Quinoa: Harvesting Bolivia's 'superfood'

Harvesting the popular crop can be backbreaking work and the rewards aren't always guaranteed for Bolivia's farmers.

| | Business & Economy, Bolivia, Latin America

Salinas de Garci Mendoza, Bolivia Victor Choquetopa, the former mayor of the town of Salinas de Garci Mendoza, works tirelessly harvesting quinoa. It is a backbreaking routine that involves bending ripe stems and slashing at their exposed roots with sickles.

Located 15km from the world's largest salt flat and known as the "Capital of Quinoa", Salinas de Garci Mendoza is Bolivia's biggest producer of the superfood praised by Bolivian President Evo Morales as the "ancestral gift from the Andes to the world". 

Between April and June, Victor will cut, dry, thresh, winnow and bag the quinoa that grows on his 400 hectares of land.

Then there is the task of finding an international buyer for the crop that has become Bolivia's most prized agricultural export. 

Victor's wife, Rosa, works alongside him. In the row next to his, she examines the quinoa's bright pink panicles for pests and adjusts the brim of her hat. 

Occasionally, she removes a plastic bag of coca leaves from her pocket, placing a small bundle into her right cheek. "This [is] so I don't feel tired," she explains.

Lucio, the hired hand for the day, abstains from chewing coca leaves. "Many religious people believe it is a sin," says Victor.

But for some, chewing coca leaves when working in the fields in the Bolivian Altiplano is as essential as having quinoa on the dinner table. While quinoa provides the much needed energy, coca leaves help combat fatigue from overwork and the intense sun.

A staple food in the diet of millions throughout the Andean states, quinoa has 36 percent more protein and 73 percent more fiber than wheat. Its protein content covers all eight essential amino acids and it has high levels of iron, magnesium and zinc, as well as B vitamins riboflavin and folic acid.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva, quinoa could help "fight against hunger and food insecurity".

The UN declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. But four years on, Bolivian quinoa has suffered some setbacks.

Prices have fallen dramatically as new competitors, such as Peruvian farmers who, with the aid of synthetic fertilisers, produce two harvests a year instead of the one harvest in Bolivia, where synthetic fertilisers aren't used, enter the market. 

In 2016, the department of Oruro, the region that produces 51 percent of all Bolivian quinoa destined for export and in which Salinas de Garci Mendoza is located, suffered a 20 percent decrease in production due to drought.

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