This guest blog post comes to us from Richard Shaw of Andean Naturals . Recently, Fair Trade USA joined an Andean Naturals team to observe the quinoa harvest, document the quinoa farmers’ conditions of life and meet with their representatives to discuss programs in place and priorities going forward. This is the first of a series of posts from Andean Naturals recording their experiences and reaffirming their mission to make a positive impact in the lives of quinoa farmers. Visit andeannaturals.com  to learn more and win a year’s supply of quinoa .
It was an expedition encompassing hundreds of miles, eight days, ten people, two suvs and not many roads, through scenery that varied from the spectacular to the surreal… a bone-jarring, soul-stirring, mind-opening journey to the heartland of the mother grain at harvest time.
We arrived in La Paz via Miami from various points beyond, the Bay Area and the Big Apple, southern California and northern Georgia… four filmmakers (Michael, Stefan, Richard and Adam) and two Fair Traders (Sarah and Sri); Andean Naturals’ Sergio Nuñez de Arco, the captain of the enterprise, and Señor Shaw, its chronicler. We were joined by Yeris and Jose-Luis, two stalwart sons of Bolivia charged with keeping us on the road and out of real trouble.
Our gathering point was the Radisson, a rare outpost of US corporate virility in a land abandoned by McDonald’s and whose president is a former leader of the coca growers’ union. We drank pisco sours at the bar to launch friendships, wash down altitude-sickness pills and ease us toward the cultural threshold.
As we embarked the following morning, the Sequoia and Patrol we had rented were stuffed with bodies and baggage, with bulky cases of film equipment lashed to the roof racks. Yeris demonstrated his mastery of the honk-and-go technique as he piloted us through the somehow self-regulating mayhem of traffic in downtown La Paz and upward to El Alto, a mushrooming Amerindian metropolis that spills across the high desert plain at thirteen thousand and several hundred feet above sea level. Construction projects abound in various stages of completion and dereliction, and dust is never far away.
Process and progress
Just off Avenida Panamericana, Jacha Inti S.A., Andean Naturals’ processing operation in Bolivia, presents an unassuming face to passersby. Inside, the buildings hum quietly with motors, machines and purposeful human energy. Fabricio Nuñez de Arco, brother of Sergio and CEO at Jacha Inti, checks commodities prices and talks about practical issues in helping quinoa growers. The tractor is the farmer’s Swiss-Army knife, he explains, valuable beyond plowing and seed time as a means of hauling water and for crushing newly harvested quinoa between tarpaulins to initiate the cleansing process.
We head to the employee dining room for lunch, a hearty offering including vegetable soup, a kind of beef pie with potatoes and a toothsome quinoa mousse. All 130 employees eat for free and the company picks up the tab for health and social benefits, too. This is not a standard model of workplace relations in Bolivia, Fabricio assures us.
In the refining lab, Antonio Salazar is doing what he does best, which is making things work better. He excels at developing new products and smarter processes to refine the refining of quinoa -- optical scanners, magnetic separators, rat-poop detectors and such. He is public enemy number one of the fragments of seedpod, stalk, grit, quartz and other tiny nuisances that sometimes arrive in truckloads of raw quinoa but must travel no farther.
On the road again
Our journey continued southward. The 120 miles to Oruro was slow going due to tolls, diversions and caravans of overloaded, grime-crusted trucks groaning up hills, daunting if not suicidal to pass. Some of those headed north no doubt carried quinoa. Alongside the existing two-lane road for most of its length, two new lanes are under construction, a few miles here, a couple more there, adding confusion and dust clouds. Maybe one day all the pieces will join up.
... (To be continued)
Coming highlights include:
- The importance of the llama
- The rewards of doing the right thing
- Quinoa to eat, quinoa to drink
- Hardship as a way of life