I read an interesting article on a quinoa blog a few days which demonstrated the work of USAID in Bolivia as well as an impressive use of quinoa. The program, supported by funds from USAID, is run by a women's group in Oruro and the business is to transform the pannicles of quinoa into pieces of art. As you may know quinoa can be quite a range of colors and these women are using that trait to use quinoa in an entirely different way. From my own research I think this also demonstrates the symbolic quality of quinoa, the farmers are projecting their own identity onto the quinoa and using the commercial and symbolic power or quinoa as to channel their selves to consumers. Rather than a strict commodity, the quinoa is becoming a symbol of the quinueros (quinoa farmers) as well as people from around the region. This also demonstrates an interesting point of my research, the idea that farmers and market vendors are becoming economically and socially differentiated, rather than becoming standardized as some theorists believe. In other words, it's becoming clear that there isn't one track of development (modernization), but many channels that are open to people depending on how they perceive their situation, what their values and beliefs are, and what their resources are. Although this is a tremendous development for those of us who doubt the existence of one development model that should be enforced on people (or that such a model could be enforced), a worry is that this kind of fracture of people can lead to conflict between compeeting claims and narratives.
Whatever the values, symbolic or economic, the project is creating some beautiful pieces of art and I was fortunate enough to run into a shop that carried them the day before I left Uyuni. Unfortunately, the Chilean border guards took my quinoa away because it was plant material, but I enjoyed having it for a few days at least. Indeed, it made for an interesting story...
After carrying the quinoa with me to Oruro I had left in in the hotel while I went to La Paz to do research for a week and when I came back it had disapeared. I was very concerned, but it was returned to me after a couple days, someone else must have thought it beautiful as well. So I took it on the bus with me to Arica, Chile and after about five hours on a surprisingly smooth and level road, we arrived at the border with Chile. First we had to have our papers checked and the Bolivians had to pay an entry fee (not sure why I didn't have to), we then got back into the bus for a couple minutes before stopping at the station to have our bags checked. I had to fill out a card that said I had no fruits, vegetables, or meats, and knowing that these things are rarely checked, I said no I had none of these. Who would check all this luggage anyways?
Well we disembarked the bus and after I applied for a visa, each piece of luggage went through an Xray machine, after which the guards would ask a few passengers to open their bags to rummage through. I was one of the lucky ones to have my bags checked. The diligent guards found the plant and pulled me aside. They first asked some nice questions about what I was doing in Bolivia and Chile and how my trip was and then they asked me what the plant was. Basically they were waiting for me to say that it was a plant with seeds and therefore admit that I had illegally brought the plant across, that didn't take so long. Then they told me the fine would amount to $250 and I had to pay or go back to Bolivia. If you're wondering if there's an ATM, we were about seven hours from the nearest Chilean town. So I pleaded that I was just a student and that I had no money (both very true statements) and he graciously allowed me to enter although the plant stayed at the post. I went along, sad to miss my plant, but happy enough to not pay the fine.
I hope this doesn't sound like a complaint, I understand why Chile has such strict foreign plant laws and I clearly broke the law, so I'm not complaining at all. In fact, they let me get away without paying so I'm quite grateful, just missing my plant...
But back to the story, starting now, the women's group will be exporting their goods and I can't wait to get my hands on another. I just need to find out where to buy them I guess.
See for yourself here: