Alter EcoNourishing Foodie, Farmer and Field

This blog post is an account of what our company, through our co-founder and COO Edouard Rollet, has seen and experienced of the situation in Bolivia regarding quinoa cultivation.  To read more about what Alter Eco has been doing to address the issues around quinoa, and to better understand the impact of our direct relationship with our producers, click here.

 

Recently, articles have been circulating in the press regarding the increase in quinoa demand resulting in the local costs of quinoa skyrocketing, making it too costly for Bolivianos and Peruvians to purchase, forcing them to turn to cheap and processed foods.  We at Alter Eco are disappointed by the discursive and misleading perspective of many negative articles which have recently been published, none of which are grounded on comprehensive reports and investigations but instead regurgitate the same several points already presented in other publications, which also present no solid evidence. We believe that many of these arguments need to be corrected or at least complemented in order to avoid unjustified consumer’s disenchantment with quinoa as these farmers principally rely on this precious crop to boost their way out of poverty.

 

History of Bolivia Farmers, consumers, scientists, experts and government officials of Bolivia all agree that land disputes have unfortunately been in the fabric of the Andes and Bolivia since before colonial times. Once Bolivia gained its independence, the government neglected to declare geographically detailed and firm territorial or political boundaries of communities, municipalities, provinces and departments (regions). Jean Friedman-Rudovsky mentions conflicts between communities within the Po Potosí and Oruro regions of Bolivia in her article, “The Dark Side of Quinoa” in Time Magazine. (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110890,00.html) She claims that these conflicts are a result of commoditized quinoa expansion but the story behind their fighting is a much deeper and historically rooted dispute.

Those communities she referred to belong to the same pre-Columbian political and territorial entity which was separated in conflicts during Spanish rule. Following Bolivia’s independence from Spain in the nineteenth century, existing communities were already fighting each other for access to natural resources, mainly grazing lands, limestone and salt deposits. Several times during the twentieth century, the government tried to implement geographical limits by appointing the army with the task of settling the dispute, but had no luck. Conflicts resurfaced in the 1990’s with the more current expansion of quinoa production and again in 2005 with government initiatives surrounding limestone extraction for cement factories and uranium sources. To overcome these disputes, Bolivian indigenous president Evo Morales imposed a grassroots solution agreed to by regional governors and small community civic leaders living in the various regions’ urban centers, giving these community leaders the responsibility to directly negotiate territorial conflicts (under little facilitation of the Bolivian government).

 

What is happening now? In the beginning of March 2012, uprisings of this new system began and pushed the Bolivian State to the limits of its political resources; this grassroots approach to solve territorial boundaries is continuing to be applied in solving these conflicts all over Bolivia.

Currently over 90% of Bolivian regions experience territorial conflicts and two out of nine Bolivian regions, Cochabamba and Beni, still lack clearly defined town and community boundaries. Conflicts have arisen due to various political and real-estate interests all over the country, not to mention conflicts in smaller quinoa growing communities such as Oruro and Potosi. La Paz and Cochabamba are currently facing strong territorial conflicts with their respective neighboring cities and fighting has broken out in Colcapirhua and Quillacollo in the Cochabamba Region. Concurrently, inhabitants from adjacent communities, Dalence Province and in Poopo Province, both in Oruro region, 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 at all. 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.

 

Statistics: Unfortunately, at this point in time, it is not possible to know the current quinoa production volumes in Bolivia year to date. More or less reliable statistical data concerning agricultural production was taken through household surveys from three national censuses, in 1951, 1984 and 2008. Unfortunately, as many Bolivian NGO and researchers continue to emphasize, the responsibility of gathering of any further statistics remains in the hands of the state bureaucrats as they agree upon the best evolution of efficiently and regularly collecting data. Without any data on production volumes, it is impossible to know the level of domestic consumption of quinoa.

There are no surveys in urban areas, with the exception of the city of Oruro where the individual consumption level is currently very high at more than 15 pounds a year according to a study done by a Program Supported by the Dutch government Cooperation Agency. In 1990, the beginning of the quinoa boom, the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) took a household level survey of quinoa consumption in La Paz showing the level of consumption per inhabitant at 4.5 pounds per year.

We can only try to understand the amount of domestic consumption through solid ethnographical work based on detailed surveys and observations. This approach has proven that quantities of quinoa consumed by Southern Altiplano households currently are still 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 in her article. We do know though, that most domestic quinoa consumers in cities are Andean migrants who have strong kinship links with their communities which allows them to obtain quinoa from their extended families without ever having to pass through the market. Therefore, any statistics taken may reflect less than the actual amount consumed that. Considering all these elements and despite the lack of strong surveys considering consumption changes among urban inhabitants, it is unjustified to say that there is a decline of quinoa consumption in Bolivia.

 

We have observed that journalists who put forth negative statements about quinoa commoditization fail to mention what sustainably sourcing quinoa is able to do in order to eradicate poverty and promote good health, not the opposite. There is no evidence that these farmers are endangering their food sovereignty. It is painful for us to read negative article after negative article about quinoa, as it spreads incorrect information. Farmers too are offended when told the Western press repeats the inaccurate statement that farmers do not, or cannot keep enough quinoa for their own consumption. Ungrounded disengagement from real facts will only harm Southern Altiplano inhabitants and send them back to poverty. Quinoa global commoditization is contributing to radical changes in Bolivian political practices by promoting a more democratic governance and sustainable growth for farmers in the global south. Read about how Alter Eco is still creating a sustainable growth for quinoa farmers and their families in a growing market. 

 

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

Pablo Laguna, PhD, WageningenUniversity, the Netherlands, lagunalipez@hotmail.com

 

Links

New York Times Article: Quinoa Quandry

- Mathieu’s Response

Time Article: Dark Side of Quinoa

- Edouard’s Response 

NPR Article: Quinoa Craze

-Open Response Letter from the Public

The Guardian: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

 

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