February 2015

Hecho en Bolivia, the disintegrating truth

Recently we asked the question, how much food sold in Bolivia is also produced here? Bolivia is increasingly finding itself in a position where it can no longer feed its own population.

By: Luke Andrews
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Surrey - United Kingdom

Photo: Luke Andrews

Recently we asked the question, how much food sold in Bolivia is also produced here? Bolivia is increasingly finding itself in a position where it can no longer feed its own population.

“Of Bolivia!” is the cry that greeted me from Maura, a local housewife, when I asked where her food was produced. This is repeated by many other citizens of Cochabamba. But how true is this? Walking down to La Cancha, it seems to be the reality. The market is packed full of local farmers, who have brought the produce that they have grown to market. I talked to an elderly lady selling rice, who informed me that all the food she was selling she had grown herself. The concept that most of Bolivia´s food is grown within the country is undeniably backed by Bolivian economic statistics.

According to Economy Watch (2009), 40% of Bolivia´s workforce is engaged in farming. Most food is grown on either the Altiplano region or in the infamous Yunga´s. The number of farmers gives Bolivia strong production figures. For example, in 1988 Bolivia produced 700,000 tonnes of potatoes, according to the US Library of Congress. These goods then traveled via truck to local markets like La Cancha, avoiding tariffs imposed on imports by the Bolivian government. This means that the goods are both cheap and locally produced.

Key to this change is the demand for wheat. This is a staple product for the Bolivian economy.

Moreover, these two regions have very different climates, giving Bolivian farmers a competitive edge. Bolivia has the chance to grow a large variety of foods on its own land. The country is able to cultivate wheat, pineapples and potatoes for example – plants requiring different climates. This has meant that Bolivian consumers do not become bored of a repetitive diet and enjoy buying a wide range of foods. Renee, a Cochabambino, told me how much he loves the watermelon, which is only available three months of the year. This is an asset unavailable to many countries.

Globally, many have fallen into the trap of becoming an importer of food products. The UK, for example, receives up to “40% of the total food consumed” from other countries, according to Global food security. This is problematic for the country as it cannot continue to “go around the world chasing the cheapest deal,” Peter Kendall from the British National Farmers Union. The UK lacks both the space and the variety that it´s people desire, a problem that does not exist in Bolivia.

The supply is kept local both by Bolivia´s own production strengths and local resentment of imported food products. Maura told me that she regarded foreign foods as “clinical and unnatural” whilst she saw Bolivian foods as “more pure and more organic than foreign foods.” This is an opinion reflected by many Bolivian shoppers. They shop in the local market to “buy from the people that produce it” (Maura).

However, are all of Bolivia´s foods really locally produced? Maura believed that only “tea and milk” came from abroad. Despite appearing in the La Cancha market, some foods have travelled over 2,000km to be there.

Apples are a major culprit. Bolivia´s apples in fact, originate in Chile. The country is the top exporter of apples globally, as stated by ASOEX, a thinktank. It regularly floods the Bolivian market with these products. This is assisted by a Free Trade Agreement between Bolivia and Chile, meaning that Bolivian tariffs are inactive on Chilean apples. Hence, apples sold here are far from locally produced.

This has contributed to Bolivia´s import position becoming worse every year. Wilfredo Ramirez claimed, as published in El Diario, that Bolivia is shifting from a “food producer to importer.” The publication, Bolivian Thoughts in an emerging world, reported a rise in food imports by 70% in 2012. This is backed by figures from international monitor, index mundi, which said that imports of vegetables had risen in the country from $121mil in 2005 to $219mil in 2011. Bolivia is finding itself in an increasingly vulnerable position to shifts in foreign supply.

Key to this change is the demand for wheat. This is a staple product for the Bolivian economy. Salteñas are a major urban food which requires this. Whilst walking through La Cancha market, I came across bags of wheat from as far afield as Canada, a clear sign that Bolivia is struggling to produce enough locally. In 2008 the country imported 300,000tons of wheat according to CIMMYT, a global wheat monitor. In 2013 the need for wheat became so great that the government issued a decree removing wheat import tariffs for 180 days. Wheat is just one area of the agricultural economy that needs improvement.

The supermarkets of Cochabamba, such as I.C.Norte, are also seen to be damaging Bolivia´s ability to feed itself. These are recognized by many Cochabambinos as been used for only special products and foreign ones. In fulfilling this role, they provide goods that La Cancha does not. You can now find locally produced Fideos pasta, placed next to Pasta produced in Italy. They are pushing Bolivia still further into a position of requiring imports to satisfy demand.

It appears that most food products are grown in Bolivia, with imports coming in to satisfy excess demand and the demand for foreign goods. Bolivia´s increasing population, by 2% each year according to the World Bank, will only increase demand, leading to further uncertainty as to whether Bolivia can maintain its near self-sufficiency. New products will come from other countries which do not have the same supplydemand problem and lots to export. Controversially countries such as Chile will move to plug the gap, whom Bolivia has maritime disputes with. Bolivia must proudly remember to buy locally when it can, to continue to support a unique and special asset of its nation.

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