September 3, 2003: Nestled high in the Chimborazo
province, where the Andes stretch to their greatest altitude, is Los
Angeles de Colta, a farming village of 59 families. The hamlet is
home to an indigenous (pre-Incan Puruhua) community moving swiftly
into the future by following their past.
The people of Los Angeles, like most of those in the region, farm
the land of their ancestors. Unlike most of the farmers, they are
also growing the crops of their ancestors and tending to them in
the ancient ways. Quinoa is the crop and organic is the way.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wá), a seed grain, has been cultivated
in the Andean region for over 7,000 years and was considered sacred
by the Inca Empire. The crop was relegated to status of animal feed
by Spanish colonists, perhaps because of its religious significance
and, later, shouldered almost completely out of production by cereals
such as barley and wheat and other crops such as potatoes and corn.
But farmers' fortunes were few growing these "new" crops.
The Andean highlands' cold, dry plateaus are perfect for quinoa,
but challenging for many of the non-native crops. And a glut of
product in the national market bottomed out already low prices.
In response to the poor yield from non-native crops, US pesticide
and fertilizer manufacturers have led an aggressive campaign in
the region with the support of the government and governmental agencies.
Pesticide and fertilizer use in Ecuador has increased dramatically
over the years leading to depleted soil and a rise in associated
health problems. In fact, DDT, supplied by a US company, is still
being used on Ecuador's agricultural land.
The Angels of Colta
Not long ago, the crops of Los Angeles were no different than those
of the rest of the Ecuadorian agricultural industry. The famers'
yields were low, their return was almost nonexistent, and their
children were suffering from malnutrition.
|"After just one year, those 12 farmers
increased their incomes to roughly 50% more than that of other
area farmers. This year, 4025 families in four provinces of
Ecuador are planting over 2800 acres to produce over 400 metric
tons of organic heirloom quinoa for exportation and they're
In 1998, 12 Los Angeles de Colta families (298 families across
Ecuador) agreed to cultivate quinoa in the traditional organic way
for a group called the Heirloom Quinoa Project. The Project is the
cooperative effort of four international organizations: The People's
Educational Radio of Ecuador (ERPE), a progressive radio station
dedicated to education and social service; Germany's Bio Control
System (BCS), a global organic certification organization; the Canadian
Development Fund, a fund for Ecuadorian development based in Canada;
and Chicago's Inca Organics, the distributor and marketer of the
The goals of the project are to provide adequate income for indigenous
farmers, teach organic gardening and promote traditional nutritional
food products for both exportation and local consumption. And the
farmers of Los Angeles de Colta are some of the pioneers in this
After just one year, those 12 farmers increased their incomes to
roughly 50% more than that of other area farmers. The very next
year, 36 families agreed to raise heirloom quinoa and by 2000, 51
families were participating in the project. This year, 4025 families
in four provinces of Ecuador are planting over 2800 acres to produce
over 400 metric tons of organic heirloom quinoa for exportation
and they're thriving.
Jose Balla, a Chimboarazan farmer remembers, "Before, my father
and his father had lost the knowledge of growing quinoa and planted
just a little for personal use. Today, two-thirds of my farm (three
hectare) is dedicated to producing the grain for export."
Finding the "lost crop of the Incas"
It all begins in August and September of each year with organization
meetings held at various villages throughout the southern sierra
region of Ecuador. The farmers that attend receive pricing information
and organic training from IncaFood S.A. (the Ecadorian export arm
of Inca Organics) and ERPE.
The beginning of the wet season in October and November marks the
start of the growing season for the Los Angeles farmers. No chemical
fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are allowed, but the farmers
do employ some familiar organic techniques to boost yield, fertilize
and fight weeds.
Compost is used, but only after it has passed through the large
worm farms they maintain and is reduced to "bono". This
version of castings is then applied as a very effective fertilizer.
Yield has increased with its use from approximately 1000 kilos per
hectare to 1400 kilos per hectare.
The farmers rotate their quinoa crop with the Andean Lupin bean.
The Lupin, called ChoCho by the indigenous people, is from the same
family as the Italian Lupini bean and is used to fix nitrogen the
quinoa has depleted from the soil. The beans provide a secondary
income-generating crop and are also harvested and sold or eaten
locally as an excellent source of protein. Also grown, sold abroad
and eaten locally is an Andean heirloom variety of black amaranth.
At over 9,000 feet, the village experiences temperatures low enough
for seven to nine months out of the year to make cover crops unnecessary.
Unfortunately, weeds don't mind the altitude. The families form
community working groups, called mingas, to weed and harvest crops
more efficiently. The mingas start weeding the fields about one
month after the quinoa has sprouted.
Harvesting quinoa follows the same pattern as field preparation
and weeding during the six to nine month growing season. Mingas
are formed to manually separate the grain onto white canvas. The
grain is then taken to a post-harvest facility for inspection and
Since all crops available for the international market are grown
organically, they must also be certified for export as such. Technicians
are recruited from within the villages and trained by BCS for organic
certification and by ERPE for organic farming techniques. These
technicians are then employed by ERPE to give technical aid to the
farmers, certify their fields organic and inspect the quinoa before
it goes onto the post harvest facility for cleaning and packaging.
The post harvest facility, located at 10,000 feet, also employs
area villagers, adding more Ecuadorians, in addition to the farmers,
who can enjoy a secure job in a country that has an unemployment
rate of over 10%. The facility was built in 1998 as another international
cooperative effort. The Canadian Development Fund provided money
for the creation of the building, Inca Organics funded additional
warehouse space and quality control equipment and DED, a German
development organization, designed and built specialized cleaning
Most quinoa is mechanically polished rather than washed which removes
valuable nutrients in the process. Polished quinoa also retains
a powdery residue that must be rinsed off before cooking. Heirloom
Qunioa Project quinoa goes through a much more simplified and straight-forward
washing rather than polishing to preserve the dietary fiber found
in the germ layer. The washing is more labor intensive, providing
more jobs for local families. And, no additional rinsing by the
consumer is required.
The grain is divided into large, medium, and small sizes by vibrating
screens and dumped into separate washing tanks. First, the quinoa
is given a hot water wash to remove saponine, a naturally-occurring,
soapy-tasting coating. Then cold water is pumped in, separating
any foreign material from the grain.
The quinoa is centrifuged to remove most of the water from the
washing process and moved by conveyor belt to a final drying bed.
Hot air is blown through the grain to reduce the moisture content
to less than 3%. Finally, the quinoa is re-inspected, packed and
stored or loaded for shipment.
Growing more than just quinoa
A newfound spirit of cooperation and industry isn't the only change
seen in the village of Los Angeles de Colta. This year, almost all
the families are growing organic quinoa and the villages reflect
New homes of cement block are replacing the traditional chozas
(a windowless dwelling made of mud blocks with thatched roofs).
The average farmers' income has increased by an astonishing 50%--a
rarity in Ecuador where dollarization of the economy and high inflation
are causing economic crisis. Juan Perex, director of ERPE notes,
"The typical farmers' income has steadily increased from $230
per year in 1996, just before the quinoa project started, to $450
per year today."
|"Whatever quinoa's global destiny,
this ancient seed has changed the way the world sees these Ecuadorian
farmers and the way they see themselves."
Malnutrition is but a ghost in the Heirloom Quinoa villages. While
two-thirds of the quinoa is exported, one-third is used by the villagers
to improve their diets. The supergrain is high in protein, low in
carbohydrates, easy to digest, and an excellent source of dietary
fiber, phosphorus, iron, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium and zinc.
The families are now relearning to prepare their traditional quinoa
dishes and repair the damage done by fast food.
"When we started out in 1997, one could hardly find quinoa
growing in the area. Now it's easily seen as you drive through the
provinces," said Marjorie Leventry, Vice President of Inca
The premium quinoa produced by the Ecuadorian farmers in the Heirloom
Quinoa Project is recognized by world-renowned chefs, such as Charlie
Trotter, and international organizations, such as the Slow Food
Movement, for its superior flavor and cleanliness. And the FAO (Food
and Agriculture Organisation) considers quinoa "one of the
crops destined to offer food security in the next century."
Whatever quinoa's global destiny, this ancient seed has changed
the way the world sees these Ecuadorian farmers and the way they
see themselves. The Heirloom Quinoa members discovered most projects
initially underestimated the abilities of the farmers. They didn't
need instructions on how to farm. What they needed were markets
for their products. Markets that are fair trade and can sustain
Ruben Vinoil, a farmer and village leader expressed it best, "The
life of the soil is also our life. We use organic means to improve
the life of the soil and it has certainly improved our life."