DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

dona miguelena

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.


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).

quinoa family

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.

temas comunas

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.

pos-neg temas

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.

quinoa and gladys

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 31 – A day in the quinoa fields.

DAY 31 – A day in the quinoa fields.

What do farmers do while their quinoa is growing?


Bare footed and back breaking – farmers such as Miguel, carefully tend the quinoa stalks that will be supporting heavy seed heads. Here Miguel is hilling up dirt around his quinoa plants to support stalks that had drooped to the ground as a result of last month’s drought.


More women are farming alone than ever before. Irene Huyachi stops to check her seed heads for worms as she is hilling up her quinoa. Unfortunately she found several worms. “I don’t know what to do, ” she says. “I spent so much money on organic sprays from the Fair Trade technicos and it did not work – there are even more now. I don’t  the money to do anything else. This is organic quinoa. I can’t spray and I don’t want to. But now the worms are eating all of my quinoa.”

They care for it – weeding, checking for moths and worms, plant damage from frost, hail and predators, rainfall and irrigation (if available), looking at bio indicators for predictions of future crops, and they help plants that are struggling.  A well cared for seed head can weigh up to 1 pound and contains millions of precious quinoa seeds.  Famers do all they can to encourage good seed head production.  They walk their 12-15 acres of plantings, checking each plant, knowing each verity of quinoa planted and how their neighbors’ plants are doing well.  Often it means taking out the entire family out for the day.  Babies sleep in pick-up trucks or under makeshift tents, and open air lunch – usually including llama meat – is shared with all.

With quinoa prices so low (farmers make just 28 cents a pound for their quinoa), many males farmers have left the region to seek paid work elsewhere.  Women are left alone to tend the quinoa. Here are some photos taken from my six-mile hike through Quillacas’ organic, hand grown, quinoa fields.


Bad times ahead? Miguel believes that malformed seed heads are an indicator of poorer yields next year. The May harvest will verify what the next season will bring.


A worm-eaten seedhead.


A rabbit ate this seed stalk to get access to the juicy moisture inside. Besides worms, rabbits and vicunas – a wild form the the llama are also pests who eat and damage the quinoa.

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands


Florinda’s house in Otuyo – neither a estande nor a residente – Quinoa farmer and leader, Florinda Consales, likes to call herself a doble domicilio (2-homes) person because of her constant presence in the quinoa community.

The quinoa villages are quiet, children away on school vacations – visiting family in the cities, or city children coming in for a weekend in the town with their family.  Most quinoa communities are now made up of 25% estantes (full timers) and 75% residentes (residents).  Residentes are weekenders (or less) who grow quinoa on their family lands, participate in community projects, celebrations and decisions but live in neighboring cities hours away.  Often these are professionals, such as professors, lawyers or developers, who bring important projects and resources to the community.

The community of Otuyo is a 30 minute ride by truck over a narrow dirt track that winds through volcanic mountain passes, past condor nesting caves, and into a long, smooth swath of salty lowlands extending far to the shores of the Uyuni salt flats miles away, is a typical quinoa community.  Their one-room school houses 12 students and one teacher.  The Otuyo community center is large enough to accommodate all 61 families though only 15 reside there full time.  The ones that live there farm the vast quinoa lands, tend sheep and llamas, and grow onions, beans, potatoes and herbs in their personal gardens.  The school has a large greenhouse that produces tomatoes and vegetables for school lunches.  Moms accompany the youngest children to school to help with the teaching of the younger grades.


Llama dung waiting for to be spread across a fallow quinoa field in preparation for October 2017 planting.

The residents are welcome into the community and participate in celebrations bringing important knowledge and resources from the cities.  Their children are in college.  Most own their 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs, live in newly built build brick homes and enjoy shining new tiled bathrooms – compliments of a development project.

According to world standards these communities are impoverished.  The 2015 crash of the quinoa market, caused by massive production in Peru which flooded markets and drove down prices,  has produced positive and negative effects – though coupled with the recent drought, the negative is getting much larger and bigger.  The positive is a slowing down of Bolivian production.  People are now back to their regular bi-annual rotation schedules, families are farming much more manageable 5-8 hectacre plot instead of the 20+ hectacers they were racing to produce previously.  Many people from the quinoa region who had migrated the other countries in search of work and returned to grow quinoa, have returned back their foreign communities in Spain and Argentina.  People are feeling less pressure to produce and grow and feel that once again they can settle back down into their familiar family settings and work together in long term, meaningful production that benefits the community and protects the earth.


A robust quinoa plant in a private garden.

The damage caused by the massive quinoa production of 2011 – 2015 seen in vast areas of desertified lands.  Places cleared of native vegetation and plowed dry, becoming fodder for towering dust devils that rage through the quinoa lands in dry times.  In some places, wild animals such as emus and vicunas are entering into quinoa fields and eating the delicate plants.  Some producer associations such as APQUISA, certain Fair Trade programs, and the Oruro Technical University (OTU) are working on re-establishing these damaged lands and promoting more erosion-friendly farming methods, such as ringing 2 hectare fields with hedges of tola plants – whose 2- 3 foot height act as windbreakers and protects plants from frost.

With the fall of prices also comes the migration of the males in the family – in search of better work.  The women are left on the farms, it not being culturally appropriate for them to leave for work, in addition many of them are mothers and have children to still care for.  So woman are alone in the quinoa lands, often as they were before the boom that brought the families back and together again.  I will be studying this more as my work progresses.

As far as cash flow, every home I have visited has a storeroom filled with socks of quinoa.  Farmers say they are waiting for better market prices and orders before from their cooperatives before selling their quinoa.  Every once in a while when cash is needed, a sack of quinoa may be sold, or a sheep or llama killed and its meat sold.  The animals and grains become savings accounts and security for the farmers.

DAY 22 – Research versus Development

DAY 22 – Research versus Development


ANAPQUI’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa bread being made for local consumption in Salinas.

As I enter into the quinoa lands which I have grown to know so well both in my initial 2015 field research and subsequent projects and research performed in UMass classrooms, I have a better idea of needs, possibilities and opportunities.  In addition, I spent several years studying women producers in the Fair Trade and coffee industries too.  I feel I have a good grasp of the needs and wants of Bolivia’s Fair Trade women producers.  I am also an economist and have a theoretical grounding in development economics.  And am a natural business developer, marketer and partnership builder.  I teach marketing to graduate students and started my own advertising agency out of college until leaving it to come to Bolivia in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer – working in Business Development.  While in Bolivia I developed several businesses, mentored students in being marketing consultants, and worked with Bolivian businesses to create export and national marketing opportunities for natural foods and other products.  Though I’m not an expert, I have an idea of things that can get done in Bolivia, how they can happen and what the opportunities are – especially in a US market.

So how does this impact my role as a researcher?

As I talk with women and hear them complain about low quinoa prices and their desire to make processed food products from their quinoa to create new incomes and jobs – it reminds me of the women coffee farmers who wanted the same thing.  Consulting with Bolivia’s Fair Trade CLAC (Latin American small farmers) representative, Tito Mendoza, he confirms that there are women working with Fair Trade chocolate, sesame seed, and brazil nuts who all want to do that same. – process their raw materials to create alternative industries and not just export raw materials in bulk.  The men however, I found in my coffee research and others in the quinoa industry have confirmed, enjoy the big numbers and ease of bulk export and do not want to bother with complicated food processing.  Though Fair Trade is supposed to work together equally amongst gender, men tend to dominate the decisions about where community funds are invested, and usually disregard the women’s projects – leaving them with no funding or support.  Their ideas stay as ideas – more often than not.

In economic development theory, the next step from the mass export of raw material is the industrialization and processing of that material by the producing country – the is where technology, innovation, marketing, product differentiation, and job creation come into play. In my previous research, I have recommended that farmers invest into product industrialization.

Now in the quinoa fields I ma met with women again, who want to transform product, create jobs for their community, feed the people of Bolivia and export their product to new markets.  However they don’t know where to start – need recipes, equipment, training, packaging, and investment.  They do have the raw materials, land, tiem and desire to make osmethign happen.

One items I brought with me to introduce women to the ways quinoa is being consumed in the US is a case of KIND bars which are made in New York and have popped quinoa as a viable ingredient.  The women were inspired by the bars and wanted to make their own.   When I contacted KIND about this they told me that each month they had a $10,000 fund that women could assess one time if they wrote a project proposal that won a monthly crowd funding competition.  Suddenly the idea of a feminine Fair Trade energy bar made from women-grown Fair Trade quinoa, brazil nuts, sesame seed and chocolate seemed feasible.  There is also Fair Trade honey in Bolivia but there are some restrictions with its use as an export food that need to be explored.  When I mentioned the KIND fund and quinoa bar to the women they are very excited and want to work on the project.

But what project?

I’m here as a researcher – not a developer.  Am I overstepping my role to start forming projects here too?  And where will the project take place?  Who will administer it?  Coordinate it?  See that funds are properly invested?  And of course someone needs to write the grant and get the funds in the first place.  Suddenly this seems really huge.  But it is also a great opportunity.  I think of the food processors I already know- making puffed quinoa, flakes, breads, cookies… Some are Fair Trade cooperatives such as ANAPQUI, or associations such as APQUISA, and others large private businesses such as Coronilla and Frencessa.  Can we share resources, or contract them for the project?  Or do we start with a quinoa community such as Otuyo – which is well formed and has resources (and also inaccessible due to mud) and begin on our own from there?  Tito from Fair Trade CLAC likes the idea and is willing to introduce the project to the other women in Fair Trade.  But it needs more support and collaboration than just that.  I also don’t want to get too distracted from my research.  However the final Part III of my research is in 2018 and that is time to get something set up perhaps – though from the US it would be difficult.

Thais is an open question I am still mulling over – what do you think?

DAY 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

DAY 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Legend has it that back in colonial times there was a tremendous rain storm.  In this storm, two brothers living in Salinas Garcia de Mendoza – the illustration town on the edge of the salt flats under the towering slopes of the Tunupa volcano – were suddenly washed away far across the salt flats and the sandy plains, carried miles away by the immense torrent of water.  The place where they finally landed became known as Capura, a tiny town dominated by “Garcias” (as a last name) and having distant ties back to Salinas.

Approaching Capura across the sandy windswept volcanic plains where Royal Quinoa reigns, we drive in a well-equipped private SUV (this time a Toyota Helix with leather sets that have video screens and phone chargers built into the backs of the headrests) along the now all too familiar bumpy dirt tracks, nameless as they zig zag for miles across the vast plains, blending into the horizon, tan upon tan.  The dull, flat taste of dust is in my mouth as we eagerly scan the endless horizon for signs of emus, a pest because they eat the quinoa but still rare enough to be of interest if they are seen.

Quinoa fields - only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Quinoa fields – only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Eric, our driver and the son of a quinoa farmer, is about to enter into a private college in Oruro to begin his studies in Economics.  Meanwhile, he helps his family with the quinoa when he can.  Like most folks of Capura, Erik lives an hour away in the large town of Challapata – where there are seven high schools.  Capura has none.

We are continuing our travels with agronomist, Tito Mendoza, Bolivia’s technical advisor for CLAC – the small farmers arm of the Fair Trade in Germany.  We are meeting with AIPROCA, a 4 year old Fair Trade, organic quinoa producing association, this year led by Gregorio Garcia.  With just 41 members, AIPROCA is certainly considered a small producer group.  Tito was in Capura to review the upcoming FLO audit which would determine whether or not the group could keep their Fair Trade status.  The three things they had to be the most astute about, explained Tito, were proving: democratic participation, transparency in all administrative costs and proper payment for goods.

The road from Challapata to Capura....

The road from Challapata to Capura….

Tito was also going over their use of the social development funds which come as a premium paid above the price for the quinoa produced.  Last year AIPROCA amassed $181,303 in social premium funds for the 697,000 tons of quinoa they had hand harvested and sold.  Tito seemed confused, he asked if the funds were in dollars or Bolivianos.  “Dollars,” the group assured.  He also repeated the amount of quinoa they said they had sold – they assured him that was correct.  That’s 17,000 tons of quinoa per family.  This seems strange since Capura families seemed to have an average of 20-15 hectacres planted in rotation each year.  Each hectare yields at best about 1.3 tons.  This totals to about 1,066 tons of quinoa total for the community.

Tito took some time to explain the difference between a small producer and a small enterprise.  Buying quinoa from others for export sale, he explained was a business (small enterprise) which was not covered under Fair Trade rules.  This was largely because there was no guarantee that the quinoa bought from others was actually organic or produced under Fair Trade guidelines which also included protection of the natural environment, equal gender representation and a commitment to minimal child labor.  Growing one’s own quinoa, assured Tito, was Fair Trade – assuming guidelines were followed.


Cream of quinoa soup – delicious!

Capura has about 30 residents – people who live there full time.  The rest, like Erik were weekend visitors or less.  Many lived in Challapata though others lived in Cochabamba, 12 hours away or Oruro – a bit closer.  They grew quinoa for export sale, though before the quinoa boom, they just grew it for themselves.  They raised llamas for their own consumption and local meat sales, owning herds of 30-40 animals each which wandered freely across the vast plains, coming in at night at the sound of a whistle. And they grew potatoes – another favorite food in the Andes – for their own use.

One young woman, Sonia, has just returned from Colombia the day before.  Her high school woman’s soccer team in Challapata was #1 in the country.  They were invited to fly to Colombia to represent Bolivia in the South American women’s high school soccer play offs.  She said she was one the smallest women there – never-the-less, the team played well but lost anyway.

The community was well organized with their funds usage and had excel spreadsheets documenting purchases and investments. Some of these, over time, included the building of a basic quinoa processing and sorting plant, (not for professional export, but for adequate cleanliness to be accepted as export quality grain for wholesale purchase), the building of tiny 2-room homes, public bathrooms and water systems, the placement of tanks and cisterns for water storage, the creation of a garbage collection and recycling system, building of a basketball court, and the distribution of large food baskets to all association members for the holidays.  For certification, all community members had to know the projects, their approximate costs and the outcome of them (well made, well used, etc.).

While some community members were professionals and professors, others were not.  Tito gave a basic accounting lesson and broke the group up into 3 teams to review the total projects done for the year.  The groups made a chart for each line item assigned to them and determined the costs, investment and outcome.  These were then shared with the larger group and saved to be hung on the walls of the main assembly building for future reference.  The AIPROCA administration was charged with putting the new data into a spread sheet to provide to the auditors.

Not everything was peachy keen at AIPROCA.  The women whispered to me that they had no say in the projects developed and the men, they said, spent too much money on what they did.  The one woman who was part of the five-member directorship at AIPROCA was in the kitchen cooking for most of the meeting, missing all that was gone over.  I publically noted this and though some men ducked out from the meeting upon hearing this, perhaps to invite her back to the meting – she still did not appear in the meeting.  I was looking forward to delving deeper into this in the women’s meeting on sustainability coming up next.


Women of Capura

Women of Capura

However to my surprise, the 20+ women I worked with in the women’s meeting, had nothing more to say about this incident or their lack of representation in AIPROCA decisions.  Instead they focused on the current drought and its impact on their quinoa production, which was slated to be at about 50% of last year’s production.


I regretted having such a short time in the town – a few hours and none else.  And was thankful that my research going forward was for the customary 5-7 day long visits which really enabled me to more deeply connect with the women and better understand their world.

DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

DAY 9 – Meeting the women of Belle Vista

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

The women were there and we had a good meeting!

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

Handmade mud roof copied from traditional ways of construction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming in December – the Quinoa Journey Continues

Coming in December – the Quinoa Journey Continues

August 2016 - Tamara putting the finishing touches on her new book, Social Entrepreneurship as Sustainable Development, due out in January 2017 by Palgrave publishing.

August 2016 – Tamara putting the finishing touches on her new book, Social Entrepreneurship as Sustainable Development, due out in January 2017 by Palgrave publishing.

Join Tamara as she returns to Bolivia December 10, 2016, to continue her Fulbright research and find out what is happening now in the Quinoa fields.

Rumor has it that insects are running rampant, climate change is devastating, many migrants who came to participate int he Quinoa Boom of  2012-2015 have since left and things are quieting down in the countryside.  But are they?  And what about the women?

Join Tamara again as she ventures out to the Bolivian salt flats to look, listen and live the quinoa story – examining its  socio-economic impact on Andean women.

Day 32 – An indigenous women leader’s view of sustainability, quinoa production and Andean women’s well being.

Day 32 – An indigenous women leader’s view of sustainability, quinoa production and Andean women’s well being.

Marka Salinas

Marka Salinas

As spoken by Mama Mallku, Florinda Condales of Marka Salinas.  (Shared with permission)

On the theme of sustainability, as the sisters said, before there was production that was all natural. But now we have a production that is more open and requires other methods of production. We have insecticides but they are organic. Some we make ourselves with the plants and herbs and others are done with the authority of another such as UTO (university) or INIAF (technical assistance). We now have associations that we are members of. They make sure we have the certifications and help us with our organic production. How does it benefit the woman? This is what we are manifesting.

When a woman marries, she leaves her home family and is part of another family. How she participates equally with the man, with the new family is now different. Now people have tractors and they work with them more. But the planting is the same. It has to be done by hand.   The work is done by everyone so it is personal enough. One can have more land or less. Some may have 1 or 2 hectacres (2.5 to 5 acres). Another may have 10. Another may have 20 hectacres. It depends on the community, how extended they are. And it depends on the father, how much land he has to parcel out.

But also another result of the expansion of organic production has been the increase of cultivated crop land and a reduction of grazing land and animals. This is why the farmers are buying the manure. Now they say it costs 1000Bs a truckload, but this is a low price. Last year it cost more then 2000Bs. So this is how the soil is fertilized. But fertilizing is not all of it. One part is to fertilize the other is to do the rest, the weeding, planting and harvest. We do not just plant and wait. And that is where the other parts come in. If it rains we say good, welcome rain. But if it does rain or if it rains and freezes…

I have 10 or 11 hectacres. Twice it froze and this is what happened: I was only able to harvest one (hectacre?) and lost the other. This is the situation. It is an investment made first (up front) that may not be able to be recovered. If the price of quinoa is not sufficient, lets say that you are making enough that you are earning 20Bs (per quintal?) or 500Bs and you have five children and three are in school, two in the university, what can you do? There is not enough money to cover even two months or three months of the costs. This is the reality. People always say the quinoa growers have so much money, but it is not like that. Also there has not been a lot of time, maybe two or three years since the quinoa production improved. Before that, there were hardly any earnings. But a lot also depends on the climate. You can plant up to 40 hectacres. If the frost comes, it will take it all. If the rain does not come, the plant will germinate, grow 10 or 15 centimeters and there if still there is no rain, it will die, all of it. These are the risks that we have here. We need to start over each year.

In these last years the problem we’ve been having in the provinces is that if the woman is in the countryside and is single, with children, the situation is very hard in the communities. Because the woman no longer has the right to access the lands of her father anymore. If the community begins to criticize her and asks, “Where is your children’s father?” and demand she bring the children to his land and family, this is discrimination. “Why do you have to be here?” they will ask. And if she is the only child and is a woman and she marries and brings her husband to her land this also causes problems because she suffers. “Why is he not a man?” “Why is he not bringing you to his community?” “Why are you not there?’’ The woman has to confront this. This we forget. It is difficult in the communities. Since you are here. We need to confront this too.

And in the theme of leadership, this is also difficult to find in the woman. Especially for the Andean woman. The reason why is that it is chacha-warmi, man-woman. This way the women does not talk. She has to be at her husband’s side. Her husband will talk, but how many times do you ever heard the woman talk? It is very difficult. An all of us have good ideas, why not? But the space is more for the man to be the leader. And this is where I have to live until now. Because to be a woman leader (Mallku) for the first time one has to have to have allies. I have to be with my ayllu (community), to be strong. But this is how we are pillars. We always have to be next to men. We suffer. But the quinoa puts us in better parts. Never-the-less the chacha-warmi is very strong here. A place for a woman to be a leader is very difficult. It is not going to change quickly. I don’t know how much longer it will be before another woman has the place (position) to be the Mallku. But it costs (one must pay the price). It is a step for the woman and it’s also a challenge. It is not simple and the woman is not strong like a man.

A man has a voice to make demands, a woman has a voice to bring us together at the same level. These things hold us back. Psychologically we have to overcome these things. Psychologically they hold us back. More than anything, psychological violence is strong. If we don’t improve ourselves this can very easily hold us back. He can speak because he is close to the quinoa and he can say help us and take the salaries. But if a woman was to do this, the others would say “Oh look at how this woman speaks!” other same women would criticize this woman. If one of us (women) was a technico (extension agent), amongst ourselves as woman, we will hate this woman, hate her! This is how the machismo is amongst women. It is strong.

Never-the-less, the work in quinoa helps to give us peace. This production of quinoa for example, the work. The work that we live by and do together. It is not considered a valuable job but it is a job that we will see is something that the women will come to participate in; talking and stating what their needs are. The day before yesterday I was in a course describing how violence against women happens daily. We have to withstand so many assaults that we don’t even know it and sometimes we are assaulted every second, for example. The discrimination can unite us. When we can understand this then we will be a better place. In this moment in this reality, we know as quinoa producers we are more involved with the production than the organization. Because we work with the llama, sheep, the land and in the fields, we plant the quinoa the beans, the potato, the alfalfa and this is our world. The farm plus the food, the children at home, the children in the university… and this is how we loose ourselves if we do not take the time to stop and say, “I am an important person, I can move forward and improve myself.” And in this workshop we were just five. But there are other things to prioritize too. I believe that all woman and men want to participate in the sustainable development of quinoa and this is what interests us most.

Day 14 – Are Bolivian women growing quinoa like the women growing coffee or knitting?

Day 14 – Are Bolivian women growing quinoa like the women growing coffee or knitting?


KUSIKUY´s La Imillia Fair Trade knitters. Arani, Bolivia

As I get ready for my research with women quinoa growers, I think back to my work with Bolivian knitters and coffee farmers. In 2010 I arrived in Bolivia asking the Fair Trade knitters with whom I had been working with for 12 years, why they always joked about Fair Trade, asking if it was really fair. This become the basis of my doctorate thesis and enabled me to develop my own ethnographic research method to find out the answer. The result was a surprise! The women benefitted more from the leadership, time management, project planning, and organizational skills they learned while managing orders, than from the actual product earnings, which fluctuated unpredictably. Fair Trade, it turned out was a step for them to learn to work together, bring new projects to their communities, and (sometimes) move on to more steady, desirable work.

I was curious about the women working in Fair Trade coffee and two years later, embarked on a similar study of Bolivia’s Fair Trade coffee. Here I found a completely different story! The women worked very closely with their husbands to grow a few acres of coffee. There was a complex and well established system of cooperatives with ample technical assistance, credit, market access and steady earnings. The community of Caranavi, Bolivia’s coffee capital, reminded me of an industrious little anthill (turned upside down since Caranavi was more of a valley than a hill). These women had what the Fair Trade knitters lacked; steady income. But they lacked what the Fair trade knitters had; a voice, representation and a sense of self-importance. The men ruled the farms and often made decisions without consulting the women. New programs were springing up to help build more gender equity, but these were just beginning when I was there.

Though the rules of Fair Trade are basically the same worldwide, the experiences of the people working within these rules vary tremendously. I wonder what I will find next as I enter into the study of women quinoa farmers…

Day 2 – How I got here in the first place: Fulbright research

Day 2 – How I got here in the first place: Fulbright research

So how did I get into this project in the first place?  Here is my Fulbright research proposal.  I will have three years to travel from the US to Bolivia in 3-month intervals to study the effect of quinoa production on the Andean woman.

Oh, and who am I?  I’m social scientist and business developer specializing in economics and sustainable development.  For the last 10 years I’ve also been a university professor.  I’ve lived and worked in Bolivia for the past 18 years.  My two children are half Bolivian and though their  Bolivian grandma grows quinoa for the family, she is not a commercial prducer.  I have not been in the quinoa growing region I’ll be studying in over 10 years.  People tell me it has changed a lot!

Gender and Sustainable Development in Bolivia.

A comparative study of the impact of Fair Trade, organic certification and conventional production on the well-being of women quinoa farmers and their families.

Summary of Project Statement

Conducting a comparative study of Bolivia’s Fair Trade, organic and agrochemical quinoa production creates a deeper understanding of the effects that different modes of production have on family, sustainable development and well-being. Bolivia provides 45% of the world supply of quinoa with exports growing from 1,500 tonnes in 1999 to 29,500 tonnes in 2013, the International Year of Quinoa, making it the world’s second largest quinoa producer (FAO, 2013). I am interested in this Fulbright award and teaming with Bolivian academics and producers because as an American sustainability scholar and published author, I am ideally suited to conduct this study. This study contributes to my understanding of techniques and strategies for sustainable development, improves my teaching and will be published in my next book.