Written by Daniela Romero and Gabriela Ruesgas.
The Province of Nor Lípez in Potosí, Bolivia, is located at over 4000 masl; it is a very cold, dry and windy region where temperatures drop down to -15 C°. Close to this area the world’s largest salt flat is located at 3656 masl. This is precisely where uniqueness of the “Quinoa Real” has emerged, a variety planted in this region. This does not only highlight the fact that in Nor Lípez the quinoa is produced organically but also that the combination of salty soils and the particular climate variability experienced in the region appears to provide a unique context for growing Quinoa Real.
Between 2007 and 2008, because of a significant price increase, quinoa production in Bolivia came to quintuple, achieving record levels in its production as well as in the expansion of the cultivation area of this grain. The price boom has definitely had and continues to have many impacts on how households and communities have combined traditional uses and forms of production with intense and modern ways to serve and follow world market rules. This is mainly because quinoa has evolved from being a very traditional grain that was primarily for subsistence consumption to becoming a product for European markets. This new status for the “golden grain” has had many different effects. Even though it is well-known that for traditional quinoa communities, this grain has always had an important place in the household economies, nowadays we could say that quinoa is more important than ever at the household level.
The high profitability of quinoa has given rise to the need to enhance productivity, which has tended to replace weak traditional indigenous forms of employment such as Ayni and Minka by new forms of wage labor with mechanized ways of production. Among many other implications, families have developed income diversification strategies towards increasing the production of quinoa. In this regard, from our fieldwork experience, talking to and interviewing women producers, we have realized that women have become essential.
During the last four months,the Bolivian FATE team has been traveling constantly to the town of Uyuni and other communities for interviewing female quinoa producers from the two most important associations in the region of Nor Lípez: SOPROQUI and ARPAIAMT. These women told us about how their lives have changed thanks to the increasing quinoa price over the last ten years. We have noticed that women have a significant participation in different public spaces within their communities, almost as much as men do. However, we also realized that men continue to have a greater presence and representation in political decision-making meetings. Moreover, we found six women who are political authorities, most of them single mothers and very efficient producers in their associations. Next, we will share some of the most important characteristics of the female producers who are members of SOPROQUI and ARPAIAMT.
While we were speaking with the female quinoa producers, something that definitely came out is the impact of the price increase on their employment opportunities and conditions. As the women said, they have been participating in the quinoa production for many years, in the same way as the men. They were always in charge of the quinoa production in each stage, combining agricultural work with household chores. However, men had and still have more opportunities to look for new job opportunities besides quinoa production because they have a higher level of education. So women had to stay at home and help in anything they are required.
Nevertheless, these obligations could be considered an advantage in their participation and knowledge in the sense that they have helped women develop skills that allowed them to run the production efficiently. Women have always been one of the main actors in quinoa production but, as they said, they are now looking for better conditions and recognition of their work and they are seeking to have a real income. In this regard, the price increase has enabled a huge space of labor opportunities for both women and men and has provided chances to obtain not only higher revenues but also more labor opportunities. In this context, the work of women became even more important than that of men.
Most of the interviewed producers said that they were the principal administrator both in the quinoa production and at home. They produce and sell the quinoa; they also organize and distribute what they earn among all members of their families, and keep the rest. In addition, as regards the new generations, the younger producers have more access to becoming professionals, e.g. agronomists, biologists, etc., which shows that women and men now have the same level of qualification. This means that nowadays both employment and domestic activities are shared more democratically with their husbands. These changes are less present among the older producers, where women are more dependent on their husbands who always had more opportunities to access better training and earnings. The main limitation for these women is political participation because they do not have the same qualifications as men, so they are very shy to express their opinion in communal meetings. Besides, their priority is their children and their house. Hence, for these women producers, their husbands are the ones that have to participate in decision-making spaces.
In addition, we found many single mothers who have benefited from the price increase. In these cases, they directly benefit from the earnings. However, the main problem is the difference between single mothers and married women who do not have the same possibility of sharing household chores, especially in the case of younger producers. Single mothers are faced with limitations to participate in other decision-making areas in the community, because they are in charge of everything related to household needs. Unless they get help from other women, these producers are at home all the time, taking care of their children.
Finally, most of the producers said that the quinoa price increase has contributed to household well-being, not just their personal well–being, but also in terms of their economies. Nevertheless, we could say that even though women have the same income level as men, they invest it in the family as much as possible, while in most cases the men invest money for themselves. However, women have a better vision of their future because they are part of the production as much as the men are. That is why they have their own assets to improve their economic conditions, and in this context their participation in other areas beyond their homes is increasing considerably. They are more independent and greater visionaries compared to their older partners.