To find what makes the Challapata market in Bolivia famous, one must first pass vendors with massive green bags of dried coca leaf, dozens of varieties of carrots and potatoes, and heaps of used clothing shipped in from the United States. Now just ahead, past market restaurants, electronics, and freshly cut sheep skins, one finally arrives at what this small Altiplano market is known for: quinoa. Surrounded by trucks that have brought quinoa from the countryside and sheds for storage and processing, small transactions between individual farmers and middleman take place over hundreds of bags of quinoa. The variety is astounding, white, red, and the rare black quinoa are separated and divided further into first-class, second-class, third-class, and so on, as well as organic or conventional. However much this diversity speaks to the wealth of diverse quinoa varieties and of quinoa production in the Altiplano, this scene also recalls the commoditisation process that has occurred in most other agricultural markets. It is the process by which quinoa produced on a certain hillside or according to a certain set of labor practices becomes simply first-class, white quinoa.
And yet, in the small town of San Agustin, located in the Potosi Department of Bolivia, a group of quinoa farmers and activists are working to create a denomination of origin label which would reclaim their distinctive quinoa as something other than a commodity. The labeling initiative, Quinua de Lipez, is spearheaded by the Mancomunidad de Lipez, a non-governmental organization. Like French Champagne, the qualities that separate Quinua de Lipez are related to both agricultural practices and to distinctive environmental properties that together produce a unique and valuable pseudo-cereal. Agricultural practices in San Agustin rely on greater use of manual labor in planting, harvesting, and cleaning of quinoa. Proponents of the label state that this labor deserves recognition not only in order to remunerate the greater amount of work, but also to acknowledge the reproduction of traditional farming methods. By sowing seed by hand, harvesting with scythes, and cleaning by the winnowing method, farmers place a lesser impact on the fragile Altiplano agro-ecosystem and cater to the demands of the Northern consumer who, as perceived by Andean farmers, seeks out ecologically and traditionally produced foods. Also unique to the region is an agro- ecosystem which allows these practices to thrive. Generally hilly topography disincentives tractor use, high altitude fields reduce pest and disease pressure by nature of the colder average temperatures and a relative aridity of the soils incentivizes longer fallow periods, which serve to preserve soils and reduce pest pressures.
Returning to the vibrant Challapata market, we can see how poorly the grading system accounts for differences in farming practices and environmental factors. More than a price differential, what the farmers are seeking is simply the preservation of the local identity of their quinoa. Noting that both farmer cooperatives and independent middlemen tend to mix quinoa without distinction for farming practices or terroir, farmers seek a third way by which to engage with the world market, but at the same time hold on to what famous anthropologist Marcel Mauss would call the “soul” of the quinoa. Despite changing hands from Lipeño farmer to Northern consumer, the farmer can maintain a claim on the quinoa through his labor and through his knowledge.
This lesson is especially pertinent as quinoa production has begun to expand into regions of the United States, France, and Australia, amongst others. The ability of Lipeño farmers to reclaim their distinctiveness through denomination of origin labeling provides an example of how quinoa farmers in other regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile can engage with world markets without losing the soul of their quinoa. Andrew Ofstehage is a Phd Student, Anthropology Department University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who conducted four months of ethnographic research in the Southern Altiplano for his Masters degree at Wageningen University.