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Experiencing the Quinoa Heartland of Peru: Communal Fields, Enterprising Farmers, and Biodiversity U

Yesterday Colin and went on a journey through the communal quinoa farms in the Aymara territories south of Puno. While appreciating the magic of Peru’s Lake Titicaca heartland, we learned a ton about quinoa diversity and the state of native quinoa cultivation today. Peru has a tremendously rich culture and landscape, but there is so much that is in threatened and needs protecting. Here you can see that although some fields are planted with rich, vibrant quinoa stalks, others have been abandoned by young farmers who are leaving behind a rural life to find work in illegal gold mines, coastal agroindustrial plantations, or construction jobs. With quinoa prices so low, many farmers seeking to rise out of poverty don't believe that a rural livelihood can provide a stable future for themselves or their families.

This type of quinoa is called Witulla. It is easy to recognize because of its intense red color, which local farmers believe gives it special healing properties. Witulla stalks once grew over large expanses of Carita Amaya’s communal lands. Today it has nearly disappeared. We found just one tiny strip of witulla stalks about 20 feet long and poorly taken care of. This is “sweet” Witulla, which means that it can be eaten without removing the beautiful color from the grains. Although science has yet to give this type of quinoa the attention it deserves, the red outer layer of the seeds probably gives it special nutritional value due to high concentrations of antioxidants. It could become a fabulous new quinoa variety for international markets, but if the current trend continues it is very possible that it will disappear from Peru’s farms forever.

Dr. Alipio Canahua is one of the leading quinoa scientists of Peru. He is a native of Juli, a small rural district on the shores of Lake Titicaca and part of the homeland of the indigenous Aymara nation. He has devoted his life and career to preserving quinoa diversity and sustainable agriculture through traditional knowledge. As both a scientist and an activist, he is using data from his family's ancestral farms to prove to policymakers that Andean farmers don't need transgenic crops in order to produce high quinoa yields. Here he is showing us that certain types of quinoa produce a pinkish purple dye, which Andean women used as makeup in the past.

Candi is a native of the Cabana district and an important leader in her community. While other young farmers are leaving behind a rural life, she has worked for years to turn her family's quinoa farms into a successful business. She has helped organize her farmer's cooperative of 30 families to get independent organic certification for hundreds of acres of quinoa fields. Thanks to these efforts and her group's direct relationships with clients in Lima, these farmers have managed to maintain a higher price for their quinoa than other groups that are struggling. Candi's story shows that with strong organizing at the community level and direct relationships with clients, Peruvian smallholder farmers can have a bright future.

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