On the Road with Andean Naturals: The Story of Bolivian Quinoa

Sergio Núñez de Arco of Andean Naturals shares his experience with Fair Trade quinoa farmers in Bolivia

06/08/2011 - 4:47 PM

Once referred to by the Incas as the “mother of all grains,” quinoa is one of the most complete nutritional superfoods on Earth. Originating in the Andes region of South America, it contains an exceptional balance of amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Since its discovery almost 5,000 years ago Andean highland cultures have considered quinoa sacred; a food source so deeply ingrained in the culture and lives of its farmers. Today quinoa has found its way down from those ancient mountaintops and into the homes of millions of health-conscious consumers who value its distinctive taste, easy preparation, and nutritional bounty.

By choosing Fair Trade Certified quinoa, you are helping farmers and their families earn better wages for their hard work, allowing them to hold on to their land, keep their kids in school, preserve their cultural heritage and invest in the quality and productivity of their harvest. With Fair Trade, Bolivians are one step closer to eliminating food scarcity and making sure there is enough quinoa for all who want and need it.

The story below comes to us from Sergio Núñez de Arco, General Manager of Andean Naturals (an importer of Fair Trade Certified quinoa). Read on to see how one man was inspired and empowered by an ancient grain and the people who love and work its land. 

I am glad to contribute to this effort by sharing my story of Fair Trade quinoa farmers. During my last trip to Bolivia we experienced first-hand how the farmers long for, even cry out for their story to be told.  They want to share their quinoa, this extraordinarily nutritious food that they work so hard for, with the world. They want to people to see what it takes to grow quinoa in arid lands at 12,000 feet of altitude, hoping for the 10 inches of rainfall per year that may never come.  These people  are strong and proud. It is not handouts they seek, but rather a bond with the global community;  a respectful relationship that recognizes the true value of their product and the hard work they have put into it.  

I truly appreciate the passion of the The Fair Trade USA team for telling the stories of the growers.  Those stories help close the gap between our food and where it comes from; how it is cultivated and by whom.  They also help us become aware of the impact of our everyday shopping choices.

Journey to the Bolivian Highlands

In a May 2011 trip to Bolivia, the  photographer Vitaliy Prokopets came along with our team and took amazing pictures that we hope will help bridge the gap between quinoa farmers and those who purchase their product in North America.

The quinoa farmers that Andean Naturals works with are all located near the town of Salinas, at the shores of the Bolivian salt flats (Bolivia is a landlocked country in the heart of South America.  It is the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.) Getting to this remote location takes 9 hours of driving on dirt roads at 12,000 feet of altitude. 

Quinoa is Life

Quinoa grows in a desert.  It is planted and harvested once a year when the seed heads are dry.  To the right is a plant that will yield red quinoa.  At this altitude and in this environment there are no other crop alternatives.  Quinoa farming is the only income generator for these families. All harvest is done by hand once a year (April/May).  The product from each small plot will go to fill about 1,500 1-pound retail bags of quinoa.

 Along our journey we met a family of quinoa farmers from the Fair Trade cooperative. Here you can see them in front of their home.  No water, no electricity.  Just one room where the 8 family members huddle together during the ice cold nights.  A typical family such as this makes an average of $90/month selling quinoa (before Fair Trade, they earned just $35/month).  Quinoa, as we witnessed during our trip, is the main source of food here.  They eat it for every meal, in various forms- some use it as a side dish with some llama meat or as a drink.

This family of quinoa farmers belongs to a Fair Trade cooperative in Bolivia. They report that their income has increased from $35/month to $90/month in the last two years.

I met many quinoa farmers along the way. One farmer in particular laughed when he saw the difference in our hands. We had to take a picture of my "office hands" next to his calloused hands.  This photo tells the story of how we each do our part in the quinoa supply chain.  I wanted them to know that our job, as market developers and importers, is to serve them.  We provide them a service in bringing their quinoa to market.

In the next community we visited (Aroma) we were received by 3 tribe leaders.  Their hats, ponchos, llama scarves, pouches holding coca and whips are symbols of their responsibility and authority.They set up a podium on the flatbed of a truck!  Here is one of the chiefs explaining the importance of being represented in the market.  They then asked us to share their food, and to take their story back to share with the people of North America.

Keeping Kids in School

Back at the town of Salinas we had the chance to visit a school.  This is where we experienced the true impact of Fair Trade quinoa.  I asked below how many children had parents who were quinoa growers and 95% raised their hands.  Three years ago nearly all of these children, eight years and up, would have been out in the fields harvesting quinoa alongside their parents.  Instead they now attend school, and unlike many of their older siblings, have a chance to go onto high-school.

On behalf of the Andean Naturals team, the quinoa growers, their families and all the employees at the processing plants, thank you for choosing Fair Trade Certified quinoa! It makes more of a difference than you know. 






06/08/2011 - 4:47 PM
06/08/2011 - 4:47 PM