Challapata, Bolivia – The small village of Challapata hosts the main Quinoa black market in Bolivia. On its dusty streets, indigenous farmers unload dozens of blue, yellow and red sacks, each containing 46kg of the grain.
They had been growing Quinoa over the infertile steppes of the Andes – the continental mountain range stretching across South America – for more than 7,000 years before the UN considered its nutritive properties as a means to eradicate malnutrition globally, and proclaimed 2013 as the international year of Quinoa.
Rich in protein, minerals and vitamins, the grain has become a world renowned food, and its price has skyrocketed.
“Very soon we’ll sell Quinoa to the Pope,” said Victor Hugo Vasquez, Bolivia’s deputy minister of Rural Development and Land. “We’re establishing the arrangement to achieve the DOP classification in Europe and the trademark in the US.”
Bolivia is the largest producer and exporter of this super-crop in the world. According to the Ministry of Rural Development and Land, in 2012 Bolivia produced around 58,000 tonnes , including 26,252 for export, generating a revenue of $79.9m.
“Thirty years ago, 46kg cost 20 Bolivianos ($2.90),” Juan Crispín, president of the National Association of Quinoa producers, said. “And we were cultivating only for our own consumption.”
The Andes, and in particular the Southern Altiplano, have been an area of traditional poverty and deprivation. Four-thousand metres above sea level, the region is characterised by poor soil fertility, lack of rainfall and drastic temperature changes. Only Quinoa and a handful of other plants can survive here.
International appetite for the region’s grain was supposed to improve the lives of local farmers. “Before we lived in thatched huts; now we have brick houses with tiles,” said Hugo Choqui, a local Quinoa farmer. Some residents “have bought vehicles to bring the crops from the fields to the warehouses”.
Although the production is still in the hands of small and medium sized farmers, Bolivia is trying to get the most from this unexpected asset, and the government aims to expand the cultivated area up to 1 million hectares.
Nevertheless, many concerns have arisen related to such an expansion. Researchers and activists have sounded the alarm over the lack of any regional or national planning, which could hurt traditional production organisations and lead to a drop in oil productivity.
These newcomers are getting back to their villages thanks to the subsides of the government, breaking the previous organisation of the community.
In the Southern Altiplano, Quinoa fields are communal properties administrated by their respective ancestral authorities, which decide about the exploitation of land parcels and any eventual enlargement. “Our organisation is based on our original authorities, which divide the land equally among every citizen,” explained Crispin.
Many former rural residents turned city dwellers have grabbed the opportunity to start a profitable business, coming back to their original communities, and in some cases causing conflicts.
“These newcomers are getting back to their villages thanks to the subsides of the government, breaking the previous organisation of the community,” said Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development campaigner Patricia Molino.
“They come, seed and go away, without taking part in the community assembly,” said Vladimir Orsag, a researcher at San Andres Mayor University. Orsag underlines how the disruption of communal rules, the search for profits through the extension of cropland, and mechanisation can affect the percentage of nitrogen in the soil, which is a key aspect for the growth of Quinoa.
Unfortunately, Southern Altiplano lands are low in nitrogen and, according to UMSA engineer Roberto Miranda, their yields are already beginning to diminish.
To combat soil degradation, Orsag supports a return to older farming methods used in arid zones: traditional farming, vegetal protections, division of the land into several parcels, and rotation of the sowing. “There have been good practices as long as the institutions were on the field,” Orsag said. “But when they left, farmers dropped these innovations.”
Even the deputy minister Vasquez worries the explosion in exports could cause social problems in the countryside. “I believe a third of Bolivian farmers are still endorsing these ancestral methods, another third use them only partially,” he said. “But the last third has abandoned our heritage, and we need to work with this last one.”
Social and soil problems aside, the Quinoa boom has caused another social problem: local price increases.
Despite producing such a nutritious food, according to FAO’s State of food insecurity in the world 2012 report , Bolivia still faces a 24 percent rate of malnutrition among its population, which means more than two million people are regularly hungry. Stunting in children under five years old has remained at 27 percent nationally, and 37 percent in rural areas of the Andean country, according to a World Food Programme report .
The export-driven soar of Quinoa prices has lead to worries that many Bolivians won’t be able to afford their traditional food. In 2000, 100kg of Quinoa cost 80 Bolivianos ($11.60), but prices have risen 10-fold to about 800 Bolivianos ($115).
On the streets of La Paz, Bolivia’s mountain capital, it’s quite normal to hear complaints about the price of Quinoa.
“I’m not buying it because it’s too expensive, but I always try to get some Quinoa for my little son, especially through the scholar breakfast programme,” said Almendra Espinosa, a receptionist at a local hostel.
Five years ago, the National Association of Quinoapushed the government to finance prenatal and breastfeeding subsidies. “It was the first peasant’s product to enter into the subsidy,” said Molina.
Following this programme, Bolivia’s government has tried to introduce Quinoa into the daily diet of citizens through special subsidies intended for pregnant mothers and students.
For these reasons, deputy minister Vasquez said domestic consumption is growing, despite new export markets. “Three years ago, Bolivians were consuming 4,000 tonnes a year, now it has grown up to 12,000 and we plan to reach 20,000 by the end of this year.”
The recent UNICEF report Bolivia: Una Victoria posible seemed to endorse Vasquez’ claim: child malnutrition levels have been cut by half in the last 20 years, and the country could be one of the few to meet the UN’s Millenium Goals. The importance of Quinoa’s consumption in this process is, however, difficult to quantify, but many Bolivian farmers are undoubtably happy their crop is getting so much attention.