Before it was on the shelves of Whole Foods, quinoa was being abandoned in most parts of the Andes as an unwanted “food of the poor.”
However, the Lake Titicaca region of Peru endured as a hotspot of quinoa cultivation and diversity. Why? According to the Food and Argiculture Organization of the United Nations, quinoa “continued to be cultivated in the Puno region of the Altiplano, using ancestral systems of cultivation known as aynokas, in order to preserve the genetic diversity of the crop.”
What are aynokas?
In the Andes, for thousands of years communities organized themselves to manage their resources sustainably on a landscape-scale. They did this by using carefully planned crop rotation systems on large expanses of land that were collectively owned by the whole community. In indigenous Aymara communities of Peru’s Lake Titicaca region, this system still exists and these integrated socio-ecological systems are called aynokas.
The communities that manage aynokas are preserving Peru’s immense quinoa diversity (over 3,000 registered local varieties) and the knowledge that will allow future generations to keep cultivating it. The genetic diversity found within these systems has helped farmers in the Andes adapt to the many different microclimates that exist throughout the intense montane landscape, and has the potential to contribute to food security in a future expected to be full of drastic climate changes.
The problem is that international markets demand a uniform quality and appearance, undermining agrobiodiversity by incentivizing farmers to practice monocropping.
Unfortunately, aynokas have disappeared in most parts of the Andes and where they still exist, they are under threat. In many parts of Peru, where land used to be managed communally, farmers have divided up their land into small parcels that are often insufficient to feed even a single family.
Further threatening aynokas, the international quinoa market demands just a few varieties, compelling farming communities to take up monocropping. A loss of agrobiodiversity now characterizes areas where local quinoa varieties once thrived. Furthermore, low market prices for quinoa are driving young farmers to abandon quinoa cultivation and move to cities, leaving Andean communities without future farmers who would otherwise be responsible for the continued protection of quinoa agrobiodiversity.
The question is: What can be done to protect aynokas and the quinoa diversity that thrives in them?
A new social enterprise approach to quinoa landscapes
That’s why we are launching a social enterprise, Pachakuti Foods, to set an example for the kinds of market exchanges that will support agricultural biodiversity and community landscape management.
Pachakuti Foods will work to bring Andean crops to the international market using an innovative approach that integrates fair trade, sustainable incentives for agrobiodiversity conservation, and communal governance of the agricultural landscape. Studies by Bioversity International show that market incentives are needed for local farmers to continue growing native quinoa varieties. The problem is that international markets demand a uniform quality and appearance, undermining agrobiodiversity by incentivizing farmers to practice monocropping. Thus, diverse native crops are undervalued and abandoned.
Pachakuti Foods plans to change this by buying native quinoa that will be used to make valuable products with strong market potential, such as quinoa milk. Since the client only sees the final product, it doesn’t matter whether or not the quinoa used to make it has a uniform appearance. We can use many local quinoa varieties to make a single product as long as they have great flavor quality and are completely organic. Additionally, we will pay farmers a fair price for their quinoa—even when the market price of standard commercial quinoa falls. By coordinating our efforts with quinoa scientists and Peruvian agricultural workers, we can create targeted approaches to protect quinoa diversity in a way that fits within the local context.
Supporting Aynoka leaders by buying native quinoa varieties directly from their communal lands will give them another reason to keep protecting the precious genetic resources grown within their landscapes, and to continue using communal land management that is crucial for the health and wellbeing of the land and people that live and work in it.
Do you want to directly support agrobiodiversity conservation and traditional communal land management in the Andes? If so, check out Pachakuti Foods’ Kickstarter campaign here. Let’s create sustainable market incentives together so that we can support health and integrated landscapes that are beneficial for people, food, and nature!
Read more on shifting commodity markets to favor biodiversity-friendly practices: Transforming Commodity Markets for Conservation at the Landscape Level
Lindsey Hethcote is a recent Masters graduate from CATIE in Costa Rica and a former intern at EcoAgriculture Partners. Her passion for agrobiodiversity has motivated her to co-found Pachakuti Foods. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexander Wankel received his degree in anthropology from Brown University and has spent years working with small producers in social enterprises in the Andes in companies such as Faire Collection and Awamaki. Alexander provided the photos featured in this post. He can be contacted at email@example.com.