An English translation of this report is below. The original report, published in Chinese in Rhythms Monthly, follows.
For two years, photojournalist Karl Mancini, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, has been documenting the human and environmental costs of superfood monocultures in Latin America and their effects on climate change.
The demand for these resources has been increasing, pushing Western investors toward greater exploitation that risks irreversibly ruining the environmental balance of those areas and of the entire planet.
In Bolivia, Mancini’s analysis focused on quinoa, a food of which Bolivia is the world's main producer.
Cultivated for over 7,000 years in the Incas highlands at a high altitude where very few crops can take root, quinoa is a traditional Bolivian food known for its high nutritional values and is now considered one of the most popular health foods in the world. It is in fact gluten-free, rich in protein, fiber, and many other vitamins and minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and zinc. It is also one of the few foods that contain all nine essential amino acids.
Since the 1970s, the high nutritional values of the so-called "golden grain" have captured the interest of North American and European consumers who have begun to consume it as an exotic and healthy superfood. This has led to an increase in global demand for the crop and, consequently, a rapid increase in its market price. The price of quinoa dramatically increased by 600% from 2000 to 2008 alone and continued to rise until 2013, when the food peaked in popularity thanks to the International Year of Quinoa established by the Food and Culture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
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Today, due to growing health and nutrition problems in Western countries, quinoa has become the holy grail of cereals, despite not belonging to the botanical family of grasses, and is included in many types of diets and is essential for the nutrition of vegans, vegetarians, and coeliacs. Two-thirds of the quinoa produced in Bolivia is now exported globally, of which 54% goes to the United States, 32% to Europe, and 6% to Canada.
Traditionally, quinoa was grown almost exclusively on the Andean slopes, while the surrounding plains were dedicated to farming. These activities provided the economic and food sustenance of the Bolivian populations. The agricultural boom of recent years has led to an expansion of the area destined for quinoa cultivation from 10,000 to 50,000 hectares. This increase, together with the consequent increase in the amount of work in the fields, has prompted farmers to abandon the traditional method of cultivation, which has always been based on maintaining the environmental integrity and healthiness of agricultural land, in favor of intensive cultivation. The lands have thus quickly turned into quinoa monocultures.
In 2018, though, the price of quinoa in Bolivia dropped to $0.60 per pound. This rapid decline in prices is also attributable to increased quinoa production worldwide. A decline that has severely jeopardized the economic well-being of Bolivian farmers. Many have had to face this emergency by looking for a second job or moving to the cities to find a job in the tourism or restaurant sector. Most, in an effort to remain competitive in the global quinoa market, have tried to resist by expanding their production areas. The land previously unoccupied and set aside has turned into a space constantly cultivated with quinoa and consequently stressed by continuous use.
All this has quickly led to soil degradation and loss of nutrients, an imbalance between crops and animal production, the use of natural chemical fertilizers, the destruction of wild vegetation cover and consequent soil erosion, and an increase in agricultural pests.
Additionally, farmers who once herded large herds of llamas have begun removing llamas from their lands to move them elsewhere, freeing up space for quinoa production. The lack of animals has meant a lack of manure and natural fertilizers that help nourish and protect the soil.
At the same time, the increased use of agricultural machinery has degraded soil fertility because the mechanical movement, by moving the subsoil, allows the reproduction of parasites and their easier circulation. Preparing new land with tractors for sowing is a process that employs the producers' activities for most of the year. It usually begins in March, and sowing takes place from September. Once both the sowing and harvesting processes were done manually.
Bismark, who comes from a family of local quinoa farmers and llama breeders, says: “Everything was manual. My father and uncles would get together and we would all ride together in one of their uncles' truck to the family plot to harvest quinoa. We were more than 10 people and we slept in the truck inside a tent. We woke up in the morning, prepared breakfast together and spent the whole day working in the fields.”
The presence of tractors in the fields has radically changed the traditional customs of quinoa producers. Entire families often go into debt to buy a tractor, others pay the owners to plow their fields. Small producers are those who are most affected by the price crisis on the quinoa market as they have to pay a fixed contribution to their community, but the harvest is often threatened by climate change and the low selling price of quinoa is not enough to cover the costs.
The environmental impact associated with the increase in quinoa production, therefore, depends above all on the change in production methods.
Locally, the few profit at the expense of the many.
The area between the departments of Oruro and Potosi, in the southwest of the country, is where quinoa originally began to be grown. The area is known throughout the world for the presence of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt desert in the world, a very famous tourist destination for its lagoons of a thousand colors, volcanoes, breathtaking landscapes, the endless horizon. The small town Salinas de Garci Mendoza, north of the Salar, is even commonly defined as the “world capital of royal quinoa,” and the area that surrounds it is an immense colorful expanse of quinoa fields interspersed in the center by the enormous white of the Salar, source among other things also of lithium, a mineral in the center of public attention in recent times. Here, still today, the producers boast of cultivating what is called the “Quinua Real,” a particular variety of quinoa that grows only in these latitudes due to the particular climatic conditions. Various producers also coming from abroad have tried over the years to transplant this variety elsewhere without obtaining good results due to the characteristics of the territory that are difficult to find in other places.
The same quinoa that grows in other areas of Bolivia, such as the variety grown in the area of Lake Titicaca, near La Paz, has a totally different flavor and size as well as a different development and harvesting period.
Those who grow quinoa on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, on the other hand, enjoy a privileged position characterized by a climate of little rain, extreme temperatures with large temperature ranges, and a constant wind that carries the salt from the Salar and gives the quinoa a more bitter taste. Furthermore, thanks to the nutrients coming from the soil of volcanic origin, the plants are larger and in some cases can reach up to 2.30 meters in height.
Extreme climatic conditions enhance quinoa's greatest quality: resilience.
Families in these areas live off the cultivation of quinoa and continue to consume it in the traditional way. The quinoa “pizarra” is the basis of the diet in the homes of the local native populations and the preparation continues to follow all the steps of the past: It begins with the toasting of the quinoa in the “tahuiqui” (an iron where it is roasted) with a little “tolas” ash (Parastrephia quadrangularis, perennial native shrubs that grow in the desert territories of the plateau). Then the trampling process is carried out, which is done according to tradition with the feet on a stone called “Taquirnaso” in the shape of a tub where the quinoa is trampled to remove the saponin (substance contained in the protective casing of the seed that can also reach to 2.3% in the more bitter variety, and considering that the maximum acceptable level of saponin for human consumption varies between 0.06% and 0.12%, it is necessary that the seed undergoes a “desaponification” process). Then the washing is performed: The quinoa is placed in a basin and washed to eliminate the residual saponin and dust. Only at this point can the preparation of the food begin, which takes place in a pot called “Ollita de vaso,” where water is boiled, salt is added. It is drained before serving it on the table, accompanying it with llama meat or vegetables and potatoes.
The men take care of the cultivation of the fields; the women, who, respecting the customs of the place, move to the country of the husband's family at the wedding and take care of the breeding of the llamas and cattle. Quinoa is celebrated during Carnival. In this period, the farmers perform propitiatory rites for the harvest and pray that the climate is kind to them because there are entire families with many children who totally depend on quinoa. With or without a good quinoa harvest, a family can predict what kind of year awaits them. For this reason rain is requested, it is adored, it is in the culture of this extraordinary place where, at times, it seems that time has stopped.
Anapqui is an association founded in 1983 by Bolivian quinoa producers from the provinces of Oruro, Potosi, and Uyuni, where the largest production in the country comes from. It is made up of about 1,800 families, each of which makes its own contribution to the community with a minimum annual quantity of production, which must be strictly organic.
The annual meeting made up of representatives of the families of producers elects the managers of the association who, therefore, all necessarily come from the same families, are linked to the traditions of quinoa culture, and deeply know the problems and issues of the territory they live in and they have always cultivated.
They carry out the marketing directly, without intermediaries. Three of the quinoa varieties they produce (white, red, and black) are now exported all over the world, mainly to North America, Asia, and Europe as well as quinoa-based aperitifs, snacks, and pastas, which are also very popular in the market. Bolivian interior and the flour used to prepare desserts, bread, or any gluten-free bakery product.
The main mission of the association is to preserve the traditional quinoa cultivation system and improve the quality of life of highland farmers, using environmentally friendly methods such as ecological soil or pest management.
The entire production is organic, no pesticides are used.
Climate change is another factor that endangers the production of quinoa as more and longer periods of drought are occurring on the plateau that do not allow its growth.
The rains come as rare as they are sudden and, instead of helping the growth of the product, often damage it as they cause flooding favored by the eroded soil. This delay and the shorter duration of the rainy season jeopardizes entire production sectors as also the harvest, which is usually expected between mid-March and April. In recent years it has consequently been postponed even until the month of May, dangerously approaching the arrival of winter, when frosts will put an end to the harvest and endanger the livelihoods and lives of families and entire communities.
The color of the plants themselves is affected by the lack of humidity. Fields are often observed in which the quinoa is yellow at the base. In many areas, even the size of the plants no longer reaches what it used to be, always due to the lack of rain.
In terms of quinoa, Bolivia is also at the forefront in the field of food research.
In La Paz, in fact, even within the chemical science department of the UMSA University, there is a team, led by Mauricio Peñarrieta, professor of food chemistry, which, thanks to a cooperation program between Bolivian and Swedish scientists, develops the asymmetrical field flow fractionation, a cutting-edge technique for Latin America to study macromolecules, including that of quinoa, its properties, and its composition of amino acids, which have extraordinary characteristics for the creation of foods and beverages and have important properties for health, properties that have made quinoa so popular around the world.
The Incas called quinoa “chisiya mama,” which in the Quechua language means “mother of all seeds.”
For the native populations, the “mother of all seeds” had a sacred role, so much so that it became a symbol of that great empire. It was used in religious ceremonies and offered as a symbol of prosperity. For this reason, the Spanish conquerors, who were steeped in Catholic culture and therefore considered the bread and wheat from which it derives sacred, decided to eliminate it completely: It was a real policy of religious conversion and the annulment of ancient traditions.
The Spaniards therefore destroyed the plantations and executed the clandestine farmers, replacing the crops with potatoes, corn, and tomatoes, which increasingly met European tastes. And so the cultivation of quinoa almost completely disappeared.
It is incredible how today the demand for this food has turned this reality upside down, however restoring a dangerous form of economic neocolonialism that follows market logic and ignores the effects produced on local populations and the environment in the name of profit.
Giving preference to organic producers — such as those who are part of Anapqui, who favor the reproduction of the area thanks to the use of natural fertilizers from llama farms, which enrich it with nutrients instead of using pesticides — is the best way to halt this emergency and help small producers in crisis due to the collapse in the price of quinoa on the world market.