Farms in the sky

Bolivia’s farmers contend with modernization


drawing of an Andean condor seen close from above, flying over high altitude farmland with higher snowclad peaks in the backgroundCarl Dennis Buell

The picture I want to paint is colored by slate-grey clouds and the intermittent threat of rain. We are near 15,000 feet, in a Bolivian village called Caraquina Grande, which is not on any map you’re likely to find. A mishap with our bus on a flooded road has made us two hours late. But when we arrive wet and embarrassed, we learn that lunch is waiting. The men of the village are dressed in their finest ponchos and embroidered hats to greet us. These are real meat-and-potatoes people, meant in both literal and metaphorical senses: they are solid, friendly, and simple, and they eat almost nothing but meat and potatoes.

“We” are a joint effort between Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and the Bolivian Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, a class called Food Systems of the Bolivian Andes. We are here to explore the ways in which a system of mostly small, independent producers feeds a country of nine million and the city of La Paz. We are also here, it seems, simply to reaffirm that tenuous and pivotal knowledge that lies at the root of all change: we are not alone.

These farmers engage in some of the highest-altitude agriculture in the world – a scant few hundred feet and cultivation gives way to grazing, then rock. The landscape is alpine, a carpet of low-growing grass dotted with delicate wildflowers and moss; nothing grows higher than our ankles.

Except the potatoes. Dotted throughout the hills at seemingly random intervals, small plots are carved out of the soil, mounded into rows, and planted in potatoes (Solanum tuberosum, mostly, though there are various other species). Little else will grow at this altitude. There is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and its lesser-known relative cañawa (Chenopodium pallidicaule), a ginseng-like root called maca (Lepidium meyenii), oca (Oxalis tuberosa, another tuber) and some fava beans (Nicia faba). There is also livestock: mainly llama and alpaca, but also some sheep.

They say that in the time of the Inca Empire no one went hungry. The stockhouses commonly held a five-year supply of freeze-dried potatoes and dried llama meat called “charque”, which word gave rise to “jerky” in our language. In the Andes, a land of extreme climate and equally extreme topography, food security is predicated on diversity. Although there are only a dozen or so major crops, there are literally thousands of varieties of those crops. A given family will have five or six potato fields scattered throughout the area, at different elevations and on different slopes and orientations. Some will be cultivated with rows that follow the curve of the hill, some perpendicular to it, some diagonalwise. Each plot will hold something like five to twelve varieties of potato, perhaps interplanted with fava, oca, or maize (Zea mays), depending on the elevation, year and interpretation of bioindicators.

The other vital element of the Andean food system – and culture – is the concept of reciprocity. Aside from five years’ worth of dried potatoes, the Incans had a complex trade system that used the stunning diversity of agroecosystems that their empire encompassed, from 15,000-foot alpine highlands to tropical lowlands where fruit and many other tubers were available year round. In between, dry valleys, mid-altitude cloud forest and the Lake Titicaca basin provided maize, beans, and coca. Potatoes and llama meat went down to the jungle, while fruit moved up to the highlands. Coca was dispersed to all points. In the case of crop failure or famine in one corner of the empire, an elaborate network of roads and a well-coordinated supply of food from various sources could compensate.

Driving through Bolivian fields in the rainy season (December-March) is rather like passing through a Van Gogh, a mosaic of color and texture. Potato flowers in multiple shades of purple, pink and white, blue lupines, yellow sunflowers, green maize growing at two or three heights, dark fava beans, yellow oca flowers, sprawling peas, even some amber waves of wheat or barley. Bright flowers edge the beds. Sheep and pigs tend to be tethered at odd intervals, while mixed herds of llamas, alpacas, sheep, donkeys, and pigs are liable to wander into the road and in front of your bus at any moment.

Except for where the fields are broad swaths of monocrops, or where they are abandoned. The traditional system of land tenure, which is based on concepts of communal property and yearly rotations that maximize production, reduce risks, and maintain diversity, is being dismantled at an alarming rate. Land that was traditionally apportioned yearly based on a system of rotation and family size is now held individually. As individual families grow, they must carve land for their children out of their holdings, or their children must find ways of living that don’t require land.

At 1.5 million, La Paz isn’t a very big city by global standards. (See Lima, for example, at 9 million, or Shanghai, which recently passed the 20 million mark). The population of La Paz proper is only about 800,000; the other 650,000 live in El Alto, a suburb of sorts located a few hundred feet up on the altiplano. La Paz covers only about 11,000 acres (compare to Lima at 670,000), confined to a narrow river valley, while El Alto sprawls over some 21,000 acres on the flat altiplano above. La Paz is nonetheless the preferred place to live, with warmer temperatures and some protection from the wind; in fact, property prices follow a fairly linear inverse relationship with altitude.

In La Paz, bare brick buildings crowd against sprawling colonial churches, some of which are being razed to make room for more brick buildings. Anecdotal wisdom has it that only 15 percent of the land here is technically fit for building on. Occasionally you pass a building in which one half has simply shifted away from the other, a long crack running between.

Much of the population here is transient, workers who come for a few months at a time to make money to take home to their families. There is a hand-painted billboard outside of Caraquina Grande that reads Papa, necesito tu cariño y cuidado – Dad, I need your love and care – a testament to the fact that most of the men in the village are gone to La Paz six months of the year. Caraquina Grande is nonetheless a town where many of the traditional customs are still intact. When we arrive, we are greeted with applause and two rounds of handshaking. First, the men stand in an expectant line and we file past. We are clumsy, faltering until we understand the process: shake hands, then clasp shoulders, lean in as if to kiss cheeks, then touch hands again before moving to the next person. The women are sitting on a low stone wall nearby, and we repeat the ritual with them. Then we stand in a line and they greet us, the air filled with a hum of four-dozen voices murmuring “Buenos tardes, gracias, bienvenidos.”

After a long formal introduction, the women begin pulling bundles of food from behind their skirts, laying them out on brightly woven blankets: potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, some oca, and some lamb.

The idyllic beauty of the Bolivian countryside has largely been spared the homogenizing influence of industrialization, but many Bolivian farmers express some regret at this fact. The markets, as well as the capital-M capitalist Market, are shifting: where once there was a specific potato for soups, one for eating with fava beans and one for eating with peas, a potato for frying and one for freeze-drying into chuño, the new generation wants to eat pasta and rice. Burger King imports potatoes from Idaho. Bolivians are neither ignorant nor stupid: they understand that production can be increased with mechanization and with the use of industrial fertilizers and pesticides. In the Department of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands, Monsanto is growing GMO soy, while sugar and cotton plantations increasingly replace native forest. (Bolivia has nine such departments, roughly analogous to states or provinces.) The industrial process has taken a firm hold in Santa Cruz, neatly displacing both traditional agroforestry and traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, as well as a vital link in the traditional trade system. The large-scale industrial agriculture model is, however, conspicuously absent in the highlands. Only two things stand between highland Bolivia and the Green Revolution: extreme poverty, and the Andes.

On one hand, this is a country where some 65 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, where many farmers are growing their food primarily to feed their families, and where middlemen sprout like mushrooms on the muddy roads between farm and market. There is little money to be spared for luxuries like pesticides, fertilizers, and tractors.

On the other, cultivation often occurs on slopes too steep to comfortably stand on, on soils too rocky to reasonably dig in, or within elaborate systems of terraces that have been in place since before the Incas. In short: this is no place for a John Deere. The machines that Idaho potato farmers use to put a few thousand potatoes per hour in the ground are patently ridiculous on a 10-acre plot with a 25 degree slope. The economics of scale simply do not quite apply. Instead, the farmers here use a foot-plow that has not changed in design or use in several thousand years, with the exception that the blades that used to be made of stone are now usually salvaged metal.

My liberal anti-industrial sensibilities tend to cheer at this turn of fortune, because the fields are beautiful and the biodiversity involved is quite simply staggering: some 5,000 varieties of potato, 600 of fava beans, 500 of maize, the list goes on. The truth, however, is that poverty is not romantic: Lack of clean water contributes to the death of every tenth child under the age of five. And when the resources are available, many farmers are quite eager to purchase chemical inputs, particularly in the form of nitrogen fertilizer. As population and economic pressures increase, fallow times are being reduced or eliminated. This is, after all, land that may have been in production for a few thousand years. Soil fertility is not a minor issue.

photo of a woman with long braids on plantings, forest in backgroundWilla Thorpe photoA woman rests in a field of coca seedlings.

It will be worth mentioning here the elephant in Bolivia’s agricultural room: coca. By far the most profitable crop per area in the country, coca (Erythroxylum coca) has a history as old as the Andean people. Jorge Hurtado, director of the Coca Museum in La Paz, describes it as the focus of Andean indigenous cultures, serving as a method of socializing, rather like coffee in the US, and also a symbolic religious function as profound as that of wine in the Eucharist. It also happens to be the raw material from which cocaine is made. This last fact is not unrelated to the competitive price of coca: one acre will produce the profit in one year equivalent to sixteen acres of bananas or four of coffee, the “alternative development” crop most often encouraged. Coca has few diseases and fewer pests; it is a perennial and can be harvested up to four times a year, depending on elevation and irrigation.

There is a robust and legal domestic market for coca leaves, which are used for tea and also chewed almost constantly by most campesinos; however, exportation of the leaf in any form is illegal by international treaty. (There is an exception for Coca-Cola, authorized to export some 105 tons of de-alkalized leaves annually.) The US-led “War on Drugs” has had its eye on coca production for 50 years or so, with a “Zero Coca” party line, recently revised to “Zero Cocaine” as newly-elected president Evo Morales insists that coca has a rightful place in Andean culture.

Indeed, Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca recently suggested that coca be served in schools; a much-touted 1975 Harvard study showed that coca has unusually high levels of calcium and other nutrients. In diets often lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables – diets based on meat and potatoes, for instance – the vitamins and minerals gained from coca chewing may be vital. Morales proposes decriminalizing coca while continuing the fight against cocaine production, creating an official distinction between the innocuous raw material and the illicit processed product. Also worth mentioning is that the industrial chemicals required to turn 328 kilos of coca leaf into 1 kilo of cocaine are produced in, you guessed it: the United States. International reaction has nonetheless been virulent, and 50 years of policy are unlikely to change with any appreciable speed.

Though forced eradication was long the standard tactic, the battle against coca is now fought largely through the vehicle of so-called “alternative development,” which attempts to replace coca with licit means of making a living. The story of alternative development, however, is an ugly one, wrought with corruption and failed dreams. We hear time and again of outside agencies (USAID being high on the list) that come into an area promoting the newest anti-coca scheme: plant coffee, plant citrus. They begin monumental projects: orange juice plants, coffee processing plants. They often require significant input, both financial and material, from the local people. And they often fail: in a small town in the Yungas, after two years’ work and $5000 of community investment building the plant which was supposed to process a local root, hamachpeque, into flour to be made into cookies to be packaged for sale in La Paz, the last $2000 of investment money never appeared. Lost in the system. The processing plant stands still, full of equipment and supplies but unfinished. The men who show it to us express pride in the building they constructed themselves, and clearly control their anger when speaking of the bureaucracy that robbed them of their opportunity. It is an old story that only gets more bitter in the retelling.

This year, they are planting coca again.

photo of two pigs lying in a puddle on a flagstone street, being held on a rope by a figure. In the background, a market with a sign advertising Agencia ILVA, and Leche, Yogurt, and other thingsWilla Thorpe photoSnoozing in front of the market.

Up in the mountains, our welcome party is being hit with rain. The women shrug their wool shawls tighter around them; the men and children don’t seem to notice. We open our packs to rummage for raincoats and elicit a few stares: in a moment the rain has passed. After the food is arranged on its blankets, the women retire back to their stone wall. Men and women eat separately, we learn, but the females in our group are invited to eat in either group: apparently “American” trumps gender roles. We Americans-who-happen-to-be-women join the other women nonetheless, to sit in a hunched circle and tear at meat with our teeth.

Two weeks earlier we had been treated to a similar meal in the valley of Achocalla, outside La Paz. We were visiting a collective of greenhouse growers who want to create a certified municipio ecológico – an ecological county, in effect – to combat the growing trend they recognized towards use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. One benefit of a wide network of small-scale farmers rather than large, centralized, mechanized farms is that the lag time between cause and the perception of effect is dramatically shortened: these growers started using pesticides and noticed that spring was getting quieter. Then they made the connection and began to organize.

Beneath standard developing nation chaos – a categorical lack of government infrastructure, for example – lies one of Bolivia’s great strengths: everyone is organized. Taxi drivers, hotel operators, shoe shiners, women selling flour and rice in the market, everyone is organized into sindicatos or asociaciones, with presidents and vice-presidents, secretaries, treasurers, and networks of communication. This systematic organization has allowed coca farmers and other disenfranchised groups to effectively blockade La Paz several times over the past few years, successfully ousting two presidents.

This organization has also allowed a group of farmers in a small town to lead the fight against GMOs in their country, successfully forcing the passage of a law that bans the introduction of GMO crops. Those already present, such as the soy mentioned previously, are still protected; the Association of Ecological Greenhouse and Vegetable Growers intends to change that soon.

They are pushing for their municipio ecológico because they recognize that individual changes will be drowned in the surrounding sea of pesticide residue. Their efforts are joined by a local dairy, Flor de Leche, which buys milk from small producers and transforms it into artisan cheese and yogurt for sale in La Paz. Flor de Leche competes with Pil, a multinational dairy company that holds a near-monopoly on dairy production in the country and sells yogurt with a shelf life of over a month. The nascent health-food movement in the city seems eager enough to absorb Flor de Leche’s merchandise, however, and now the groups are looking for ways to systematically label their products in order to get better prices.

Over the course of a month, we visit a number of variations on this theme, in each of the Andes’ agroecosystems: the dry valleys, such as La Paz and Achocalla; the altiplano, which is the vast expanse of flat, arid land between the Cordilleras Oriental and Occidental at about 12,500 feet; the Lake Titicaca region, which has a particularly mild climate moderated by the lake; the Yungas, an area of semi-tropical lowland valleys; and the puna, the high plateau region, up to 16,000 feet, where Caraquina Grande is located.

photo of a man wearing a hat and knotted bag and holding a rope walking on a stony outcrop, with steep terraced fields behind himWilla Thorpe photoThe Bolivian highlands’ rugged terrain make industrial agriculture impractical.

As we travel from place to place in our rickety bus, we meet and speak with growers and professors, nonprofits working to preserve biodiversity, conservation biologists, farm workers, technical experts and children. Each connection builds a sense of community, an emerging image of power: We are not alone. They speak of fighting against corporations and working to preserve their traditions in the face of global influences; we speak of the same. We are able to tell the Asociación de Productores de Tubérculos Andinas de Candelaria, a group working to maintain diversity in potatoes and other traditional tubers, about Native Seeds/SEARCH, a group working to maintain diversity in beans and other traditional Southwestern crops in Arizona. We are able to mirror each other, through stumbling translations, through cultural barriers, able to see each other and recognize: We are not alone.

Freelance writer Caitlin O’Brien is an incoming Earth Island Journal intern. She lives in California

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