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Commercial family farming Bolivian style May 30th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In earlier blogs (Our threatened farmers, Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism) Paul and I have written that farmers are Stuck in the middle between just a few large produce buyers and handful of seed and agrochemical companies. Farmers are forced to take any prices offered by their buyers, and by their suppliers as well. It’s a bind that forces many family farmers out of business.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as I was reminded recently on a stretch of the old highway from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Cochabamba, at some 3000 meters above sea level. Ana and I noticed all the farmers gathering potatoes into large, blue sacks. They were getting ready for the weekly fair at “El Puente”, the bridge over the Lope Mendoza River.

Seeing the potato growers, I suddenly felt the urge to participate in this robust farmers’ market which has been self-sustaining for decades.

In a flat space in the canyon, every Monday hundreds of smallholder farmers bring fresh produce, mostly potatoes. El Puente is like a small town that leaps into existence with the Monday fair, only to be abandoned for the rest of the week.

This was Sunday. The shop fronts were closed, locks on heavy steel doors. By Monday morning they would be doing a brisk business in farm supplies. One temporary restaurant was open, with chicken roasting on a large charcoal grill, ready to feed the farmers who had arrived early, on Sunday afternoon.

We past an empty space that would soon be full of vendors who travel from fair to fair, selling the things that rural families like and need, soap and salt, cooking oil, tinned sardines, matches and clothing. Today it was still empty, but the potato pavilion was filling up. It’s just a concrete slab with a sheet metal roof and no walls. Farmers bring in their produce, in 100 kilo bags (called a carga), and wait for customers.

Some people come from the city on the bus on Monday to buy a carga to eat at home, or half a dozen of them, to sell. They rent space on a truck to deliver the potatoes to Cochabamba. The largest buyers may load a small truck with six or twelve tons to sell to retailers in the cities. In this lightly regulated market, potatoes may go through as few as four links, from farmer to small-time wholesaler, to retailer, to customer. Each one is a small, family business. It’s Adam Smith’s ideal of capitalism, with many willing buyers and many others eager to sell.

Ana soon met a farmer in early middle age, wearing a long skirt, with a scarf tied over her head.

We asked her for an arroba (25 pounds, or 11.4 kilos) of potatoes. “Take half a carga (50 kilos)” she said, so we did. After all, this was a wholesale market. The farmer led us to her wares, maybe a dozen bags. Each farmer was there with a cluster of potatoes in 100 kilo bags. Each cluster was carefully separated from the other by a space just big enough to squeeze through. The farmer wanted 90 Bolivianos ($13) for her fine, native potatoes, and she wouldn’t take less. She was a price giver, not a taker. We were soon on our way with our 50 kilos, from the epicenter of the Bolivian potato market.

After the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the large farms (haciendas) were divided and given to the people who worked them. According to fake history, repeated sometimes even in schools, the Agrarian Reform of the Revolution failed because the land was split up into such small parcels that they were uneconomical to produce anything. It’s a racist lie. The Agrarian Reform succeeded, as we saw a few kilometers down the road.

An indigenous Andean farm family was standing next to 20 cargas of potatoes. Two tons of food going to market, neatly dressed in blue. The proud farmer reacted in the most contemporary fashion to his household’s accomplishment. Smart phone in hand, he walked across the highway and snapped a picture of his family and their harvest.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable

LA AGRICULTURA FAMILIAR TAMBIÉN PUEDE SER COMERCIAL

Por Jeff Bentley 30 de mayo del 2021

Antes, en este blog, Paul y yo hemos escrito que los países del norte, los agricultores están atrapados entre unos pocos grandes compradores de productos y un puñado de empresas de semillas y agroquímicos. Los agricultores se ven obligados a aceptar cualquier precio ofrecido por sus compradores, y también por sus proveedores. Es un aprieto que obliga a muchos agricultores familiares a abandonar su terreno.

No tiene por qué ser así, como volví a acordarme hace poco, manejando sobre la antigua carretera de Santa Cruz, Bolivia a Cochabamba, a unos 3.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Ana y yo nos fijamos en todos los agricultores que llenaban costales azules con papas. Se estaban alistando para la feria semanal en El Puente de Lope Mendoza.

Al ver a los productores de papas, sentí el impulso de participar en este robusto mercado agrícola, que se auto sostiene desde hace décadas.

En una parte plana en el cañón, cada lunes cientos de pequeños agricultores traen productos frescos, sobre todo papas. El Puente es como un pequeño pueblo que nace con la feria de los lunes, para quedar abandonado el resto de la semana.

Este día fue el domingo. Las fachadas de las tiendas estaban cerradas, con candados en las pesadas puertas de acero. El lunes por la mañana, los comercios de insumos agrícolas se llenarían de clientes. Un restaurante temporal atendía, con pollo asado en una gran parrilla de carbón, listo para alimentar a los agricultores que habían llegado temprano, el domingo por la tarde.

Pasamos por un espacio vacío que la mañana siguiente estaría lleno de vendedores que viajan de feria en feria, vendiendo antojos y artículos de primera necesidad, como jabón y sal, aceite de cocina, sardinas en lata, fósforos y ropa. Hoy todavía no había nadie, pero el pabellón de papas sí se estaba llenando. Es sólo una losa de hormigón con un techo de chapa y sin paredes. Los agricultores traen sus productos, en bolsas de 100 kilos (llamadas “cargas”), y esperan a sus clientes.

Algunas personas vienen desde la ciudad en el bus (el “micro”) el lunes para comprar una carga para comer en casa, o media docena de ellas, para vender. Alquilan espacio en un camión para llevar las papas a Cochabamba. Los que más compran pueden llegar un pequeño camión con seis o doce toneladas para venderlas a los minoristas de las ciudades. En este mercado poco regulado, las papas pueden pasar por apenas cuatro eslabones, desde el agricultor hasta el pequeño mayorista, la minorista y clientes. Cada uno de ellos es una pequeña empresa familiar. Es el ideal de capitalismo de Adam Smith, con mucha gente con ganas de comprar y vender.

Ana pronto conoció a una agricultora de mediana edad, con una falda larga y un pañuelo atado a la cabeza.

Le pedimos una arroba (25 libras, o 11,4 kilos) de papas. “LlĂ©vense media carga (50 kilos)”, nos dijo, y asĂ­ lo hicimos. Al fin y al cabo, se trataba de un mercado mayorista. La agricultora nos condujo hasta sus mercancĂ­as, más o menos una docena de costales. Cada agricultor estaba allĂ­ con sus papas en sacos de 100 kilos. El producto de cada persona estaba cuidadosamente separado del otro por un espacio angosto donde uno apenas podĂ­a pasaba. La agricultora querĂ­a 90 bolivianos (13 dĂłlares) por sus hermosas papas nativas, y no aceptaba menos. Ella estaba para dar un precio, no para recibirlo. Pronto nos pusimos en camino con nuestros 50 kilos, desde el epicentro del mercado boliviano de la patata.

Tras la Revolución Boliviana de 1952, las haciendas se dividieron y se repartían entre la gente que las trabajaba. Según la falsa historia, repetida a veces incluso en las escuelas, la Reforma Agraria fracasó porque la tierra se dividió en parcelas tan pequeñas (“surcofundias”) que no era rentable producir nada. Es una mentira racista. La Reforma Agraria tuvo éxito, como vimos unos kilómetros más adelante.

Una familia campesina estaba terminando de arreglar sus 20 cargas de papas. Dos toneladas de alimentos que iban al mercado, cuidadosamente vestidos de azul. El orgulloso agricultor reaccionó de la manera más contemporánea al logro. Teléfono inteligente en mano, cruzó la carretera y sacó una foto de su familia y su cosecha.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Our threatened farmers,

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Stuck in the middle

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Papas nativas, deliciosas y vulnerables

 

Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods—owned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Out of space

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A revolution for our soil

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Against or with nature

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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Keep your cows in the family

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Pure milk is good milk

Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

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A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artĂ­culo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vĂ­nculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, segĂşn los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artĂ­culo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. SĂłlo el 8% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producciĂłn cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras asĂ­ no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azĂşcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camiĂłn, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehĂ­culos circulan con permisos falsificados, sĂłlo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como MartĂ­n Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicĂł que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sĂłlo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicĂł otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendrĂ© mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

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