Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Final Report (Netherlands and Iceland recap)

Dear Watson Foundation Family,

I cannot believe I am beginning to write this long, final letter from my living room couch in Western Massachusetts. It was just over a year ago that I was finishing packing my bags, bidding tearful farewells to my family and boyfriend at JFK International Airport, and boarding the plane to Arusha, Tanzania. So much has changed since then, but as I slowly acclimate back to life at home, I realize how much has stayed the same. My hometown looks identical, my parents are still waiting to retire, my sister continues to constructively critique my wardrobe, and I still have childhood memorabilia lining the pink walls of my bedroom. While these factors make it easier to re-adjust, I also feel fundamentally different. I think about everything that I’ve been able to experience this year: the places I’ve traveled, the people I’ve met, the obstacles I’ve surmounted, and I wonder if it was all a dream, as if I was a different person. I worry that if I wait too long to write the final report, the feelings, thoughts, and vivid details will slip away. On some level, I must have subconsciously designed my itinerary to finish in Europe. I recall how difficult it was to overcome reverse culture/re-entry shock after returning home from my semester in Australia and couldn’t begin to fathom the challenge if I were to come straight from South America or Africa. Maybe I can ease back into home, I must have thought to myself, which has proven both true and false.

Let me go back to where I left off in my third quarterly report. I was wrapping up my activities in Bolivia, and I could not think of a better way than by participating in the government-sponsored “La Ruta de La Quinua” or “The Quinoa Route.” Well the story goes that I went from being on the waitlist for a vehicle to being a stray without a home to finally, the VIP list. A twist of fate so typical of the Watson Fellowship: I ended up in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) car, second in the caravan of thirty jeeps. I was seriously not expecting this special treatment: being adorned with wreaths of quinoa and sitting on stage with the Vice Minister of Agriculture, the governor of Oruro department, and the “Quinoa Queen,” coming within ten feet of the Vice President of Bolivia who arrived via chopper. I was also interviewed twice on video camera: by the Ministry of Rural Development and Reuters! …in Spanish!! I was flabbergasted and of course, very nervous trying to explain my project and express my “conclusions” (which hadn’t been too many at that point because it’d all been so complicated). But who knows, maybe I’ll get featured in next year’s promotional video.

So what did I learn from the route? Besides exposure to some new technologies, none of the information was particularly new. However, it was the energy, excitement, and vibes that were most remarkable. Hearing various high-level government officials express sentiments of wanting to share quinoa, a food that used to be discriminated against, with the world and the associated sense of pride. One official even gave the anecdote of how they were flying to Europe and was served quinoa on the airplane – he joked about how it wasn’t even a Bolivian airline! But it’s complex, and I am still sorting out what I think about all this. It seems, however, that perhaps the aspirations and declarations of certain NGOs and the Ministry of Agriculture to expand the production area to 1,000,000 HA in the future (up from about 170,000 HA now) are misplaced. In terms of extensive versus intensive agriculture, there appears to be much less emphasis on increasing yields and overall productivity on existing land (e.g. through promotion of integrated farming systems with llamas and restoring the fertility of degraded land). To some degree, I feel like the dialogue around quinoa production in Bolivia is, also about proving the ability to “keep up” and “modernize.” One government official compared it to Tupac Katari, the new satellite that Bolivian recently launched (with the funding support of China, of course). So with this sort of agro-industrial mindset, quinoa can represent progress. The Secretary to the Governor of Oruro expressed how quinoa represents a “cultural, economic, and productive evolution.”

The Vice President of Bolivia and the Minister of Agriculture also gave their spiels in Orinoca, the home region of President Evo Morales. They noted how up until now, eradicating world hunger has mainly been in the hands of private businesses but with 2014 as the UN’s International Year of the Family Farmer, small producers can also feed the world. According to the VP of Bolivia, “Quinoa is a treasure, a grain of gold, that can be the salvation of Bolivia and of the world,” a food so powerful that it can send astronauts to the moon; the new gold, but now in the hands of Bolivia instead of the colonizers. Looking back on my experiences in Bolivia, I felt that an exponential curve embodied my three months there. Things started negatively and on the verge of failure, but as the twelve weeks progressed, it just got better and better. La Paz is the first big city that I’ve ever lived in and it really felt like home. Sure, there are things that drive me crazy about Bolivia, but if I had to, I really think I could have learned to love it. It was my most challenging country for a number of reasons, but that made it the most rewarding.

After spending some brief time with my boyfriend, who flew out from California to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with me, I then saw my college roommate in Málaga, Spain. My first two and only visitors of the year, back to back – that was exciting and overwhelming. I know that I have changed in indescribable ways that will only become more apparent as time goes on, and often it’s difficult trying to articulate, identify, or reflect on those changes. But when you see people whom you knew before you left, then you really start to realize how you’ve changed…they are like a reference point. Of course, everyone has changed in a year, but they knew you prior. So how do I feel? I feel more resilient, tolerant, low maintenance, and flexible. At times, it felt like I walked through hell and back; my lowest moment was probably almost being robbed and kidnapped in La Paz, Bolivia. Throughout this year, I saw some horrible things – poverty so intense, I didn’t even know how to react. The languages, the food, the people, the pollution, the customs, the living conditions…everything has just been, at times, shocking. But I dealt with it because I had to, and I tried my hardest to embrace and enjoy the richness of other cultures. I became accustomed to bucket showers, squat toilets, trash on the streets, purifying my water, and eating foreign foods. Thus, the affluence, efficiency, and sterility will be shocking. I have experienced and become sensitized to many things this year, and I know I can’t expect the same sensitivity from all of my loved ones from sheer lack of exposure. It may be difficult, but the personal change is an ongoing process. I just have to be forgiving of myself and remember that no matter what kind of personal development and growth I’ve undergone, my friends and family will always be there to support me. And I can only hope to do the same for them.

Of course, it was strange to be back in the “first world” after almost ten months of being in Tanzania, India, Bhutan, and Bolivia. Disorienting that I could now flush toilet paper and drink water from the tap. Instead of looking at human or dog feces in the streets, there were street cleaners in Málaga, Spain that must come around at least twice a day, washing the beautifully tiled and cobblestoned surfaces. The quality of life is just so unbelievably high in Europe that I was overwhelmed, a little bitter, but also comforted. And at last, welcome to Holland where my bicycle was my car and the public transportation has free wifi. I rode my rental bike around Wageningen, the small college town of around 30,000, where I tried not to get too lost or hit by a car on my bike. It smelled like spring: the Dutch tulip bulbs had started to sprout, the trees were blossoming, and sometimes I could hear birds chirping outside my window. It felt like home, but if I were experiencing reverse culture shock at home, at least I could vegetate on my couch, eat my mom’s home cooking, and roll up into a ball and cry for hours. But here, I had no choice but to push through and continue on with my research in another foreign setting that vaguely reminds me of home.

Who’d have thought that I would ever feel comforted by Bolivia and its craziness? I never thought I would be a city person and I probably am still not, but by the time I left La Paz, a city of two million, it felt like home. Nothing makes sense in Bolivia. It’s chaos, but somehow, it works. The public transportation is nothing more than little mini-buses that dart around the city stopping at the most random times in equally haphazard places. There are no schedules but there are in fact, set routes, but as a foreigner, you wouldn’t know them. You walk down the street and hail a minibus or trufi (share taxi), which come every 2-3 minutes without rhyme or reason. You can take a taxi across the city for less than $2. But the pandemonium starts to make sense after several weeks of living there. You adjust your sense of time and organization. The rigidity of your former quotidian schedule in the West slowly starts to melt away as you give yourself up and away to the frenetic way of life. I miss Bolivia. I miss not feeling like I was on a tight schedule, that I could get up when I wanted and maybe, just maybe, have an appointment in the afternoon. When I thought I was late places, I was usually “early,” simply because everyone else was always running late, but by their standards, it was probably on time because everything runs late. The mayhem teaches you to let go.

Now I found myself back in an “organized Holland” (as several Dutch friends have referenced it) where the country runs a tight ship on everything from public transportation to food safety to building security. When I was to enter or exit a building at the agricultural university, I had to scan a card. Once I accidentally went out an emergency exit and set off a screeching alarm. I knocked over a line of bicycles, which fell like dominoes. Another thing, which we likely have in the States but I haven’t noticed too much not having frequented urban public transport in my suburban and rural university life: here electronic signs tell you when the next bus or train is scheduled to arrive and you can look up your route on a smart phone app. They don’t have this in Bolivia. When you want to go somewhere, it’s like feeling around in the dark, asking people and hoping that another bus will come in 30 minutes. Maybe you will be in a bus for 4 hours or maybe 12 hours. Here, a long journey is an hour, maybe two, by high-speed train. And boy did I have my fair share of hilarity on the Dutch trains. All in one day: I tried boarding a Thalys hi-speed train (misreading the ticket, which was in Dutch), got kicked out of a first class train car (I was unaware of class distinctions), was spoken to on the silent car for making a phone call (again, oblivious), and finally, rode the “Sprinter” train for an hour instead of the 15 minute Inner City train. With all of these comical and embarrassing mishaps, I wondered to myself how I possibly could have navigated through public transportation in other countries. Then I realized how Europe afforded me a new sense of independence where I wasn’t so reliant on others, partially due to my own perceived sense of security, and therefore, had many more opportunities to “mess up.” Eventually, however, I grew quite accustomed to the ways of life in the Netherlands, navigating the efficient (albeit at times complicated and definitely expensive) public transportation system of trains, trams, metros, and buses, alongside of
course, the bicycle. So I guess the moral of this chapter of the story is that again, we as human beings, have the capacity to be remarkably flexible, to adapt to the rhythms and flows of new cultures, though the adjustment may be taxing at first.

I learned the difference between Holland and the Netherlands, though I still interchange them, and spent time meeting PhD students and faculty in the Farm Technology Group at Wageningen University, a prestigious agriculture institution known worldwide for its pioneering work (though sometimes criticized agribusiness approach to “feeding the world”). It was overwhelming. No, I am not getting my PhD and no, I don’t have any solid findings or conclusions from my research. I have feelings, jumbled thoughts swirling around in my head that I haven’t even begun to try to sort out. Maybe that will be my mission this summer or maybe it will never clearly happen but just continue to exist as an ongoing process throughout my life. Everyone is asking me to send them my “report” – well, I don’t have a report to be honest. I am brainstorming ways to share the rich repository of information I’ve garnered, possibly through writing a series of short journal articles, since it seems sinful to keep it to myself instead of hopefully enriching the larger society. Maybe I’ll produce a memoir, a vividly rich recount of my cross-cultural experiences on four continents. Or maybe I won’t. The future has never felt so vast and uncertain, which is scary and exciting.

While in the Netherlands, I focused my research on the juxtaposition of high tech greenhouses for commercial export and urban agriculture for local food security and community resilience. My six weeks was full of good and funny moments. I slept in a yurt with four Italians while working on a small vegetable farm, Hof van Twello (“Court of Twello”), structured somewhat like modern day serfdom. I helped them with English and interviewed the farm owner, Gert, who prides himself on “making small-scale profitable.” Gert (pronounced “Hurt” in the Dutch way) provides land, water, compost, and tools free to local residents and in exchange, they are responsible for using half their plot to grow what he requests and selling half their production through his farm shop. In this way, Gert is able to overcome the issues of a) expensive labor b) mechanization and c) quality and diversity. In his organizational system and peri-urban farm, something like a participatory community garden that he calls “a new commons” (yes, like Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons), Gert makes the rules. He designs a business plan, employs “free labor,” does not have to invest it expensive machinery because of all the hands on deck, and ensures a high quality and diversity of crop because of the 40+ workers. I thought this was innovative and encouraging, like nothing I had heard of before and what’s more: it’s replicable. Gert also
sticks out in my memory for saying, “I like you. You’re critical.” I don’t think anyone would have said this to me a year ago.

Did you know that the Netherlands, a country slightly larger than Maryland, is the second (or third) largest agricultural trader and largest exporter of seeds in the world? I learned that its history as savvy merchants, ideal port-location, and fertile soil helped enable Holland to become a breeding ground for modern agriculture and scaling and a global hub for logistics and trade. I heard my fair share of notable speakers in the Netherlands, including Joel Salatin (famous American farmer of Polyface Farms from Virginia, known for his innovatively sustainable animal husbandry and appearance in food documentaries such as Food Inc.) and the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist people (after having missed him by a day while I was in Ladakh, India). I attended several movies and events as part of the (Slow) Food Film Festival in Amsterdam and presented my research at the biweekly meeting of the Farm Technology PhD group at Wageningen University. And of course, I tried my fair share of traditional Dutch foods (stroopwaffel cookies are my favorite: waffle-style cookies with caramel in the middle sandwich-style and then the ubiquitous croquette or smaller bitterballen: gooey unknowns in a fried shell) and visited some iconic places such as the windmill-filled Kinderdijk.

I spent time in the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Wageningen with smaller stints in the towns of Twello, Delft, and throughout Westland, which has been called the “Silicon Valley of Glasshouses” because of its high concentration of automated greenhouses, knowledge, and technology. I visited several glasshouse businesses that are growing horticultural crops mainly for export, as well as greenhouse experimentation and technology design centers. I had never seen a greenhouse so advanced and was shocked at the level of automation, from the computerized system that monitored and regulated the humidity to the robotic carts that transported produced on tracks to the packaging stations. With staggering labor and energy costs, these production models certainly reflect the high-productivity ethos of “more with less.” However, I questioned if they could be easily replicated or if it would require large technical knowhow and significant initial investment, therefore rendering it impossible to transfer or adapt the technology to the Global South. One company, TopKrop Dry Hydroponics, took a particularly unique path to addressing this issue of technology transfer. The owner is working to transmit knowledge via technology and smart design that can be easily modified to fit his clients from Botswana to Ukraine. I found myself uncomfortable, however, by his use of the demeaning phrases “idiot/monkey-proof” when describing the technology in the context of the developing world. Nonetheless, in addition to being exposed to some of the most cutting edge greenhouse technologies, I also witnessed and discussed innovative animal husbandry models like Rondeel for humanely raising chickens in a country known for intensive animal production.

I have also decided that the Dutch are quite a fan of “excursions,” which were an efficient way to visit multiple places and maximize time (another thing at which the Dutch excel). I participated in three such excursions: an urban agriculture bike tour in Rotterdam, urban agriculture in Almere by bus, and urban ag in Utrecht also by cycling. In this way, I was able to visit 4-5 places in a day, guided in a group but also with the freedom to ask questions. I worked on farms, including Uit Je Eigen Stad (“From Your Own City” urban farm) in Rotterdam, where I took immense pride when one of the assiduously tough farmers said, “You’re no soft girl” in surprise of my labor. I participated in an urban agriculture conference, the National Day of Urban Farming, and two roundtable discussions with Dutch and international practitioners. Through these excursions and interviews, I learned about some of the challenges and critiques of urban farming: the difficulties in commercializing small-scale operations and making them profitable; replicating them once they’re successful; and instituting structural policy change to facilitate rather than stifle. The critiques were the most eye-opening, since urban farming is often unabashedly praised. I questioned my own notions of “what is a farm?” and that even if a restaurant or workshops make up 80% of a farm’s revenue rather than selling produce, this diversified income stream and the fact that it’s “selling a story” should not negate its status as a farm. In fact, what some people view as a joke or philanthropic hobby, should instead be regarded as an economically smart social enterprise.

My time in the Netherlands also challenged my ideas of “high tech,” since I originally imagined urban farming to be elaborate vertical schemes with hydroponics and indoor LED lighting. However, the low-tech systems of roof top community gardens, conversion of vacant lots, and city farmers markets may be much more viable and sustainable solutions. While I had the practical questions of productivity and profitability swirling around my head (which would not have been the case before I left home), I came to realize that community building/sense of place, creating a more visible food chain, city marketing through iconographic projects, and public education are valuable enough. And if that’s insufficient, other benefits of urban farming include better waste management, closing loops in the form of nutrient cycling, shortening supply chains, reducing food miles, and creating edible public space. I experienced firsthand the importance of cross-cultural collaboration and exchange of best practices, from hearing specialists from Rome, Italy to Lima, Peru, and the need for citizen engagement in the policy making process. And true, most people with whom I interviewed, from professors to urban farmers, agreed that urban agriculture would never replace conventional agriculture and ultimately feed the world. However, it will hold a special place for innovation and connection, and therefore Wageningen University and the government should take it seriously because decentralized units may be the future of food systems with urban agriculture as an icon of the new society and economy.

Holland also introduced me to the world of Couchsurfing, which has forever influenced my travels in a positive way. I had heard of the Couchsurfing website in the past and honestly thought it was a sketchy scheme: meet strangers on the Internet and live with them? Well, so far *knock on wood*, it has only been filled with positive experiences. Surfing in Wageningen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Berlin, and Reykjavik has been fun and eye opening. It’s an incredible opportunity to meet such generous people and learn from them, to see different worldviews, diverse ways to lead one’s life, and new truths. All in all, I am very pleased with my decision to join because now with this established online community, I have the option to connect and stay with locals when I no longer have the Watson Fellowship and its associated perks, such as the preface of being a research fellow.

Before I knew it, six weeks had come and gone and I found myself on the last leg of my Watson: Iceland. I couldn’t believe it. Had 11 months, 44 weeks, or more than 308 days really passed since I left the comforts of Massachusetts? There were times this year when I questioned if I should still go to Iceland, thinking maybe it wasn’t relevant enough to what my project had become or maybe I should go to Germany instead. But I am ecstatically glad I stuck to plan A on this one. Iceland, a country of 320,000 that sees more than one million tourists a year, is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice” for its volcanoes and glaciers. It sits on the continental divide, straddling the European and North American plates, bestowing immense tectonic and geothermal activity. It is also close to the Arctic Circle, so when it’s not the never-ending winter darkness, Iceland sees time periods of 24 hours of sunlight, giving it the other nickname “Land of the Midnight Sun.” I hoped to understand the use of modern technology and traditional wisdom to help Iceland both overcome and capitalize on these unique environmental circumstances. I learned about production challenges such as lack of soil (as a volcanic island), shortages of organic manure/compost, dramatic variations in daylight, and the effects of “The Crisis” of 2008 on farmers. The country seems to be striving for food self-sufficiency, already 100% in the areas of meat and dairy, 50% self-reliant in vegetables, and the possibility of their geothermal-powered greenhouses to
further contribute to the production of horticultural crops.

While in Iceland, I lived and work on an organic sheep farm for two weeks called Ytri Fagridalur. It was lambing season when I arrived on the island and I immediately jumped in. Normally blood, guts, and gore make me nauseous, so when I told my mom I was birthing baby lambs, she couldn’t believe it and needed a picture as proof. And graphic, it was. One day, I birthed at least nine lambs, completely unsupervised and unassisted, pulling out the legs, wiping the amniotic sac off the baby’s face so it could breathe. Sometimes I had to reach in and adjust its body or help the mother if the baby had horns or was too big. There were even instances in which one lamb would die and the farmer needed to transfer a twin to the newly abandoned mother, which involved skinning the dead lamb and putting its coat on another to try to fool the mother. It really gave “Silence of the Lambs” a whole new meaning…and I thought the “hard stuff” from this year was over!

I have vivid memories of riding in a 1972 Land Rover, with rusted doors about to fall off, into the valley (Ytri Fagridalur means “beautiful valley”) to take pictures of birds that come to Iceland all the way from West Africa and Antarctica to nest. One of the most incredible moments of this year was riding in a raft speedboat with “three generations of lunatics” (as one of the farmers put it), each with a shotgun in hand to cull the seagull populations to help the Eider Duck. One of the major income generating activities in this area near the West Fjords is collecting precious down from the famous duck whose population is compromised by predatory birds. We took the boat out on the ocean, so calm it looked like glass and kept busy stealing/hunting seagull eggs, with an occasional shot ringing into the air. It felt other worldly and somehow, authentically Icelandic. It was an amazing feeling having a family again: a host mom, dad, brother, and sister, who were all so easygoing and just wonderfully average people with a house very much lived in. I was lambing and planting potatoes in between glacial, snow-capped peaks on a seashore where puffins swim – truly surreal. I also learned a great deal of traditional wisdom from my homestay family: everything from folk songs about migratory birds that bring summer to knowing that when certain flowers bloom, it’s time to let the sheep into the mountain pastures. My host family had empowering goals of self-sufficiency and sustainability, which took the form of honeybees, chickens, sheep, jam making, and improved vegetable production, not necessarily commercialization and up-scaling as it was in the Netherlands. And it wouldn’t be Iceland without hearing about the famous Icelandic sagas and legends of elves and trolls that supposedly continue to roam the countryside.

Iceland is beautiful, rugged, and natural. I visited picturesque glacial lagoons, hiked to the top of the glacier-covered volcano Eyjafjallajökull (the same one that erupted in 2010 and halted air traffic between Europe and North America), explored Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland, and rode the tölt, a special gate unique to the Icelandic Horse. In addition to experiencing this nature in a wilder state, I witnessed the power of humans to harness and utilize it in the form of geothermal-powered greenhouses, where farmers pipe hot water from boreholes for heating. I met with business owners, researchers at the agricultural university, and horticultural farmers. I learned, for instance, that LED lights haven’t quite caught on because they are a significant investment that need at least five years to pay back and become profitable and that pumice, a volcanic rock, is one of the most common greenhouse substrates in Iceland because it’s cheap and readily available. I was exposed to different best practices including interplanting, which allows the farmer to continuously harvest and de-leafing, which transfers more energy to fruiting.  And not unlike other parts of the world such as Bolivia and Ladakh, India, it seems that a large number of farmers in Iceland are actually growing organically in terms of refraining from pesticides but are still adding synthetic fertilizers, which they believe is organic.

I also spent a week volunteering at Akur Farm in Laugaras, South Iceland. It is a small organic farm growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet peppers in geothermal-powered greenhouses. I learned about what the farmers are doing differently in glasshouses as compared to conventional growers, including growing in soil instead of substrate, using biological pest control like beneficial insects, and adding nutrients through measures such as fishmeal and compost. I got my hands dirty by helping to harvest cucumbers, packing sweet peppers, and trimming/dead heading in the celery and arugula. I was able to visit a couple of surrounding farms including cucumbers, flowers, and a mixed-use farm for mentally handicapped people. When I was saying goodbye to the farmers, they asked me if I had learned what I wanted, gotten what I had hoped for out of the experience of working on their farm. What was I even looking for? To have another farm work experience. To compare an organic with conventional greenhouse. To ask questions. I did all of those things, so I would say yes. But even more importantly than that, I met people who irrevocably changed my life, as unexpected as the Watson. 

Both people and places shape our lives in fundamental ways, certainly during the Watson year, and especially this week. I met one of the happiest and most inspirational people I’ve crossed paths with to date, someone who reminded me of the importance of meditation, mindfulness, and truth seeking. I have become acquainted with a number of individuals this year and I can safely say, many of them will stay in my heart forever; each person having their own story to tell and lesson to bestow. Another one of these individuals was Ólafur Dýrmundsson, National Advisor for Organic Farming and Land Use in the Icelandic Farmers Association. Ólafur and I began corresponding in October of 2012, almost two years ago and it was incredible to finally meet him. At 70-years-old and on the verge of retirement, Ólafur knows more about his area of expertise (reproduction in lambs) than quite possibly anyone. He is also a proponent of sustainability, organic agriculture, and small farms. Friendly and talkative, he toured me around his “mini farm,” where he was lambing and growing vegetables in a garden. We talked about the evolution of agriculture and food customs in Iceland, the maintenance of genetic diversity in livestock, challenges to organic agriculture such as fertilizer shortages, the link between tourism and agriculture, and the importance of the computer to agricultural development in Iceland.

Of course, not everyone could be Ólafur. To balance his generosity and enthusiasm, I crossed paths with uninterested businessmen who could only spare seconds. Fortunately, however, they were few and far between, yet also had lessons of their own to give. I am extremely gracious to have been able to experience all ends of the agricultural spectrum this year. One person I spoke to in Tanzania encouraged me to play devil’s advocate, be a little skeptical, and most importantly, ask tough questions from people with whom I wouldn't normally associate or seek out. He made me want to learn economics and be able to think better in terms of numbers, facts/figures, and "the market," without losing sight of who I am and what I believe in. I appreciated his final words of encouragement to push through the next 11 months with relentless curiosity and thirst for knowledge; to push myself and do the unthinkable, to exercise my freedom and boundless ability to pursue new truths in a constructive and active way. He was especially right in saying that if I can have my beliefs challenged and am still able to maintain them, it will strengthen my ability to support my worldviews significantly.

So let me rewind and recap some of my Watson year in numbers:

  • 10 countries (6 project related)
  • 4 continents
  • 40 homestays
  • 18 hotels/hostels
  • 2 long-term rentals
  • 170+ interviews, visits, and organizational affiliations
  • 80+ blog entries
  • 5,805+ photographs
  • 14 international flights and connections
  • 3 domestic flights
  • And of course, countless trains, buses, car, motorcycle, and bicycle rides. 
But it’s quality, not quantity isn’t it? Rather than the numbers I racked up, this year is certainly more about the lessons I learned and personal views that others challenged. I now view the world more in vibrant color rather than plain black and white. As I attempted to seek new and different perspectives, I became more critical of the dogma I had once carried with blind loyalty, yet can now maintain my beliefs with newfound conviction.

Referring back to my original project proposal, I aimed to understand the future of food and farming in terms of feeding the world’s growing population in a changing climate, while bearing in mind environmental, social, and economic sustainability, as well as cultural contexts, traditional indigenous wisdom, and innovative technologies (e.g. GMOs, mechanization, synthetic inputs, modern organics, high tech greenhouses etc.). I sought to maintain a balanced approach to agricultural development while learning if industrial or small-scale agriculture would prevail or if both systems were necessary. I somehow already knew the answer to this particular question: yes, the world does need both agribusiness/modern technology and small farmers/indigenous wisdom. I may morally agree more with the latter, but it helped to see both in operation – this year humanized the “other side.” Moreover, it is more than possible to integrate the two: small farmers can utilize innovative techniques such as rainwater harvesting and biological pest control, as well as appropriate technologies such as low horsepower tractors. Similarly, agribusiness probably has a thing or two to learn about traditional wisdom and best practices handed down from generation to generation, whether it is crop rotation or local cycles.

I can safely say, however, that few of my questions were concretely answered and rather, a slew of new questions were generated. In some places, I struggled to get my bearings and explore the original issues (e.g. land grabbing in Tanzania), while I was thriving in other places (e.g. India and Bhutan), and sometimes off to a slow start (e.g. quinoa in Bolivia). I suppose the variation in “success” throughout this year is natural, and I came to accept that not everything would go my way and to instead, fail up or go to plan b. It was a true test of my ability to go with the flow and balance my control freak tendencies with the whims of the Watson, a valuable lesson I hope to carry with me into the future. 

And somehow, I was on my last flight of the entire 12 months, flying from Reykjavik to Boston where I was greeted by my mom, dad, and sister at Logan International Airport. It was like a dream, being reunited at last, and also wondering if the last year had really happened. I slowly unpack my bags as the scars and visceral reminders of this year begin to fade. Yesterday, I cut out the hair wrap that was braided into my locks over the last five months, regretfully letting something go that had become part of me.

Oftentimes, I find myself nostalgic for this past year, missing the feeling of true freedom and independence and wondering if I’ll ever have a year that lives up. I’m hopeful that it’s possible since a new friend in the Netherlands kindly referred to me as “an entrepreneur of my own life.” It’s strange, however, to not have another individual with whom to recap the events from start to finish, only myself alongside the photographs and journal entries. I quickly decide that I’m exceedingly happy to be able to start over when I get back home. The thought of trying to reintegrate into the rhythms of my old life after having a lifetime of experiences seems impossible. The Watson year was obviously life changing and I hope, precedent setting in terms of how I want to lead my life in the future. These past twelve months, I said yes to life. I tried my absolute hardest to seize the day, to refrain from making up excuses, and to “lean in,” as my college orientation leader famously said almost five years ago. My project became my north star, my compass when I was lost. It provided me a framework under which to operate and make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing. As a result, I was able to live out my dreams, explore places only known to me from the pages of National Geographic, and more importantly, immerse myself in the local culture. I could not be more grateful for this opportunity from the Foundation, as well as the generosity and compassion showed to me by the countless individuals I met. 

I would like to leave you with a quotation that I truly believe embodies the Watson Fellowship and I hope, the rest of my life: “Chase your dreams with a passion that makes it impossible for your fears to catch up.”

With deepest gratitude,


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

La Ruta de La Quinua & United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO)

Last year, during the United Nations International Year of the Quinoa, the Bolivian government sponsored the first “La Ruta de la Quinua” or “The Quinoa Route,” which started in the north in La Paz and went south through Patacamaya, Oruro, Challapata, Salinas de Garci Mendoza, the Salar, and ended in Uyuni, all with the goal of raising awareness and increasing quinoa production.  2014 is the second year of “La Ruta de la Quinua Real, 100% Boliviana,” which the government aims to make an annual event.  I wasn’t aware that this year’s Ruta would coincide with my travels in Bolivia, but fortunately, my farmer host in Santuario de Quillacas where I assisted in harvesting quinoa informed me.  He explained that his family was going to assist in feeding the 100+ participants lunch on the second day.  Immediately, I got in touch with my contact at the Ministry of Rural Development who told me I should come into the office to get more details.  Well the story goes that I went from being on the waitlist to being a stray without a home to finally, the VIP list.  Let me elaborate: I show up at 7:30 AM in Plaza Murillo in La Paz, one of the main squares that houses many government offices, including the Government Palace and the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.  Plaza Murillo may also be the prettiest in the city in my humble opinion but also has an interesting history of being the center of the colonial side of the city when the Spanish reigned and having a former president publically executed in the square.  Anyway, back to the quinoa: I show up in the Plaza, try calling my contact at the ministry and he doesn’t pick up the phone (typical).  After wandering around for a bit, then I find a woman who is in charge of assigning vehicles etc. and she asks me to follow her.  So we go to one of the government buildings where they are serving an elaborate breakfast:

Welcome breakfast

Plaza Murillo, the site of the Presidential Palace

Quinoa and Bolivia flags :)

She brings me over to a table and introduces me to…drum roll please…the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization associate of programs in Bolivia.  So naturally, I end up in the UN FAO car, which is second in the caravan of thirty jeeps.  I proceed to meet the Bolivian representative to the FAO, as well as the two interns who are working on programs in Bolivia for 1-2 years.  I was seriously not expecting this special treatment: getting adorned with wreaths of quinoa, getting fed first, and sitting on stage with the Vice Minister of Agriculture, the governor of Oruro department, and the “Quinoa Queen” (apparently there was some kind of competition to find an ambassador/queen of quinoa).  I was also interviewed twice on video camera: by the Ministry of Rural Development and Reuters!  …in Spanish!!  Jokes.  Of course, I was very nervous explaining my research project and trying to express any “conclusions” I’ve made (which haven’t been too many at this point because it’s all been so complicated).  But who knows, maybe I’ll get featured in next year’s Ruta promotional video.

More information about the route:

Objective: to improve the knowledge of the general population and the youth in particular with regard to the ecological and productive systems of quinoa

·         To deepen the motivated students’ study and investigation of quinoa as a star product of the Andean zone
·         A higher quantity of initiatives of investigation and innovation at the level of universities about quinoa
·         Higher interest in the population with respect to the production and consumption of quinoa

·         Visit an industrial processing plant
·         Visit both quinoa dulce and quinoa real plots
·         Visit a germplasm bank and experimental plots of INIAF (government branch)
·         Visit centers of technological innovation
·         Participative harvest and technology fair
·         Rural expositions about soil and water management for quinoa
·         Visit places of ethno and agro-touristic places of interest

Municipalities to visit:
·         El Alto (above La Paz)
·         Patacamaya
·         Sica Sica
·         Oruro
·         Santiago de Andamarca
·         Quillacas
·         Salinas de Garci Mendoza
·         Llica
·         Uyuni

On the one hand, La Ruta coincided perfectly as a final activity in Bolivia but was too close to my departure date for me to participate in the entirety.  So I attended the first half of the route and fortunately, my colleagues in the FAO car also had to be back in La Paz on Wednesday.  But in the limited time I took part, I was able to tour my third quinoa processing plant in Bolivia (of SAITE - Sociedad Agropecuaria Industrial y Técnica), be exposed to some of the newest technology on the market specialized for quinoa (sprayers, harvesters, sowing machines, etc.) as well as technological packages being offered by both NGOs (e.g. CPTS) and private businesses.  We visited several experimental plots, partook in numerous traditional ceremonies with indigenous authorities, and ate tons of quinoa (in the form of porridge, hot drinks, cold drinks, cereal bars, cakes, bread, cookies and the list goes on) as well as llama.  Some other very cool experiences include being within a ten foot proximity to the Vice President of Bolivia (who arrived in a helicopter on the second day…I was in the field having an interview with the Ministry of Agriculture and we had to duck as if we were in War of the Worlds).  The VP inaugurated the first harvesting of the quinoa in Orinoca, which was done by a large combined harvester.  I visited “Evo’s House,” aka the mud hut where Bolivia’s first indigenous president grew up. Mind blowing that he came from literally nothing.   

Evo Morales' childhood home (president of Bolivia)

Evo's house

So what did I learn from the route?  Besides exposure to some new technologies, none of the information was particularly new.  However, it was the energy, excitement, and vibes that were most remarkable.  Hearing various high-level government officials express sentiments of wanting to share quinoa, a food that used to be discriminated against, with the world and the associated sense of pride.  One official even gave the anecdote of how they were flying to Europe and was served quinoa on the airplane – he joked about how it wasn’t even a Bolivian airline!  Apparently, there have been 1,000 new HA of quinoa sown in La Paz department in the last year and with the second version of La Ruta, they are hoping to increase production and expand area even more, with an emphasis on domestic consumption. 

From the factory tour with SAITE, I learned that they are focusing first on South American markets and then outside the continent including promotional fairs in Anaheim, CA, Toronto, and the famous BioFach organic fair in Germany.  Their largest quinoa importers are the U.S., Canada, and Brazil.  They share a commitment and responsibility with the farmers in terms of offering loan assistance and other inputs.  They take a positive approach to employment as well, as most of the workers in the factory come from the local neighborhood.  Now they are working also in value added products with quinoa.  Their factory has a capacity of 20 containers per month.

Industrial processing plant/company we visited

Vice Minister of Agriculture on the factory tour

Saponin or soap-like resin from washing the quinoa

From the visit with INIAF (Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal), I learned about their activities in testing various quinoa accessions (varieties) and efforts to conserve the great biodiversity of the crop.  They will soon harvest the new short cycle varieties and put the germplasm in the genebank.  They are also working with UMSA, one of the universities in Bolivia.  They have more than 400 accessions here and need to plant them each year (in-situ conservation) to prevent loss. 

Bolivia's representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO)

Vice Minister of Agriculture

Government demonstration site was heavily guarded

Demo plot

Different quinoa varieties

Tractors abound, very representative of the goverment

The visit with CPTS (Center for Promotion of Sustainable Technology) was particularly informative.  I’ve been trying to track down the vice-director, Cesin Curi, for ages, playing phone tag with his secretary and trying to follow up on the original emails we exchanged almost two years ago.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I won’t get to have a personal interview after all this, but I am happy I was at least able to meet him on La Ruta.  He is credited with pushing for 1,000,000 HA of quinoa in the future, a vision of extensive agriculture that may or may not be achievable sustainably.  During his presentation, he talked about how he has visions to create a “plural business with farmers and a complementary technological package, which would include machines for plowing, sowing, spraying, harvesting, and seed selection.  The new harvester can cut, thresh, winnow, and transport the cut quinoa (1 HA/hr capacity) and the sprayer has the ability to irrigate (8 HA/hr) and apply fertilizer or pesticides with a capacity of about 50 rows and 20 HA/hour with a 12,000 L cistern.  The benefit of mechanized spraying is of course, uniformity (as is the case with most industrial agro-technology).  When a farmer goes through the fields manually spraying with a backpack, he cannot always achieve equal application.  In sum, the CPTS technology is ready to be launched commercially in the coming months (though prices are still TBD) after being designed and tested over an extensive period.  CPTS has been working on this project for more than six years, as collaborative effort with City SRL, a company that builds machines in Bolivia.  The entire technological package is designed for 500 HA, so the Vice Minister of Agriculture is confident that Bolivia can achieve 1,000,000 HA in the next five years.

Welcomed with a wreath of quinoa; a real VIP ;)

Sub-director of the Center for the Promotion of Sustainable Technologies (CPTS) talking about the new technology package they've developed for quinoa production

Spraying machine

For apply liquid fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation

CPTS has partnered with CABOLQUI, The Bolivian Chamber of Quinoa Exporters, which is sort of an alliance of private businesses that are exporting quinoa.  The manager of CABOLQUI described the joint project with CPTS:

“We are working very hard with CPTS because [Cesin] developed all the technology for processing quinoa.  And since the last 6 years, he’s developed another technology to increase production yields, for mechanization of the farming etc. (sowers, harvesters, threshers).  I think we are in the final stage and are validating all of the technology that has been developed over the last 6 years.  We are working with IDB bank and starting the program in April, which will last for the next 5 years.  I think it’s the last resource or chance to change things – it could be a game changer to make things work with technology and maintain Bolivians leadership in royal quinoa.  In Germany at the BioFach congress, which is the most important organic fair worldwide, we have recognized that India is now working with quinoa and have significant quantities already produced.  When I talk about India or China, now we are talking about big players.  Our capacities are far from them.  And if they recognize that this is an interesting business, they are going to produce in quantities, [which will push us] out of the market.  So we are in a hurry.  Not all of the actors involved in quinoa are in a hurry, but certainly, CALBOLQUI and our enterprises are.  We are pushing this CPTS project and are doing our best really to achieve this program in the next 5 years.  The results for us will define if we are in or out of the market.”

Hmm, so I thought she put it very eloquently and also emphasized the pressing nature of improving production in Bolivia.  However, someone raised the interesting point of why CPTS is testing the technology near Patacamaya in the central Altiplano when the  agro-climatic conditions are so different from those in the southern Altiplano.  I have discussed the potential of this project with several of my interviewees and I will share some of their views here.  One person expressed to me “two false assumptions” –

“One [false assumption about the CPTS project] is that they think that farmers cannot innovate.  But if you look at the development of quinoa on the southern Altiplano, now I am talking about the production not the processing, the innovation in production has been pulled by the farmers.  Farmers have purchased the tractors, sowing machines, plows, winnowing machines etc.  the problem is that there was no strong agronomic research in Bolivia to try to contribute to stronger innovation in the production level.  We could think of a lack of both public and private contribution.  The other wrong assumption is that they want to create big farms because they want to push the price of quinoa down, it’s too high for them to export.  But this is a totally wrong diagnosis because Bolivian quinoa export prices haven’t dropped.  The prices have doubled and the export hasn’t dropped.  The fact is that the problem isn’t here, it’s the demand – in the U.S., which consumes 2/3 of the volume traded.  So the problem is a kind of frenetic demand in the U.S. importers and retailers cannot regulate this.  Importers and retailers create this instability.  In my diagnosis, I don’t see why Bolivians, Peruvians, or Ecuadorians should assume the responsibility of the global price.  From my Andean perspective, the high price is very welcomed for exporters and high prices.  It’s the first time that indigenous small farmers have strong power in the food chain and I personally welcome that.  If you see the history of what’s happened in that reason.  But of course exporters don’t care and just want to do business; they want a lower price because importers and retailers complain about high prices.  They say that the suppliers are responsible for the high price because they are unable to produce more, which is their diagnosis.  That’s why they say we need to produce more to drop the price.  In my opinion, we need to produce better in quality and in sustainability, no more in quantity.  They also want to do this in a contract farming, agro-capitalist way while we have a small farm indigenous way.  And if you see the history of that reason, they were very much exploited in the 19th century by the formation of haciendas (in the central Altiplano), and there is this memory.  And with middlemen, the negative sentiment also remains.  They want to do business and want to create a good price.  CPTS’s interest is normal – they will get 30% of the stocks of each one of those big unit farms, so they will learn a lot.  They want to do it under contract, not buying the land.  They want communities to pool their lands and the communities will have a share of the stocks and get money from that.  But the technology proposed is bad.  I have seen their demonstrations and participated last year with importers, funders, etc. and it was terrible.  The yields too.  First they want to grow quinoa real in a place where it will never grow well, so you’ll have a bonsai quinoa with short flowers and almost no grains.  It was terrible.  If you take quinoa real to the U.S. it will never grow and neither in the central or northern Altiplano.  Secondly, the technology.  This is a business for CPTS; they designed and manufactured the machines, so he will learn money from selling the machines.  This is business not cooperation.  But it is business with bad technology and farmers in communities close to the research station have yields that are doubled or tripled compared to their personal parcels.”

So I asked why was CPTS so successful in designing post-harvest processing technology, which revolutionized the quinoa industry, but not in production technology?

The response I received, “Cesin Curi is not an agronomist.  I think he has taking into account global market dynamics because he wants to pull down the price and him and CABOLQUI both want more production and lower prices.  I’ll be honest, Cesin is kind of a bluffer.  When he talks about marginal lands, he is bluffing.  He is taking range lands, traditional llama and sheep land because his unit is not in the southern Altiplano.  No one wants to work with him in the southern Altiplano.  His research station is near Patacamaya and that’s what we saw when we went last year; the technology is not good.” 

So then I asked: do you think this CPTS project is a “tipping point” that can revolutionalize quinoa production as CABOLQUI has expressed?

“That’s why the central and northern Altiplano are interesting because more and more communities are turning to quinoa.  But in their farms, they won’t be able to produce quinoa real because of different agro-climatic conditions.  And this is what they don’t understand.  I interviewed one guy from CPTS who was surrealistic.  When I told him quinoa real doesn’t grow here and he said, “we will change the soil.”  And if they change the soil, other crops won’t be able to grow and enter into the rotation.” 

Another important source for my research here also expressed his opinions on the CPTS project:

“CPTS has the idea of going into these marginal lands, but we’ll see.  We are a little disconnected from those guys, so they are going to get in their own little bubble trying to change the game.  As we’ve seen it, the game has already changed.  Quinoa grows everywhere and there is already competition from everywhere.   The processing technologies haven’t changed since CPTS technology came out; it’s outdated, we have to modernize the cleaning technology.  Then ConAGra and Cargill and Kellogg are entering quinoa industry without preferring Bolivian quinoa over Ecuadorian and likely preferring US produced quinoa.  The problem is that CABOLQUI and CPTS are localized and blind to market evolutions.  Their pride is blinding them – they think we have the best product in the world, [so they don’t want] to see what the other guys are doing and how they’ve advanced.  So we have to take farmers out of Bolivia and show them how farmers are doing.  We need to have farmers learn from the competition to learn of how to improve production.  It’s not going into marginal areas with poor technology.  I am not very positive on CPTS.  As far as we go, we are working to create a niche for Bolivian growers to differentiate them with a brand.”

So clearly, it’s complicated.  I am still sorting out what I think about all this, but it seems that perhaps the aspirations and declarations of CPTS and the Ministry of Agriculture to expand the production area to 1,000,000 HA in the future (up from about 170,000 HA now) is misplaced.  In terms of extensive versus intensive agriculture, it seems that there is much less emphasis (at least in words and in the form of propaganda) on increasing yields and overall productivity (e.g. through promotion of integrated farming systems with llamas and restoring the fertility of these degraded lands).  It seems that the dialogue around quinoa production in Bolivia has, to some degree, also about proving the ability to “keep up” and “modernize.”  One government official compared it to Tupac Katari, the new satellite that Bolivian recently launched (with the funding support of China, of course).  So with this sort of agro-industrial mindset, quinoa can represent progress.  The Secretary to the Governor of Oruro expressed how quinoa represents a “cultural, economic, and productive evolution.” 

Community visits along the route :)

My new friend Yusuke, an intern with the United Nations FAO

Quinoa babies

Traditional quinoa dishes (e.g. cake, porridge, etc.)

"Quinoa is a gift from mother earth"
"Quinoa is an ancestral nutritious grain"
"Quinoa is the only vegetable that possesses al of the amino acids" 

Where I sat on stage with the Vice Minister of Agriculture and the governor of Oruro State of Bolivia 

Cultural presentation at the dinner


With the "quinoa queen" (or ambassador)

30+ jeeps

Welcomed by a band

Excited school children

At the technological fair in Orinoca, a separate package of machines was displayed, this time by a private business called BOLTRAC, based in Santa Cruz where they have large-scale soy and wheat production.  It’s German technology and apparently they are working with farmers in Challapata region to develop a mechanized system; a package for 300 HA.

The Vice President of Bolivia and the Minister of Agriculture also gave their spiels in Orinoca, the home region of president Evo Morales (apparently Evo couldn’t attend because he was bringing 8 tons of vegetables as food aid to areas near the Brazilian border that have been experience devastating floods).  They emphasized internal consumption and the expansion of the quinoa frontier (as has everyone here).  Although quinoa may be everywhere these days, only quinoa real is in the southern Altiplano, which should generate immense pride.  They noted how up until now, eradicating world hunger has mainly been in the hands of private businesses but with 2014 as the International Year of the Family Farmer, that small producers can also feed the world.  A similar story that has been permeating many of my interviews includes the analogy comparing the quinoa market with mining of precious metals during the colonial period.  The Vice President also expressed how during the colonial times, the Spanish found gold and silver, but more importantly were potatoes and indigenous crops.  He talked about how potatoes have since spread to the entire world and helped address hunger issues in some places (yet he neglected to acknowledge the Irish Potato Famine as a result of monocropping).  Yet while the Spanish were busy bringing potatoes back to Europe, they ignored and even condemned quinoa, creating a stigmatized culture in the country (i.e. middle, upper class, and mixed-race/European-descended Bolivians looking down on quinoa as dirty food of the countryside and indigenous peoples) that, on some level, persists today.  However, quinoa today, as the Vice President expressed, may be the salvation of the world, a food so powerful that it can send astronauts to the moon.  It’s the new gold, but now it’s in the hands of Bolivia instead of the colonizers.  He exclaimed that we aren’t going to have a problem with prices because the demand is high and other countries want healthy, organic food, and that Bolivia shouldn’t worry about other countries’ production because quinoa real of Bolivia is unrivaled in its nutritional value.  Quinoa real is Bolivian quinoa and it’s important that the world knows this.  But we cannot forget about domestic consumption, which is currently estimated at a meager 1 kg/per capita/per annum.  Quinoa, however, requires resting periods and that farmers take care of the earth with sustainable production.  According to the Vice President of Bolivia, “Quinoa is a treasure, a grain of gold, that can be the salvation of Bolivia and of the world.”

New harvesting technology, German-designed

Before my interview with Reuters :D

The Vice President of Bolivia just arrived in his chopper, casual


UN FAO colleagues with the VP of Bolivia's chopper

Vice Preisdent of Bolivia giving a speech

VP opening this year's harvest on brand new combined harvester technology

Then we got a flat tire, wamp wamp

Made it out before the rains came

In essence, La Ruta de La Quinua was a perfect way to end my time in Bolivia, especially being able to spend time with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the body responsible for 2013 – the International Year of the Quinoa.  I had a small “despedida” or farewell gathering at the PROINPA office where I have been working on and off since January.  We at the quinoa cookies I made (yum!), drank coca-cola (of course), and exchanged stories and laughter.  My final words with my supervisor were in English and could have brought me to tears, though I managed to hold back.  I feel that I do have a home in Bolivia when I decide to return, a network of supportive individuals and organizations.  As I pack up my room and get ready to depart for Cuzco, Peru where I will spend the next ten days with my boyfriend who is coming from California, I am beginning to really get nostalgic.  Looking back on my experiences in Bolivia, I feel that an exponential curve embodies my three months here.  Things started off really negatively on the verge of failure, but as the twelve weeks progressed, it just got better and better.  La Paz is the first big city that I’ve ever lived in and it really feels like home.  Sure, there are things that drive me crazy about Bolivia, but if I had to, I really think I could learn to love it here.  So until the next time, here’s my despedida.  Ciao y nos vemos.    

With Bolivia's representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO)

UN FAO team :D