Wednesday, January 22, 2014

More La Paz Ponderings and US-Bolivia Relations

A week of holidays

It is hard to believe that I will have been in La Paz for one month this coming Saturday.  And the unfortunate thing is I feel like I have gotten very little done project-wise.  It just feels like pulling teeth trying to accomplish anything here.  Again, I know that language plays a large role in the apparent stagnation and my own insecurities and uncertainties.  I have sent out so many emails over the last few days and I feel like I am constantly meeting people who have vague suggestions or far off ties but then things never come to fruition.  Perhaps I am not being proactive enough and am waiting around too much for things to come to me, as they seemed to do in India.  But for example, just this afternoon I received an email from a prominent quinoa scholar who I reached out to in hopes of obtaining more suggestions or leads:

"It is really nice to have people studying changes in agriculture as a consequence of climate change and global demand.

From what I read in your message. Your project is too ambitious for the time you have in Bolivia and the time you require to obtain farmers confidence. Worst if you want to study the value chain. I also see that you want to study topics that are all ready largely treated and are already known for quinoa production in southern Altiplano. This goes to repetitions and rests originality to your work.

I would suggest that you study quinoa production changes in Central Altiplano were no one has gone. Please let me remind you that the area were to make the study in Central Altiplano is Aroma Province, and not Pacajes. The region to study is between Patacamaya and Lawachaka. If you do not want to go there, go to Northern Altiplano, and the Titicaca lake shore, particularly to Ancoraimes and Batallas regions. If you do that, you will really make an original contribution."

Well, he makes a number of valid points, even if his response was a bit demoralizing.  I know he is probably right with my project being too ambitious (a comparative analysis of three different quinoa growing regions in the country: north around Lake Titicaca, central, and southern Alitplano), as well as following the commodity chain from field to export and trying to compare conventional/traditional quinoa with certified organic.  Okay, so maybe I have three projects here (it sort of feels like when I was trying to narrow down my project choices for the initial Watson proposal, gah, how am I back to square one?).  But one thing he said that struck a sort of negative chord with me: the lack of originality and repetition in my work.  This year is not supposed to be about groundbreaking contributions to existing fields or even originality as much as it is about personal experiences and growth.  For example, when applying for the Watson Fellowship, the coordinator notes that it doesn’t really matter if you propose an idea that has been done before because undoubtedly, it will be a totally different experience for you.  It could have been done 50 times in different (or the same) countries, but by no means does this indicate that the project will have the same trajectory, individuals, interactions etc.  That being said, I came to Bolivia because I wanted to know more about the quinoa that my peers and I eat at home, on our college campus, in the health foods store, and on my mother’s kitchen table.  Not to say that I wouldn’t want to make a new and meaningful contribution to this field, but as this is a non-academic endeavor, I am eager to explore areas that may have already been studied because my own perceptions will certainly vary from those who came before me.  Moreover, in addition to critiquing my approach, he points out that the area where I am currently studying quinoa (Pacajes region) with the NGO PROINPA is irrelevant and that instead I should focus on Aroma province.  Unfortunately, I can’t just show up on the door steps of farming communities (which he very much alludes to by saying that the time frame under which I am working is too short to earn the trust of farmers), so I really have to make the most of the resources currently available to me.  GAH!  I really hope things pick up in the coming weeks, as I feel like I am floundering around without a compass and just waiting on other people to get back to me.   

On a more positive note, after the scare in La Paz last week, things are starting to look up.   I am much happier in my current living situation.  I am living with a young couple (early 30s) in a large flat in San Pedro, a residential neighborhood of La Paz.  There are two young women, Canadian Development workers, and an American tourist staying here as well.  I’ve really been getting along well with everyone and it’s just nice to feel like I have friends my own age.  Just the other night, we went out to this reggae bar/club to go dancing for one of their Canadian friend's birthday.  Although it was smokey and definitely not up to fire code, the underground establishment was a fun time, between Bolivian men trying to teach me how to Salsa and watching very intoxicated foreigners hit on Bolivian women.  Speaking of a good time, I also made a friend on the bus two weeks ago when I was on a mad hunt for my yoga mat in one of the many open-air markets in the city.  He was nice enough to accompany me for about a half hour searching for the seemingly nonexistent and elusive yoga mat.  Eventually we found it!  

The beautiful yoga mat bag I had made for the new mat I bought (read: hunted down and luckily found after an hour of searching a street market)

He is very nice, a computer programmer in his late 20s, who lives in El Alto, the Aymara capital of the world (largest population of indigenous Aymara in one place).  The city was originally a suburb or sprawl of La Paz but has since grown to more than one million people.  Speaking of El Alto, he accompanied me to the weekly Feria, the largest open-air market in Bolivia and perhaps South America, which I heard from someone at around 5 square km of everything you could imagine from used cars to fruit to sneakers.  Speaking of sneakers, he helped me navigate the busy streets of La Feria, insisting that we link arms because I am a foreigner and probably a higher target for petty theft.  He assisted me in my search for running shoes since the stagnation and lack of exercise is driving me crazy.  However, I should note that walking around the city is pretty good exercise in and of itself because of all the hills, which combined with the altitude leaves me breathless.

With Alpacas at the Feria de 16 de Julio Market in El Alto :D

Yet I am beginning to think that me and exercise in Bolivia are not meant to be.  My yoga mat has been away for more than four days now since I sent it off to a friend to see if a tailor could sew a bag for it.  I am itching for some downward dog!  And I tried to go running on Monday, however, La Paz was basically shut down as public transportation and taxi drivers blockaded the city in protest of a new municipal government initiative to introduce large buses.  This meant that I couldn’t go up to El Alto to meet my PROINPA colleagues for our field visit and also that I couldn’t run in the city park.  When I woke up at morning, the sounds of gunshots rang through the winding streets and narrow alleys, which I later learned were only “fuegos artificiales” (fireworks).  Apparently a popular addition to organized protests, which are all too common in Bolivia.  I thought I would try running again today but almost immediately after I stepped out the door, it started to rain.  I made my way to the center of the city towards the main park, only to discover that the city is indeed preparing for Alasitas, a major three-week festival that will take place on January 24th.      

According to one website (

“Alasitas is a 3-week long fair that, in La Paz, takes place beginning on the 24th of January and in Santa Cruz takes place in September. Everything is in miniature! This festival originally took place in September throughout the country when it's spring time in Bolivia and farmers prayed for a good crop so their harvest would be bountiful. Alasitas is an Aymara festival Bolivia celebrates in reverence of the indigenous "god of bounty" or "abundance" called the Ekeko. Therefore, Alasita has been called the Festival of Abundance. It takes place at the Parque Urbano in La Paz and the 5th Ring between Tres Pasos al Frente and Cumavi in Santa Cruz. As it grows each year, its location is sometimes moved.”

Alasita "festival of miniatures"

You gift a hen for men and a rooster for women to wish upon them marriage

Foosball at Alasitas in the city center

Yes, that is Twilight playing in the background while everyone is eating fried cakes and drinking api, a purple maize/corn drink

Translation (more or less):

-It's the most beautiful fair of fortune and hope joy of children, youth and adults 
-It is the enjoyment of families, gathering of friends, walk in love and writing materials (?)
-Bustling streets admire their thumbnails (miniatures?) in a living museum of human knowledge 
-Little [bank] notes, little plots, little trucks and stuff and also blessed by Yatiris (traditional healers) and bandages 
-Concert of Charanguitos (musical instruments), charm of cholitas, chirping of birds to the beat of pinquillitos Alasitas 
-Ch'ukuta is well-born offspring of his godfather don Ekeko San Francisco with his star Illimani"

All of the booths set up for Alasitas

Well el Parque Urbano is exactly where I wanted to run today, but unfortunately for me, it seems that everyone and their mother is in the park setting up for Alasitas.  Men and cholitas alike are constructing makeshift structures for selling various things.  Some booths were already erected and included artisanal woodcrafts, candy, toys, jewelry, and of course miniature fake money, the last being the strangest.  In many cases, the bills, both Bolivians and US Dollars, look frighteningly real.  It is strange to think that so many counterfeit bills are printed each year for this festival, so now more than usual, vendors will hold up your money to the light to check to see if it’s authentic.  Even though my running plans were thwarted, I enjoyed chocolate covered strawberries and a fruit salad of mango, banana, and apples in a strawberry yogurt mixture.  Fresh, peeled fruit from a public/street establishment is never the wisest choice for a traveler, but I’m hoping that I’ve built up enough bacteria over the last seven months that I’ll survive ;)  In fact, I was discussing with someone the other day, wondering if the bacteria in the food and water is basically the same around the world.  For my own sake, I certainly hope so!

So I titled this post: “A Week of Holidays,” because it sort of has been.  For instance, with Monday being protest/blockade day, I couldn’t “go to work.”  Friday is the beginning of Alasita and today, Wednesday, is also a national holiday: Plurinational State Foundation Day.  Yep, that’s a mouthful.  Basically they are celebrating the fact that the president, Evo Morales, transformed Bolivia from “The Republic of Bolivia” to “The Plurinational State of Bolivia” through the new 2009 constitution.  This change is “in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the country and the enhanced position of Bolivia's indigenous peoples under the new constitution” (according to Wikipedia).  In fact, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and to me, he seems to be loved and hated by many.  His administration has made great strides for advancing the needs of the indigenous, poor, and historically marginalized, but not without creating tension and isolating many of Bolivia’s mestizos/European descended citizens and wealthier inhabitants, especially in the east near Santa Cruz.  One study provides very interesting context and perspective:

“From a comparative-historical perspective the Morales regime would probably be considered as the world’s most conservative radical regime or the most radical conservative regime.  This apparent contradiction is resolved by examining the policies and practices of the regime.  But what is not in question is that the Morales regime, his advisers and government, have extraordinary wide backing.  His allies include leaders of the social movements at home, as well as overseas investors and  mining executives, trade union leaders and domestic bankers; agro-business exporters and business leaders and Indian coca farmers, all enthusiastic supporters of the “First Indian President” in Latin America and the region’s leading advocate of extractive capital!

The Morales regime has won every election, six in all, since 2005, including two Presidential elections, each by a larger margin.  His vote has increased from 50% to 60% and Morales, looking to national elections in 2014, promises to garner 70% of the ballots.  No President in the history of Bolivia has secured consecutive electoral victories, and ruled democratically for such an extended period of time (8 years) with political stability.”    

If you are interested, more can be found about his fiscal, trade, investment, and labor policies here:

Anyways, I thought it was interesting that it has been dubbed as both “radically conservative” and “conservatively radical.”  Even in my own conversations with people, Bolivians both like and dislike him, as I suppose with any political party or regime anywhere in the world.  For example, my computer programmer friend is a fan because of the proposed “teleferica” project Morales is implementing, which is basically a massive cable car line that will run from El Alto to La Paz.  He has also constructed new towers for improved cell phone and Internet service, which has worked wonders for my friend’s computer repair business.  And as noted previously, 2013 was the International Year of the Quinoa per the United Nations, so the regime has been promoting the industrialization of quinoa for export, while also promoting domestic consumption through proposals for school lunch programs and supplemental nutrition for breast-feeding mothers.  He has been known to give out dozens of free tractors to Altiplano farmers, but perhaps without taking into account the full environmental consequences of expanded quinoa cultivation on already fragile and erosion-prone soils.

Hmm, more on the politics of quinoa later!

For now, this may be a week of holidays, but nothing in Bolivia has been easy.  Until now, I am not a fan of the weather (it’s been raining cats and dogs for weeks, but I guess that’s what I get for showing up during the rainy season), the food isn’t so good (remember those freeze dried potatoes that look like cat poop I mentioned?), I’m not sure who to trust (don’t want to have an attempted robbery happen again), and my research has been rather stagnant (and with the upcoming Carneval at the end of February/beginning of March, it’s going to take another stand still).  In retrospect, I was floating on cloud nine in India and Bhutan.  Everything there seemed to miraculously work out; people were so unbelievably helpful and accommodating; and I had more research material than I knew what to do with.  It sounds crazy, but sometimes I have these thoughts or visions of heaven: I imagine myself entering this ethereal kingdom, passing through the quintessential golden gates and being welcomed by all familiar faces from my travels so far: dozens of people, mostly from India and Bhutan, greeting me with open arms.  Here, however, I don’t even want to tell people I am American because of the rocky relations between Bolivia and the U.S.  Just today, I had a short conversation with my colleague and his brother on the way to one of our field visits and he noted how Evo Morales (Bolivia’s president) hates Obama and the U.S. and these negative sentiments run deep through much of Bolivia’s population (cool – makes me feel really welcomed! Haha).  Just last June, Evo kicked out DEA (Drug Enforcement Adminisrtation) and USAID (claiming they were “meddling” in politics and conspiring to undermine the government), and even threatened to close the American embassy in La Paz, saying, “we don’t need you, we’ve got other allies,” following the drama with Edward Snowden’s plane (more can be read here 

I guess I should explain the root of the hostility a bit more.  There are a number of reasons why Evo/Bolivia don’t love the United States.  One rationale is that we have been harboring one of their former presidents, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada aka “Goni,” who was charged with human rights violations and genocide after ordering open fire on protesters following his plan to sell off the country’s natural gas reserves to foreign countries.  After, he fled and sought exile in the U.S., where he has been given sanctuary (apparently he’s living an extremely affluent lifestyle somewhere in New Jersey), when some believe that he should be forced to come back to Bolivia and tried for all of his crimes.  Another is our policy on drugs, namely related to cocaine.  Bolivia is one of the largest producers of coca, whose leaf is the raw material for cocaine, and Evo Morales came from a coca-farming family and was a cocalero union leader.  Coca is an extremely important part of Bolivian culture: the leaf is often chewed as a stimulant, like caffeine; it is used for rituals and in traditional medicine and foreigners usually drink coca tea to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.  Even though coca, in its raw and unprocessed form, really has little to do with cocaine, previous U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, have condemned Bolivia for not doing more to control drugs, and going as far as to place Bolivia on a blacklist along with Venezuela .  Another reason for the hostility seems to be the general political leanings of Bolivia.  They have been careful to ally themselves with Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, as well as Cuba, two countries with which the U.S. has even worse relationships, if that’s even possible. 

Early on in the planning process, someone mentioned to me that carrying out my research on the Bolivian Altiplano wouldn’t be easy and that the communities I am attempting to work with, indigenous farmers, are historically the most marginalized demographic and are naturally suspicious of foreigners, as well as the fact that Bolivia has been characterized as being fiercely autonomous.  She even suggested that I all together switch to Peru to carry out my research.  While Bolivia hasn’t been a joy ride, but rather a slap in the face – it’s been an important reality check and perspective for my research.  Sure, I could have gone to Peru where maybe it would have been easier and I seriously thought about it and even told the Watson Foundation I wanted to add it to my itinerary.  My reasons for wanting to go there, however, were flawed: because it would be easy?  That’s certainly not what the Watson is all about.  And right now, I am glad I didn’t. 

Bolivia is the birthplace/center of origin of quinoa and is currently the largest producer in the world.  And I think it’s been really good for me to go somewhere where America isn’t worshipped, as a pleasant reminder that my country is not the hegemony and paradigm for everyone in the world (obviously, duh!).  But it’s been quite the change – in Tanzania, everyone wanted to talk to you because you were a mzungu (foreigner, usually white) and the relationship between the U.S. and Tanzania seems to be much more based on foreign aid.  In fact, I’ve had so many organizations and even individuals I didn’t get to meet emailing me and asking me about connecting them with donors and funding sources for their efforts or studies.  Plus, with Obama, our first black president, having visited Tanzania while I was there, it’s safe to that the diplomatic relations are much better.   In India, many people were equally fascinated and enamored by the U.S. and there were many aspects of American culture present throughout the country, while at the same time, maintaining their own rich and beautiful customs and without begging for foreign aid (I think Gandhi and swadeshi or self-sufficiency has really stuck).  In Bhutan, it was more neutral, the first country I visited where America didn’t really have a political presence as I learned that the diplomatic ties between the two countries is virtually nonexistent, for better or worse.  Perhaps the States thinks they have nothing to gain from ties with Bhutan, but in my opinion, Bhutan has much to teach the world about life in general.  And here in Bolivia, clearly, they want nothing to do with the U.S., further reflected in the $135 visa fee, which is free for Europeans and other foreigners.  This appears to be another one of Evo’s middle fingers to the States, since we apparently make it ridiculously difficult for Bolivians to come to America, even for vacation, never mind permanent migration.  So yes, Bolivia has been quite the reality check – unaccommodating in terms of language, which is a good challenge for me, and the it’s unrealistic to think I could spend the whole year without rain (besides, without rain, crops can’t grow!).  Unless I move to Ladakh where they get around 300-320 days of sunshine a year…or the Bay Area of California, with the latter being slightly more realistic.        

Anyways, after having a conversation with my supervisor at PROINPA and also reflecting more on the previous, demoralizing email, I realized that for once, I am going to try not to “Lauren Howe” the hell out of this (as one of my roommates once phrased it).  This means that I am not going to kill myself to see and do everything (compare the south, Lake Titicaca and central Altiplano production, compare traditional cultivation with certified organic, try to follow the commodity chain, and talk to NGOs/cooperatives/government/private business etc.).  I have to work with what I have and not beat myself up over falling short (a constant question that’s been swirling in my head: “how to measure success?” and also being okay with “failure,” which probably isn’t even failure in a true sense).  Even my supervisor told me that it is very difficult to accomplish work related things here: people seldom respond to emails and are very hesitant to assist random people unless I am contributing to the organization in some way, shape, or form.  Even an American colleague who is doing work in quinoa here told me that unpaid internships or volunteer positions are practically unheard of and that it is a rarity that this particular NGO, PROINPA, even took me on at all.  That being said, I would love to do all of the above, but unfortunately, my time and resources (and language) are somewhat restrictive, so I simply have to make the most with what is available to me at present. C'est la vie.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Story of Quinoa in Bolivia According to Fabricio Nunez de Arco, Andean Naturals/Jacha Inti

My first quinoa-related interview in La Paz took place with Fabricio of Andean Naturals/Jacha Inti Industrial and turned out to be one of the most informative during my time in Bolivia. It certainly helped that we could speak in English, and I felt that it provided the perfect background information to continue my research. Andean Naturals is based in the Bay Area of California and is the largest importer of organic quinoa in the United States. Here is the "story":

"The commercialization of quinoa in Bolivia started in the 1980s.  The National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) is special because it became a big thing without being a private for-profit company; even today, it really to serve its producers.  There were also some early companies in the US (Quinua Corp in Colorado) and EU that helped the commercialization, and during the 80s, there were a few smaller companies that started to develop.  At this time, however, quinoa was produced using manual labor (hand sown, harvested, and beaten for threshing) and small volumes were brought to factories.  Early factories were starting to develop with rudimentary equipment, yet the washing system continued to be the biggest bottleneck because of the high saponin content of the quinoa.  Fortunately, there were a few early leaders in the movement that helped people notice quinoa.

Quinoa underwent small, incremental growth until the early 2000s – the boom really started around mid 2000s.  Before this, it was  a small industry with volume and quality problems.  It was known in very special niche markets but by no means was it a crop that had major recognition by the mainstream market.  Also in the mid 2000, a few new private actors came into the industry and at the same time, the Center for the Promotion of Sustainable Technology (CPTS) developed a new quinoa washing system that was a lot more efficient and could process larger volumes.  This was a huge breakthrough in the quinoa industry that solved a lot of the issues for farmer, as it also removes a lot of the rocks from the process.

At the same time, companies such as Andean Naturals started focusing on quality – humidity, impurities, saponin content, etc. and by doing this, we raised more awareness in Bolivia about how important it is to have good quality quinoa.  At this point, small Bolivian companies started to become more formal about logistics and customer service.  In fact, there are about 10 leading companies in Bolivia that are self-taught and have grown themselves through a lot of hard work.  In fact, quinoa didn’t become a boom because of multi-millions of dollars from international companies.  It grew out of really grassroots efforts.

At the field level, once companies started offering higher quality products, timeliness, and more formal operations, there was naturally more demand.  The demand was up and we could now obtain well washed quinoa with CPTS technology (if you don’t wash the quinoa, it tastes like grass and soap).  The product it itself is spectacular but it tasted horrible before – now it’s a complete healthy food and tasting good, so demand and buzz grew.  It was back in 2008 that the prices tripled: quinoa used to cost $1,000 per metric ton and then $3,000 per metric ton.  In 2008, it was a bad crop year and people thought it was over and quinoa was doomed to fail in Bolivia, but against all predictions, people kept buying and the demand continued to accelerate.  In fact, the demand exceeded supply even at those prices.  This was an indication to everyone that quinoa is here to stay (even with the big recession of 2008).

On the production side, cultivation started moving into flat lands and now it is mostly in the plains with little slope production, which was traditional cultivation.  However today, you can’t put a tractor on the hillsides. After initial plowing and sowing in September, secondary tilling/land preparation with a tractor is necessary in January or February because it’s the most humid time of the year, serving as a moisture conservation technique.  Sowing is also now done with machines (used to be hand sown), so more massive areas are cultivated.  The average land holding of a southern Altiplano farmer is around 8 hectares (or 20 acres).  From the 2000s until now, quinoa production was expanding into flat land around traditional areas near the salt flats, but now it is even moving into new areas like Pacajes, north of Oruro (Patacamaya).  These are non-traditional cultivation areas that may have had quinoa at one time but not recently.

Now a days, you have the companies which have invested a lot more in infrastructure, machinery, and production capacity.  Everyday companies are formalizing more and more.  It went from small to medium and now there are quite a few large companies by Bolivian standards (i.e. selling more than 8 million per year), but still there aren’t any MNCs or large companies.  The absence of multinational corporations can probably be explained partially by the direct nature of quinoa production.  We work with producer associations: about 500 producer families and ANAPQUI may have 4,500 producers.  The associations helps with credit and other benefits such as marketing.  For example, the government gave ANAPQUI money to open their own bank where producers can get loans for agricultural equipment etc.  Working directly with producers is a whole new ball game, and MNCs in general might be scared because some lack social consciousness and don’t typically care about producers.  These companies may see the informal actors involved in the supply chain and the director connection with farmers, which might not appeal to them.  For instance, there are many black holes; for instance, in taxes or when you buy something and there aren’t receipts or paperwork.  We pay taxes based on farmers’ acreage or lands not in sales.  MNCs may see this and get scared off; they don’t want to buy from thousands of producers, but rather from one.  The quinoa industry in Bolivia is a very hands-on, intensive, and personal supply chain.  You need to a very open mind to work directly with and care for producers.  You need to have some kind of social perspective, as many companies in Bolivia do.  In fact, many entrepreneurs who work in quinoa are from the areas, so it’s a very personal relationship.  My brother and I aren’t from the quinoa producing area, but we are Bolivians and we have values that we want to protect.

Expansion has brought a lot of challenges.  Every year, overall production of quinoa increases through geographic expansion (not really intensification on existing land) but yields haven’t exactly gone up on average (550 kilos per hectare on a national level).  Another serious challenge is llama herding, which has always traditionally accompanied quinoa production since farmers would use the manure as a fertilizer.  Today, however, there has been a lot of quinoa invasion into traditional llama grazing areas in the lowlands, which is causing the price of fertilizer to go up tremendously.  With fewer llamas, there will be no sound organic fertilizer for quinoa.  But the problem is that llamas don’t exactly have a market, whereas producers want to plant quinoa everywhere because of lucrative markets.  Over the last 2-3 years, everyone has encountered the problem of selling off llamas and invading grasslands with quinoa.   However, it is starting to slow down as people realize and are trying to reverse the trend.  It’s certainly a work in progress to develop consciousness.  And because producers don’t have any llamas or fertilizer anymore, yields have been going down to 200 kg/HA.  This has the effect of reversing the trend as farmers realize their losses and that it is not sustainable without an integrated system.  There is a serious need to keep the land healthy and give back with liquid and solid fertilizers.  And to ensure that it is sustainable, farmers have to increase yields and work on the same existing land.  However, there is still quite a lack of knowledge of how to manage the crop efficiently and sustainably boost existing yields.

Another key challenge is cultural.  Before when quinoa was a traditional food, it was consumed by indigenous populations living in their own communities and working the land with a daily presence.  If there was a pest, they would deal with it and weed every day, even if it meant walking one hour to their field daily and grazing their llamas.  Today, however, at least 50% of producers don’t live on their lands, but rather reside in cities where they side businesses for added income.  For them, quinoa has become a cash crop, and they may go back six times per year to see what it looks like.  For example, once to prepare the land, another time to sow the seeds, once to check for pests, another time to harvest, and lastly to thresh, and that’s it.  The mentality is to make money and get out.  The industry is moving in the direction of fewer producers living and working the land full time.

Quinoa has already resulted in reverse migration and a lot of young people who are now producing it are the ones who aren’t living there.  They have taxis and small shops and quinoa is the cash cow/savings account with which once a year they get lots of money and can buy something else.  In contrast, people who live on the land are older.  Some villages finally have electricity, but are still characterized by poor roads, lack of schools, and only very rudimentary sanitation.  Young people who come back want a way of life that is higher quality (infrastructure, services, medicine etc.).

Quinoa in Bolivia…the whole thing is in flux right now.  It’s going to change.  I don’t think we are going to have people living in small communities forever.  [Rural development] is the natural trend in most countries and with globalization in general.  Young people try to conserve the values of their ancestors and they respect the community, but there are still lots of land conflicts and disorganization with land rights and titles.  Sometimes it’s a miracle of how they distribute land, how they know whose is whose.

For instance, we have two types of associations: one whose farmers live in the countryside full time and one whose farmers don’t.  And there is a big difference in production: if farmers live near the fields full time, they are really closely monitoring and can achieve at least 1,000 kg/HA, whereas absentee farmers may get 500 kg/HA.  And then there are those producers who aren’t concerned about the environment and are ignorant about their practices.  They may find that llama herding and grazing is a pain and would rather hire someone to maintain the llamas.  Some may do this while others feel that it is an entirely unnecessary burden because they don’t realize the agricultural/environmental connection.

Another challenge is water, as sometimes the humidity in the soil during the rainy is not enough.  In reality, we need rain for quinoa in traditional areas.  If it doesn’t rain in November and December, then the quinoa doesn’t grow properly, and 2008 was a terrible year because of the drought.  Quinoa is heavily dependent on climatic factors, so there are efforts to implement basic irrigation systems, but only about 2% of farmers have irrigation.  Although there is not a lot of water on the Altiplano, there are some underground rivers and aquifers, and one of our communities that has irrigation can get 1,200 kg/hectare.

Overall, many practices have to be improved.  Right now, the production is being done with disc plows, which are really damaging to the soil and contribute heavily to erosion, instead of a chisel plow, an implement that goes under the land and doesn’t remove everything, which is the way that it should be done.  Unfortunately, farmers opt for the disc plow because it’s always been done this way (surprisingly, it’s not a cost or availability factor but tradition).  The good thing is that this is easily changeable.

In terms of the quinoa season, initial plowing takes place in January and February, so there are always two quinoa seasons occurring simultaneously.  Then farmers wait until September to sow – 90% of the sowing is done by machines.  From sowing until harvest, it is mainly manual weeding; pest control (rats, rabbits, vicunas or wild camelids, birds etc.); and when the plant has flowered, it is protecting against worm attacks (larvae that turn into moths, which is the main quinoa pest).  Farmers need to have organic pesticides for these.  April is usually when farmers start to harvest the quinoa (or late March), and at this point, the harvest is done manually as it has yet to be mechanized.  The lack of mechanized harvest is definitely a bottleneck but the problem is that when farmers sow their quinoa, it starts with the seed, which is not very well selected so the fields are mixed and mature at different dates.  Because fields are not uniform, the mechanization of harvesting is difficult.  The currently reality is that it is really impossible for farmers to use mechanical harvesting because some plants are too green while others are too dry so seed flies away from loss of product.  Plants really need to be the same size and at the same stage of maturation.  Thus, farmers are currently harvesting with a sickle (hand tool) or a motorized grass cutter, after which quinoa falls to the ground and needs to be recollected and stacked to dry for 1-2 weeks.  Unsurprisingly, for the harvest season, farmers need to hire community wage labor.

Following harvest, farmers will thresh (separate the grain from the chaff) by driving a tractor over the plants, which is apparently more efficient than machines.  This is a troublesome part of the process because it is marked by the greatest amount of cross contamination (rocks, rubber from tires, and other debris gets mixed into the quinoa).  Although some people have tried to implement threshing machines, the problem is a lot of broken and damaged grains, as well as loss of product because you lose valuable grains along with twigs.  The reality is of an economic nature in that farmers would rather sell more stones because of the added weight rather than give optimal product with some loss.

Once farmers thresh, the next two processes are also manual: two people will hold a grated basket (zarandeado) and then winnow to remove small twigs.  There are two ways to winnow the quinoa: one is to put the quinoa in a bucket and slowly dump it out so wind will naturally blow away the debris, whereas some farmers may have small machines to generate wind.  Then we have quinoa that is “ready to go” (in theory, though it’s really still quite contaminated with impurities such as pebbles and twigs).  At this point, farmers will store the quinoa in 100 lb bags in their houses until there is demand.  Quinoa can stay good for 1-2 years if properly stored, so the processing and exporting is going on continuously.  Moreover, most of Bolivia’s quinoa producers organize in some sort of producers association, which are typically linked to an export company (or to ANAPQUI, the only truly functioning producer exporting association).  The company or association may say, “next week, I need 22 metric tons” (there is usually 10% product loss during process, so to sell 20 MT, 22 must be requested) and will settle on price.  Then the association will ask farmers who wants to sell depending on price and if a farmer needs money at the time, he will agree to sell and then the president of the association will call back and say yes, I have 22 metric tons and it will be delivered on x date.  The president obtains transport from the company and then the product is driven to the factory in El Alto.  Once it reaches the factory, there are many rounds of quality control.  The first check is to see what the quinoa looks like and calculate its weight, then within 10-15 days, Jach’a Inti will pay the farmers.  This compensation normally goes into the association’s bank account, which is then internally distributed to producers. 

Historically, quinoa prices have been set in the heart of the quinoa trading market, Challapata, by middle men through a push and pull system.  For example, producers will take product to Challapata (or now at their houses and by their phone) and will say $1,800.  One farmer may make a phone call for $1,900, then it becomes a back and forth between farmers and middle men until a price is decided upon.  Prices are set by a network of producers calling each other based on international demand and world market.  Our company doesn’t have the power to set the prices, whereas middle men have so much power.  Furthermore, even if I work only with producers, I’m still only a small fraction of the production, so we still have to abide by middle men prices.  But sometimes, like this year for instance, the prices change – it went way up.  My brother called me and my clients to say that large distributors are rejecting this price because they’ve talked to retailers and discovered that no one will buy.  This info gets to me and I organize a meeting with other exporters to discuss how the market is about to fall because prices are being rejected.  So exporters will stop buying from farmers, which may lead to three weeks of a closed factory.  As a result, prices went back down and stabilized.  We really need stability; the prices stayed put for 1.5 months but then went back up.  Some companies can interfere to affect prices, but in the end, we are the guys in the middle.  The market (western consumers’ demand) determines the prices, and this information gets relayed to distributor (Sergio), then exporter (myself, Fabricio), then middlemen and producers.  In fact, the US accounts for about 60% of all Bolivian exports, whereas Europe is down to 35%, and the rest of the world 5-10%.  Because of other actors, like Sergio, quinoa has exploded in the U.S.  You can feel the dynamism in new product development in trade fairs; quinoa is everywhere.

A key factor that influences prices, however, is contraband to Peru.  In 2013, Peru had a bad production year, so they had to supplement with illegal quinoa from Bolivia.  Previously, all the middle men from Peru and Bolivia would meet in Challapata.  The small producer would bring his quinoa to sell for immediate needs, maybe selling 5 out of 20 bags to Challapata because they need instant cash.  At this point, middle men will start getting together truckloads of quinoa to bring the Desaguadero border and may sell to another Peruvian middle man, who sells it to another local company in Peru, traditionally.  But this year, out of Peruvian desperation, middle men would actually go door to door with cash to farmers’ houses instead of meeting them in Challapata.  The advantage of selling illegally to Peru is that farmers get offered a slightly higher price and cash on hand (instead of 15 days later).  Plus, it comes with great convenience, so how can the farmer say no?  Unfortunately, there is no law enforcement to control this and some police live off of contraband because they receive bribes, so it’s actually against their interest to fight contraband.

Challapata today is much different than in the past.  There is still some quinoa trading that goes on here, but it’s not how it used to be.  Now it’s a mix of farmers who bring their quinoa to the trading hub and those who set the price at their homes.  Another thing to note is that telecommunications has had a huge impact on the quinoa industry.  Before, a farmer had to go to Challapata to know the price of quinoa but now everyone has a cell phone and can know immediately the prices without leaving their doorsteps.

My brother, Sergio, started importing in 2003 but until 2008, the volume wasn’t much.  It started as a basic quality control system in which all these factories would have quinoa, and we would tell them, “you need to improve this or that.”  Then Sergio would know what type of quality of quinoa he was getting, while I would do all the tracking and documentation, such as knowing when the boat left the port in Arica, Chile port.  Just by keeping these records, Sergio’s import business started booming because people knew what they were buying with an element of timeliness.  It had a huge impact on the industry, and we also saw that there was an opportunity for new value added products such as quinoa flakes.  In fact, we have a factory in La Paz as part of the Jach’a Inti business for value addition, and we try to sell flakes and other products to other countries (e.g. pasta etc.).  In the US, we are trying to sell new things like quinoa protein extract and the prospect of MNCs such as Mars, Kelloggs, developing new products out of quinoa presents opportunities for increased growth and demand.    

And in 2011 after working with other processing factories (ANAPQUI, SAI, IRUPANA, Quinoa Bowl etc.), we decided that we need to have our own.  Before this, we were doing quality control; we were passengers but we weren’t driving the taxi, so we decided this was the way to go.  This factory has been functioning for three years – 70-80% finished.  Jach’a Inti/Andean Valley, other private companies, and ANAPQUI – I think we have to applaud our own efforts because the quinoa comes in so contaminated.  In a modern country, if you harvest the right way, it’s virtually pure after threshing.  But the stuff we take out to make this edible and not dangerous for consumers is incredible.  Basically what we are doing is a form of contract farming: this year we say we will buy all their product and it’s a safe market compromise since we will help out with x,y,z such as organic certification.

Regarding technology and agricultural implements, our company has provided some mechanization, mostly for the post-harvest processes.  As I said before, quinoa comes in extremely contaminated, so we implemented post-harvest cleaning in the field.  We gave them a zaranda or shaker for pre-cleaning.  Before, we may have found up to 10,000 stones and 5,000 quartz pieces in 4 kg of product.  But if producers pass it through a pre-cleaning machinery, this can go down to 500s, which makes this factory a whole lot more efficient.  Farmers have to obtain most inputs and implements for themselves, though we are looking into how we can work with banks to offer credit.

In terms of government support being given to quinoa farmers, this administration has been a lot more supportive than any previous government by far.  The first thing they did was open a quinoa fund so companies like ourselves could finance with very low interest rates and little physical guarantees.  Thus, we were able to buy a lot more quinoa and pay producers a lot faster.  In contrast, 2-3 years ago, companies could only pay within 60 days because of a lack of capital – now with an access to capital, people are paying much more quickly, worst case scenario 30 days.  There is even funding to help producers access equipment, though farmers are still responsible for buying their own inputs from private companies. Now with the price of quinoa, more farmers can afford a tractor on the spot, though they may still qualify for financial support from the government.  Largely speaking, however, the government has stayed out of the market.  In theory, they could buy and then sell it at a lower price to the local population to counteract high prices, but I’ve never really been a big fan of government intervention in commercial issues.  If the government wants to do anything, they should stop contraband, as 40% of everything Bolivia produces goes out by contraband. 

With the help of the government, the United Nation’s International Year of the Quinoa has really raised awareness and made a ton of noise – both good and bad.  On the one hand, prices skyrocketed, people started learning about royal quinoa and where it comes from, with efforts to “brand” quinoa real as something Bolivian grown.  The idea that the government hasn’t done anything for quinoa is mistaken.  They have also bought tractors and given them to some producers for free, while also talking about added value.  Now it’s just a semi-processed product (washing quinoa is the hardest, so cleaning accounts for a lot of added value).  But more than this is talk of quinoa pasta, soup, bars, milk etc. and the Ministry of Rural Development is looking into industrializing it with a focus on Bolivian consumption.  In terms of feeding the world, maybe in 10-15 years quinoa will become a staple in diets all over the world.  And we’d like to see people be able to grow and buy quinoa hopefully for the same price as rice (or at least on par with soy). 

Moreover, we really need to balance business with environment.  Mechanization for the moment is dangerous, which we’ve seen with the disc plow.  This government is very politicized, so if you want to get a few votes, give out a hundred tractors or free seeds.  But they’re not teaching the farmers how to produce sustainability, as the agenda is to push for increased production and industrialization.  Te agricultural side is very politicized and centered on the idea: “sow quinoa anywhere you can, let’s really expand, and have 1,000,000 HA” (now we are at about 150,000 HA).  In fact, last year’s crop covered 120,000 HA for a total of 62,000 MT.  This year it is predicted to be around 150-160,000 HA with 80-85,000 MT.  In terms of climate change and how it might impact quinoa production, our farmers have not expressed large concerns with climate change.  Surprisingly, it seems to have benefitted them quite a bit, as increased rain with climate change has really favored quinoa production as conditions used to be more arid in the southern Altiplano.

Unfortunately, however, it is very likely that prices are going to go down in less than five years.  Bolivia and Peru’s window of opportunity to continue to dominate the quinoa market is only about 2-3 years with prices going down a bit.  After this, however, it is really going to go down at some point.  Remember, it’s a small industry and the volumes I’m giving you – 80,000 MT per year – are tiny.  We can’t feed a whole lot of people in the world; we’re not talking soy, which has more than 1,000,000 HA and at least 500,000 MT in Bolivia.  In contrast to quinoa, the soy industry is completely industrialized and conventional.  The exact time frame during which the prices of quinoa will drop is yet to be determined and depends on how fast other countries develop (in China, they already have royal quinoa seeds, so the raw genetic material isn’t a problem).  Moreover, quinoa seems to be a crop that adapts well to different environments, which will give other countries an edge.  But where Bolivia might survive and still be slightly above is in organic production of royal quinoa.  For example, in Peru there is lots of new quinoa conventional production on the coast, but it’s full of pests and they’re spraying with chemicals.  These producers are going to struggle to produce organic quinoa.  So people may pick up quinoa production easily, but it will be done largely with chemicals (but no GMOS yet).

In terms of increased competition from other countries, we are trying to offer a lot of support to our producers for increasing yields, which is how you protect farmers from leaving.  The people who are doing well can get over a ton.  If those people who are farming poorly can double production, even if prices go down, it will still be a profitable crop for them.  Our challenge is how to increase yields in a sustainable manner – the sustainable part is key.  On the commercial level, it’s about differentiating as much as possible: what is quinoa real (royal quinoa), what does organic mean, fair trade, and we try to humanize it as much as possible by showing the producer and where it comes from.  Once quinoa consumers learn how it is harvested and where it comes from, they are shocked.  Quinoa becomes intriguing because it has a story behind it, so we try to make people understand that if you choose to buy Chinese or Indian conventional quinoa, it’s mechanized production, forget about supporting small impoverished farmers from the Altiplano.  We do it the organic way, it’s authentic, traditional, fair trade, small holder families with the biggest maybe having 25 HA.  We want to brand this in the future and really hit this point home.  Moreover, I think our quinoa in general is fluffier, bigger, and higher quality.  Our company pays for all the certifications, and we are starting to develop projects, for example with Kellogg, which helps with 50% financing of irrigation projects.  Hopefully by next year, will have 4 villages using irrigation.  Another fair-trade project is financing the certification of five new associations.

Of course, the price is still going to go down, but it’s going to command some sort of premium over conventional.  Regardless, however, many producers are going to stop doing quinoa because of its small volume with legislative limitations.  For instance,  if you go to Peru, you can ask to rent 1,000 HA in exchange for 20-30% of earnings but here in Bolivia, land laws are restrictive because the government is very against large land owners.  If you want to do 1,000 HA in Bolivia, you need to speak to about 100 people, and it’s even more complicated for a business, rendering it difficult to compete on prices without large land owners and holdings.

True, quinoa is about 4x the price of rice in La Paz Markets, but no one really knows about domestic consumption rates because there have not been any market studies.  Pundits will say prices are so high that no one is eating quinoa, while the government will say that everyone is eating it.  The history of quinoa in Bolivia is a strange one.  It was an indigenous Inca Aymara food and at the time of colonization, the Spanish tried to eradicate it, though some survived.  From the 1970s to early 2000, it was known as the “poor man’s Indian’s food.”  Though once exports started booming and the media was all over it, it becomes trendy and the “chic” people jumped on the bandwagon.  The sentiment was “if Americans are eating it, it must be good stuff,” because there always seems to be ego aspiration complexes going on.  But since quinoa was “lost” in Bolivia, there hasn’t been a large culture of local consumption.  Now, however, people are starting to rediscover how to eat quinoa.  Most Bolivians will tell you that they eat it in soup, while in the U.S., it’s used as a side dish or in salad or risotto.  Here locals have no idea how to eat it.  People hear a lot of noise about quinoa and some bought cookbooks or are experimenting with how to cook it.  If you put quinoa straight into a boiling pot like rice, it still doesn’t taste very good (somewhat grassy) because of the saponin content.  The best way to eat quinoa is to pre-toast it before boiling it (1 in 10 or 20 Bolivians know this), though people are starting to rediscover it and there are small companies doing quinoa cookies, bars etc.  All the noise and buzz around quinoa has at least raised awareness of what quinoa is even if modern Bolivians don’t yet know how to eat it.

In terms of scaling up quinoa production, because we work with many small-scale producers, it’s a form of scaling up through grouping (e.g. associations).  Of course, lack of mechanization and adequate volume of manure and fertilizer are definitely problems, but the land tenure system in Bolivia makes large landholdings very difficult to obtain.  Moreover, organic production in general is very difficult, as you need 2-3 years of transitional production.  This is why MNCs are not in the business – you have to work with a lot of different people – and can’t negotiate with just one person.  It’s doable, we are growing and the fields are expanding but the way to grow is not only geographically but also increasing yields in existing plots.  This may be achieved through irrigation, or working with natural fertilizers.  Every year, a few new associations call us and are interested, and we also look for producers.  It goes both ways.

Regarding the strategic planning or scaling up quinoa production to ensure environmental sustainability, we ask farmers to rotate their fields and maintain a certain number of llamas, all of which we measure.  We are also growing our association and supply base, as we don’t work specifically or solely with associations, but also intermediaries.  Middle men (organic certified) are a necessary evil because otherwise we couldn’t obtain enough supply, though we are aiming to grow our producer association base to completely eliminate the middle man.  In contrast to a system of auditors, associations are self-auditing with internal control systems.  Fortunately, around 95% of quinoa in Bolivia is produced organically, though not all certified but traditional/organic by default.  This is because most farmers cannot afford to buy pesticides or may not even know where to buy them, so this has a favorable impact on farmers and Bolivian quinoa production. 

Has the recent boom in quinoa demand from Western consumers been a positive thing for Bolivia?  Absolutely, it has helped the farmers.  People who say otherwise are idiotic.  Most of the producers we work with eat their own quinoa, and if there has been a decrease in consumption, it’s because of the intensive preparation process (e.g. washing, toasting etc.).  On the plus side, farmers have diversified their diets because they can now purchase other foods (e.g. vegetables, fruits, pasta, soda).  The local economy is expanding and they can afford vehicles.  With reverse migration, higher incomes, a more diversified diet, and the ability to invest in new businesses, the quinoa boom has been socially and economically fantastic.  The only truly negative aspect that we really need to work on is the environmental impact of quinoa.  We cannot turn the Altiplano into a complete desert, so all the practices need to be made sustainable, and the llama-quinoa equilibrium needs to be restored.  To promote domestic consumption, we try to motivate farmers but they don’t want to eat quinoa because of the intensive preparation.  If you are going to wash it on the farm, you wash it manually, and moving into modern society and globalization, the whole culture is changing.  Time used to not matter to these people; it was natural for ancestors and free flowing but now it’s inevitable that western culture is permeating.  Time is money and farmers don’t want to take a day to prepare quinoa.  Everything is changing and in flux.  So we are starting small: we offer 10 lbs of processed quinoa in exchange for 10 lbs of raw."

Mission: to share quinoa with the world
Vision: we are a profitable, environmentally and socially responsible business group with the best quality and safe service for Andean quinoa and retail sectors ingredients
Values: respect, integrity, commitment, social conscience

My first quinoa in Bolivia, prepared by the very talented Jacha Inti chef :D

All suited up for my factory tour

The factory in El Alto

The Jach’a Inti factory tour was AWESOME!  It was so amazing getting to see the entire process after farm level threshing and winnowing.  The quinoa comes in with various pieces of straw, stones, and other debris and is subsequently put through many machines that separate/grade the grain based on sized, remove debris, scrape the outer layer, wash the saponin with soap and water, dry over high heat, sort by color, and purify even more through centrifuges and other machines.  Although the grain looks fairly clean during the intermediary stages, it goes through many steps of cleaning, a very intensive process.  Though the factory can do 30 bags in 6 minutes with a total of 22 tons per day (2 truck loads).  The final product ships out in 25 lb (or kg?) bags and is then shipped out of the country.  They have two warehouses for storage, so they can accommodate a lot of raw material before processing.  April, during harvest season, is the busiest month for the company.  

From my visit, I also learned that Jacha Inti has developed their own machinery because apparently, CTPS machines were not good for industrial quantities as they would break after 2 weeks.  Now they are trying to patent the machine and sell it, no photos because other businesses may want their designs.  Moreover, there is then need to import materials from abroad to construct the machines because quality is low here.  Another problem has been the nature of artisanal machines – none are the same so it is difficult to repair and maintain them because each is different and parts can’t be interchanged easily.  Jach’a Inti is different because they have direct ties with the quinoa importing company, Andean Naturals, in US, so they can exchange info quickly.  In contrast, other quinoa producing companies only have clients/buyers in the US (e.g. Costco).  The direct relationship is a huge advantage in the business.

So I made this roasted carrot quinoa salad for one of our potluck BBQ dinners

Nancy with all the meat for the BBQ :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

More Antics in La Paz

For the most part, yesterday was quite lovely.  I went on a free, three-hour walking tour of the city with Red Cap Tours in the morning.  I would highly recommend this activity to anyone who is passing through La Paz.  Although it’s only 8 months old, the company runs on a tips only basis and the guides were awesome, knowledgeable, funny, and spoke wonderful English.  The tour itself was a great mix of culture, politics, history, and random facts/urban legends and we went to a variety of spots in the city including the famous Witches’ Market, the 17th floor of a five star hotel for an incredible vista, both the indigenous and colonial sections of the city, and several markets and picturesque plazas.  My afternoon, however, was spent in a less than ideal way.  I went to the police station to file a report of an attempted robbery, which happened two days ago.  Of course, I never wanted to find myself in a police station in a foreign, developing country, never mind looking at dozens of mug shots of criminals, line-up style, trying desperately to remember the faces and physical details of the three criminals involved in the scam.  Rewind two days: I was waiting at the stadium in Miraflores neighborhood of La Paz, waiting for a minibus to take me to Plaza Avaroa in Sopocachi neighborhood.  A woman comes up to me with a map asking if I know where such and such place is (I can’t remember her exact words).  I respond in Spanish that I am a tourist and therefore have no idea and she turned out to be a tourist as well who was also going to Sopocachi.  So we took a minibus together and chatted the whole way, about 10-15 minutes.  I learned that her name was Maria, a student studying dentistry in Santiago, the capital city of Chile, and had only been in Bolivia for two days as part of vacation.  I told her that I was meeting a colleague in Plaza Avaroa for a meeting and that I was in Bolivia studying quinoa.  She was so lovely and I really enjoyed practicing my Spanish with someone other than my homestay family.  Maria suggested that we go to a nearby park to take some photos together, so we did.  I am honestly quite used to this since in India, everyone wanted to take a photo with you because you’re a foreigner.  So I put my camera on self-timer mode and ushered her over, “smile!” I said before she could refuse.  We sat down on a bench and were about to exchange email addresses so I could send her the photos I had taken, when a well-dressed man donning a suit and slicked back hair came up to us.  He quickly flashed a badge, claiming that he was a police officer doing a routine investigation on drug trafficking involving tourists and cocaine in particular.  He demanded to see our passports, so without hesitation, the woman showed hers and fortunately, I only had my passport copy.  He looked at it and said, “this doesn’t have a stamp.  It’s not official.  You need a stamp,” implying that perhaps I was in the country illegally or without proper documentation.  I had a similar problem in Bhutan at the border when the border police didn’t stamp my passport as they should have, only the paper visa, so I was genuinely worried.  “Come with me,” he barked at us.  So we start walking with the man who still has our documents in hand, while Maria and I fall back and he charges ahead.  I whispered to her in Spanish, “I don’t trust this man.  He’s not wearing a uniform.  I’ve heard stories of scams involving fake police and this seems very sketchy.”  She assured me that it was fine, as we continued to walk from the park onto the main road.  All of a sudden, an unmarked gray car drives up and he ushers us to get in, “let’s go!”  Uhm no, I don’t think so.  I replied in Spanish, “No estoy comoda con esta situacion.  No voy a subir en el coche contigo” (I am not comfortable with this situation.  I am not going to get in the car with you).  I snatched my passport copy out of his hand and began to raise my voice in Spanish, starting to cause a bit of a scene, though no one was really around.  At this point, they realized I wasn’t going to cooperate, so they just drove off, the woman in the backseat of the car.  I was stunned and immediately worried for her – was she going to be okay?  She might be in trouble because she left with them.  What should I do?  Then it all clicked – this woman was part of the ruse, the “fake Chilean tourist” that pretends to be your friend but who is actually colluding with false police to rob foreigners.  Upon this horrid realization, I began to cry.  I was unbelievably close to becoming victim to the same terrible crime that affects so many tourists in La Paz (and in other South American cities).  I had read about this scam in Lonely Planet and my homestay family told me similar stories of four other guests who had lived with them and were all robbed at one point or another (one was forced into a car with a black plastic bag placed over his head and brought to an ATM to max out his cards – absolutely terrifying).  I knew about it, yet in the moment, it was as if everything had escaped me.  I trusted this woman because she seemed innocent and friendly, but clearly, she is a professional.  They are such elaborate plans – the fact that she rode the bus with me across the city and that the man was practically waiting for us in the park.  Moreover, in the U.S., there is an abundance of undercover police and in a foreign country, I didn’t feel like I was in the position to argue with authorities.  Yet I was so lucky that they didn’t manage to take anything, since I had a small amount of cash, both my debit cards, and my computer on me, thus it could have ended very badly.  So needless to say, I am feeling even more bitter and angry towards Bolivia right now.  Obviously, I cannot group the entire country and associate its whole population with the disingenuous intents of a small group, but I am still so eager to get the hell out of La Paz.  I was very adamant about reporting the incident though, hoping that the photo I managed to take of the woman might help in the future.  I was shocked, however, when I was forced to look at dozens of photos of people involved in similar scams and to know that the same thing had happened this very day in a different plaza.  It blows my mind, especially because I didn’t have these problems in any other country. 

Monticulo, the park where we went to "take pictures"

My attempted robber, lolz #LaPazProblems

Rodriguez Market in San Pedro as part of the Red Cap tour

Chunos or freeze dried potatoes - left outside for 1-2 weeks in the cold winter nights to literally zap the water out of, then can be stored for 3-4 years

Witches' Market

Llama fetuses used in many ceremonies

More of the Witches' Market - pieces for ritual offerings

San Francisco Church

Plaza Murillo in La Paz where many of the government offices, including the Presidential Palace, are located

Plaza San Francisco from the 1t7h floor of a nearby hotel

"Urban Rush" - scale down the outside of this hotel, 50 meters

"Without fear, there is future.  Without fear, there is democracy." Movimiento Sin Miedo is a relatively new progressive political party in Bolivia (title references the history of dictatorships and totaliarian governments) in opposition to the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), Evo Morales' party

"Quinoa: 2013 International Year; a future planted thousands of years ago" - a sign outside of the Ministry of Rural Development and Land

Calle Jaen -  a famous touristy street in La Paz with lots of museums and shops; very colonial looking

Doors of La Paz

Plaza Murillo again

View of the of the city and snow-capped Illimani mountain (6,438 m or 21,122 ft), the highest mountain in the Cordillera Range (subrange of the Andeas) from my window in my new house in San Pedro, La Paz :D

Views looking down on La Paz from Feria de 16 de Julio Market in El Alto, the biggest open air market in the country and one of the largest in South America (~5 square km of everything you could imagine from used cars to clothes, shoes, and fruit)

Sun setting in La Paz

Ministry of Rural Development and Land advertising the United Nations' International Year of the Quinoa

My interview with ANAPQUI - the National Association of Quinoa Producers (pictured is the commercial manager who was giving me a presentation on ANAPQUI's structure)

Zebra murals in the city

La Paz cemetery

Largely speaking, bodies are stacked in these structures instead of buried in individual plots...a much better use of sparse land I think

New teleferico (cable car) being constructed by Evo to connect El Alto with La Paz

Some traditional Bolivian dishes:
Fricase is a stew with meat, potatoes, and onions
Thimpu is a spicy stew cooked with vegetables
Sajta is rice, potato, chuno (freeze dried potato), tomatoes and onions
Falso conejo ("false rabbit") is essentially very thin beef but gets its named because it resembles cooked rabbit; served with rice and chili peppers
Aji de lengua is spicy beef tongue stew

People going crazy over this dog with sun glasses while we all waited for the Pepino (clown, not cucumber, who is actually the "king of the local carnival") to emerge at the cemetery to celebrate the start of Carnaval

Views of La Paz from Zona Sur

Muela del Diablo (Devil's Molar)

Hiking outside of La Paz

A couple enjoying a romantic moment looking over the city and mountains