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