Bolivian Quinoa Real in the midst of adversity

By Alejandro Romero.

Thanks to the launch of the International Year of Quinoa in 2013, the Andean grain became famous and its outstanding nutritional qualities promoted. This information aroused the interest in various regions of the world that adapted it to their own ecological conditions and started growing their own quinoa. Accordingly, the supply of quinoa increased at the international level, pushing down the price and generating uncertainty among the Quinoa Real producers from the southern highlands of Bolivia.

Despite this new setting, speaking with the producers in the region around the Uyuni salt flat, it is impressive to see their confidence and their desire to move forward, seeking alternatives so that they would be able to overcome this shock in the livelihoods they have built up over decades. This topic is further developed below, including a prior description of the current context in which quinoa is produced in one of Bolivia’s traditional quinoa-growing regions.

IMG_2811 quinua roja en Prov. Quijarro

Red quinoa in Quijarro province, @FATE Bolivia

At the beginning of the year, a BBC World[1] article described how a team of scientists had successfully deciphered the quinoa genome, with the objective of improving productivity, developing seed varieties apt for different climate conditions and controlling the saponin production. Thus, the grain would be sweeter and the production costs would go down.

Research has been conducted in Bolivia as well, aiming at adapting quinoa to warm regions such as the Chaco boreal region or the valleys of Santa Cruz where quinoa crops would become part of the soy crop rotation system. This would prevent the development of pathogens (insects and parasites) that multiply as a result of the intensive production of this legume. Nonetheless, expectations are that the tropicalized quinoa would be small compared to the grain produced in the highlands[2].

At present, there is a greater supply of quinoa adapted to new ecological environments, producing negative impacts for Bolivian quinoa growers. According to IBCE[3] data, the highest peak in Bolivian quinoa exports was reached in 2014, totaling 197 million dollars, while this amount has been going down constantly as from the following year even though the export volumes increased. The primary cause is the price decline at the international level as a result of the increasing quinoa supply from other parts of the world. The reference export price fell from 6,602 USD/ton in 2014 to 2,742 USD/ton in 2016, burying the Bolivian producers’ hopes of improving their income from selling quinoa. In this new setting, Peru, which used to be the second world producer of this grain, displaced Bolivia from the first place[4]. This was because Peru increased its coast production using a much more efficient technology for extensive crops, generating greater yields and lower production costs compared to the traditional production zones such as the Sierra mountains[5].

Obviously, just like the high quinoa export price attracted many producers to the Southern Highlands, the current international price has gradually discouraged the quinoa production in the last couple of years. Data from the beginning of the year provided by the National Quinoa Growers Association (ANAPQUI)[6] show that at least 10% of its more than 2,000 members did not sow quinoa last year since the crop was no longer profitable. One of the impacts of the declining price is that one quintal (46 kg) of the Andean grain is now sold at under BOB 300 in the domestic market compared to around BOB 2,000 some years ago.

The market factors are not the only ones going against the Bolivian farmers. The drought and the irregular rainfall in recent years have given rise to the failure of large areas with quinoa crops. Moreover, the strong winds are another factor lowering success of the quinoa plantations, burying the germinating seed in sand. Another alarming factor is the increasing night temperature, reducing yields of the grain by 30%[7]. The same happens in other crops, e.g. potatoes. In summary, the climate events described above are translated into losses and high quinoa production costs. ANAPQUI has announced that this year the quinoa harvest will be 30% lower due to these climate factors, while according to estimates of the Society of Ecological Quinoa Real Growers (SOPROQUI), a branch of ANAPQUI, losses will be around 70%.

IMG_2693 quinua afectada por clima adverso

Quinoa affected by adverse climatic conditions, @FATE Bolivia

The situation described above shows that the quinoa production is not only faced with market factors but also climate factors, both of which currently have an adverse impact on the producers in the southern highlands of Bolivia who are demanding more intense research and greater innovation, especially in the primary production, in order to improve yields and reduce the production costs.

IMG_2759 quinua afectada por clima

Quinoa affected by adverse climatic conditions, @FATE Bolivia

With the aim of mitigating the market-related problems, the state is promoting the domestic quinoa production by buying quinoa from the producers’ organizations and distributing it as part of the school breakfast, both in the quinoa producing region and in the rest of the country. On the other hand, steps have been taken to distribute quinoa and its derivatives as part of the food subsidy for public and private sector employees. In this setting, one fundamental question is: what measures are the producers’ organizations taking to overcome these problems? Talking with the SOPROQUI board, it became clear that they have two main strategies, one at the institutional level and one at the level of the producers. At the organizational level, for the second consecutive year SOPROQUI is participating actively in the distribution of processed quinoa products in schools in the provinces of Nor Lípez and Antonio Quijarro.

IMG_2606transformacion de quinua en galleta SOPROQUI

Transformation of Quinoa into cookies, SOPROQUI

Day after day, it is working hard to overcome the difficulties inherent in this new type of undertaking in the administrative and legal sphere and related to production, promotion, social security, etcetera. The aim is to mitigate the impact of the lower international demand for the grain by adding value to the quinoa as a means to generate more income. Through this initiative, it is possible to assist the producers, e.g. by giving them an advance for the quinoa they grow.

At the level of the producers, in conjunction with their organizations the idea is to consolidate the Denomination of Origin (DO), a designation to legally protect certain foodstuffs produced in certain geographical areas against producers from other areas who want to use the name ‘quinoa real’ which refers to the quinoa grown in the southern highlands of Bolivia. The purpose of this strategy is to ensure exports of the grain at a fair price, since the current price does not cover the costs to produce organic quinoa, which is around BOB 650/quintal. Nonetheless, the debate about obtaining the DO has suffered delays due to disagreements among the stakeholders.

The producers want a protected domination of origin linked to the traditional territorial space of the southern highlands so they could offer and promote a quality organic product. At the same time, they want this to lead to the creation of other development factors, such as tourism and gastronomy. Conversely, the government’s vision is for the private producers, processors, industrializers and exporters to consolidate a Protected Geographical Identification (PGI), including other regions with industrialization plants, e.g. the city of El Alto in the Department of La Paz. The entrepreneurs are clearly very interested in achieving this objective, which the traditional quinoa growers reject. Anyway, the different stakeholders continue to seek a consensus to position quinoa real in the international market in the currently adverse context resulting from the price decline.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-38915242?ocid=socialflow_facebook

[2] Extracted from http://www.la-razon.com/suplementos/financiero/Avanza-proyecto-cruceno-masificar-produccion-completo_0_2665533502.html

[3] http://ibce.org.bo/publicaciones-ibcecifras-pdf.php?id=526

[4] Extracted from http://la-razon.com/opinion/editorial/Quinueros-crisis_0_2653534623.html

[5] Extracted from https://www.facebook.com/AnoticiandoATBBolivia/videos/1263676387058279/ (Bolivia pierde sitial en producción de quinua mundial. ¿Qué hacer ante esta situación? César Sevilla, head of operations of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization sharing some guidelines)

[6] http://www.paginasiete.bo/economia/2017/1/9/tras-anos-auge-produccion-quinua-bajo-2016-123060.html

[7] http://agroavances.com/noticias-detalle.php?idNot=609

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