Letter from Bolivia — From the May 2014 issue

The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?

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On Easter Sunday in the southern Altiplano village of Jirira, the church is silent. I suspect it has been that way for a while — its ornaments have long since been stolen, and the gate to the front yard is gone. We pass it in the midst of a different sort of pilgrimage, driving along the rocky road that leads out of town and up the side of a volcano called Thunupa.

The view from the mountain road overlooks what appears to be a field of ice, a vast plane of white that stretches to the horizon. In fact, it is salt — slushy near the edges, but otherwise solid and up to thirty feet thick. This is the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt pan. Combine it with the Salar de Coipasa, on the other side of the volcano, and you have an area bigger than the state of Delaware.

Photographs by the author

Photographs by the author

Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real — “royal quinoa” — whose seeds are the world market’s gold standard. Looking down as we climb, I see every bit of land between the salt pan and the hills is covered with quinoa, like a red-and-yellow skirt at the volcano’s feet.

Yesterday I met a farmer who was harvesting his crop there. He walked each row with his son-in-law and a hired man, one on either side of him. These helpers would gather the leaves of each quinoa plant in their hands to reveal its thick stalk, which the farmer would then slash with a machete. His daughter followed them, stacking the cuttings in piles. In a section already harvested, his grandson lay on a blanket, playing with the family dog.

The farmer agreed to speak with me about the germplasm controversy, but he insisted that our formal conversation take place on the rim of the volcano. And so on Easter Sunday, we are driving and hiking nearly 3,000 vertical feet to the appointed spot, marked by a series of cairns that stand as tall as humans.

The final ascent is up the front of a short cliff. As I pull myself onto a flat space between two cairns, my mouth drops. Since arriving in the southern Altiplano, I have seen Thunupa only as a landmark from the airplane, or as a backdrop for photographing quinoa fields. Here the view consists of the volcano and nothing else, and it looks as if its heart has split open. The center is collapsed into a deep caldera, and on three sides rise high walls that seem to be made of sand, sliding back into the cauldron in striations of red, white, gray, pink, orange.

Our meeting place is an eight-foot-wide ledge whose far side drops almost straight down into the volcano. Sitting on a boulder is the farmer, Germán Nina. He is indigenous Aymara and in recent years has served in Bolivia’s senate. He is tall and commanding, with a long nose, dark eyes, and thick black hair. Yesterday he was in field clothes, sweating as he harvested and chewing coca to ease the labor. Today his blue shirt is tucked in precisely and he has traded his work hat for one with no dirt on the brim. His hands rest on his knees, facing up, as if in a loose attitude of prayer.

“Thunupa,” he says, “es el principio de la vida” — the beginning of life. The pillars of rock are sacred monuments; at our feet are the remains of a ceremonial fire. This volcano is not just a volcano, it is a god.

According to Aymara legend, it was Thunupa who gave the Andean people quinoa. Long ago, when a drought caused hunger throughout the region, the god sent to earth a beautiful emissary named Nustra Juira. She traveled the Altiplano by foot, from Lake Titicaca to the salt pans in the south. When at last she reached Thunupa and ascended back into the sky, along the path she had walked grew a nutritious new crop that could withstand drought and cold.

Sitting here, framed by the volcano, Nina tells us his name is not really Germán — it is Thunupa. He explains that although his Aymara parents didn’t believe in la religión, they brought him to church for baptism. When the priest asked what name the child would have, they said Thunupa. “Out with your scary Indian names,” the priest replied, and ejected them from the church. They tried repeatedly to persuade him, but in the end they told the priest to use whatever name he wanted — the boy could change it when he was grown.

Nina is sufficiently self-assured that I suspect he wouldn’t object to my drawing a parallel between him and his divine namesake. Like Thunupa, he has helped make quinoa flourish on the Altiplano. Beginning in the 1980s, after drought devastated Jirira and other rural communities, he devoted himself to creating an international market for the crop. To keep that market working in favor of farmers rather than exporters, he joined in founding the first and still most influential quinoa-growers’ co-op in the country, Asociación Nacional de Productores de Quinua (ANAPQUI).

Because of efforts like these, quinoa could become the Altiplano’s first significant cash crop ever. The region’s rural villages had long been emptying out, for all the familiar reasons: lack of opportunity, meager incomes, and, increasingly, environmental challenges. Quinoa now allows farmers to remain in those villages; it has even enabled some emigrants to return. Asking these people to share their germplasm so the rest of the world can get in on the boom meets understandable resistance. Bolivia’s largest quinoa farmers are still small by the standards of industrial agriculture. Were the United States or Brazil to cultivate the crop on a large scale, Altiplano farmers would almost certainly lose their newfound livelihood.

Tanya Kerssen, research coordinator at the Oakland-based nonprofit Food First, points to an earlier cautionary tale, that of the noble Andean farmer who gave mankind the potato. “Now the world can benefit from this amazing thing, right? But at the same time, what’s happening to Bolivian potato farmers? They have cheap industrial potatoes dumped into their market, so they can’t compete. They can’t make a living. They have to work in mines or migrate to cities.”

Quinoa has had a different history. Because of the seed’s nutritional and spiritual importance to the people of the Andes, the Spanish banned it as a means of subjugation. For centuries after Pizarro swept through, quinoa was denigrated as “Indian food,” and in recent decades, even many indigenous people ceased eating it. Yet for Nina and those like him, the plant remains an integral part of their identity, their livelihood — indeed, their relationship to the world. If the inhabitants of the Altiplano are going to share their miracle food, it will be on their own terms.

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is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), an independent nonprofit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental-health issues.

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