Alter Eco Quinoa 101

Since 2002, Alter Eco has been working with and for indigenous quinoa growers from the southern Bolivian Altiplano. Our biannual visits to these communities are multi-faceted, from measuring impact and triple bottom line performances of the coop, to farming and processing cost analysis, to computer donations to schools. Our visit to Bolivia is also a time where we can share with our partner farmers each other’s challenges with sustainable farming and succeeding with a mission-focus brand in a highly competitive market…

From these trips we have seen many difficulties that these families face, such as:

  • Little to no electricity, sanitation or heating
  • Poor and non-locally accessible health care and education services
  • An extremely difficult working and living area - the  Southern Altiplano is extremely harsh with more than 250 days with frost and scarce rainfall
  • A risk of environmental damage and soil erosion because of fragile soils and high demand

    Alter Eco, NGOs and Fair Trade farmer organizations such as ANAPQUI, which have a strong presence in the growing area of the Altiplano, see these issues as a top priority and are innovating at the farmer level by investing in sustainable methods and farmer’s support with agrotechnicians.

    Since 2002, changes in the lives of Alter Eco quinoa partners have become very apparent:

    • Household income and diversification of revenue sources have significantly increased. Better economic resources have allowed families to settle seasonally in more populated areas, improving their housing and living conditions and placing the farmers and their families in proximity of better school systems and higher education
    • Education levels have increased, due to better access to schooling
    • Diversification of diet: additional revenue from quinoa provide the farmers access to the local market and add fresh vegetables, fruit and meat to their daily diet
    • Alter Eco laptop donation programs, in partnership with our food distributor UNFI, have allowed producers to access improved data collection and communications between farms


    It is clear that, without quinoa transnational trade, these positive achievements would not exist and Southern Altiplano inhabitants would be forced to continue to migrating season to season and selling their labor at cheap rates. There is a promising opportunity where this exponential market growth could be the solution to eradicate poverty in one of the poorest locations on the globe, but only if this demand is met with a sustainably provided supply.


    To address environmental challenges, Alter Eco and its partner cooperatives have implemented several programs:

    • Each farmer is required to own at least 7 llamas per cultivated hectare of quinoa to provide manure, which serves as an essential organic fertilizer to regenerate the soil. This rule is actually only the continuation of a traditional custom, as quinoa and llamas have always been considered as complementary in the Maya and Aymara indigenous culture, just like the ying and the yang in the far eastern culture
    • Financing and implementation on an ambitious program focused on planting Thola and other native trees and shrubs around the parcels to protect the fields from the wind which is responsible for a large part of the erosion of the fragile desert soil
    • Each family is able to keep an average of 600 to 800 pounds of quinoa a year for their own use (about 10% of their annual production)
    • Crop rotations every other year to re-nourish the land (fallow set-aside land)
    • Farmers are encouraged to cultivate crops on the hillside to further protect from wind
    • Training on sustainable methods of mechanized cultivation, as more farmers rely on tractors and other mechanized tools for quinoa cultivation. 20% of Alter Eco farmers still cultivate quinoa manually
    • Pre-financing through loan's guarantee for the cooperative ($3 million loans, interests paid by Alter Eco, more than $100,000) 

    As we've seen in some growing regions, the increase of quinoa production for the conventional market has resulted in soil erosion and has not always covered basic necessities in farmer’s communities. On the contrary, Fair Trade standards require 1/3 of the Fair Trade premium (which increased in April 2012 from $85 to $260 USD per metric ton of quinoa) to be invested in prevention of soil erosion through environmental projects and agricultural education, and 2/3 towards community projects. Alter Eco has transferred more than $290,000 to the ANAPQUI cooperative in Fair Trade premium since we began working together.

    Now, that’s a positive story!


    If you would like to read more on what is happening in Bolivia right now, you can read the article from by Ari LeVaux:  It's OK to Eat Quinoa



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