The re-shaping of quinoa producers’ livelihoods in the Bolivian Southern Highlands: A tale of markets, climate and mining

By Gloria Carrasco,

As a new PhD student, the process of getting increasingly involved in the study area has been a truly enriching and rewarding experience. During the last months, I have been exploring the situation of quinoa production in Bolivia’s Southern Highlands, first from a more distant-external perspective and then moving to a closer look and comprehension of the reality of quinoa growing families nowadays.

quinoa Stenn 2017

Quinoa Production parcels near the salar flats in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia, @T. Stenn

It is impressive to see how quinoa-growing communities have gone through important transformations over time as a result of their interaction with socioeconomic, political and environmental factors. One key change factor is market fluctuation. As a result of the opening of international markets, households have shifted from a family farm production model to an export production model, leading worldwide quinoa exports until 2014. However, the latest fall in quinoa prices resulting from a greater international supply has led to a decrease in revenues, pushing households to find alternative income sources outside agriculture.


Quinoa farmers in the Bolivian Highlands, @S.Bieri

Another factor increasing household vulnerability is climate change. Already an agro-climatically poor zone, the Southern Bolivian Highlands are likely to suffer longer periods of drought and frost, causing harvest shortfalls and driving diversification among quinoa producers and their practices.

Within this environment, climate variability and market fluctuations are just a few of the shocks experienced by the inhabitants of the Southern Highlands. A change factor that, we, the FATE Bolivia team, have started to study is the arrival of extractive industry and its impacts on quinoa growers’ livelihoods. The Southern Bolivian Highlands hold an exceptional wealth of natural resources. Currently, one of the most ambitious state-led projects is being implemented, the industrialization of the evaporitic deposits of the Uyuni salt flats. Likewise, the San Cristóbal deposit, considered one of the largest open-pit zinc, lead and silver deposits in the world, is located in this region. Its exploitation takes place through transnational companies and a weak participation of the state throughout its history.

In this scenario, the impacts resulting from globalization and the increasing opening of commodity markets become evident. For its part, the current government operates in favor of extractive industry supporting state and private extractive activities, positioning it as a guarantee for development associated with the generation of income and employment for the local population. However, a prosperous economy based on the development of extractive industry is not always the result. Moreover, beyond the severe environmental impacts, another possible difficulty resulting from extractivism in the region is the competition for natural resources such as land and water, and the decreasing capacity of local inhabitants to access them and govern the territory in which they reside.

soil deterioration romero2017

Deterioration of the soils due to the exploitation of mineral resources in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia, @A. Romero

Thus, considering all the factors involved in the construction of this scenario, the following questions arise: Can extractive industry be compatible with agricultural and livestock uses? Is there a competition over natural and human resources between mining and quinoa production? How does the presence of extractive industry affect into the transformation of quinoa producers’ livelihoods in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia? Has the presence of extractivism led to the generation of new capital and non-agricultural jobs that contribute to the diversification of quinoa producers’ livelihoods?

As we can see, the Southern Bolivian Highlands offer a truly particular and complex context and it is really exciting to be part of the FATE Bolivia team and have the opportunity to contribute to a better understanding of these and other livelihood change factors, exploring their implications for rural households and evaluating the vulnerability or strength of households’ life strategies, not only according to economic income criteria but also recognizing whether they lead to welfare.

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