quinoa in santuario de quillacas

words & images lauren howe

The quinoa field had been attacked by ticonas, little green caterpillars that eat away at the crop, gobbling up half the grain and leaving it with a white appearance. Ten minutes earlier, rural farmers remarked about the pest attacking a neighboring parcel, but they did not imagine that the outbreak would also spread to their plot. The farmers had sprayed pesticide once this season when the quinoa plants were coming up, but now it seemed that every single plant was infested with the ticonas.

My hosts walked around inspecting the fields. Meanwhile, I stood by one plant and gingerly peeled off about thirty ticonas from the leaves, stem, and panicle.

The farmers gathered branches from small shrubs and lit a fire. They began to chant prayers with the necessary accessories: small ornaments molded into different shapes (for offerings to Pachamama, the sun, moon, wind, etc.) and two, one-liter bottles of Huari beer. I could make out a few words of their mutterings, which included, “Mother Earth, please do not let our other parcels be infested by pests.” They were practically begging Pachamama to save the remainder of their crop as they shook beer bottles, popped them open like champagne, and sprayed the foam over the quinoa. We each took turns pouring alcohol on the fire, which left a satisfying sizzling sound.

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I am spending four days in the Bolivian village of Santuario de Quillacas, about an hour outside of Challapata on the road to Pampa Aullagas and Salinas de Garci Mendoza. Quillacas, founded in 1501, serves as the political center of the Quillacas municipality, a once larger conglomeration of surrounding communities ranging from as far as the Chilean border to the Bolivian cities of Cochabamba and Sucre in the valleys. It was once a thriving hub where they used to mine gold and copper from the surrounding hillsides.

I was hosted by Willy, the president of the “social control” branch of the local government, and his older sister Fidencia. As we look out over the surrounding quinoa fields and as far as the two mountains that shroud Potosí in the distance, we are sitting at the top of the bell tower of Quillacas’ lone church, in fact built by Argentineans in the early 1800s per the Spanish. As Willy recounts the history of this sleepy village, I imagine gauchos from Argentina and traders from Peru and Chile on horseback, passing through and spending the night in one of the dilapidated homes along the road. Apparently, the main road continues to be of great importance in linking the Chilean border to points east in Bolivia.

I am here assisting my hosts in the field as they begin to harvest the most mature plants. Yet when we walked past the Bolivian neighbors working, it was as if I was literally transported back in time to the Ladakhi village of Likir. The Bolivian Altiplano reminds me of Ladakh, the northern Indian region where I spent five weeks, two on a barley farm assisting with the harvest and threshing. The Ladakhi and Altiplano landscape are similar: barren, vast, and mountainous with high altitudes, sapphire blue skies, and a scorching sun.

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The quinoa plants had been cut and set into neat piles on the ground. The Bolivian quinueros (quinoa farmers) proceeded to scoop up the heaps and were stacking them in teepee-like structures to dry. This was exactly what we had to do in Likir with the barley. Perhaps it is a traditional practice characteristic of all grains, but I found it strangely comforting, as if I already was familiar with the rhythms of harvesting this Andean pseudo-cereal.

This familiarity certainly eased the process. We woke at 5:30 in the morning and were in the fields before daybreak, able to watch the sun slowly ascend over the hills and pierce through the morning fog. I quickly discover how starting early is much preferred as the high altitude magnifies the heat and noontime sun. Soon, I developed blisters on my hands as we used the hoz or sickle to cut the quinoa from the base. This is a much-improved method over ripping out the entire stock, roots intact, as farmers did many years ago. Not only does it reduce erosion, but it also assists in maintaining organic matter in the soil.

Hand-harvesting quinoa is rhythmic and cutting with the sickle requires a certain technique, one I have yet to master but have undoubtedly improved in three days. But after a long day of blisters, sunburns, and sweat-filled labor, I also realize how far we still have to go with improving the harvesting process, which is where appropriate technology and mechanization comes in: machines that can ease drudgery but not entirely displace labor or disturb long-standing cultural practices.

There was something incredibly special about walking back home under the stars and moonlight after a day working in the field. Although we only harvested about a quarter of a hectare, it was hard, rewarding work. I was donning a shawl and wide-brimmed bucket hat that belong to my Cholita host. In that moment, I felt very Bolivian.

After leaving my hosts in Quillacas, I offered to compensate them for lodging and food, but referencing our previous conversations, Fidencia just smiled and said, “No, it’s ayni,” referring to reciprocal labor exchange that used to characterize the agricultural systems of most villages.

I wish that I could get all of these stakeholders into a room. Farmers think that the government and NGOs aren’t helping them enough. The government thinks they are doing a ton. From my interviews and experiences, NGOs seem to be very helpful with technical support, but private businesses think that NGOs are just doing theoretical studies and not actually helping farmers in a practical manner. Farmers’ associations think that private business have all the power and neglect to offer technical support or credit (when they actually are in the case of the company Andean Naturals), while businesses think that farmers are holding out and manipulating prices (e.g., CABOLQUI and CECAOT said the exact opposite). Meanwhile, in the eyes of both farmers and private enterprises, middlemen seem to be scheming and profiteering off everyone by speculating on prices, contributing to the contraband and illegal quinoa trafficking in Peru, and taking advantage of farmers’ desperation for cash.

On the contrary, I’ve read academic studies that position intermediaries as a necessary “evil” in the system, and that in some cases actually contribute positively to the local economy by “breaking” rural isolation and providing farmers with household provisions, mobile banking services, and a sales outlet for unwanted quinoa byproducts. Everyone seems to doubt each other when, in reality, perhaps if everyone sat in the same room, then maybe they could see the truth: how each other’s activities are making real impact with immense potential for synergy and collaboration in strategic planning for the future, for the longevity and sustainability of quinoa in Bolivia for generations to come.

Quinoa can change the world. I feel like I’ve fallen in love with the crop. I love the way quinoa looks when the sun rises or sets behind it, illuminating the panicle and giving it a soft iridescence. If I were to go on a date with quinoa, it’d be spent drinking quinoa beer, eating quinoa salad with cranberries, walnuts, roasted carrots and avocados with a lemon poppy seed dressing, and finishing that off with quinoa chocolate chip cookies for dessert while watching the documentary Mother Grain. Something about this ancient Andean pseudo-cereal resonates strongly with me.

While I have sometimes felt a disconnect with the culture, food, and people of Bolivia, quinoa has more than compensated. As a unique agent of agricultural development, quinoa has the potential to help eradicate global hunger and uplift thousands of small farmers. 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.” It will be fascinating to see what the future has in store for quinoa, or alternatively, what quinoa has in store for the future.

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