Greetings from Puno, Peru!

Quinoa in Cusco, prior to the harvest
Quinoa in Cusco, prior to the harvest

Greetings from Puno, Peru, the region that produces 90% of the nation’s quinoa, much of which is destined for export to the US. I am in Puno to conduct a feasibility study for my dissertation fieldwork, and expand the web of contacts I began developing last summer during a primarily fieldwork trip.  My research investigates the ways quinoa producers and quinoa buyers negotiate changing production practices, how market logic is disciplined and resisted, and the ways farmers leverage commodification on their own terms. As landscapes are reconfigured around “economic efficiency” (e.g. high-yield seeds, crop rotation elimination) with the increase in commodity quinoa production, I want to know how farmers reconstitute relationships with familiar things and place(s). As the vast majority of the region’s quinoa was harvested in May, it’s the heart of the buying and processing season here, and thus a critical time in terms of relations between producers and buyers.

The interactions between producers and buyers look decidedly different than they did when I was here last year as the quinoa “boom” was still peaking then. Prices were high and producers were thrilled to sell their quinoa for ten-times what it was only a few years prior. Yet with a production glut and the expansion of quinoa production outside the highlands (even into the US and Europe) where agricultural productivity is much higher,[1] the boom is quickly busting, and farm-gate prices have plummeted. This shift is making relations between producers and buyers tense; farmers want the same price they were offered last year, and many are refusing to sell in hopes that prices will rise again in the future. While not the focus of my research, it’s important to note that the price decrease that angers farmers has been met with cheers in urban areas where quinoa has been too expensive for most people to buy for the past few years.

Because the quinoa-buying NGO/business that I worked with last year has had to postpone compras due to unanticipated pushback from producers, instead of observing quinoa buys, I’ve been able to conduct participant observation at pre-compra meetings between buyers and producers, where prices are discussed and quality standards delineated. The deferral of buys has also given me time to expand my web of contacts and I’ve met local government officials working in quinoa development, Organic certifiers, producer association leaders, producers selling to businesses other than the one I’ve worked with, and agronomists developing new quinoa varieties. I’ve also been participating in the Mesa de la Quinua where diverse stakeholders involved in quinoa production and commercialization in Puno come together to discuss issues in the quinoa industry and design region-wide protocol. Currently, they are drafting revised region-wide “best agricultural practices” recommendations, a project that has been incredibly interesting for me, highlighting key challenges in the “sustainability” of quinoa production and also pushing me to consider how relations between producers and buyers are informed by these third-parties groups.  Next week is the annual National Quinoa Symposium here in Puno, which will convene diverse groups, and provide another important research opportunity for me. Conversations and formal interviews with diverse groups has allowed me to expand my perspective on the quinoa export boom, and is pushing me to develop and sharpen my dissertation research questions to accommodate these new insights. Additionally, the suddenness of the bust is pushing me to reconsider my analytical framework as up until now I had considered my research to be about the quinoa boom. Given that I plan to return for dissertation fieldwork in 2016-17, it’s critical I integrate into my research plan the likelihood that quinoa export will not be “booming” at that point.

I wish to thank CLACS, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Education, School of Global and International Studies, and School of Public and Environmental Affairs that have helped fund this grant, for their generous support. This fieldwork has been, and continues to be for crucial to the development of my dissertation project.

Emma McDonell is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at IU. 

Quinoa producer Carmen Rosa Itosaca showing me why she can’t “ventear” (part of the on-farm processing) the quinoa when there’s no wind.
Quinoa producer Carmen Rosa Itosaca showing me why she can’t “ventear” (part of the on-farm processing) the quinoa when there’s no wind.

[1] In the Arequipa region of Peru where quinoa is increasingly produced, quinoa yields are about five-times what they are in Puno and Arequipeño farms generally have three harvests per year compared to one here. I had the opportunity to visit these large-scale, industrial quinoa farms on a fieldtrip with the Universidad del Altiplano’s agronomy department last week and observe the radically different production practices.

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