Organic Certification: An Important Piece of the Puzzle

This morning we met with Micaela Cabrera and Angel Mujica of BioLatina, a Latin American agricultural certifier. Organic certification is an important piece of our business idea, since we are looking to provide a local, organic fertilizer to organic Quinoa farmers looking to export. There are very strict norms to abide by in order to gain organic certification to export to various different countries or through different standards.

BioLatina recently finished a certification project with Alpacas in the Altiplano, so they have the experience working with camelids that we need. They provided us a lot of good information such as:

  • It takes one year for the organic “transition” to happen with an animal vs. 3 years with agriculture
  • Manure is not always organic. You have to look at what the animals are being medicated, fed, where they graze, etc.
  • It is very hard or impossible to find compost made with USDA standards in Bolivia
  • They do inspections once a year
  • The cost of the certification is $200 USD/ year, plus the daily rate of the certifier of $150 USD a day (this depends how large of a landscape he will certify) plus travel costs of the certifier.

BioLatina works in many countries in Latin America, and in addition to the USDA organic certification, it provides Canada Organic Regime, JAS (Japan), the European Union organic certification, UTZ, Starbucks, Climate Change, Global G.A.P.

Lindsay interviewing Micaela and Angel at BioLatina

Overall, it was great to have information on what the process is like to certify llama manure and what the process would look like for us and our venture.

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PCI Llama Corrals

Today was a very important day as we visited for the first time the corrals of PCI’s MIS Llamas project! MIS Llamas is an acronym for Manejo Intergral Sostenible or Integrated Sustainable Management of Llamas. The 8 year-old development project was implemented to increase the productivity and effectiveness of how llamas are managed in the Altiplano region. Some of the main problems that existed previously were high rates of llama mortality due to the harsh climate, cold weather and predators such as condors. The project also focused on helping llama farmers improve nutrition and the overall health of their animals. Since the program’s implementation they have seen a 64% reduction in the mortality rate of young llamas, a 34% increase in the production of female llamas milk and 100,000 llamas under more sanitary conditions.

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The team in the entrance to a corral

Perhaps most striking about today’s visit was realizing just how remotely located are the corrals! We visited the “closest corrals to Oruro” and we still traveled 3 hours each way on unpaved roads. While the scenery was gorgeous, we saw that MIS Llamas sites are in some of the poorest and most remote villages in the country. People in these villages are mostly subsistence farmers – they grow potatoes and raise llamas. Anything else they eat comes in by truck about twice a week. Interestingly, people can pay about $1.15 to transport about 100 kg of goods from the villages to Oruro. They often pay a driver to bring their potatoes or chuño (dehydrated potatoes) to market in Oruro and then are paid when the truck comes back to pick up more goods. We do think there is potential to follow this model for the sale of compost. However, according to our partners, this region in particular would not be the best place to develop the business because most of the farmers only have around 25 llamas. In other areas, such as Curahuara de Carangas, farmers have anywhere from 100 to 1,000 llamas and therefore, there would be more raw material available.

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Talking with llama corral beneficiary, Santos.

Another unique thing about this community is that it is one of few in which PCI has already started a worm composting project. It is very small scale (due to the limited about of manure), but has been successful as an additional form of revenue for these farmers. They mostly sell the compost in 1 kg bags for about $.70 to individuals seeking inputs for houseplants or very small gardens.

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View of the “road” we traversed. It gave us a much better idea of the complicated logistics and transportation.

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Llama Fest 2012

While Ana and Christie explored the salt flats in traditional quinoa growing territory, I, Lindsay, headed to Northeast Oruro this weekend to a small community called Curahuara de Carangas. Curahuara is a small town the traditional llama-farming region and I was lucky enough to visit for the community’s 19th annual llama festival! Much like a state fair in the U.S., this was an event in which llama farmers from all over the region brought their llamas (and some alpacas) in to sell and participate in various contests.  There was a lot of live traditional music, food (I ate llama meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner), handicrafts; and of course, an abundance of llamas.

Learning how to “manage” alpacas

Kids playing traditional music “Sikuris”

Cooking llama meat in the earth, traditional dish called “watia”

Male llamas for sale

In the judging ring, this llama won first place for Class A (1 year old) fiber llamas (as opposed to those raised for meat)

I got to put a ribbon on the second place llama!

This was one set of winners of about 15 groups of llamas judged throughout the weekend

While there I had the chance to visit with several llama farmers and other individuals who work for VALE (acronym for Vicuñas, Alpacas, Llamas & Ecotourism), the state’s rural development program that works with camelid producers. I was surprised to learn that in that particular region of Bolivia, llama manure is extremely under utilized. Every one of the farmers I spoke to said that they only use a small fraction of their manure, mostly to fertilizer their potato fields, and the rest is actually a nuisance. Many were interested in our idea of implementing a low-tech compost system on their farms if they could make money from it. While this news was promising, it still leaves us with the big question of cost: will it be cost effective to connect this supply of manure with quinoa farmers living over 500 km (300 miles) away? The high demand for fertilizer gives us hope, but we will be continuing to work on answering this question.

The town of Curahuara de Carangas near sunset

On top of a large hill in the town you can see Sajama, the tallest mountain in Bolivia (21,463ft)

Overall, it was a beautiful and culturally rich weekend!

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Weekend Visit to the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni)

This weekend Ana and Christie went south to the Salar de Uyuni, which is where the world’s largest salt flat is located (4,086 sq mi) and is also the traditional area where quinoa is grown in Potosi and Oruro departments. It is located around 12,000 ft above sea level and contains numerous natural wonders. The area has also become known because it contains about 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves and there has been a big movement to try and commercialize this resource. In a 3 day tour of the Salar one can see lakes of red and green, islands of cacti, salt for as far as the eye can see and pink flamingos that make their home in watery areas around the Salar. When rain falls on the Salar and a small amount of water coats the surface it appears as if there is no space dimension between the earth and the sky and a giant mirror effect is created. Needless to say, Ana and Christie were excited to finally see this otherworldly place in person.

Given the rigorous work schedule we’ve been trying to maintain, just a one day tour was possible but the guide provided lots of interesting information and the day tour was fantastic. It was yet another aspect of Bolivia that makes it a unique and beautiful country. The trip included a visit to see the salt production and how it is heated, dried, processed and bagged for sale. The drive in the Land Cruiser headed west into the Salar for about 30 minutes and all that could be seen was a vast, flat, white openness with mountains far in the distance. Upon reaching the Incahuasi Island (meaning Inca House in Quechua), the group stopped to visit island, eat lunch and enjoy the views all around. The island is somewhat centered in the Salar and from various points one can see 50 km across or more. After lunch the group went to see the Ojos (eyes in Spanish) which are holes that form in the Salar around the size of small fridge but can be as deep as 20 meters because of a giant lake below this part of the Salar. The water was freezing and it appeared really similar to holes cut in the ice for those that do winter ice fishing. The last part of the tour was a visit to see an old hotel made of salt that has since become a museum.

Although it was quick weekend getaway, it was truly a memorable time and if you get a chance to see this place in person it is highly worth a visit. Here are a some pictures to enjoy (more will be posted in a flickr album for those interested)!

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Charquekan

What did we have for dinner tonight? Charquekan!
This plate is originally from Oruro. It involves dried llama jerky, potatoes, hard boiled egg, fresh cheese, corn and spicy sauce. Strange, yet delicious!

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Llama Llamas of the Altiplano

We had another very productive day today. First, we met with Willy Choque, a recognized agronomist who used to work at FAUTAPO and now is the Director of Scientific Investigation for the Technical University of Oruro. He really liked our idea of building a fertilizer business and was very encouraging of our model. He offered to run a pilot program through the University on the PAWS (Passive Aeration Windrow System) compost system that Jessica Davis from CSU Manure Management Department suggested we implement given the low level of effort needed in this composting technique.

Following our meeting with the University we met with Bolivian Government program for camelids named VALE, Programa de Apoyo a la Valorizacion de la Economia Campesina de Camelidos. This program works in the rural areas of Bolivia, specifically in the sector of llamas, alpacas and vicunas. They have 3 main components:

1. Wild Camelid Management

2. Infrastructure Development

3. Productive Entrepreneurship – this component is where we see overlap. They are working with llama farmers in developing their value chains of fiber, meat and leather. They both really liked our idea of commercializing the llama manure as well. However, they confirmed our main roadblock at this point- transportation will probably be prohibitive. But, they gave us hope; they suggested we look into intermediaries or collectors, as well as establishing collection centers where the organic farmers in need of compost can come buy it.

Some interesting facts about llama products:

  • 1 kilo of llama meat (depending on the cut) is approximately $3.50 USD
  • 1 kilo of llama jerky is approximately $20 USD
  • 1 llama lives approximately 8 years

In the afternoon, we went outside of the city to Vinto. Vinto is home to the largest tin foundry in Bolivia and this is the town where PCI has its Oruro offices. Here, we met with Saul Camacho, the Director of PCI in Oruro and we discussed the amount of supply that we will have through the MIS Llamas project, as well as defining the details for our trip to the field next week. Below are some pictures of today meeting with PCI’s team.

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USA Food Assistance in Bolivia

Apart from being the implementer of the MIS Llamas project, our partner PCI also manages USDA’s food assistance programs in Bolivia. We visited their warehouse in Vinto today. We were surprised by the amount food that comes in the form of aid from the United States!

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