Day 35: La presentacion: After the Boom

Day 35: La presentacion: After the Boom

All are invited to my presentation with Catholic University tomorrow, Thursday, August 16 at 10am in La Paz, Bolivia.  I will be presenting the data from the past three years of studies looking at market trends, production yields, costs, net-earnings, and the social-economic standing of quinoa growers from 2015 – 2018; after the quinoa boom where market prices soared and quinoa producers became Bolivia’s new rich, for a day.

Now things have quieted down though quinoa is still a strong economic asset for the country with 32,000 tonnes exported in 2017 valued at $74 million.  Quinoa made it to the “top 10” list of regional economic products for the Department of Oruro too – a place more known for its mineral production than agriculture.

But the study goes beyond the typical economic indicators and asks, “What is the future of the Bolivian woman quinoa producer?”  Here in Bolivia the new development paradigm is “buen vivir” – living well.  The idea is that with sufficient economic opportunity, resources and infrastructure people can live as well, if not better, in the countryside than the cities.  Ideally they would have access to the same quality of education and health services up to the university level, as they enjoy in the cities, with the added benefit of a strong community, cultural traditions and a cleaner environment.  For most, especially the younger generation of quinoa growers, age 18 and under who are now growing up in the cities and visiting the countryside for planting, harvesting and festivals – the countryside is a place of boredom and punishment.  They would rather be home in the city playing video games than exploring the vast, dusty plains of “grandma’s community.”

So the study – rooted in sustainability, looks at the economic, cultural, environmental and social aspects of women’s lived now – after the boom; after Peru has overtaken the world quinoa market and has driven down prices with higher yield production methods and different, faster growing, quinoa varieties; after the global market analysts and data collectors have left Bolivia; after the regional agricultural development programs have ended; after the houses have been rebuilt and closed up.

We examine the future for Bolivia’s quinoa farmers which lies rooted in a just price, 25% higher than today’s market price.  A price that will value the unique properties of the Bolivian Royal Quinoa – which cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.  The large, creamy seed which is packed full of complex proteins, vitamins and minerals, omega3s and others.  The distinct varieties which add amazing texture and deep flavor notes to everyday cooking – and are unknown outside of the rural kitchen.  The deep cultural traditions, legends, hand labor, and love that go into the slow production of the world’s finest quinoa.

The women leaders of the multi-million dollar export cooperatives will be present at this presentation as will women leaders who are working to transform the countryside into one of regional, indigenous, autonomous governance – where the people themselves decide their development, future and traditions.  I hope you can make it to the presentation.  If not, no worries, the data, stories analysis and insights will be published in a series of academic papers over the next year.  A book will be written and there are plans for a movie to be made as well.

This is not the end of the quinoa journey – just the beginning.  Thank you for coming this far with me.  My contact info is:  WhatsApp 1-802-579-3386.  Please keep in touch.


Day 34: What’s next – wrapping it all up – new projects.

Day 34: What’s next – wrapping it all up – new projects.

I’m now in La Paz – at a lovely AirBnB with wifi and river views located just a few blocks from Catholic University.  I am far from the quinoa fields.  La Paz is called NYC in a tea cup in reference to its wide deep valley filled with tall apartment buildings and modern offices – crisscrossed by the ever-moving silent teleferricos – suspended cable cars that take Boliviana across un and down form the vast city to the endless communities extending outwards.

With the 3-year quinoa study ending, the question is what’s next?  I am now faculty at Landmark College, teaching Economics and Entrepreneurship in the Business and Professional Studies Department.  It’s nice to have a long term contract and steady work.  The Landmark students are different from my 5-college whizzes and SIT graduate students who have worked on different parts of the quinoa project from the US – in the form of open ended, applied learning in my marketing and entrepreneurship classes.  My Landmark College students learn differently and are nuerodiverse – they need more structure and support in their classes.  So I need to have carefully developed case studies and predictable, calm environments for them to work in.   What emerged is the Quinoa Real gourmet variety project and a two week study away program to be housed in Salinas.

I spent the last week in Salinas and Oruro, setting up the groundwork for these projects.  The organic, Fair Trade FLO certified cooperative APQUISA will provide US-ready 1-pound packages of cleaned varieties of Toledo Amarillo for “quinoa pilaf” and Panela regular and toasted for the most amazing quinoa soups and stews.  This is the way the Andean women cook – using varieties, not just colors in their cooking.  Both these varieties are white and are traditionally sold mixed together in the common market.  My students will be exploring their individual properties, qualities, differences and introducing them the to US consumer in a project of “direct buy” – bypassing the expensive and cumbersome container-scale supply chain they are now hooked into.  This will be a diversification project to complement the larger sales the farmers currently work with – one aimed at bringing a minimum 800Bs per quintal value to the quinoa and more directly benefitting the producers themselves – creating an undisputed market niche for Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa varieties. I will also have my students working with Caslila – the rare, clear quinoa of the Bolivian mountains.  When cooked this quinoa is gummy and is used in breads, pastries and desserts.  I am thinking King Arthur Flour in Vermont will love it!  Catholic University in Cochabamba will be helping with laboratory analysis of the quinoa varieties so it will really be a shared effort.  There is a national market for quinoa varieties too that I am encouraging producer organizations to take advantage of – from the 4-star restaurants of the large cities to the quickly expanding national network of supermarket – the “Hipermaxi.”  Introducing quinoa varieties will also help to preserve seed diversity explained Catholic University’s Jean Paul, a sociologist studying potato markets.

Besides the market study I am proposing to have the students come to Salinas for an annual study away program about Global Markets.  Here they can learn together about the culture, production and transformation of quinoa – right from the quinoa capital itself!  The group will then split into three smaller teams and spend a few days coming up with innovative ways of working on either the cultural aspects with the 5,000 year old ruins, artifacts and mummies of Aycalla a primitive quinoa town, production points of quinoa growing in the rural community of Otuyo or transformation technologies related to the quinoa machinery in the Salinas town.  These insights will be shared with a larger community audience.  In between there will be opportunities to explore the quinoa kitchens, colonial and geographical history of Salinas with 500 year old Spanish mills, naturally carbonated mineral springs and the Tunupa volcano (dormant).  In between all this, students will have time to stroll quiet town streets, wonder at the vastness of the surreal salt flats, and reflect upon it all under the wide altiplano skies.  Traditional welcoming ceremonies and departure blessings will be shared too.

The quinoa story does not end – it just keeps growing!

On August 16th I will present my quinoa data at Catholic University in la Paz and have guests – women leaders from the quinoa fields – come and present their experiences and answer questions.  I will also have a small quinoa market at the university gates and will be serving quinoa snacks at the presentation.  I hope to have 60 people attend – including students, quinoa workers and the press.

Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Here’s a question that came up my final days in the quinoa fields.  This always happens a great question comes just as I am finishing my work and I don’t really have time to study it.  The two primary Fair Trade USA producers in my study from Sau Sau and Quillacas, lost their contract with their US quinoa buyer Andean Family Famers this year.  According to my calculations they made up about 20% to 30% of the total Fair Trade quinoa sold by this company.  For my research I wanted to know who else was selling to Fair Trade USA so I could have a balanced representation of Fair Trade growers from both programs.

ANAPQUI and CECOAT are two large Fair Trade Europe organizations in my study whose members are in 9 different quinoa communities I have personally visited over the last three years, some more than once.  In addition, I visited 5 non-fair trade communities and plus non- quinoa real producers in the valleys of Anzaldo and the high plains of Poopo.  Having a diverse array of experiences and approaches to learn from creates a more balanced, meaningful study.  So it was important to get more of the Fair Trade US perspective.  After more questioning I was given data by Jacha Inti on the quantity of quinoa they sold at Fair Trade prices in 2017, 30 lottes.  I compared this to the groups they said they were working with.  Each group would have to produce an astronomical amount of quinoa, about 13,000 quintals each in order to meet the full amount of the 2017 Fair Trade orders.  It did not really make sense.

This is when long term development worker, agronomer and quinoa grower Ecebio Calani explained the process to me.  Farmers are in quinoa associations.  When in the association, depending on the type of association they can produce quinoa under strict organic certification and also fair trade ones.  But they also might have other quinoa they grow differently that is not a part of the association – that they have for their own use, their markets, for security, etc.  When an order comes through the association needs to reach out to its members and ask for quinoa to be brought in.  An association may have 100 members and an order for a full tonelada of certified organic quinoa may come in.  that’s 100 bags of quinoa.  A price is given and the member farmers who have the quinoa and want to sell it bring it over for the order.  Sometimes an organization might not have enough farmers responding.  It might be a bad time of the year or the price might be low.  In that case the association needs to look elsewhere for its quinoa – usually in the markets of Challapata.  This is where the contaminated quinoa can come in and even some non- fair trade quinoa too.  The cooperatives take a risk when they buy quinoa from the common market to complete their orders – and that is hoy recently so many certified organic cooperatives have been having their quinoa shipments returned.  They failed the laboratory analysis for pesticide residues., explained Ecebio.

I contacted Jacha Inti and they said they had no Fair Trade quinoa orders for 2018 so far. I thought this was interesting since there is plenty of Fair Trade quinoa on store shelves in the US from customers for purchase quinoa wholesale from Jacha Inti as a US importer, Andean Naturals.  Plus Andean Naturals are the only Fair Trade USA Bolivian quinoa suppliers I know of in the US.

When I asked, how fair trade quinoa can be on sale in t US store shelves without any being purchased in Bolivia, I was told that maybe they had back stock on the product that they were still selling.  Maybe.

It made me wonder though, if a company is buying both Fair Trae and non Fair Trade quinoa and the only difference is the price paid, and they sell both fair trade and non fair trade quinoa products to the public, who’s to verify that the products are not being mixed?  This is a question I began asking Fair Trade leaders here in Bolivia but they had no response for the controls would have to come from Europe or the US they explained.  These questions I will continue to pursue in the US.

Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Quinoa production, management and sales can be tricky.  Especially in rural communities with hundreds of families being members of a quinoa cooperative with no computer.  I was invited to present my research and continue my studies at the APROQUIRI Assembly, a bi-annual event where all quinoa grower members get together to review their sales, plans and new for the next six months.  I had been invited to Assemblies before and found it to be the perfect atmosphere to conduct my quinoa research.  This consists of a it on US markets created by my US college students studying quinoa markets in the US, plus a short 20 minute survey on well being of quinoa farmers and a 30 minute private discussion amongst the women about what vivir bien meant to them.  All in all, it would involve on hour of time and full cooperation of the quinoa community.

My appointment was set up 2 weeks in advance by Pedro from FAUTAPO with the APQUIRI president Martha Poma.  FAUTAPO had been helping APQUIRI start up a quinoa processing plant to expand the types of products they offered and build more economies.  I was to visit this as a potential part of a project I was forming for my students at Landmark College – focused on the direct sale of seed varieties and processed quinoa.  The day of my visit was fast approaching. I called to confirm and was told the date had changed to Tuesday instead of Monday.  No problems I shuffled thigs around on my scheduled and even found a ride out to Puqi the remote quinoa town where the meeting was being held – an hour away from where I was staying in Salinas, the capital of the quinoa producing lands.

Puqi is located at the edge of Salviaji a small mountain which was once was a high rolling pile of foaming, frothing lava and is now dry and hardened.  The hundreds of holes and mini caves left by the immense frozen froth are dotted with mummies and artifacts from the people who lived in the region thousands of years ago, explained the sub alcalde Mario to me.  The pre-inca people considered these caves to be sacred and special. They are still preserved that way.

Mario explained that Puki had 300 residents but out of that, 50 were permanent citizens, the rest come in from nearby cities and towns to plant quinoa, attend celebrations and meetings.  Puqi is the commercial center of the 15 other small quinoa communities nearby.  It has a regional high school and rural radio station.  Some quinoa fields had already been fertilized and flowed others were waiting – piles of llama and sheep manure heaped onto the fields, along with sacks of dried quinoa chafe from the ANAPQUI processing plant.  The chafe is used to put organic matter and saponins into the soil to help with forming plant nutrients and organic pest control.

I arrived at the meeting at 11am as planned and was heartily greeted by members.  Immediately I was given a space to talk.  There was no projector because the electricity was not working but I was prepared to present without my PowerPoint presentation anyway.  Martha briefly introduced me and I shared my quinoa market data – explaining how quinoa is now being produced in a mature market cycle meaning that these is no a lot of awareness of the product and competition.  The way to compete is by diversifying one’s product offering I explained – offering different quinoa varieties and quality that cannot be found or replicated elsewhere.

“This is how you secure your permanent piece of the market”, I explained, “by offering something that everyone wants, but no one else can make.”

One quinoa farmer was suspicious.“ You want to take our seeds to the US to grow the quinoa there,”  he grumbles.  “Like the people in Colorado did,” referring to an agriculture project started at the University Of Colorado in the 1980s.  I had heard this before.  I carefully explained to him that yes, quinoa is in the US, Canada, France and 75 other countries worldwide.  Countries now have their own varieties and seeds in production.  But none is like the quinoa found in the inter-salar altiplano, not can this inter-salar quinoa be replicated anywhere else because of the soils and conditions. This, I explained is he unique selling point that APROQUIRI can take advantage of.  I looked toward Martha for confirmation.  Usually at this point the organization leader will step forward to emphasize their agreement and trust with me, and clarify any confusion. But Martha was unresponsive.  More questions ensued which I answered, but I sensed that we were losing time and I had other things to present.  I asked Martha if we should move forward but there was no clear response.  I explained I had a survey which would help to capture people’s experiences and make their voices heard outside of the quinoa fields.  I explained he importance of numbers and not just words, and how these surveys are used to count the people and put emphasis on their words.  Martha suggested we hand out the surveys after lunch and do them then.

We broke for lunch but when we returned the meeting turned to accounting, bookkeeping, unpaid loans, faulty receipts, and unbalanced books from 8 years ago.  It was amess.  The community was at odds with each other.  A handful of male farmers dominated almost all conversation.  There had been almost 1.5 million Bs in sales that year or $214,000 total.  But from this there was 400,000Bs taken out for other costs which were not clearly defined, nor had clear receipts. This left 200,000Bs were out of balance on the books and the cooperative members wanted to know why.  The balance sheet was read to members by an ANAPQUI representative – slowly reading from a laptop computer.  No paper copy was provided to anyone.  APROQUI is a cooperative member of ANAPQUI, Bolivia’s largest and longest running quinoa cooperative.

APROQUI members started accusing others and past leaders of faulty bookkeeping and unpaid loans.  It was noted too that several salaried engineers had left their work saying it was too difficult to work with the APROQUI community. The community wanted more clarity on this and wanted hard working engineers who were well trained and knew their work.  Apparently, there had been a problem with the community expectations of the engineers.  The community wanted to choose their own engineers to pay.  ANAPQUI leadership were present and granted this to the APROQUI.  They also reminded APROPQUI that they had brought in a lotte (50 quintales) of red quinoa last year that was rejected because of the presence of pesticides.  Another lotte of red quinoa was requested by ANAPQUI but was never provided.  ANAPQUI reminded the farmers of the importance to work together, trust each other, and think of the markets and quinoa buyers which we do not want to lose.  Two young leaders were chosen to represent the community.

The conversation came back to the bookkeeping.  Finally, the head bookkeeper of APQUISA’s mulit-million dollar cooperative with international sales, Celia Acyne, who I had interviewed previously, was there and we had a good conversation together.  Eventually she led the meeting forward committing the people to moving forward in their current bookkeeping and conducting an audit, which ANAPQUI will help pay half the costs of, on the previous five years of disputes.  It was estimated the cost for a professional audit would be about 50,000Bs. It took two hours to get to this point.  The day was moving on, it was almost 3pm.

Coca was being passed about to keep people alert and alcohol sipped to bless the meeting, calm nerves, and keep things moving forward.  I was hoping to have a moment to continue with my study and start with data collection – especially since this was a region that had not been in my previous studies.  That never happened.  After bookkeeping came representation, votes, other news and concerns, the meeting dragged on, the sun set.  An associate requested that the village fix the electricity so they can complete the meeting.  After a few wire reconfigurations and light bulb changes, a single bulb was light up in the long, adobe and cement meeting hall. The meeting ended at 8pm with the promise of a laptop computer to Martha with a new Orion system of accounting software that training will be provided for.  This would help the group to be more organized in their accounting system and have the books clearly noted and data accessible to all.  Celia warned that going forward ANAPQUI would be more strict with its requirements from member cooperatives and urged the folks of APROQUI to pay more attention to their expenses and reporting.

I thought about my own town and if we ever had an occasion where so many different people, over 108 families from 17 different communities, would work together.  I thought of the local organic milk buying cooperatives. Perhaps they have large meetings like this.  But with technology we would have shared spreadsheets, open accounting information, an agenda already made and a meeting of maybe 2 hours with workshops and activities for the rest of the day.  I realized the difference technology made when working together in large groups and could not imagine how hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and transactions could be managed with disparate slips of paper a pen and an open ledger that gets filled our differently by each person each time.  ANAPQUI had acknowledge this too, and attributed it to growing pains that they were learning from and are quickly working to be a well connected, professionally driven, organization with the latest technology.

I also reflected on leadership.  The fact that Martha was the President of this large cooperative was a sign of social progress.  She also was not blamed for the organizations’ shortcomings but instead given tools to improve it going forward.  I thought of her passive leadership style and the fact that she lost the opportunity to have her communities counted in the quinoa study and also lost the chance to have her product presented in the US.  I realized there was more to being a leader than just being able to speak in front of people.  Being able to anticipate needs, and situations, plan out events in advance and manage the plan going forward, direct conversations and situations, clarify details, summarize and move on discussions, suggest ideas or end points, and direct content and timing were all important leadership skills.  I will keep these in mind as I teach my own students at Landmark College.

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 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!

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 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

Day 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

I was invited to the mid-sized altiplano mining town of Poopo by the indigenous leaders in charge of local development.  They were not in the Royal Quinoa export growing region, but produced quinoa for their own local markets and consumption and wanted to learn more about what was happening in the quinoa industry.  We set up a workshop date with the Mayor and for two weeks, broadcast it over the radio and through local networks.  The mayor’s secretary had a copy of my presentation on her laptop and I had made copies to distribute as well.

The day of the workshop came and I waited in the mayor’s courtyard as the time passed.  The workshop was to be at 2pm but it was now almost 2:30 and no one was to be seen.  This brought back memories of times 15 years ago when I ran a rural newspaper in the valley regions of Cochabamba.  Meetings in these sleepy towns would always happen an hour after they were scheduled and change and events passed slowly.  I was reminded that the punctual, market motivated people of the quinoa lands were not the norm of all of Bolivia.

Eventually, staff began to appear and it was confirmed that there was in fact a quinoa presentation scheduled for today.  A quinoa farmer appeared, Primo Quispe Cheqa from Quilla.  A few phone calls were made and eventually, Fausto Flores from Tola Pampa also arrived.  We were set.  It was a sunny afternoon in the cool altiplano.  Both gentlemen decided they would prefer to hold the workshop in the mayor’s courtyard instead of a cold meeting room.  So we did.

The quinoa in Poopo is grown in addition to incomes earned in mining and animal production.  Families there often had a few llamas, cows or pigs that they raised for food and extra income, mostly selling locally in their own market.  The Poopo market prices were a bit higher (about 10-15%) than those in the city an hour away.  This is because there was less competition to drive down prices and the miners had money to buy products with.  Families also farmed maintaining several parcels, which were largely 1 acre lots that were located in different micro-climate zones with varying soil types.  Her people grew largely wheat, fava beans, potatoes and quinoa for themselves and alfalfa for their cows.  In some regions where there was irrigation, small crops of lettuce and onions were also planted.

Primo and Fausto were fascinated with the markets, prices and consumer demands in the US.  How the crops arrived there and the distribution channels.  They had no desire to enter these markets, nor had the production necessary to do so.  Their quinoa yields were substantially smaller than those of the Quinoa Real region with production being about 5-8 quintals produced per family per year.  In comparison in the quinoa region families produce an average of 150 quintales a year – valued at about $1,200.

Soon the skies darkened, wind began to blow and a hail storm appeared on the horizon.  We ended our workshop in a friendly manner and enjoyed the time we had to talk informally about quinoa markets and how they worked.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

It was good seeing Monica Cayo again.  I had spent a long weekend with her family in the high mountains on the Chilean border where the organic mountain quinoa is grown.  Monica is a quinoa farmer and regional development leader.  We had held workshops in her community of Lluvica and spent time in the quinoa fields of her youth where she still cultivates several hactacres of hand grown mountains quinoa for export each year.   When I was at her home last, her teenage nieces from Chile were visiting during their summer vacation.  It was their first time back to the quinoa lands since the boom.

Monica explains how the drop in quinoa prices led to increased migration to the interstellar region of Chile and Argentina as families sought economic stability..  The 460Bs per quintal price they were receiving no longer covered their costs and quinoa was becoming once again, a task of subsistence farming for families without any other alternatives.  She saw this affecting other sectors in Bolivia as well.  Local stores closed as families moved out of the small towns and there were no more customers.  She felt that if there could be a guaranteed minimum price of 600 to 700Bs per quintal for the farmers it would motivate them to stay and farm.  But without that stability, it’s becoming harder and harder for farmers to trust in the work.  Quinoa has a 9 month growing period with costs coming up front – fertilizing, planting, weeding, pest management… all have costs and there are risks of drought, frost and hail.  The high up-front costs and risks exacerbated by climate change mixed with the low quinoa prices make it a tough choice for families who want to stay and farm.

Monica had recently arrived from an Assembly of the quinoa cooperative members where it was discussed that not all quinoa is the same and that consumers should know where their quinoa came from – if it was hand mountain grown, organically planted with tractors or large scale farmed with chemicals.  She noted that it was hard to control the production and quality of quinoa once family production exceeded 10 hectacres.  Very few families in the Assembly had production higher than 10 hectacres.

I asked her why people stayed.  Why even bother with quinoa farming anymore?  She explained that the older people have no other choice.  They are quinoa farmers and that is what they do, what they know.  It is their only livelihood and the only way of life they know.  “They are there,” explained Monica.  “To survive they grow quinoa.  It’s their life.”

The younger people, she explained change activities.  They go to the city and work as mechanics, transportation drivers with trucks, mini vans and taxis, open stores or go to the university.  With a stable economy, she believes, the young people will come back but will continue to look for work elsewhere for extra money for their children.  She notes that the llama population has dropped which traditionally provided extra income and food security for families.  Without being in the rural communities all of the time, one cannot maintain their traditional herds of 30-40 llamas per family.

Monica sees the future of quinoa as a product that will help to raise the health levels of the people of Bolivia as a nation and sees more space for the development of national, internal markets. She sees an opportunity for the government to promote more national quinoa consumption and further develop a national quinoa noodle market.  Recently there has been a rise in the number of quinoa cooperatives who now have their own product lines of packaged cookies, noodles, quinoa puffs and quinoa flakes.

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Can fair prices that respect Bolivia’s love and connection to the earth and each other revitalize the ancient ways of being to re-form the robust, sustainable, rural communities of the past united with the technologies of today?  Maybe.

The quinoa culture is disappearing observes Melina Cayo, organic quinoa grower and agricultural engineer.  She notes five ways in which it is impacted:

  1. There are abandoned lands, empty pasturelands that were plowed up in the height of the quinoa craze and now years later still lay barren. Plants grow slowly in the high dessert quinoa lands often needing decades to develop.  This was once forage for the wild vicunas – a shy, graceful fawn-like animal that resembles a llama crossed with an antelope.  Vicunas have the finest wool in the world with a mere pound of fiber being valued at over $60.  These animals cannot be domesticated and roam the vast altiplano in small harams led by a single male and 5 or 6 females.  Once hunted almost to extinction, these animals are now protected and have made a comeback.  However with the recent loss of pastureland they have been forced to mingle with llama herds, come close to quinoa communities and even eat quinoa plants.  Once revered as a sacred, mystical, beautiful gift, vicunas some quinoa farmers, observed Melina, are now calling them pests and some are starting to hunt them again.
  2. Less land is being farmed, noted Melina as well. Families that once farmed 15 to 20 hectacres of land are now farming a mere 7 to 12 hectacres.  And these small amounts of land are being farmed poorly due to the lack of financial resources for investment which are a consequence of the low quinoa prices.  Organic composted llama manure is now more expensive because there are less llamas due to drought, loss of pastureland and largely because quinoa families have migrated to the cities and no longer maintain their own llama herds.  So quinoa growers often use half of the amount of manure they need for their fields.  This results in lower yields and weaker plants, but the farmers feel it’s a trade-off they have to make.
  3. There are no longer active families living in the quinoa communities. Rural quinoa communities that once had 30-40 families living in them now just have seven.  There is no one to come to the community meetings, to make decisions, request resources, lead development, and talk about what is needed.  The 30+ families who have left their communities are now considered passive members – they come to the quinoa communities one or two times a year for a short festival and that is it.  All families return to their communities in January during carnival and summer vacation to have a q-olla – a traditional Andean celebration of thanks celebrated with fires, dance and respects paid to the earth and that’s it.  The children no longer have the tradition or habit of being in the countryside and feel more comfortable in the cities.  To them, going to the countryside for summer vacation is a punishment.
  4. Children have also lost the habit of consuming quinoa, explained Melina. With the quinoa boom came the new habit of families buying cheap rice and noodles instead of eating their expensive quinoa which they preferred to sell.  Before the quinoa boom, families couldn’t afford the cheap rice and noodles and ate quinoa they grew themselves three to four times a week or more.  Now with noodles and rice being affordable, quinoa moms noticed how much easier they were to cook and prepare and even with the low quinoa prices, prefer to cook with noodles and rice.  Children are now used to sugary processed foods and do not like to eat the mild flavored quinoa when it is prepared.
  5. Melina also noted the communities lost the tradition of “ayllu” where everyone chips in together to help each other in a constant exchange of favors and reciprocity. Ayllu had no monetary value but instead carried tremendous cultural and personal value.  Now all work in the quinoa fields is paid for.  Tractors are hired instead of borrowed, labor is paid instead of shared, manure is purchased instead of collected.  All earnings go directly back to the family with no investment into the rural community.  Family houses are not kept up and continue to deteriorate more each year.

Development directors and academics I have spoken with are hopeful that the new Vivir Bien – Live well – model can help to rejuvenate the rural communities and animate people to value and invest in the rural areas one again.  Meanwhile Melina tearfully reflects upon the tremendous changes and losses that have happened in the past 10 years – often happening so quickly that without giving a pause to think of how it once was not so long ago, it is easy to overlook or forget.