If you traverse the South American nation of Bolivia, from the heights of the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Jungle to the urban streets of Santa Cruz, you’ll never once find a Big Mac or a McNugget. They don’t exist there—and haven’t for about a decade. McDonald’s couldn’t survive in the mountainous country, so in 2002 the global fast-food chain closed its last store.
This is ancient news in Bolivia, of course, but a 2011 documentary about the oddity sent the story around the world and caused many to ask, “What’s Bolivia doing so right that McDonald’s couldn’t make it there?”
The documentary pointed out that one of the main reasons the Golden Arches went bloated belly-up in Bolivia (the first McDonald’s-free Latin-American country) is because Bolivians preferred their traditional foods and food ways to fast food. But Tanya Kerssen, who leads food sovereignty tours in Bolivia and serves as a Research Coordinator for Food First/the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says Bolivians still love hamburgers—definitely not a traditional food—they just prefer to buy them from the thousands of indigenous women (called cholitas) hawking food on the streets.
“People line up eating hamburgers on the street. It’s sort of like a massive, decentralized McDonald’s, controlled by all these indigenous women, mostly,” Kerssen tells TakePart. “They look on these foreign entities with suspicion—and rightly so. They prefer to purchase from, to have a relationship with, people from their own country or community or family.”
Kerssen says this spirit of reciprocity is one of the core principles underlying a nation that has always prioritized local control of its food system. As is the case in peasant cultures around the world, she adds, for Bolivians, food is not a commercial space as it is in developed nations—Bolivia’s food relationships often don’t involve money. Growing a diverse range of crops in the numerous microclimates that comprise the Bolivian Andes—from corn at the lower elevations to potatoes and quinoa above 12,000 feet—farmers take care of each other. Trade flows freely, equipment and labor are shared, and seeds are saved.
The indigenous Aymara people, who farm the Andes, are a central focus of Kerssen’s food sovereignty tours of Bolivia. She takes groups to Bolivia to observe how its people value food, food producers, and their ecosystems—but also the different political actors working to make the food system more equitable, sustainable and healthy.
Politically, there has been quite a bit of activity on the food front in recent years. Food sovereignty, or local control, has even been codified in Bolivia’s laws, thanks in part to the work of the country’s first indigenous president, Democratic-Socialist Evo Morales, who took office in 2006. When the country’s constitution was rewritten in 2009, 12 articles were added to specifically lay out a vision for food sovereignty. Two more laws, passed in 2011 and 2012, further codified the nation’s apparent resistance to industrial agriculture and an economy too heavily weighted toward commodity crops. Morales, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in February, slammed U.S. fast-food chains, calling them a “great harm to humanity” and accusing them of trying to control food production globally.
“They impose their customs and their foods,” he said. “They seek profit and to merely standardize food, produced on a massive scale, according to the same formula and with ingredients which cause cancers and other diseases.”
But while Bolivia may have successfully avoided an onslaught of outside chains (Burger King and Subway do have a few stores each), the country has had difficulty implementing many of its own food statutes, Kerssen says. In part, this is because of Bolivia's “enormously powerful agribusiness lobby” and a booming soy and sugar export market. And on the back of its growing popularity in wealthier developed countries, quinoa, farmed for centuries by the Aymara and Quechua Indians primarily for domestic consumption, has also become a significant Bolivian export. President Morales pushed hard for the United Nations to name 2013 the “Year of Quinoa” across the globe, a designation that would certainly mean more revenues coming into the country.
And Bolivians face similar diet-related health problems as the rest of the world. Malnourishment is common in poorer regions, but obesity and diabetes are also common, and Kerssen says a contributing factor is the country’s dependence on highly refined U.S.-grown wheat, which is used in Bolivian food more now than in the past. That, she says, is not easy to undo.
Even still, with one of the lightest carbon footprints in the world, cherished food practices and progressive food sovereignty laws on the books, Bolivia could still be a model to the rest of the world—the United States especially—for a healthier, more community-based food system.
“Bolivia still has this amazing possibility to show us how to create alternatives to capitalism and the corporate food regime,” Kerssen says. “I don’t see the political will right now, but it’s always a struggle. The social movements haven’t declared a final victory for food sovereignty.”