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The golden grain of the Andes

The social and environmental impact of the quinoa monoculture in Bolivia

"If nature were a bank, they would have already saved it"
Eduardo Galeano


Cultivated for over 7,000 years in the Inca highlands at a high altitude, quinoa is a traditional Bolivian food known for its high nutritional values and is 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, 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 American and European consumers as an exotic and healthy superfood which has resulted in an increase in global demand for the crop and, consequently, a rapid increase in its market price. The price of quinoa increased dramatically by 600% from 2000 to 2008 alone.

Today, due to growing health and nutrition problems in Western countries, quinoa has become the holy grail of grains. Two-thirds of the quinoa produced in Bolivia, that is the world’s main producer, 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 breeding, which provided the economic and food sustenance of the Bolivian populations. The agricultural boom of recent years has led to the expansion of the area destined for quinoa cultivation from 10,000 to 50,000 hectares and has led farmers to abandon the traditional method of cultivation, which has always been based on maintaining the environmental integrity and health of agricultural land, in favor of intensive cultivation. The lands have thus been transformed 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.
This decline threatens the economic well-being of Bolivian farmers who, in an effort to remain competitive in the global quinoa market, have expanded their production areas. Previously unoccupied land has turned into spaces that are constantly growing quinoa.

All this is leading to soil degradation and nutrient loss, an imbalance between crops and animal production, the use of natural chemical fertilizers, the destruction of wild plant cover and consequent soil erosion, an increase in agricultural pests.
Additionally, farmers who once herded large herds of llamas removed the llamas from their land to open up space for quinoa production. With this lack of animals, however, has come a lack of manure to help feed and protect the soil.
At the same time, the increased use of agricultural machinery has degraded soil fertility because the use of agricultural machinery, by moving the subsoil, allows parasites to reproduce.

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.

Favoring organic producers who favor the reproduction of the territory thanks to the use of natural fertilizers from llama farms which enriches it with nutrients instead of using pesticides, is the best way to stop this emergency and to help small producers in crisis due to the collapse of the price of quinoa on the world market.
Anapqui is an association founded in 1983 by Bolivian producers from the provinces of Oruro, Potosi and Uyuni, the major producers of quinoa. It is made up of 1800 families, each of which makes its own contribution with a minimum annual quantity of strictly organic production. The annual meeting elects the managers who must come from producer families.
They carry out the marketing directly, without intermediaries. Its main mission 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. All of their production is organic, they do not use pesticides.

Climate change is another factor that endangers the production of quinoa as there are increasingly greater and longer periods of drought on the plateau that do not allow its growth.

The rains come sudden and rare and, instead of helping the growth of the product, they damage it as they cause flooding favored by the eroded soil.
This delay and the shorter rainy period jeopardizes entire production
sectors as the harvest is also postponed and its times are dangerously getting
closer and closer to the arrival of winter which will bring frosts which will put an end to the harvest and jeopardize the livelihoods and the lives of entire communities.



THIS WORK IS PART OF A LONGTERM ONGOING PROJECT CALLED "IN THE NAME OF WELLNESS" that has been granted from the PULITZER CENTER on crisis reporting. ​The entire project is supported by the PULITZER CENTER and is produced in partnership with the PULITZER CENTER. "IN THE NAME OF WELLNESS" investigates the phenomenon of environmental neocolonialism, its mechanism and its consequences on the ecosystems and local population to support the market for a diet that is defined as healthy in Western countries. It's an exploration of the growth of these superfood crops and how it is affecting climate and agriculture in those regions. How these superfood crops contribute to Latin America’s environmental neocolonialism? In recent years the demand for these resources is always increasing, pushing Western investors towards a greater exploitation that risks irreversibly ruining the environmental balance of those areas and of the entire planet. The stories might be "food for thought" for people who focus on their own personal wellness -- and who now realize the planet might have a wellness issue with that popular diet! The goal is to raise awareness on this global emergency through different stories in various countries that are living the same situation, trying st the same time to give light to examples of realities that are promoting a different model of agricolture fairer for the people who cultivate their land and respectful for the ecosystem.​ The exploitation of the resources of some continents to the detriment of its inhabitants is unfortunately a theme that has historically been repeated throughout history.
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