The airplane from Lima soars over the majestic Andes. As we begin our decent, expansive Lake Titicaca is glimmering in the late summer sun. The city of El Alto comes into view with its masses of adobe structures perched on the flat plan called the “Alti-Plano”. Below El Alto is the city of La Paz, nestled in a precipitous round basin where the high plane ends. This vast basin is filled with over two million people and adobe structures line the urban landscape like cornflakes in a bowl. The airplane lands, the doors open and all the air rushes out of my lungs, making me feel light headed and giddy. I have arrived at 13,500 feet, and the air is rarified and thin.
My journey begins with an intoxicating rush.
I have come to Bolivia because of a series of serendipitous events. By chance, I met Sergio Nunez De Arco from Andean Naturals in January as part of an Organic Trade Association (OTA) member event. Sergio has worked many years to bring Organic and Fair Trade Quinoa to the US market while developing infrastructure and international business for the small family producers in Bolivia. We immediately bonded over the similar experiences I had while helping develop Organic and Fair Trade banana producers in Ecuador and Peru.
I was so motivated by his story of hope and prosperity in a developing region of the world that I penned a Quinoa blog and dreamt of a visit. Kate Tierney, a former UNFI associate, read that blog and notified me that her new company, Alter Eco, and UNFI had developed a special program of giving to the Bolivian Quinoa producers. At Kate’s suggestion, as well as the organizational work of Lisa Madsen and Alisha Real, UNFI was donating its used laptops to these very Organic and Fair Trade Quinoa producers. In fact the next shipment of 20 was being delivered in just three weeks! That was the moment I decided I should see firsthand the impact this unique UNFI giving program was making and to see how Organic and Fair Trade production was changing lives.
Off the plane, the sun is hot and brighter than I’ve ever experienced; I am still dizzy from the altitude and almost fall backwards negotiating my stance. I meet Edouard Rollet, president of Alter Eco, and Antoine Ambert, Alter Eco’s Marketing Director. The laptops have arrived, but Bolivian customs is not cooperating, instead requiring several official blessings and stamps of approval. It is Friday and perhaps we should just wait until Monday to approve the shipment? After several hours of polite negotiating and gentle persuasion, the computers are released and we are trundled into a four-wheel drive truck packed with supplies that will sustain us for the next week.
Our first visit is to an impressive Quinoa processing plant, Jacha International, located in the outskirts of El Alto. Sergio’s brother Fabricio Nunez De Arco greets us warmly from his third story office high above a spotless receiving area. I can barely make the three stories without swooning. We are lead into the spotless facility where the Quinoa is brought in from the fields in its rough form called saponin. The bags are weighed, checked for purity and color, logged and given lot numbers. Traceability reigns throughout the process. Each lot is then washed so the outside red covering (BRUTA) is removed. The Quinoa is then passed through several modern devices to extract bits of quartz, twigs or even metal that could have gotten in during the harvesting process.
More samples are taken, laboratory tests are run and the quality of each lot is catalogued. The Quinoa is then dried to a perfect pre-toasted state and sent either directly into packaging or stored in bins for later use. The entire process is modern and impressive and doesn’t at all seem like something you’d expect to find in a developing country. In fact, Sergio and Fabricio have spent many years building and reinvesting in this impressive infrastructure, so the producers can export and consumers all over the world can enjoy this Andean super food. I am in awe of the commitment and tenacity of the brothers and cannot wait to meet the producers.
We hop into the car and drive five long hours into the night with white lightening glimmering in the southern sky. I am breathless from the lack of oxygen and the expectation of meeting the people who produce this precious seed.
Stay tuned for Bolivian Diaries – Part 2 – Going deeper, delivering gifts, later this week!