What Is Quinoa? How Quinoa Became America's Hottest Whole Grain and Brought New Income to Bolivian Farmers

By Matthew Thompson, "Rediscovering Quinoa," March/April 2013

Farming quinoa has become big buiness in rural Bolivia as quinoa's nutrition and health benefits have made it the whole-grain darling of healthy diets.

"The argument that the expanding international quinoa market "brought new income to Bolivian farmers" is misleading insofar as it is meant to make consumers from rich countries feel that by buying quinoa they are part of a process of...

Crispin drives home a more important point: “Our kids are going to school now. Some are even going to college. They’re studying agriculture so they can come back and help us on the farm.” Indeed, according to ANAPQUI, 70 percent of the region’s young people can now afford to finish high school. In the poorest region of the poorest country in South America, that’s a small miracle.

At a breakfast in Quillacas—fried eggs served in a two-room inn with peeling green walls, scuffed terra cotta tiles and a TV tuned to futbol news—I discover something else that stirs the passion of these quinoa farmers. I’ve just asked a seemingly innocuous question—“What kind of fertilizer do you use?”—and been met by stony stares. It turns out that Bolivian farmers have two words for fertilizer: fertilizante, meaning typical spray-on chemicals, and abono, meaning natural compost and manure. It is a great point of pride for these farmers that they use abono, never fertilizante.

In fact, if you get any of the Quillacas natives talking you’ll discover that they can discourse at length about sustainability, soil depletion and ecological balance. More than half of the quinoa produced in Bolivia is certified organic. Llamas are essential in this carefully balanced ecosystem—they provide manure, one of the only natural fertilizers in the Altiplano. And though some llama grazing land has been taken over for quinoa production, a farmer insists, “We need to take care of the llamas because they provide the best abono.” Later in the ANAPQUI office, Crispin puts it even more bluntly. “The llama and quinoa are married. Each would die without the other. It’s important for us to live in balance with nature—the quinoa depends on it.”

Next: Challapata's Future »

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