Week 1 Down, 9 to go!

Geographers! Welcome back to another fun quarter. With Week 1 down, and some of the major concepts of space, place, and maps in our minds, we will now begin to dive further and deeper into what makes human geography so fascinating: How our environment and geography (mountains, rivers, oceans, etc) shape who we are as people. With week 2 coming up, we will begin Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which will serve as a unique lens with which to look at human environment interactions. 

 

La madre papa

It’s strange how much can be lost in translation when one does not know the language. During my travels in Bolivia, my Spanish improved drastically and I thought that I was able to communicate nearly all ideas effectively to the Bolivian’s I was working with. That is, until I began to write my thesis and realized how hard it had been to ask Apolinar (my guide) what variety of potatoes they grew. During the harvest, it was apparent that the six or so varieties that were grown were arranged methodically in the field, surely in a fashion to reduce pests and protect from the cold. When I asked Apolinar in Spanish, he had no idea what I was asking. Here, we would just think scientifically: there are varieties of grapes (pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc). However, for potatoes, there are no such names, only words that describe various aspects of the root, such as ‘fuerte,’ which can mean any number of things, from its taste, spiciness, ability to grow in the cold, and/or resistance to bugs. In my writing, my solution was to describe the physical characteristics of the potato, which really do the careful selection of the varieties no justice.

On a recent trip to CU Boulder, I was trying to describe this lack of communication to a professor who has worked in the region. How is it possible to see the whole picture in Spanish, when the vocabulary in Aymara is so important? Chatting with the professor, he mentioned a different story on potatoes–that of the “Capitan Potato,” where, based on unique characteristics only apparent in another language, one potato became the guardian of all potatoes in the field. Thinking back on it, during my potato harvest with Apolinar, I remember one of the potatoes that I pulled from the field. It was as if three potatoes had merged together. I laughed and tossed it to Emma, who immediately showed it to the rest of the family. I had found the “Mother Potato.” At the time I assumed they were joking, but they proceeded to display the potato in the middle of the field, being sure that nobody put it into the canvas with the rest. Here, something of incredible social and cultural importance was missed entirely because I could not speak the native language that could describe the phenomenon. How odd, that it wasn’t until I was back in the US speaking english and talking about language that I even realized what a unique spectacle I had witnessed.

lesson to researchers, absolutely. However, I think that we can dig deeper and apply this to our own everyday lives: in the globalized world that we live in, technology has compressed both space and time, allowing languages from the far corners of the earth appear in our each and every day. When words are translated, we should perhaps be wary, and realize that what we think we know, may not in fact be such. Words have more meaning than I think we realize–let us be careful how we use them.

Field Research: A flashback*

*What follows is a portion of my personal notes during my first week of field research in Bolivia. It is unedited and raw, full of introspection and emotion, yet it accurately describes my first weeks alone in the field.

I now know how Bin Laden must have felt. Alone. Isolated. Locked in a plain room with nothing more than a straw filled matt for company. The excitement from yesterday must be wearing off, as I am no longer in the great little cabana that I was in last night. No bed. No toilet nearby (unless you count the hole in the ground with two feet directing you where to squat). Hey, at least I have electricity and the place to myself. My own little bachelor pad. In the middle of nowhere Bolivia. To be truthful, I am still overwhelmed by the kindness of the people here. Although as I sit here typing this, there are probably about twenty people planning a way to rob me blind. I suppose that doesn’t really matter. What has become very apparent to me is that the people here have very little. It has come as quite a shock as to the way that these people live. Not like savages like some people would think of campesinos. I suppose it’s just that they live simply (although cell phones are ubiquitous around these parts. They don’t live to work, but very truthfully work to live. There are no offices to go to, lines of traffic to wait in. Work is about survival. Cultivate your own food. Operate a small alojimiento so that you can have just enough money to pay for the food that you too will eat. Sell apples out of a wheelbarrow at a soccergame. Whatever the task, they don’t do it for the sake of having a job. They do it so that they can continue their way of life.

Thinking back on it, today has not been a total bust. It really is my first day here and I shouldn’t expect too much out of it. I awoke early to a biting cold in my room. No joke, the altiplano gets mighty cold at night. I ended up finding out that my lovely hosts also run the only alojimiento in town, and was able to eat breakfast there (3 bolivianos) which consisted of two pieces of bread, butter, and coffee. While it certainly wasn’t bacon and eggs, it was just fine. I suppose that if you really want to understand life and the people here, you must really try to lower your standards (as bad as that sounds) and live as though you were them. That means eating the same thing. Sleeping with the same standards (in this case straw mat on the ground). I am beginning to see far more to the story than when I initially set out. I suppose that is the hardest part about critiquing development: the pitfalls of it seem so obvious to the theorist, but in reality, things are far more complicated than they seem. Yes, development can be a terrible thing, but when you have nothing, you really do, in the words of Bob Dylan, have nothing to lose. Scratch that thought. They have nothing material to lose. They still have their way of life to lose, which they have struggled to maintain for about five hundred years. There is something that nobody in the United States can really relate to. We are so young. We have lost nearly any indigenous tradition that we may have once had. The melting pot that people claim our country to be is certainly true. We have no traditions that we have fought for generations (some would claim the virtues of the south here, but I refrain).

Those that live in the Altiplano have very rich cultural tradition that has been adjusted to stand the test of time. Those in the Altiplano, especially around Quillacas and Pampa Aullagas, have long history of adapting to adversity. As power structures change, so do the people, but they have yet to let those changes fracture them into a million different pieces—or worse—into the exact same piece. This can be seen in their economic shift to herding llamas to the Salar. Rather than allow themselves to be completely under the economic control of the Spanish, they would herd llamas to the Salar to gather salt, which would be traded to other communities in the valleys for corn and other foods that would not grow at such altitudes. Really, one could look at quinoa and say the exact same thing. They are adapting to the new economic conditions brought forth by globalization.

At breakfast I met three really nice fellows from Oruro who were constructing a building at the entrance to town. As they put it “Evo is constructing it”. You would think that this would be a great way to stimulate the economy here, but the three that I met were not even from here. I did see at least three wage laborers at the site later in the day, to Evo’s credit. These three gents were quite surprised to see a scraggly (haven’t shaved in ages!) gringo sitting in their local breakfast joint. I am not going to lie, the Spanish is still a bit rusty, and when you throw a bunch of quechua and Aymara into the mix I tend to get really confused. I explained to them my interest in quinoa and how I was going to spend a month here seeing how the exportation of quinoa has impacted people’s ability to buy it. Once again, enter armchair theorist. One of them explained to me that it wasn’t at all the case. Yes, the price of quinoa has increased hugely in the last five years, but what that means is that farmers are for once getting a decent price for the grain. Think about it, if you have nothing, then selling something gives you more than you had. Dig into that plate of noodles, is what they say. He did however go into telling me that US and Bolivian minds work very differently, so he couldn’t blame me. Luis said that the people here do need to diversify their holdings. He actually seemed concerned about this boom—that once again they were going to put all of their chips in one basket and eventually something would give and they would be, essentially, screwed. Diversification into processing and packaging and exportation would serve the people far better. Agreed. If you just sell the primary product, you let all of the other players in the game take all of the winnings. If you could build in all of the processing and packaging and marketing here, then the entire premium for quinoa would stay in the country—in the community. This is the way that development should be.

End research. Begin thesis.

When I arrived in Bolivia, beginning my research was an exciting, yet terrifying time. Was the research that I was getting acceptable? Would I talk with enough people to make my sample’s legitimate? What questions do I really need to ask? I find it odd how quickly those thoughts were pushed out of my head when research actually began, allowing me to focus on what was really happening in the community as a result to production changes and quinoa export. Or so I thought….

Having begun to write my thesis on the subject, I have found that I am learning more about what may really be happening than when I was actually in the community. I suppose, that could be a result of my life intertwining with the lives of others, my views being influenced, obstructed, enlightened by those around me. If you will, I was a sponge, absorbing all that I could until completely saturated. Now, sitting in a café thousands of miles from that experience, I feel as though I am beginning to dry out, and have found that the filters that helped me to see, had also obscured so much.

Now, just as the prospect of research was both exciting and scary, I find the process of writing my thesis the same. New questions have replaced the old ones: Will my research be important? How can I give justice to those who have helped me? How can I tell their story? Should what I write be activist or should it be pragmatic? Ultimately, I am beginning to find that with the end of one journey, begins another, that learning only stops when you sit back and allow it to, and that all coins have two sides.

As I continue on my journey, my hope is that I can share with you what I am still learning, so that you too can be a part of the process, a part of the eternal quest.

Upcoming Slideshow

In an effort to disseminate as much of what I learned to as many people as possible, I will be having a slideshow on Wednesday August 10, 7pm at Dog River Coffee in Hood River, Oregon. There will be plenty of coffee, beer, and great stories, so stop on by and enjoy the show!

Mines

Mines. We know that much of what we own comes from them. Zinc. Tin. Silver. They are in everything from the computer which I am typing on, to cell phones, to jewelry and cars. In truth, the minerals that come from deep within the earth are part of our everyday lives, yet we often take for granted the lives that are controlled by the mysterious forces of our consumerism. The mines of Potosi, Bolivia have been exploited for 500 years since the arrival of the Spanish. Still today, the mines are active and exploited in Potosi’s Cerro Rico, where the silver has long since run out, and miners of cooperative mines toil day in and day out extracting small amounts of zinc and tin from within the hill. Earning anywhere from 0-2000 Bolivianos per month (7 Bs to the U.S. Dollar) they make peanuts, yet still they continue on. Because the developed world needs minerals to grow. Touring an active mine is a scary thing. Not only do you face the elements of heat, cold, wet, sulfur, and dust, but you are trapped deep within a mountain that could, at any moment, collapse in on you. And there are faces. Of miners. You don’t know them, but you can see the pain in their eyes. While you are there on holiday, they are there to work. You pass by. Snap a photo. Give them a bag of coca or cigarettes. What more can you do? While the elderly (relatively speaking as the miner’s life span is between 48-58) have long grown numb to their labors, the pain can be seen in the eyes of the youth, who often begin working at 14 and as young as 10. The miner pictured here was fourteen years old, yet he had already learned the tricks of the trade, including loading dynamite charges, which he had just done.

The visit to the mines was a voyeuristic experience. I left feeling sick, dirty, and ugly. I had just taken photos of the misfortunes of others. However I also left with a renewed sense of duty. If these photos and my experience could some way change the actions of those around me, those of the developed world who consume what forces these children into these positions. Perhaps, if I can change the mind of just one person and their habits, the pain of this experience will not be in vain. I know that it has changed me. Walking the streets of La Paz, the sight of silver jewelry for sale to tourists sickened me. Our actions as consumers are what puts these people in these situations. How can we purchase an excess of silver jewelry on a good conscience? Do our luxuries of become the death sentences for those less fortunate than us? While I can not tell you what to do, look at this picture. At this child. And next time, think twice before you buy.

It’s really good right?

The other day I was chatting with a traveler from New Zealand, who asked me where I was traveling from and where I was headed to. Briefly, I explained that I wasn’t really traveling in Bolivia (in the sense of the Gringo Trail that everyone else seemed to be following) but that I was in Bolivia for my research on my master’s thesis on quinoa, to which he responded about how much he loved quinoa, not simply because it was good for him, but it was good those who produced it as well (paraphrased). Here is one of the problems that I keep bumping into during my research about quinoa: those that buy it in the developed countries think that because the labels ‘Organic’ and ‘Fair Trade’ are present, that the product is both socially and environmentally responsible. After a while of sharing my experiences from Pampa Aullagas with him, he told me that he was shocked. The product which he had been buying for so long with a clear conscience was not as good as it seemed, and was in fact causing both environmental and social problems which were deep below the surface.

As my dad once told me, “nothing is ever as simple as it seems”. While the context of his comment was in the case of politics, it can be applied to most everything in life, especially food. While taking things at face value is far easier, it makes us blind to the complexities of any given situation. In the case of Organic and Fair Trade, taking the labels at face value allows us to wash our hands of making conscious decisions. While these labels were intended to make the consumer aware of the social and environmental aspects of food, they have in fact worked in the opposite, where the consumer does not have make a conscious decision of what they are doing. This of course is not so say that all products labeled fair trade and organic are bad socially nor environmentally, however it is merely to suggest that the world is far more complex than we take it for, that nothing is quite as it seems, and that every decision that we make as consumers has unintended consequences of which we should be aware.

Erosion

One of the major problems concerning quinoa cultivation in the Bolivian Altiplano is erosion. As the altiplano is a plain, the erosion that is taking place is not erosion in the conventional sense, where soil washes down hillsides to the lowest point in the fall line. Rather, the erosion in the altiplano is purely due to the extreme winds that the region faces during their winter months. After talking with many farmers and members of the community, it has become apparent that this erosion is a growing concern, however the only people that I met which were taking action against it were the llameros who are so removed from the market that any quinoa that they grow is purely for autoconsumption.

So, why has wind erosion become a problem with the commercial cultivation of quinoa? In the past, campos of quinoa were purely planted and harvested by hand, leaving the soils relatively undisturbed. However, as producing the seed at a commercial level requires mechanization, Wind erosion of a quinoa fieldfarmers have turned to tractors using barbecho or disc tillage system. Here, lands are tilled 8-12 months before they will be planted, generally around the month of October. Tilling exposes the already delicate soils to the harsh environment of the altiplano: rains, sun, uv, and wind. With more surface area exposed to the elements, soils dry out far more quickly, and when exposed to wind erode. The exposure to the elements continues to be a problem even as quinoa is being planted. Unlike wheat, quinoa rows are spaced relatively far apart, leaving the majority of the soils exposed to the elements. When harvest begins in the winter months (May and June) the soils are super-arid, making them extra-sensitive to damage caused by the heavy aggressive tires of the tractors which are used in removing the seeds from the stalks. During the winter months, these dry and loose soils become airborne, clouding the generally blue skies with polvo or dust. The picture to the right was taken during one such event, where the skies went from blue to grey in under an hour, and even walking (let alone operating an automobile) became impossible.

The current situation in the altiplano, while far less extreme, is much like the dust bowl that the United States suffered so many years ago. In a boon to plant a commodity which is becoming ever-more popular, those in the altiplano are inadvertantly damaging the only resource they have. As a llamero in the area commented: “In ten years of using a tractor, people have lost much of their soil. There are now areas where so much has been lost that the land looks more like a rock than land.” When asked, commercial farmers did admit that soil erosion was becoming a problem, but when asked what measures they were taking to limit the damaging effects of their cultivation, they simply shrugged.

 

To be a traveler from the U.S. in South America is a very uncomfortable experience. Now beginning a short traveling session while completing my research, I have been met with much animosity from those other travelers from around the world. While Bolivians have welcomed me with open arms, I have been continuously attacked for being from the United States by other travelers… Canada, Mexico, Norway. Being on the other side of the coin is a painful experience. The minute that my origin has been stated, conversations turn from friendly to hurtful, blaming me for the actions of generations of those in the U.S. oligarchy. I can say that racism hurts, especially as I sit here, excluded from the conversation because of my race.

Nutrition

Fifty percent of all children between the ages of 2 and 5 are chronically malnourished in Pampa Aullagas. This is up four percent from last year. This means that 1 of every 2 children that I see playing in the street are not getting sufficient nutrients to develop physically nor mentally.

Last week I met with the director of the health center in Pampas hoping to complete my picture of the changes that the community is undergoing. Fortunately for my research, Bolivia has begun a program monitoring the health and nutrition of children in rural areas of Bolivia. Known as Programa Desnutricion Cero, this program monitors the health of pregnant women and their children, monitoring physical development in height and weight and comparing it to an accepted standard. The program is also educational, supplying slides and information to parents on how to better the health of their children, and supplies a food supplement called Nutribebe to children in poor health.The mandatory participation has managed to lower malnutrition in the first year, however has not been effective for children over 2.

So, the question is, why is chronic malnutrition still rising, even with mandatory and intensive government programs? According to Dr. B, people are no longer eating the same foods that they have relied on for their entire lives. The families that grow quinoa choose to sell it rather than eat it, choosing instead to purchase rice, noodles, and sugar to supplement their diet of potatoes and llama rather than quinoa. As Dr. B put it, the more quinoa is worth, the more motivation there is to sell it all, rather than keeping some for eating at home. This also puts the non-producer at a disadvantage, as they can no longer afford to purchase quinoa to eat themselves, and must instead rely on inexpensive noodles and rice to eat. Looking through the Bolivian government literature on the subject of child malnutrition, there is no mention of eating traditional staples for a healthy diet (in three of the slideshows from the minister of health, there is no mention of eating less noodles and more quinoa) rather, the program focuses on supplements (provided by the state) to reduce rates of malnutrition.

Later in the week I talked with a mother of three (and teacher) about the subject. She agreed that since quinoa prices have increased, people have been eating less quinoa (they now can only afford to eat it twice a week, where once it was a daily staple). As a teacher, she is always informing her students on the need to eat healthy and naturally, stressing the importance of quinoa in the diet rather than cookies and rice, however, she says that her work is to no avail. (Oddly enough when I was invited to have lunch with her family, I was the only one served quinoa–prices have risen so high, that “solo los ricos la comen”–the rest had to be content with noodles and potatoes).