Perusing Peru: Questions about Quinoa

We spent the summer in Peru to conduct a field study for Milo’s master’s thesis from the University of Bergen in Norway. Kelly acted as the translator and guide. We were given access to the lives of Peruvian farmers, which is an honor and memory that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

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We were lucky enough to make connections quickly and easily; we met our first contact, Alberto, in the pizza restaurant where he works. Alberto, showing Kelly dried quinoa stalks below, agreed to take us to the fields, show us around and grant us an interview with his family.

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Alberto’s family was incredibly inviting and hospitable. The moment we walked into their courtyard, we were given corn and cheese to snack on. We couldn’t help but give a few kernels to the hens clucking around our feet.

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The cages next to the front door were full of squeaking pudgy guinea pigs, awaiting their fate of a foreigner’s plate. The family told us that they eat guinea pig on very special occasions about twice a year, but it is a booming business to sell these creatures to the tourist restaurants.

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Though we did not attempt to taste guinea pig, Kelly tried it whilst living in Ecuador 5 years ago and remembers it as greasy and heavy. She remembers a fried guinea pig, in its entirety, staring back at her on a plate with potatoes. To say the least, the experience was not a pleasant one.

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Outside of Alberto’s family home, we explored the surrounding village of San Salvador. The fields were packed full of colorful food, all in different stages of development. Luckily, we arrived just in time to catch the end of the quinoa season.

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As Alberto and Monica began to explain the very labor intensive process of getting quinoa from the fields to our plates, we realized just how much we underestimate the strength, dedication and selflessness it takes to be a farmer.

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Monica took us into some mature quinoa fields to show us how they know the quinoa is ready to be harvested. She noted the color fading from the vibrant colors into pale, almost sun-bleached stalks, which is an indication of maturity. More importantly, she pointed to the top of the stalk to where the quinoa was drooping over due to the weight of seeds accumulating up top. This, she said, is how they know when quinoa is ready to be harvested.

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Once a farmer is certain that their quinoa must be harvested, they ask their neighbors to help. It is Quechua (the most common indigenous group in the sacred valley) tradition to lend a hand in time of need. The motto is simple: “Today I help you, tomorrow you help me.” Standing the test of time, this tradition of reciprocity has enabled the people of Peru to rely on themselves without the help of agricultural machinery.

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The farmer and their neighbors come prepared with sun hats and hand-held scythes. They cut the first 18″ off the stalk of the quinoa plant and lay it in small piles in the field to dry. Depending on the weather, the drying process takes about a week. While the quinoa is drying, a few seeds become dislodged from the stalk and get sown back into the earth. Next season, the farmer will unearth the quinoa sprouts and replant them in more uniform lines alongside seeds they saved from the previous season.

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In Peru, most of the Sacred Valley is still owned  and operated by small land holders. Some choose to join local farmer’s associations, but the majority of farmers do not.

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Once the quinoa has dried in the field, the seeds must be separated from the stalk and hulls. Depicted in the picture above, this woman is using a traditional dehulling method that we saw often. After removing the large pieces of stalk by hand, she scooped up a bowl full of quinoa seeds and slowly tipped it back into the heaping pile, letting the wind carry away the lighter pieces and leaving the dehulled seeds. This process tends to take hours but the farmers repeatedly assured us that this process was cleaner, cheaper and more effective than mechanized de-hullers.

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Once she has worked through the majority of larger, inedible pieces of the quinoa plant, she sifts the rest so what remains is the seed.

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As we continued our walk through the fields, Alberto encouraged us to try sweet corn stalks. Seemingly evoked by fond memories, Alberto shared that as a kid, he used to chew the stalks, extract the juice and spit out the pulp. It was quite tasty and thirst quenching as we trudged around in the fields. You can see above Milo is peeling the skin of the stalk and below Kelly takes a bite of the sweet juicy marrow.

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This dog was actually really sweet, we just got a vicious picture that we had to share.

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You may have noticed that in the photos of this trip, both of our hair is much longer than usual. Although we are very proud of our queer identities, not everyone is accepting of us, so we had to choose if we wanted to keep our normal short hair or to grow it to comply with cultural norms. It was very difficult for us to bury our visibility in order to appear heteronormative, but ultimately we decided to put other people’s comfort before our own. As researchers in foreign places, it is important to think of one’s status and how one is perceived by those one is researching. Although discrimination based on our queer appearance is a part of our daily reality, in this situation we were especially aware of how it could limit our success.

We spent one day in San Salvador and interviewed two families. Luckily, on the bus ride to San Salvador, a nice lady named Hilaria asked us what our purpose was for traveling to the Sacred Valley. Once we informed her about our studies, she told us that she is also a farmer. We made plans to meet with her later in the week.

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Hilaria, an incredible woman as well as our friend, became the most influential guide in our quest to talk to quinoa farmers. We soon learned that she, like few others, is part of a farmer’s association and could potentially get us access to every farmer in her association. We promptly found the cheapest hostel in her town of Pisaq and went exploring with her.

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We instantly connected with Hilaria on a friendship basis when she took us on an hour walk down a dirt road to her quinoa field and we picked up trash along the way. One of the first things that we noticed about Hilaria is that she takes incredible pride in her culture, her community, and her work.

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Her quinoa field had already been harvested and the quinoa was on the point of being collected to de-hull. We learned that she too had conducted her field studies in the same locations that we hoped to visit. We were incredibly lucky to have Hilaria to gain access to commonly closed communities and to provide the occasional translation when people did not speak Spanish.

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A few days after visiting her quinoa field, she took us to another farmer’s land. We passed through fields of food including corn, wheat, lima beans, chia seeds, amaranth, and, of course, quinoa.

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Hilaria showing us the individual wheat seeds and then safely storing them in her pocket for next year’s use.

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Chia, the plant Milo is touching above, is actually a relative of the quinoa plant. With its growing popularity in North America and Europe, Peruvians are allotting more of their land for this crop. Hilaria and Alberto told us that chia has always been a bit of a weed or menace to their crops, but these days, farmers delicately transfer one of the newest cash crops to a dedicated chia field.

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This family of farmers is harvesting wheat while the corn fields behind them are prepared for the next season.

 

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Quinoa, too, can grow like a weed in the middle of corn fields. Traditionally, quinoa and corn were grown in the same fields to help maintain the quality of the soil. Andean soil in Peru is very low in nutrients, so timeless tricks like this are essential for prosperity in the region.

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When we met on the bus, Hilaria informed us that there is a farmer’s association meeting every Thursday night during the growing/harvest season so when we arrived in Pisaq on Monday, we had a few days to explore before sitting down to the formal meeting. Hilaria introduced us to a few farming families, including this older couple and their curious dog.

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Hilaria also took us to nearby pueblos like Chawatiri, where we met a weaving community. We met this woman who gave us a demonstration of the weaving process using the traditional and the mechanized methods.

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Traditionally, weaving is done with what looks to be simple technology. Two wooden poles are connected by wool strung between them.

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One side of the textile is tied to a tree branch or door handle and the other side is wrapped around the artist’s body.

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She then uses her fingers to weave in more material. Once the wool is woven in she pulls a wooden rod down towards her body to compact the material into place before weaving in another string of wool for the next layer or level. The artist informed us that it takes months to finish one 4′ x 10′ piece. Kelly, who has become very interested in textile production, found this process incredibly educational.

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The “machine” that this boy is holding onto can create a similar textile but in a matter of days. For most Peruvians, this method is not as rewarding or honorable as learning the traditional means of textile production. The vendors always tell you which are hand made and which are machine made and if you are lucky enough to see how each is made, you can tell the difference yourself!

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Above, you see a cat in what seems to be kitty heaven. These skeins of yarn are imported, machine dyed, synthetic material. Like quinoa farmers, some people sell their more valuable goods, like alpaca yarn, and buy cheap goods for their own consumption.

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In textile communities such as Chawatiri, they use local plants and herbs to dye their wool. Above you see alpaca wool being died orange with local roots and flowers.

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Candy was a rare sight in the rural communities of Peru, but when we saw it, it was almost always in the hands of a child.

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For the vast majority of the world, people view textile manufacturing to be “women’s work.” Though in Peru a lot of chores and tasks are divided based on sex, every person in the community participates in the production of textiles. The three men above, dressed in traditional clothes, take pride in their culture and work.

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Chawatiri is largely a textile community, trading their goods for imported goods such as oil or salt. They still produce enough food to feed themselves. Above a woman ushers her donkey down the hill to market.

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Women gather around to buy and sell produce imported from the north of Peru. Others use a bartering system, trading what they grow for what they need.

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Our main purpose of the study was to answer one question: Have the lives of Quinoa farmers changed now that the global demand for quinoa is rising? In the communities we visited in the Sacred Valley, the residents informed us that even though they are receiving more money for their quinoa, the cost of living is also going up, so they have not seen any improvement. Some were very optimistic about their prospects while others were very jaded.

After only a week in Pisaq and visiting the surrounding communities, we headed to Puno, where most of Peru’s quinoa is grown.

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Upon arriving in Puno, we were surprised to find a Loving Hut, an international vegan restaurant promoting a healthy and cruelty-free diet. We have been to Loving Huts in China, Indonesia, Thailand and now Peru! Peru’s version was by far the most bland of the Loving Huts we have been to. This is not the restaurant’s fault, as they are serving traditional Peruvian food, which is incredibly boring. Never the less, it was reassuring to have food that we knew was not contaminated with animal byproducts such as feces and fear.

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Right when we got off the bus from Cusco and stepped foot in Puno, we were rushed by a slew of people trying to convince us that their hostel was the cleanest, cheapest and most central. Martina, the woman who got to us first, happened to have grown up in the surrounding area with her farming family. She agreed to take us to visit her family in Atunkolla.

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Her uncle showed us how they create a traditional potato called, chuño. This is their version of a freeze-dried potato and can keep for as long as 10 years. In times of drought or food scarcity, these potatoes can literally save lives.

First, they spread all the potatoes in a field so every day the intense sunshine dries them out and every night they freeze over. After about 5 days of this, the farmer steps on the potatoes, pushing out the remaining moisture and simultaneously removing the peel. They then leave the potatoes out for a few more days in order to completely dry out. When they are ready to eat them, they simply soak them in water to rehydrate them.

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Martina’s aunt and cousin prepared our lunch by making a fire with quinoa stalks and manure as fuel.  Once the fire was hot enough, they stuffed potatoes in the make-shift oven, stamped the dirt down over it and covered it with more earth. 25 minutes later, our potatoes were cooked.

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We asked our questions over our lunch of potatoes and fresh cheese. We also tasted a condiment composed of clay, water and salt to dip our potatoes in. For something so simple, it was spectacular.

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They shared with us what their lives were like. They grow all of their own food and rarely spend money. They produce more quinoa than ever before but don’t see financial benefit from their labor. They used to consider quinoa to be sufficient for animal feed but rarely ate it themselves. These days, they are eating more, but not as often as one would expect. We generally found that people sold more than they ate, only consuming it 1-2 times a week.

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Above is the majority of products most Andean farmers produce: Lima beans, potatoes, chuño, wheat, quinoa, kaniwa, chia, corn and amaranth.

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The mountain range in the distance is where Bolivia begins. This family told us that it is cheaper for them to visit Bolivia to buy the essentials that they can’t produce themselves, like oil, salt, sugar and fruit. After the morning and the majority of the afternoon, we thanked them for their time and headed back to Puno.

After visiting with Martina’s family, she became too busy with work and her family to show us around anymore. We also found that in Puno, it was much harder to make reliable contacts who could help us gain access to farming communities. Unlike the Quechua people (in the Sacred Valley, close to Machu Picchu), the Aymara people were much more wary and untrusting of foreigners. Historically, the Aymara people have suffered greatly from the exploitation imposed by outsiders. We had to change our approach in order to talk to the people and complete our studies.

Our next entry will dive deeper into the experiences and memories created while conducting field work in the Andean region of Peru. See ya!

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One response to “Perusing Peru: Questions about Quinoa

  1. Wonderful photos and description. Do you see the locals in Portland with the same research based perspective? What are the similarities? Jo 🙂

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