa preparation and cooking was a tradition build on thousands of years of ancestral experimentation and testing passed from mother to daughter.  Seeds were selected and stored to preserve the best properties of each variety.  Farmers very intentionally choose which varieties to grow, what quantity of each, and the placement of the seeds in their fields.  They know what the seed heads look like and can easily name each seed variety, even when they are closely mixed in the fields or in different stages of development.  Farmers know the leaf and stem colors, head shapes and characteristics and colors. An agronomist told me the quinoa seeds do not cross pollinate and each variety maintains its own characteristics.

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Chita women sample KIND bars from the US – a processed food product that features quinoa.

In Chita this year each family is growing an average of 10-12 different varieties on 20 acres each.  In other times, they would plant 60 acres, but with price so low, the weather so varied and the drought, it made no sense to invest to much into quinoa production.  Twenty acres is just fine they explained.  Even with that, they are noting, it seems there will be a 70% loss of crops from the drought.  Yields vary from 2 tons to less than 1 ton per acre depending on climate effects – the women were expecting yields of less than a ton per acre this year. Bio-indicators, such as rodents’ homes with covered entrances, are predicting an early frost which can easily kill off developing seed heads and turn developed seeds black and unusable.  Harvest is in May.  There is no remedy for frost, they women just have to wait and hope for the best.

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Chita quinoa grower.

Modesta, an older woman with graying braids asked me what I was going to do with the information they were giving me. I explained it would be presented in a presentation at Catholic University in La Paz in February.  She lamented how people are always talking about the quinoa and the women, but never let them speak for themselves.  I explained that I worked with full transparency and that the women were welcome to come to La Paz and present their story during my presentation.  She said that the would come.  At first I thought she was joking.  La Paz was very far away – a 15 hour trip by bus.  Rural women were usually shy about traveling outside their family and were rarely able to anyway, with their obligations to the family, children and farm – plus jealous husbands did not like their wives to be away from home.  But Modesta was not joking and neither were Nilda and Rosali who also said they would travel to La Paz as well.  I was stunned.  This was great!  To have real, authentic women’s voices at the presentation – what a brilliant idea.  I was in.

I quickly named them the three musketeers – which got them cracking up all over again.  We formed a plan: they would cook the bread, cookies and pito with different quinoa varieties for the presentation participants.  They would also present the Bolivian kitchen and women’s experience – about 15 minutes – with questions and answers afterward.  I would pay for their travel and food and buy the products they produced, plus give them an extra tip (yapa) for their time and effort.  They were in.

We exchanged phone numbers and planned to see each other in a few weeks, at the time of the scheduled presentation.  The time was up.  The women had to cook and check on their quinoa.  We walked along the empty railroad tracks, the wind blowing against us, sand blowing into our ears and mouth – to find the agronomist, Martin, and get our ride back to the town of Uyuni 20 minutes away.

Three weeks later – I was at the bus station in La Paz at 8 in the morning, picking up Modesta, Nilda and Rosali for the presentation!

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

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Lluvica highlands quinoa farmer, Miguelina in her fields overlooking the salt flats.

After weeks of trekking through the high salt flat plains, volcanic perimeters and mountain corridors, visiting over a dozen remote quinoa communities – Puerto Lluvica, Lluvica, Santiago, Belle Vista, Otuyo, Quillacas, San Juan, Capura and more – I have captured the hopes, dream and fears of the women, and some men, of these communities.  “What is sustainability for a woman quinoa farmer?” is the question all were asked.  In 90 minute meetings in stark, crumbling adobe town meeting halls with creaky, oiled, wooden floors, we would mull over this – under the light of a few florescent bulbs tacked up to the ceilings made of sewn flour sacks.  Often at 8 or 9 at night, once the women had returned from the quinoa fields, cooked dinner, attended to their children and finally had a moment to spare to meet a foreigner from the US, who had actually travelled all the way to her community and was interested in learning about her well-being and listening to her voice.

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Me, the author, interviewing a quinoa farmer from San Juan.

Most times, I would be introduced to the elected town authority by the woman member of a quinoa growers’ cooperative or association who took me under her wing, let me stay with her family, visit and work in her fields, cook and eat her food, ask a million questions and get to know the community better.

I would offer the community an interactive workshop and the elected town crier would ring the church bell in the community, letting the people know there was a meeting.  Women would arrive from the dark street wrapped in shawls and ponchos, long layered skirts and thick stockings.  Even though it was the Andean summer, nighttime temperatures would drop into the 50 and 40s and our drafty meeting houses did not have heat.

The meetings began with participants in a semi-circle facing the wall where I had a large sheet of paper tacked up with my name, cell phone number, e-mail and the title of the workshop.  Transparency was important and giving out one’s cell phone number is like offering a handshake here.  I would be presented to the group by the village official and would then further introduce myself as a US professor of Solidarity Economy, a concept well known in South America, that refers to an economy of working together in a mutually beneficial way for all.  (There are a handful of “solidarity economists” in the US, mostly lumped under the title of “radical economists” and teaching in areas such as environmental economics and political economy).

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Felix and his family take a break from hand hoeing their highland quinoa fields in Lluvica.

In the Andean tradition, I would then invite the participants to a snack – this time it was a Kind bar, made by a New York company who prides themselves on using visible ingredients so participants could see the tiny puffed quinoas that were part of the chocolate-honey-oatmeal-millet bar.  It was interesting for them to experience how others use their quinoa and all loved the sweet, chewy bars.

We then launched into a group discussion of what was sustainability to them.  I would start by drawing a wiggly line on a piece of paper signifying the earth, to give them a starting point. Then little by little other details would be added: rain, money, quinoa, llamas, manure, people – usually in that order.  I would draw and label each item as they mentioned it – learning from my friend Tito Medrano from the Fair Trade NGO, that people responded better to drawings than written words which they were unaccustomed to using.  After about 20 minutes of open conversation, I would put a positive and a negative sign in a space I had left open on the paper, dividing that section in half, and introduce the Talking Stick – a native American way of inviting all people to speak equally about a topic.  In the Andean tradition, things are talked about in balance – there is always a positive and negative to each situation and this is valued in conversation.  The participants would take turns holding the stick (passed from left to right) and adding their own ideas or re-enforcing other ideas already presented, about what they saw as the positive and negative aspects of their own sustainability and quinoa production.  The talking stick helped to even out the opening conversation which was usually dominated by a few people, and bring out the more quiet people, often the oldest and youngest women, to talk.  As things were repeated, I would put a check next to the item.  As new things were mentioned, they were added to the picture and the -/+ part of the paper.  Often jokes would be made and there would be a serious, but also playful, tone to the meeting.  By the end of the workshop, we had a pretty good idea of the needs, fears, and hopes of the people in that community.  Participants reported they enjoyed that moment to reflect together over who they were and where they were in their own lives and that of the community.  I would leave the posters hung up for people to reference later, taking a photo for my own records.

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What quinoa farmers need for sustainable living.

What emerged was something unique and universal at once.  While each community had their own interpretation of sustainability, after six meetings with almost 100 people, 60% who were women, common themes began to emerge with varying degrees of urgency and need. The following is a quantified presentation of the six most popular themes and the negative-positive aspects of them.  The numbers represent the number of times the theme was mentioned by meeting participants.

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The negative-posititve contrasts to each theme.

The most important theme was the climate.  With climate change making farming more risky and unpredictable with early frosts, sudden hail, torrential downpours and long droughts, farmers no longer could predict harvests or calculate optimal planting times like before.  After years of drought, which just ended with abundant rains this January, landscapes had changed – there was not as much forage for the llamas and wild vicunas and delicate topsoils were being carried away in the winds.  The positive aspect of the climate was the rain which had arrived and the ability to grow quinoa though the negative was the unpredictable weather which could wipe out an entire crop of quinoa.

After climate came the people.  People were pleased to be working together as an entire family in the quinoa soil prep, planting and harvest.  Many children were home from college and visiting from Chile where families had migrated in search of better work – helping with the quinoa and llamas.  However there was a lot of recognition that the Bolivian quinoa was largely hand grown in small quantities with the utmost care and quality, the earth and seeds were blessed before planting and for the harvest.  This took a lot of work.  Weeks are spent in the acres of fields hand hoeing weeds and hilling up fallen quinoa stalks, hand picking off worms, turning over soils, cutting and drying the large seed heads – one head at a time, separating the seeds from the stalks, cleaning out stones, loosening the chafe.  Women had the extra work of cooking and child care on top of this.  For the Bolivian kitchen, there was also a lot of processing of the quinoa at home.  The seeds needed to be toasted and the chafe removed by sifting it in the wind, then the seed was washed several times – often toasted again for pisaga or hand ground into pito – where it was used to make a drink, dumplings, or eaten plain with a small amount of sugar.  The seed was a culture, a source of pride that the Bolivians themselves cultivated since ancient times.  There were legends, stories and a long shared memory of quinoa – the seed of gold, the plant that is central to the Andean culture and identity – much like corn is for native Americans in the north. However the people were dictated the price for their quinoa by the Peruvian market, which with government investment and mechanized, large scale farming, was outpricing the more artisanal Bolivian quinoa.  The price of 450Bs a quintal for top quality, organic Bolivian quinoa was not meeting the small scale Bolivian farmer’s costs.

Also needed for sustainability was the quinoa itself.  The positive aspects were the presence of the Quinoa Real, a type of quinoa that only grew in the mineral rich, sandy soils surrounding the Bolivian salt flats and the traditional organic style of farming.  The negative parts were the lack of organic pest control methods, the increasingly problematic worms eating the seed heads, a lack of investment for proper farm inputs – such as ample fertilizer (organic llama manure), and preventative pest control (such as moth traps) –the over tilling of the delicate land by tractors better suited for the deep soils of the valleys, the clearing of native grasses for more quinoa production – which led to increased desertification and loss of grazing lands, the thousands of acres of abandoned quinoa lands, now tilled and barren, the fact that Bolivians cannot compete with modern mechanized world production methods of quinoa – where there are 2 harvests, deep soils, rain and ample investment, and that there is no recognition of the quality and work that goes into their quinoa and its thousands of varieties that are known to the world only as white, red, black.

The earth itself (soils) are also mentioned many times in the theme of sustainability – with recognition of its microorganisms, organic nature, mineral content and that it is a respected, living organism, the Earth Mother (Pachamama) who supports all life.  There was recognition of its need to be respected, not exploited, and cared for carefully without massive production, but with high quality, small scale, organic artisanal farming.

The animals were also of importance to the people – largely the llamas, which were native to the altiplano and were raised in balance with the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is still the fertilizer of choice for the Bolivian quinoa.  The positive was the presence of the llama though the negative was the toll the drought and loss of forage for the animals due to excessive clearing and tilling of altiplano lands – herds were smaller, animals thin and some did not have the energy to nurse their babies. In addition, due to the extreme drop in quinoa prices, many people have left the quinoa regions in search of more steady work, and no longer maintain their own herds of alpaca – though they still return to plant and harvest the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is now at a premium, as there is less now than before for use in the quinoa fields and many families have to purchase dung since they no longer have their herds to provide this for them.

Finally the economy itself was problematic.  There was nothing good to be said about this.  The current market price of quinoa – including fair trade and organic – simply did not cover the costs of production.  Dictated from Peru and pushed by foreign competition, the Bolivian quinoa farmers had no control on pricing of their product.  They had the choice to accept the market price which ranged from 550Bs (7Bs is $1US) for a quintal of quinoa to 250Bs for common market uncertified quinoa – or not sell the product at all, and save it for their own use.  Quinoa farmers however, were just that.  In the cold, arid altiplano, very few other crops grew – some produced a few pounds of potatoes, fava beans and onions for their own use, but not in quantities for market sales.  The llama meat fetched a fair market price, but the market for alpaca meat was largely limited to national sales in the highlands where there was a tradition of consuming llama.  So while largely self-sufficient farmers, quinoa growers also had a need for cash – to pay for electricity, to buy cooking oil, clothes, school supplies, and to grow the quinoa – pay for the tractor to till the soil, manure, pest control and labor.  Current prices are at half of what the farmers need for a dignified living and the is no sign of the prices changing any time in the near future.  As a result, less land is being planted, leading to less income as well, and increased migration out of the quinoa zone. Most communities only have 25% of the families living there full time – the rest are in other cities such as Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz and countries such as Chile, working in urban jobs.

Overall, there were 13 different themes mentioned with three being outliers (for example – the wild animals of the mountains, or the abundant crops and recipes of the valleys) which were specific to a particular community and did not represent the ideas of all quinoa growers.  Additional themes mentioned with less frequency included culture, wisdom, policy and tourism.

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Galdys shows off her community quinoa in Chuvica.

My thanks go out to Gladys Caral, Monica Cayo, Florinda Consales, and Ester Mamani for helping to make this study happen, and for bringing me into their lives.  We will continue to work together via the internet and WhatsApp until I return again in 2018 – keeping the connection open between the remote quinoa lands, US markets, and academic classrooms.

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

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A new tourism salt hotel under construction in the quinoa community of Chuvica.

When one arrives in Uyuni, the Potosi capital of the Quinoa Real, one sees a dusty, salty outpost with low adobe houses, a few cement and brick hotels, many salt flat tour offices and not much else.  This town of 10,000 people receives 60,000 tourists from all over the world, mostly European, Asian and South American backpackers – who are visiting the salt flats as part of a larger tour of Chile or Peru.  Tours take two to three days and cost more than $100 each.  The tourists are young, educated, have money and time to travel.  They are interested in the culture and natural environment of Bolivia but in Uyuni they are greeted with tourist restaurants serving beer and pizza, roadside food stands with fried chicken and thick cut French fries, Bolivian soups and dishes made of beef, rice and little else.  On the salt flat tours, tourists are served largely noodles. The tourist shops sell alpaca clothing, tiny trinkets carved from salt and little bags of salt.  No quinoa!  …Not even a plant in the plaza or a dried, decorative quinoa seed head in a hotel lobby.  These are young people who would love to learn about quinoa, eat it and then consume it in their home countries – where this is Bolivian quinoa for sale – becoming lifelong loyal Bolivian quinoa customers.  What an opportunity!

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The town crier rings these church bells to announce town meetings. Gladys’ niece poses for a photo- #quinoatoursim!

I was even more surprised to travel to the far away quinoa communities of San Juan, Santiago, Puerto Lluvica and Lluvica to find tourist hotels of salt, anthropology museums and tour vehicles arriving regularly, with no integration or participation with the quinoa growers themselves, who are literally living next door.

I thought of all of the agro-tourism we have alongside regular tourism in my state of Vermont, where we also have small, isolated, organic producers making largely artisanal producers – at premium prices.  I saw opportunities for tourists to learn to plan, hoe, and harvest quinoa.  To prepare quinoa for cooking in Bolivia’s many traditional ways – to have a quinoa culture center in each town where tourists can spend the afternoon thrashing seed heads, separating chaff, toasting grains over an open fire of tola plants, hand washing and grinding the grains with a stone and cooking soups, pito and pisaga.  They could herd the llamas, learn to turn the soil, even pack-up loads for llamas to carry and eat a lunch outside with the other herders. Harvest festivals and planting tours could be developed including separate quinoa tours that brought participants to the communities for several days.  Most communities had amazing pre-Inca ruins, cave paintings, and other natural wonders to explore as well – plus the community’s culture itself with ample festivals, music and traditions.

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My dughter Musi enjoys learning to cook with quinoa – Bolivian style.

Quinoa communities asked about tourism – all wanting to engage in it but not knowing how.  I told them the story of how I worked with the mayor or Mizque, 15 years ago, to develop the first Annual Fruit Festival there – which is still going on.  I helped the community of San Juan to map out their resources and see how they can work together more with the tourism industry and existing infrastructure to create a strong quinoa identity in the town of Uyuni and its surrounding communities. The communities were interested but still felt very detached from the tourists – who in one instance participated in a village festival by dancing and getting to know community members and in another instance wanted to know more about the quinoa seeds I had.  So there is interest.  The challenge is to bridge the communication and culture gap between the tourists and the Bolivians and more importantly the Bolivian tourism community and the quinoa farmers themselves.

An opportunity came by the other day when my American friend, Anna, who lives in Cochabamba and works on educational exchanges for Santa Clara students, mentioned an interest in doing more work in Uyuni.  I pitched the idea of students spending six weeks in the quinoa community of San Juan working with local people to develop a quinoa tour route and tourism.  Gladys the point person in the community was thrilled and so was my friend… we’ll where it all goes!

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

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Breads made with kaslala quinoa.

Looking at the quinoa market from the producer perspective, the Fair Trade producer earns 4% of the total value of the quinoa they produce.  Producers however, consistently say this is not enough.  To cover production costs including their own labor, they need to earn 800Bs a quintal ($114 for 220 pounds) or $.51 a pound.  Plugging this amount into the current quinoa production costs it brings us to a FOB of $2,778 per ton.  This is 6% more than the current Fair Trade price.  To continue down the value chain through distribution to wholesale re-packagers down to consumer retailers, the final product arrives at a consumer price of $8.12 a pound – a 12% increase over the current Fair Trade, organic quinoa price.

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The proposed pricing for a pound of premium, heritage variety gourmet organic quinoa sold to consumers for $8.12 a pound and providing a living wage for farmers.

My UMass students conducted a market study of organic Bolivian Quinoa Real with the Mark of Original and found consumers willing to pay up to 25% more for a premium quinoa product that has higher nutritional values and cultural connections.  The Bolivian Quinoa Real is hand processed and 87% is blessed – both at planting and harvest – for the earth mother (Pachamama) to bring forth abundance, love and compassion for the farmers and the grain itself.

Being here in the Quinoa Real fields, I am noting that amongst the standard red, white and black varieties of Quinoa Real, there are many eco-types and sub-varieties with distinct properties and culinary uses which US consumers would value.  Some like the white Kaslala are great for bread making and baking while others like the white Toledo cook quickly.  Currently these are mixed and sold simply as “white quinoa” at low market prices.  From a marketing perspective, it appears there exists a unique, profitable, premium market for the rare, distinct varieties of Quinoa Real that Bolivian farmers carefully plant and harvest, but get mixed together in the general export sales of quinoa by color.  It seems that consumers are ready for the option – the challenge is to create the new market space and investment for this.

DAY 41 – Farmers earn less than 30 cents a pound for organic quinoa.

DAY 41 – Farmers earn less than 30 cents a pound for organic quinoa.

So what is the real cost of quinoa?  Looking at the entire value chain of quinoa there are complexities and challenges in all directions from the world markets competing for consumer dollars to the producers themselves, scraping to make a living from an undervalued grain that is not covering its production costs.    Here we will look at the quinoa value chain starting from the middle – the cost per ton for quinoa at the world market pricing of FOB from the Chilean seaport of Arica where sales are made to work markets.

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Quinoa price differences at the FOB point of sale form the Chilean port of Arica.

Prices are from the end of January 2017 and vary depending on the quality and origin.  Small grain industrialized conventional quinoa from Peru and elsewhere is selling at $1,900 per ton while conventional Bolivian quinoa is offered at $2,100 a ton.  Organic quinoa that is largely only found in Bolivia and is most likely is the Quinoa Real variety is $2,350 a ton and the Fair Trade certified, organic Quinoa Real from Bolivia has a value of $2,600 a ton – a 27% higher price than the cheapest quinoa from Peru.  In February Bolivia expects to have the European Community legally accept their Seal of Denomination of Origin for their Quinoa Real variety which has the distinct qualities of a large, creamy seed, the highest protein and mineral  contents of any quinoa, is organically produced on small farms, and only grows within in a 30-mile radius around the salt flats.  This can help to secure a new level of pricing for Bolivia’s quinoa, or at least make it more competitive in the world market at current prices.

Fair Trade organizations, based in both in Europe as Germany’s World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and in the US as Fair Trade USA(FTUSA), are set up to protect farmers’ rights, grow community and ensure producers receive a living wage.  Just recently Fair Trade has recognized Bolivian quinoa as a potential Fair Trade product and has been offering membership and price guarantees to Bolivia producers.  Currently there are about 20 quinoa growing associations signed on as certified Fair Trade producers.  This membership comes with costs and rules – organizations pay hundreds of dollars for audits and must uphold commitments to transparency, inclusiveness and democratic decision making. In addition to receiving a minimum price guarantee, regardless of market movements, producer groups also receive an annual premium based on a % of total sales that year.

I will offer a value chain analysis of the current Fair Trace price of quinoa and see where it arrives both for the consumer and the producer to determine the fairness of that price.  Next I will offer an alternative that can help farmers get what they consider to be a fair price, and what once was the Fair Trade minimum for quinoa in 2015.

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Price break out for a pound of Fair Trade, organic Bolivian quinoa sold to a US consumer in a local grocery store.

At $2,600 a ton FOB from Arica, Chile – Bolivia’s closest sea port, Bolivia’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa prices out at $1.18 a pound.  Private Fair Trade companies are buying this quinoa from producers at 450Bs a quintal ($64 for 220 pounds) or $.29 a pound. This represents 25% of the FOB price.  The rest goes towards covering the costs of commercial processing and cleaning ($.14 or 12%) and the administration, documentation and transportation from the farm to the plant to the port ($.75 or 64% of production).  This same $1.18 a pound of quinoa is shipped by container to the US (in this case) where it is sold to wholesale buyers.  The buyer (importer) sells the container of quinoa to large companies such as Pepsi and Kelloggs who then repackage the quinoa in small quantities under different brand names and sell it to stores who then place it on their shelves for consumer purchasing.  Each step in the supply chain has its own price points.  For example in the retail food industry the common store markup for packaged food products is 30%.

Taking a $7.17 per pound price for a box of organic quinoa in my local food coop – which has a 30% markup on their packaged foods – we can work out way backwards to the FOB to see where costs are incurred in the quinoa value chain.  The store gets $1.65 per pound on the product it sells (23%), the re-packager gets $2.60 (36%) which also covers the cost of packaging, branding and administration, the importer gets $1.86 (or 26%) which covers their administration, distribution and sales costs.

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development

Day 40 –  40 years of quinoa development

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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).

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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.

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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 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

DAY 39 – L’kalla quinoa from 1000 BC

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Marita demonstrates how quinoa was (and still is) processed by foot – grinding the grains in a course stone bowl to remove the bitter husks. This quinoa grinding bowl is 3,000 years old!

So how long has quinoa been cultivated and consumed in Bolivia? If you ask the people from the salty frontier towns of Santiago, Chuvica and San Jaun – huddled at the base of the mountain range circling the salt flats just a few miles from the Chilean border – they will tell you 3,000 years.   In this region is the ancient city of L’kalla, a large array of huge chunks of meticulously placed coral and stone forming round rooms with windows that align with each other – looking out in the four directions over a vast expanse of dry sand and distant salt flats.  Narrow corridors wind amongst the vast array of structures, leaving one to wonder what the hilltop city would have looked like 3,000 years ago when it was said to have been a busy seaside port.

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Pottery shards, an arrowhead and turquoise trading beads found at the L’kalla site.

Evidence of trade and prosperity still exist.  The town is encircled on the one side by a vast array of chulpas, stone tombs where the remains of ancestors were stored – mummified in baskets, and brought out for village celebrations. Though the mummies were removed and sent to museums long ago.  Tiny arrowheads used for fishing, pieces of intricately decorated pottery, turquoise beads once used for decoration and trade along the Chilean coast and carefully hand carved bone and shell buttons can still be found in the sandy soils amongst the abandoned village.  Years ago, a small study of the city was done dating it to 3,000 years old.  Grains of quinoa and quinoa grinding bowls can be found there as well.