Getting to know quinoa: Riobamba, Ecuador

Three elderly, indigenous farmers were crouched over a blanket on the rough grass. Piles of grain sat with them in hillocks, like sand. Two of them held large sieves. They hunkered on a blanket, sieving through and separating quinoa. It spoke of a lifetime of tradition, hard work, and an existence on the margins of life. I was with Avelino Morocho Coro, the diminuitive, poncho-clad President of COPROBICH, a Fair Trade cooperative based in Riobamba, Ecuador. I accompanied Avelino on a tour of one of their producer areas and quinoa is the primary product within the co-op. This was the highland area (altiplano). It is cool, windy and life here is a challenge.

The previous day I spent some time with the rest of the co-op staff at their simple but homely office in Riobamba. Riobamba is the largest town in the region and was undergoing much construction amidst its historic, cobbled heart. In the same way, the co-op staff represented the mix of the modern and traditional. All were indigenous. Maria, the secretary, was dressed with the traditional poncho and hat, whereas everyone else (except Avelino, the President) wore regular clothing. The atmosphere was light-hearted. At least that was my interpretation, as I found it difficult to follow the mixed-language conversation – Spanish mixed with a healthy dose of quechua, an indigenous language of this region.

It was a busy week with visitors coming from other organisations based in Quito, which led to plenty of animated discussion. Beforehand there was much hand-shaking and mucho gusto, which became funny to watch with all the smiling and exaggerated gestures. More inadvertent comedy was provided when Auorara, the bookkeeper, called Octavio on her mobile phone; he was sat just five yards away.

Two of the visitors were Lorena from Oiko Credit and Wiliber from CECJ (Coordinadora Ecuatoriana de Comercio Justo). Producers within the co-op need access to credit to help their soil productivity and quality. The co-op was also looking to improve their quinoa washing equipment, a likely cost of several thousand dollars. In 2011 the producers had a major problem to wash the quinoa properly resulting in decreased production levels. Each year the co-op applies for credit so Lorena was there to discuss their requirements. In addition, a major client of the co-op (the French company Ethiquable. Others include Canadian companies Just Us! and Discovery Organics) donates a small amount of money.

CECJ works within Ecuador and represents several small organisations and advocates on their behalf to give them better representation. Wiliber felt that the well-known international fair trade (FLO) certification and conditions required of co-ops puts smaller ones at a real disadvantage. As a result he was in favour of COPROBICH changing their certification to the Small Producer (SPP) certification (criteria for this certification originates from within Latin America and more focused to the needs of these countries).

ERPE, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is a local community radio station based at the same location as the COPROBICH office. They have been a lifeline over the years to get knowledge and information to these remote communities.

We visited two warehouses (bodegas) and a processing area. They are small, simple concrete buildings and many are scattered about the terrain. Despite the difficult conditions of life here, I felt as if it wasn’t as poor as other places I’d visited.

The typical size of a family’s production area is very small, around 0.6 hectares. Growing conditions are tough in this climate so the producers are in a vulnerable position. Aside from wheat for local consumption, some herbs for tea, there are few crop alternatives. Many producers lack the technical knowledge to improve their harvests, which the co-op tries to rectify through education. The harsh nature of life in this area leads many of the younger generation to migrate away from the land, a problem endemic to farming in most countries.

Quinoa is harvested once a year, typically between June and September. Seed planting is from October to January. At harvest, the quinoa is cut, washed and dried. It can be stored for up to three years, which can be a problem for the producers who need to be paid promptly in order to be able to look after their families and to invest for the next year’s production. Production costs of quinoa here are approx $40 per quintal (1 quintal [qq] is approx 100 lbs). Producers hope to receive around $100 per quintal. In 2011 the co-op produced around 90,000 quintals, up from just 2,000 qunitals in 2004.

Our tour of the campo proved interesting in several other ways. Jose, a father of three, was our driver for the day but the combination of his shoddy and wayward driving, four of us cramped in the back and the bare-bones state of the pickup truck meant an uncomfortable ride. At least for me; this was pretty normal for everyone else. When we stopped for petrol Jose left the engine running while filling the tank half with ‘extra’ and half with ‘super’. Clearly there is no Spanish translation to the phrase “health and safety”. The cramped back seat led to unwanted intimacy, such as witnessing Luis clean his ears with a pen top.

We stopped for lunch at a nondescript cafe on the highway. This location seemed to be a regular haunt for the COPROBICH guys. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a vegan meal. No menu here either, lunch was just laid out in front of us. No complaints from the others; three plentiful and meat-heavy dishes were delivered quickly, to (almost) all-round satisfaction.

I ended my visit to the co-op with a shopping expedition at the Sumak Life shop next door to COPROBICH. Sumak Life (or Sumak Kawsay in the indigenous language) means good life or good living. This is an organic shop where local producers offer a range of goods from their communities. It had a surprisingly diverse range. Herbal tea, dried fruit, nuts, cocoa, jam and of course quinoa. But not just quinoa grains – quinoa flour, quinoa hot chocolate, quinoa snack bars. My snack quota was filled easily.

Quinoa has been in the news a lot this year, from the positive (NASA-approved superfood!) to the negative (misleading stories suggesting that increased ‘western’ demand has led to price increases and thus affordability problems for local families). However, from the perspective of COPROBICH they are in a potentially good position to take advantage of this increased demand and prices. Through their increased production and exports they have improved the lives of the families within the co-op and are making investments in their future, such as the new warehouse. What was also really encouraging was relationships that exist with other groups. Together with ERPE and the Sumak Life shop, the local community is better positioned to support itself in a sustainable manner.

COPROBICH: some information

COPROBICH (Corporacion de Productores y Comerical Izadores Organicos “Bio Taita Chimborazo”)

  • Located in the Chimborazo region, Puruhua territory
  • Coop created 2003, Fair Trade exports began in 2006; 80% of quinoa exported
  • 86 indigenous communities
  • More than 1,600 producer families
  • 100% organic
  • Co-op comprised of only indigenous population families. Some of the people I met: Luis Francisco Morocho (“Promotor”), Avelino Morocho Coro (President since 2009), Lorena from Oiko Credit (Quito), Wiliber (CECJ), Jose (driver of pickup to campo), Auorara Guaman (bookkeeper), Maria Delia Guapi Guacho (secretary)
  • 2004 – 2,000 qq produced; 2011 – 90,000 qq produced
  • 1 qq grain requires approx $40 investment; producers hope for $100/qq in return
  • Co-op received a fair trade ‘social premium’ over $6,000 in 2011
  • Wheat grown for local consumption; additional income possible for other products such as herbal teas
  • Sumak Life shop and ERPE radio station provide outreach and interaction between COPROBICH and local communities
  • First large client was Ethiquable, a French fair trade company. Relationship continues today
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