Wetenschap - 11 april 2002

Researcher tracks corruption in the Bolivian salt flats

Researcher tracks corruption in the Bolivian salt flats

Farmers on the Bolivian salt flats have united by setting up a cooperative. The idea is good, but corrupt managers and peasant leaders, and fiercely competitive Western companies are giving the farmers a hard time, says sociologist Pablo Laguna.

The salt flats in the Southern Altiplano in south-western Bolivia cover an area greater than 10,000 square kilometres of land. On the edges of the salt flats, at the foot of the Andes mountain range, farmers grow the quinoa grain. This grain is used after processing as grain and flour and is an ingredient in all kinds of food products, such as pasta, muesli and cookies.

Pablo Laguna conducted research in this area for his PhD degree in rural development sociology. The Bolivian visited four peasant villages and also the National Association of Quinoa Growers. Thanks to the cooperative, the farmers can get better prices for their crops, but over the years many problems have evolved, says Laguna. "Most of the managers and peasant leaders of the cooperative are not really involved with the farmers. They struggle for power and often find their own prestige or economic interests more important than the farmers' situation."

Every two years, new peasant leaders from the peasant communities are installed. In this short time, many of them want to fill their pockets as quickly as possible, at the cost of the farmers. Many leaders are in debt to the cooperative when they leave. "One leader of the cooperative managed to bring a quinoa processing factory of the cooperative into the hands of another regional organisation. And now he wants to create his own private firm for quinoa processing."

Another worrying development is the intrusion of western trading companies, says Laguna. Two French firms are already in the area and are collecting and processing the quinoa grains produced by the peasants in the Southern Altiplano.

Laguna has also looked at other South American countries and concludes that farmers' cooperatives perform better. "In Peru, peasants have strong cooperatives that produce for example Max Havelaar coffee (for which they receive a fair price - ed.). Facing obstacles such as the Shining Path guerrilla movement and the army, peasants had to strengthen their organisation. These cooperatives work better as the leaders and managers are more under the control of the farmers."

After finishing his PhD in Wageningen Laguna hopes to work for development projects in the Bolivian salt flats. "The farmers are willing to give you all the data for your research, but they would also like to get something back. And I do not mean something on paper like a report but some real support." | H.B.

Bolivian farmers threshing quinoa in the Altiplano. | Photo Pablo Laguna

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