by Gregor Sieböck
When I walked the 3,000 kilometres of the royal Inca road from Peru to Ecuador on foot along the Andes, a mash made from quinoa and sundried tomatoes often gave me the necessary strength to bear the unbelievable exertions of the trek. When I frequently had to walk legs of 40 or 50 kilometre at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres in one day, I always looked forward to my delicious dinner with quinoa. The grain grows at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, high up in the Andes, and is a wonderful food. The rediscovered basic food of the Incas has a nutty flavour and a balanced nutrient content that is above average, as well as a high proportion of minerals and protein. Hundreds of years ago, the Incas already treasured quinoa. For them, it was a special source of strength and gave them a strong immune system. The amount and composition of nutrients is unique because quinoa contains lots of protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, B2, C and vitamin E, and surpasses many times over all common grain varieties such as, for example, wheat. Quinoa also contains a large measure of polyunsaturated fatty acids and is furthermore a real lucky charm because the brain can turn the tryptophan contained within the grain into the happiness hormone serotonin. Especially in the seasons with less sunshine, quinoa is amongst the few products that significantly improve wellbeing.
Quinoa is considered to be part of the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), previously beet family, and is botanically related to mangel and beetroot. Quinoa is not a cereal but a grain. It's the mustard-seed-sized seeds that are used, as well as the leaves that the Andes residents prepare like vegetables. The one-year herbaceous plant can grow up to two metres high. It has finger-shaped partial blossoms and the colour of the seeds ranges from black to red to light yellow. Because the seeds ripen unevenly, they have to be harvested by hand.
Quinoa is cultivated in the Andean highlands at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,500 metres. It thrives in the dry climate at the edge of the large salt lake Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia just as well as at the foot of the over 6,000 metre high Chimborazo in Ecuador. Just this province south of the Chimborazo is where I visited the quinoa famers of the eco-cooperative Sumak Life. Sumak kawsay, a term from the indigenous Quechua language, stands for the "good life". The aim of Sumak kawsay is the material, social and spiritual satisfaction of all employees of the cooperative, but not at somebody else's cost and not at the cost of the natural basis of life. The "good life" can be understood as a coexistence with nature in diversity and harmony. In 2008, Sumak kawsay was enshrined at a central position as state goal in the constitution of Ecuador. A year later, the concept of suma qamaña also found its way into the Bolivian constitution. However, in both states the "buen vivir", the "good life", still plays a subordinate role in the politics of the day, which are particularly in Ecuador - not so much in Bolivia - still dominated by efforts regarding economic growth. Bhutan, on the other hand, is the only state in the world that has elevated a similar policy, the gross national happiness as progress indicator, to state policy and is now also walking the talk.
Sumak Life in the Andean province Chimborazo unites 550 cooperative members who mostly cultivate small plots. The farmers plant quinoa and the cooperative collects the goods, processes them further and finally sells them in Europe and the US. The cooperatives offers advanced training programmes in organic cultivation and microcredits to the farmers. Sumak Life trades only with organic products to guarantee a natural environment and the protection of the basis of life for humans. Thanks to the cooperative union, the farmers receive higher prices for the quinoa and thus compensation for their hard work. For 8 years, they have been producing a total of 400 tons of organic quinoa per year, as well as several medicinal herbs. Josef Zotter does not buy quinoa at Sumak Life. Zotter uses no quinoa at all yet for his chocolates; but before my trip, Ulrike Zotter asked me to also visit a quinoa supplier in South America, to establish initial contact.
The life of the farmers in the Andean highlands in Ecuador is very simple and also full of deprivation. The small fields are farmed and harvested by hand and donkeys are used as pack animals. The farmers live in simple, self-built clay huts, often sleep on blankets on the stamped clay floor, cook and heat using an open hearth and wash in the nearby, usually freezing stream. Once a week there is a big market day in the region where they can sell their products, carry on a trade and maintain a social exchange. The daily rhythm is guided by the sun, which shines 12 hours a day near the equator - at night it's bitterly cold at an altitude of 3,500 metres, so most seek protection around the fireplace or hearth. The farmers still wear the colourful Andean garb and traditional hats. This provides quite the fairytale-like image when there are lots of colourful dots in the coloured, small fields, while the farmers drive their animals to the pasture or work in the fields. The entire picture is towered over by the mighty snowy mountain of the Taita Chimborazo, Father Chimborazo, as the indigenous people call it. Its glaciers gleam in the Andean sun.
The region offers many presents to a traveller and is truly a very special place to get to know better the Andean culture of the indigenous population and life high up in the mountains, which has barely changed in centuries. Point of origin could be the capital Quito, from where once can also take a train across high passes along the Avenida de los Volcanes, the road of the volcanoes, as Humboldt once called it, to the South, to the colourful quinoa fields. Their bright colours decorate the landscape especially just before the quinoa harvest in June and July.
Find more information about Sumak Life at: www.sumaklife.com.ec