It was early fall in Bolivia and the countryside was a riot of flaming Quinoa hues. The fall harvest was in full throttle and as we drove on unruly roads; the landscape was painted with red, gold purple and rust. The intense Andean sun at 14,000 feet struck amazing pinpoints of color under a mighty volcano that’s ancient name is Thunupa. Amidst this colorful pageant were family members working to harvest their long stalks of Quinoa and complete the first step in the process that ultimately brings it to our tables.
The villages became few and far between. Adobe structures lay amidst quinoa fields and ancient stone walls. Many had neither visible electricity nor water. Some families live out near their Quinoa fields and cultivate them along with modest herds of Llamas and Alpacas. These South American “camels” are an integral part of the environment. They help make the farms sustainable, and they provide fiber for clothes, fertility for the soil and meat for the dinner table. Llamas, Alpacas and Quinoa only need the potato to complete the agrarian circle.
We stopped and spoke with a family harvesting under the noon day sun. The matriarch, patriarch and daughter were all cutting quinoa with small scythes and laying them seed up to dry in small bundles. They cheerfully greeted us from their work and took several moments to explain that the recent good prices of Quinoa had afforded them a car to drive to their fields. They no longer had to walk 2 hours from the village just to work 10 hours and then walk back. Their hopes for the future were for education for their grandchildren in the town of Oruro and perhaps a pension so they wouldn’t need to work this hard into their old age. They noted that grandparents still lived without electricity and bathrooms and they hoped the Quinoa prices and Fair Trade premium would bring permanent changes for the next generation. We took photos and trundled down the dirt road enjoying the magnificent view and feeling blessings for all we had.
Our next destination was a Cooperative named COPROQUIRC (one of thirteen regional groups that make up ANAPQUI), where the president, Juan Ernesto Crispin Canavini, greeted us with a tour of the Quinoa museum and seed bank. This cooperative is a hub for several small producers to collect, catalogue and sell their quinoa internationally. I noticed there were already two UNFI laptops in use from a previous mission. A ceremonious offering of the last remaining used laptop was given to the president. The computer would be utilized in the field by technicians who have to travel all day to gather information on the multitude of small producers they represent. Without this structure in place, these producers have no chance of selling Quinoa in the International market. Alter Eco plays an integral role in helping this infrastructure prosper and grow. The gratitude for the used laptop was palpable and, after the computer was bestowed, a party ensued starting with Quinoa cake and macha tea. The spirit of revelry and celebration dominated the evening and the next day.
In the pre-dusk hours we journeyed out to see the co-op vice president’s family’s Quinoa cultivation. It was many miles from the co-op facility and a 45 minute walk from where he and his family lived. His sturdy and beautiful wife was perched on the rocky hillside of the volcano pulling the Quinoa out by its stalks for harvest. Their infant lay nearby, swaddled happily in a colorful textile, nestled in the shade of a 500 year old rock edifice. We gave our hand at pulling out the stalks. It was monumentally hard work; I could barely keep my balance with the brute force of my pull and the uneven terrain. I soon gave up this dusty work and reflected on how very hard this woman worked all day after and before her 45 minute cross-country walking commute. When asked what she wanted for the future, it was similar to the last: education for the children and a pension for the elders. She didn’t want a myriad of physical things or modern conveniences like a washing machine or refrigerator. Her hopes were basic and rooted not in a place of poverty but in the spirit of basic human dignity.
Many of the people we visited in the fields held the same basic peace and harmony with their modest conditions. They live much as their ancestors did for thousands of years: in harmony with the mother earth. Good Quinoa prices and the Fair Trade premium are a step toward improving their lives in very uncomplicated and meaningful ways.
Of the many things this voyage taught me is the fact that we have the capacity to be content with what we have and seek much less in the material world. Simplicity in living may just save the planet and these Quinoa producers were my teachers in this concept. My final take away: always choose organic and Fair Trade Quinoa, and you, too, can feel the spirit of Bolivian dreams.