The Bolivian diet: women’s voices and choices

To coincide with International Women's Day on March 8, a photo exhibition explores Bolivian women's attitudes to traditional foods.

News, 08 March 2019
A Bolivian woman stallholder sells potatoes and other vegetables. Bolivian diets are changing, moving away from traditional foods and towards processed foods (Photo: Mauricio Panozo, Lucano Photography)

A Bolivian woman stallholder sells potatoes and other vegetables. Bolivian diets are changing, moving away from traditional foods and towards processed foods (Photo: Mauricio Panozo, Lucano Photography)

A photo exhibition profiling 10 women from La Paz illustrates a food system that has the potential to embrace the country's traditional crops and agricultural biodiversity – but instead is increasingly dominated by highly processed fast food.

The exhibition was held alongside the Second Global Conference of the UN Sustainable Food Systems Programme, which took place in San José, Costa Rica from 5-7 February 2019. The conference brought together participants from around the globe to discuss how to make the world's food systems more sustainable.

The photographs and the accompanying interviews paint a picture of a changing food system that has moved from traditional indigenous foods such as potatoes and beans, to a heavy reliance on imported fast foods.

Documenting changing food systems and looking at how to make them more sustainable is a part of the work of the Sustainable diets for all programme being implemented by IIED and Hivos. The programme is establishing 'food change labs' in five countries that are bringing together food producers, processors and consumers to look at the challenges and opportunities in local food systems. 

The women featured in the photos talked about their understanding of traditional methods of food production and cooking, and the changes they have seen in Bolivan diets. You can see the exhibition below.

Carla Molina Butrón (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

“We are what we eat,” says Carla Molina Butrón, a member of Fundación Centro de Culturas Populares in Achachicala, La Paz. She was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside, running around rice fields and helping to raise animals on the family ranch. “Everything was natural back then. Our grandparents and parents did not use chemicals or pesticides; they fed us in a healthy way,” she recalls.

Today Carla, 42, lives in La Paz, one of Bolivia's largest cities, but she tries to keep the traditions she learned as a child alive. “I would love for more information to reach my neighbourhood, so that people can acquire better food for their families,” she says. “We deserve a diet that is good for us.” 

Eusebia Fernández (Photo: Valentina Bacheler/Hivos)

Generations of Bolivian children grew up eating ‘lawa,’ a thick and smoky soup made of corn, quinoa or wheat. It was filling and healthy, and prepared with crops grown without the use of chemicals. Today, Bolivian children often eat noodle or rice-based dishes, prepared using food grown with pesticides. 

Eusebia Fernández is a representative in the Bolivian National Assembly, Santa Cruz. She says the tradition of waiting for the corn harvest and grinding the grains in a ‘batán’ (a small mill), and then making bread in a clay oven has been left in the past.

Eusebia feels that both traditional ingredients and the methods of preparation are being lost. She wants to create new laws to protect traditional food and to promote healthy eating. She has discussed these issues with other legislators in the National Assembly, and with local people in Santa Cruz.

Silvia Elizabeth Gutiérrez  (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

For Silvia Elizabeth Gutiérrez, discovering healthy eating and organic food was the most profound experience of her life. “I always used to cook only with meat, noodles or pasta, and rice, with coke to drink,” she says. “Then I learned how to make vegetable dishes and a variety of juices from fresh fruit.” 

That discovery allowed the 45-year-old to enter the world of healthy eating. She is now part of a group of entrepreneurial women in her area. Silvia cannot wait to pass on her new culinary knowledge to others in the San Lorenzo district of La Paz. “Around my neighbourhood there is only junk food,” she says. “Local people do not even know that they feed their families too much carbohydrate and fat. I'm not a teacher, but I want to show them alternatives.”

Lucía Fernández (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

Every time Lucía Fernández sits down at the table, she feels grateful. For the 25-year-old agronomist, every dish that appears on her plate confirms the unbreakable connection between humans and nature.

Lucía grows food on an organic farm in Achocalla, on the outskirts of La Paz. From childhood her main concern has always been the care of the environment. After leaving school, Lucia wanted to work on ecological issues, and eventually she developed a food garden. “Sowing seeds, seeing them grow, then harvesting and cooking your own food is a unique enjoyment for the senses,” she says. “It reminds you how wonderful nature is.” 

Lucia is convinced that it is important that citizens demand a greater supply of organic and sustainable food. “If that happens, those people who grow such food will see a real business opportunity.”

Zenaida Salinas (Photo: Mateo Romay/Hivos)

Zenaida Salinas is 61 years old and lives in Irupana. She is a living cookbook: the only person in her community who knows the recipe for the traditional ‘joco’ soup, a delicacy from the Los Yungas region that is made from a vegetable similar to pumpkin. 

Zenaida learned as a teenager to cook this dish, spending time in the kitchens of the grandmothers in her community. “The ‘joco’ must be cooked well and then mashed with flour, sugar and oil,” she explains. “The final touch is given by the ‘jigote’ (stew) made from ‘charque’ (dried meat).” 

For Zenaida, it is crucial to preserve the traditional cuisine of her region in the face of a junk food onslaught. “Young people leave their communities to go the cities; little by little our ancient recipes and the natural way of producing food are lost,” she says. One of Zenaida’s proposals to rekindle good eating habits is the promotion of individual gardens for families in Los Yungas.

Paula Mariaca (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

Paula Mariaca, 30, didn't study cooking professionally – she says knows about cooking because when she was growing up food preparation was seen as women’s work. Paula does not approve of stereotypical gender roles, but she is glad she has managed to develop a life built around food, using it as a tool for transformation. She is a member of La Kasa Muyu in Cochabamba.

Six years ago she decided that the kitchen could be a venue for social change. “You have to cook with more attention and better intention,” she says. “Attention is something mental; the intention comes from the heart. When both are combined in the kitchen, you achieve great things.”

Beatriz Álvarez (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

A dish of  ‘k'ati’ potato accompanied with ‘ph'asa,’ an edible clay from the Andes region, transports Beatriz Alavarez back to childhood in the town of Laja. Her grandmother used to prepare this dish. Today she is a city councillor in La Paz, and finding the clay in the city is not a simple matter.

Beatriz grew up immersed in the world of farming. As a child she learned that in the Andean worldview there is a relationship between the agricultural cycle, the cosmos and Pachamama, the earth mother goddess. 

She knows family-run, small-scale food production in rural areas cannot meet the needs of today's cities. Many Bolivian people have no choice but to buy imported food. 

As a city councillor, Beatriz has advocated for a law to promote urban gardens, which would encourage the cultivation of vegetables in the houses, schools and municipal spaces of La Paz. Urban and peri-urban agriculture is one strategy to guarantee that people in urban areas have access to adequate food and nutrition.

She hopes that the agricultural traditions of her ancestors will not disappear: during planting season and harvest, she returns to Laja to renew her acquaintance with mother earth.

Elena Condori lives in Bajo Lima, La Paz. She grew up in the countryside and her family grew their own food. They used ‘chuño,’ a form of freeze-dried potato, and ‘jawasa,’ – broad beans – to make traditional dishes. On special occasions they still make these meals. 

Elena migrated to the city when she was 14 years old, but she returns to her rural community to work on the land, planting and harvesting traditional crops, notably potatoes. In rural areas dozens of varieties are available; but only a few make it to the cities. 

Elena has noticed potato crops being sprayed with pesticides. She says the pesticides change the shape of potatoes, and that every year it is necessary to use more and more chemicals in order to achieve the right-sized product. She says potatoes grown with the new methods have a hard and unpleasant centre. They are not like those grown in the traditional manner, which have a floury texture. 

Elena Condori and Lourdes Mamani (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

In her childhood Lourdes Mamani's older brother prepared meals for his younger siblings; ‘chuño’ and quinoa are the foods she grew up with. Both are traditional products in the Andes, central to the cultures that developed on the high ‘altiplano’ plateau. For Lourdes, eating these products continued that tradition.

International demand for quinoa is increasing because of its nutritional properties – it has twice the protein content of rice or barley and is often termed a 'superfood'. But in Bolivian cities, the relatively high price of quinoa discourages its consumption; in rural areas locals often prefer to sell it rather than eat it. 

Lourdes now lives in La Paz. Her daughter and her contemporaries have replaced ‘chuño’ and quinoa with rice, noodles and chicken. Despite this, Lourdes and her mother try to instil in the youngest members of the family an appreciation for traditional ingredients, especially quinoa.

Tania Oroz (Photo: Verónica Leyton/Hivos)

Tania Oroz is director of Aguayo Foundation in La Paz. Tania's family enjoy eating traditional dishes. They know the secret tricks to make the food perfect and so that everyone at the table ‘feels at home’. 

Tania’s mother was a professional cook and worked in several embassies; one of her sisters followed a similar path. In the three weeks before Christmas, Tanya's mother would prepare a a range of dishes and the family would taste each one and vote on which to include on the Christmas menu. The whole process was a gastronomic party lasting 21 days!

Tania’s daughter's decision to become a vegetarian has broadend the family's food landscape. Her favourite dishes include ‘ají de fideo,’ a one-pot dish with macaroni and vegetables, and ‘papa a la Huancaína,’ potatoes with a spicy cheese sauce.