Alter EcoNourishing Foodie, Farmer and Field

 

Recently, adding to the confusion on the global impact of quinoa, TIME Magazine wrote an article similar in style and form to the New York Times’ “Quinoa Quandary.” Let me take some time to answer some of the claims that it brings up, based on our long time experience working with Bolivianos:

 

Since 2002, Alter Eco in San Francisco has been working with and for indigenous quinoa growers from the southern Bolivian Altiplano. Our biannual visits to these communities are multi-faceted, from sociological and anthropological research to supporting the cooperatives and producing communities through fair and direct trade. For us it is painful to read yet another negative article about quinoa spreading unfounded stigmas.  

We have no doubt that Jean Friedman-Rudovsky intends to show a balanced presentation of the recent quinoa commoditized production boom emerging in the Southern Altiplano, underlining positive and negative outcomes of this process. However, we are disappointed by the discursive and misleading perspective of the article, which is not grounded on comprehensive reports and investigations, but instead regurgitates several points already presented in other publications. Besides the good intentions of Ms. Friedmann-Rudovsky, her article impacts farmers’ livelihoods, as these farmers principally rely on this precious crop to boost their way out of poverty.

 

Thanks to quinoa transnational commoditization and to organic and fair trade markets, Southern Altiplano farmers are no longer among the poorest inhabitants in rural Bolivia. Household income and pluriactivity have significantly increased. Better economic resources have allowed families to settle seasonally in more populated areas, in order to improve their housing conditions and youth education level. However, these significant changes do not mean that basic necessities are covered in quinoa growers communities, despite the presence of a tiny amount of parabolic antennas, where the vast majority of its inhabitants lack electricity, sanitation, heating, as well as good and locally accessible health and education services. Life in a region such as Southern Altiplano with more than 250 days with frost, and scarce rainfall (4 to 8 in) remains extremely harsh. It is clear that without quinoa transnational trade these achievements would not exist and Southern Altiplano inhabitants would probably continue to migrate selling their labor at cheap rates. For once, we see an opportunity where market growth and demand can actually be the solution for getting some of the poorest of the people of the planet out of poverty. Yes, there are still many challenges farmers face, some of which are brought on by the growing demand for quinoa, and yes, their community is impacted and development will take time, but no one can deny the opportunity that the growing global demand in quinoa offers them.

 

Back to Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky’s paper, we believe that some of her arguments need to be corrected or at least complemented in order to avoid unjustified consumer’s disenchantment with quinoa. Ungrounded disengagement from real facts will only harm Southern Altiplano inhabitants and send them back to poverty.

 

Regarding land disputes, everyone – peasants, scientists, experts and government– agrees that this issue has unfortunately been in the fabric of the Andes and in Bolivia since Colonial times. Since its independence, the Bolivian State is mainly responsible for this failure, for never having realized a geographically detailed and grounded territorial and political delimitation of communities, municipalities, provinces and departments. Currently 90% of Bolivian municipalities experience territorial limit conflicts, and two out of nine Bolivian departments (Cochabamba and Beni) have not yet clearly defined their limits. As well as the conflict for territorial limits between the quinoa growing communities from Oruro and Potosi, quoted by Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky, other territorial conflicts have been happening in Bolivia. Due to political and real-state interests, municipalities from La Paz and Cochabamba are facing strong territorial limit conflicts with their respective neighboring municipalities, still unresolved. For the same reasons, inhabitants in municipalities from Colcapirhua and Quillacollo in the Cochabamba Department have been fighting each other. Concurrently, inhabitants from adjacent communities, Dalence Province and in Poopo Province, both in Oruro Department, have been struggling to ensure access to a mineral deposit.

 

These conflicts arose as a result of access to territorial resources and cannot systematically be linked with global commoditization. Many past conflicts had no link with global trade. For example, in 2001 Qaqachaka, Laymi and Jukumari indigenous communities from Oruro and Potosí Departments fought for grazing and agricultural land for local trade and consumption.

 

Last, the conflict between communities from Potosí andOrurodepartments quoted by Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky is not the result of commoditized quinoa expansion. Those communities belong to the same precolumbian political and territorial entity and were separated in two different political and territorial conflicts during Spanish rule. During republican times, in nineteen century, these communities were already fighting each other for natural resource access, mainly for grazing lands, limestone and salt. Several times in the twentieth century, the government tried to impose geographical limits from a top down perspective charging the army with the task of settling the dispute, without success. Conflicts resurfaced in the 1990’s with the current expansion of quinoa production, and from 2005 with government initiatives concerning limestone extraction for cement factories and uranium prospects. To overcome the conflict initially, Bolivian indigenous president Evo Morales, followed the top down perspective by trying to impose a solution agreed to by Department Governors and Civic leaders living in the departments’ urban centers. However, in the beginning of March 2012 the uprisings continued and pushed the Bolivian State to the limits of its creativity by giving the space to community leaders to directly negotiate under mediation from the Bolivian Government. This grassroots approach to solve territorial limits will further be applied in solving territorial limit conflicts all over Bolivia. In other words, quinoa global commoditization is contributing to radical changes in Bolivian political practices by promoting democratic governance.We regret that Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky prefers to quote a general assumption from a food-policy analyst unknown in the Southern Altiplano who believes that these regions have the same agricultural and environmental potential as the Northern Altiplano and the Andes from the Southern Peru.

 

Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky’s story presents current quinoa commoditization as a threat to Bolivian food sovereignty. There is no solid evidence of this. In Bolivia, it is not possible to know the current quinoa production volumes. More or less reliable statistical data concerning agricultural production was taken through household surveys from three national agricultural census, in 1951, 1984 and 2008. Pathetically, as many Bolivian NGO and researchers have already underlined, the rest of statistical data is defined on the desks of state bureaucrats following their assumptions of how statistical production should evolve. Having no data about production volumes it is impossible to know the level of domestic consumption of quinoa given by the percentage of quinoa consumed.

 

We can only try to understand the amount of domestic consumption through solid ethnographical work based on thorough surveys and observations. This approach has proven that quantities of quinoa consumed by Southern Altiplano households now a days are similar than those existing before the quinoa boom, even in Puki, the community inhabited by Benjamin Huarachi, the quinoa producer quoted by Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky. As a matter of fact, each family keeps an average 660 to 880 pounds  of quinoa for their own consumption. As a matter of course, farmers are offended when told the western press repeats the inaccurate statement that farmers do not, or cannot keep enough quinoa for their own consumption. We’ve observed that journalists who put forth negative statements about quinoa commoditization fail to mention that higher quinoa prices have in fact allowed these farmers to diversify their diet by buying fresh vegetables, fruit and meat. There is no evidence that these peasants are endangering their food sovereignty.

 

Finally, there are no surveys in urban areas, with the exception of the city of Oruro where the consumption level per inhabitant is high: more than 15 pounds a year according to a study done by a Program Supported by the Dutch government Cooperation Agency. The UNDP (United Nations Development Program) survey of quinoa consumption at household level in La Paz in 1990, the beginning of the quinoa boom, showed the level of consumption per inhabitant at 4.5 pounds/year. Fair reporting dictates that we would need surveys and observations that would compare consumption evolution at the very least in the main Bolivian cities to confirm that quinoa consumption is not falling. In the meantime, despite the growth of quinoa prices since 2008, we should not forget that the majority of quinoa consumers in cities are indigenous Andean migrants who have strong kinship links with their communities that allow them to obtain quinoa from their extended families without passing through the market. Neither is it superfluous to remind the reader that the Bolivian government is implementing social food security programs. Considering all these elements and despite the lack of strong surveys considering consumption changes among urban inhabitants, it is unfounded to say that there is a decline of quinoa consumption in Bolivia.

 

Other parts of the article, we feel, demonstrate lack of due diligence: Security guard at the plant? Of course; the plant, just as many other businesses in Bolivia and internationally, are encouraged to have a guard as a part of food safety and security certification programs. Note that this guard is unarmed and is an employee and member of the cooperative. Many plants even have fingerprint readers at the entrance and magnetic badges: a good practice that results from U.S. bioterrorism law for export and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and Food Safety Standards. Regarding Fair Trade, it is a gross misunderstanding to indicate that as it is mostly families who grow quinoa, it must be part of the fair trade model. As a comparison, 70% of the world coffee is grown by families, yet the large majority of them have to sell their crop to intermediaries (coyotes) who pay them a very low price. Does the fact that most of the coffee we buy is produced by families make all the coffee of the world Fair Trade?

 

We do agree with Ms. Friedman-Rudovsky that increased quinoa demand challenges environmental sustainability in Southern Altiplano, particularly with regard to its fragile soil. However, many NGOs and Fair Trade farmer groups, which have a strong presence in the growing area, consider this issue a priority. They are innovating at the grassroots level by changing their agricultural techniques. Our observations of agricultural practices in the field show a growing number of peasants fertilizing with llama guano. Additionally, The Fair Trade cooperative of ANAPQUI has set a rule for farmers of having at least 7 llamas per hectare of cultivated quinoa to provide organic fertilizer for the soil. To alleviate the possibility of agricultural frontier expansion by increasing llama herds, public policies would be welcome to shift conditions to instead encouraging llama transformation into finished products with added value. Wind-based soil erosion is being reduced by the addition of planting Thola fences (a native shrub), and the recently released Fair Trade standards require 1/3 of the Fair Trade premium (about 85 USD per metric ton of quinoa) to be invested in sustainability projects. Now, that’s a positive story!

 

Edouard Rollet, Cofounder and COO, Alter Eco, San Francisco, contact@alterecofoods.com

 

Pablo Laguna, Anthropologist, specializing in the development issues, with research and practical experience on the Altiplano in Bolivia, PhD, WageningenUniversity, the Netherlands, lagunalipez@hotmail.com

 

 

Additional information on Alter Eco can be found at www.alterecofoods.com

Additional information on Southern Altiplano’s inhabitants livelihoods and social organization changes due to quinoa commoditization can be found at:

http://edepot.wur.nl/188049