Food Sovereignty and the Quinoa Boom: Challenges to sustainable re-peasantisation in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia

Tanya M. Kerssen | 04.27.2015

Abstract: In the last three decades, quinoa has gone from a globally obscure food to an internationally traded product with rising global consumer demand. This transformation has had complex social and ecological impacts on the indigenous agro-pastoral communities of the southern Altiplano region of Bolivia. This article analyzes the role that global quinoa markets have played in the repopulation and revitalization of this region, previously hollowed out by out-migration. Yet it also points to a number of local tensions and contradictions generated or magnified by this process, as peasants struggle to harness the quinoa boom as a force of ‘sustainable re-peasantization’ and ‘living well.’ Finally, the article suggests that the food sovereignty movement should place greater emphasis on examining the culturally and historically specific challenges facing re-peasantization in particular places.

KEYWORDS Bolivia, quinoa, food sovereignty, re-peasantization


The southern Altiplano of Bolivia, once dominated by transhumant pastoral populations, is now experiencing a dramatic expansion of its agricultural frontier. As a result, the region is seeing a number of social, economic, and ecological transformations. This expansion is the result of peasant-led efforts in the 1980s to forge global alliances and build an export market for quinoa at a time when neoliberal policies combined with postcolonial perceptions of indigenous foods made accessing domestic markets all but impossible. Their success generated an important livelihood opportunity in a long-marginalized region marked by poverty and out-migration. Nonetheless, the rapid expansion of quinoa and the entry of new actors have engendered extractivist tendencies that threaten both the ecological sustainability and social integrity of agro-pastoral systems. Quinoa producers—as well as their trading partners, NGO allies, policymakers, and consumers—now find themselves at a crossroads, debating the path to a socially and environmentally sustainable future for the quinoa sector.

As global demand grows, cultivation expands to new frontiers, and pressures on productive resources increase; the traditional custodians of the “golden grain of the Andes” face an uncertain future. How are Bolivian producers confronting this uncertainty? Is the development of the quinoa sector likely to contribute to “repeasantization” and local wellbeing in a sustainable way? And what lessons might the food sovereignty movement draw from this case? In order to address these questions, this article employs historical and political economic analysis of quinoa in the southern Altiplano; participant observation in the region; attendance to two international quinoa research conferences in Bolivia and the United States; and seventeen semi-structured interviews with diverse actors in the quinoa sector in Bolivia and the US, conducted between March and July of 2013.

Food Sovereignty and Repeasantization

A concept popularized by the international peasant confederation La Vía Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit, “food sovereignty” is defined as “the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures, and environments.” As Desmarais explains, food sovereignty is explicitly rooted in the assertion of a peasant identity in the face of neoliberal capitalism that declares the disappearance of the peasantry an inevitability of progress.

The (re)affirming of peasant cultures and economies—or repeasantization—thus appears as a strategic necessity for the building of food sovereignty, particularly since 54 percent of the global population now lives in cities. Indeed, the call for food sovereignty emerges at a seemingly dismal historical moment for peasants. Araghi, for instance, described massive urbanization from 1945 to 1990 as a process of “global depeasantization,” in which Third World peasantries lost access to their means of subsistence and became rapidly concentrated in urban areas.

A number of more recent analyses, however, have drawn more complex conclusions about the fate of the peasantry. Kay, for instance, has suggested that, today, “the situation is more fluid and varied: not only do peasants move to cities, but urban inhabitants move to rural areas” generating what he calls a “new rurality.” Going even further, some scholars suggest that neoliberal globalization has actually led to a strengthening of peasant identity—particularly in Latin America—through the emergence of peasant and indigenous social movements. Radcliffe, for instance, shows how peasant indigenous confederations in Ecuador began reclaiming indigenous dress in the 1990s along with other cultural and political strategies that strengthened “Andean, rural, and agricultural identities.”

For others, however, such as Bernstein, it makes little sense to talk about modern “peasants” as a social category since, he argues, most if not all peasants have essentially “become petty commodity producers, who have to produce their subsistence through integration into wider social divisions of labour and markets.” The response of agrarian scholars in the pro-peasant or “populist” camp, such as Van der Ploeg, has been to affirm that peasants are incorrectly understood as purely subsistence-oriented and disconnected from the wider (capitalist) world. Rather, “peasants, their livelihoods, and their processes of production are constituted through the structure and dynamics of the wider social formation in which they are embedded.” For Van der Ploeg, one of the defining features of the modern peasantry is its “fight for autonomy and survival in a context of deprivation and dependency,” a struggle he characterizes as “repeasantization.”

Repeasantization, for Van der Ploeg, must not only involve a return to the countryside by non-peasants or former peasants, but also a return to “peasant values” among the world’s farmers. As Van der Ploeg explains, this implies a “double movement”:

It entails a quantitative increase in numbers. Through an inflow from outside and/or through a reconversion of, for instance, entrepreneurial farmers into peasants, the ranks of the latter are enlarged. In addition, it entails a qualitative shift: autonomy is increased, while the logic that governs the organization and development of productive activities is further distanced from the markets.

In the decidedly peasantist food sovereignty literature, this qualitative shift generally involves—as Van der Ploeg lays out here—a distancing from markets and, ostensibly, a return to more subsistence-oriented production.

And yet, as Burnett and Murphy show, numerous prominent farmers’ organizations associated with La Vía Campesina and the food sovereignty movement are engaged in the production of commodities—including for export markets—such as ROPPA in West Africa and the National Family Farm Coalition in the United States. As these authors argue, while “the food sovereignty movement is identified with a strong preference for local markets,” this tendency risks overlooking how peasants have, in the face of adverse local market conditions, utilized export markets as a strategy to remain on the land (and thus avoid the fate of urban migration).

In a recent critique of food sovereignty, Bernstein argues that food sovereignty advocates frequently use “emblematic instances” of peasant practices (e.g. diversified/agroecological hillside production in Central America) that highlight the “virtues of peasant/small-scale/family farming as capital’s other.” Similarly, the term “community” in food sovereignty discourse often “exemplifies a ‘strategic essentialism’ (Mollinga 2010), as in populist discourse more widely, which obscures consideration of contradictions within ‘communities.’” Though I am not as willing as Bernstein to discard the term “peasant,” this paper seeks to apply greater scrutiny to the “peasantry” and “peasant community” in a particular place, highlighting some of the local tensions and contradictions at play in a peasant population that is far from homogeneous in its farming practices and in its position vis-à-vis capital. In so doing, I also suggest that the food sovereignty movement should place greater emphasis on recognizing—as opposed to obfuscating—these tensions in the interest of advancing its political project.

This paper uses the term “peasant” not as a fixed analytical category per se, but rather as a deliberately messy term that embodies, following Van der Ploeg, a continuum or “grey zone” where processes of repeasantization and depeasantization are contested. I also analyze the complex role that global markets have played in facilitating repeasantization in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia on one hand, and threatening its long-term viability on the other. While seeking to understand how global markets have affected Bolivian peasants, I also aim to analyze how peasants have affected markets. As Van der Ploeg observes, “just as capital impacts upon the peasantries, the peasantries impact upon capital.”

Lastly, this case highlights the importance of historically grounded, place-based analyses of peasantries “under construction” and the challenges they face. While our theorizations need not be “prisoners of place,” in the words of Bebbington and Batterbury, analyses that theorize outward from cases can “enrich and nuance our understandings of the intersections between globalization and contemporary rural life.” Thus, I begin by reviewing the social and historical context of food systems in the southern Altiplano. Next, I discuss the transformation of quinoa from a globally obscure food disdained in national markets to a globally traded product with rising global (and to some extent domestic) consumer demand. In the third section, I discuss the challenges that may impede a sustainable repeasantization. Finally, I address some of the ways in which Bolivian peasants are struggling to harness the quinoa boom as a force of repeasantization and “living well” in the region.

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Tanya M. Kerssen (2015) Food sovereignty and the quinoa boom: challenges to sustainable re-peasantisation in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, Third World Quarterly, 36:3, 489-507, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1002992

Featured image: Bolivian quinoa farmer, photo by Shannon DeCelle Photography