Can Wild Foods Save the Amazon?
In downtown Lima on a late May morning, journalists, politicians, and chefs crowded around ornate tables filled with foods served in bowl-shaped husks, on wood slabs, and wrapped in enormous green leaves that overflowed with exotic delicacies from the Amazon rainforest.
Smoked pork was flavored with a sauce made of camu camu, a lip-puckering, plum-like fruit that contains 40 times the vitamin C of an orange. A mashed yucca appetizer roll bore a spiral ribbon of aguaje, a fleshy palm fruit. Fresh and jarred tiny yellow charapita peppers, which add the heat of a habanero with tropical fruitiness to traditional Peruvian dishes, dotted the table.
Chefs from Ucayali, the region that encompasses the Peruvian Amazon, put finishing touches on the jungle cuisine at a promotional event that aimed to lure investors to an August showcase of regional products, called Expo Amazonica. One chef, Xin Ting, pointed to juane, a dish that’s a mixture of rice and paiche—a mild-tasting Amazonian river fish—boiled in waxy bijao leaves. Next to the juane sat a sushi roll that encased the paiche in rice tinted yellow with cocona, a tart, creamy tomato-like fruit. “The juane is a traditional recipe, used in local festivities in June,” Ting explained. The sushi is a culinary twist on an old Amazonian favorite.
Ting is a member of the Gastronomy Association of Ucayali (AGASU), a collection of young and established chefs devoted to turning traditional Amazonian foods into modern menu items that will not only appeal to urban eaters but could help save the forest.
Currently, timber, cacao, and palm oil are among the main products coming out of Ucayali, and the Peruvian Amazon is shrinking rapidly. But AGASU is championing the region’s overlooked riches—a wide range of untapped Amazonian foods and medicinal plants. The group believes that greater demand for native wild foods could protect biodiversity, create new income opportunities for rural villagers, and conserve cultural traditions. Instead of clearing the jungle to raise monocultures, their argument goes, why not help save it by increasing the value of the healthy foods that grow there naturally?
Instead of clearing the jungle to raise monocultures, their argument goes, why not help save it by increasing the value of the healthy foods that grow there naturally?
Between 2001 and 2017, the Peruvian Amazon lost nearly 2.67 million hectares (more than 10,000 square miles) of tree cover, an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. In 2017 alone, according to Global Forest Watch, 303,000 hectares (815,000 acres)—a chunk almost the size of Yosemite National Park—were cleared. While illegal gold mining is devastating southern Peru, agriculture is driving habitat destruction in Ucayali, where the deforestation rate is the country’s highest.
One major cause of forest loss is palm oil production. Ucayali is Peru’s second-largest producer of oil palm, and plantations have spread dramatically over the past dozen years or so—from 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) in 2006 to almost 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) in 2017. Rice farming is also expanding as migrants arrive from northern Peru, where floods and mudslides have damaged cropland.
As land is converted, many of the dozens of wild edible and medicinal plants that Amazonian communities depend on are dwindling, both in number and in accessibility. “Wild, uncultivated foods have long been neglected,” says Gisella Cruz Garcia, a Peruvian ethnobotanist who is now lead advisor on neglected and underutilized species and nutrition for Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of the international charity focused on poverty alleviation. “Wild species have been overlooked by modern science,” says Cruz Garcia. “Their nutritional and agronomic value is largely unknown.” And despite being unrecognized in food and agricultural policies, she says, “wild foods are a critical component of food security, particularly in poverty-stricken regions.”
As the Peruvian government pushes to expand palm oil production, Amazon communities are facing tough choices: Should they partner with overseas companies and convert more land to oil palm? Or should they seek out better ways to utilize wild foods, creating viable alternatives that would protect—and enable them to profit from—native biodiversity.
Peru’s budding gastronomy scene has embraced many of the wild foods that have nourished Amazonian populations for generations. But creating a sustainable path from the jungle to urban Peruvian plates—or to export products—won’t be easy. It will require a special blend of like-minded Amazon dwellers, chefs, product developers, and policymakers to sow a sustainable appetite for jungle flavors.
Many of the foods chosen by the AGASU’s chefs are rarely enjoyed more than a few miles from the rainforest. They seldom make it beyond villages like Pueblo Libre, which sits some 750 kilometers (466 miles) from Lima and then another 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) down a bone-rattling dirt road. In this mestizo (mixed-race) community, villagers grow cash crops like palm oil, but they subsist largely on wild foods.
Pueblo Libre was founded 25 years ago, and the villagers planted the first oil palm trees soon thereafter. Those first-generation trees are now hulking frondless snags rotting over their newly planted replacements. Oil palm trees were once a symbol of peace and prosperity here. To help squelch coca, the region’s problematic cash crop—which funded the brutal Shining Path, a terrorist sect of Peru’s Communist Party hiding in the Amazon—the U.S. government promoted oil palm cultivation as a replacement. While palm oil—now the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world—may have helped end one turbulent time in the Amazon, it sowed the seeds of another.
Most early oil palm expansion in Peru was slow and occurred on previously-cleared land, largely by small-scale landholders like those in Pueblo Libre. There, villagers cleared just 15 hectares for oil palm in 25 years. But then, in 2010, Malaysia-based companies began investing, and palm oil production became a force of forest destruction.
Satellite imagery of Ucayali today reveals not only the patchwork of villages’ oil palm plantings extending out from the first major highway to connect the Amazon to Lima, but two swaths of deforestation north of Pueblo Libre. Both enormous, these unusually shaped clearings of primary forest—so far amounting to roughly 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of the 23,000-hectare goal—are now divided into plots drawn with eerily laser-like precision. One of these areas was once known to be particularly rich in medicinal plants.
The denuded areas of once-pristine forest were so undeniably stark, Peru crafted new federal laws to prevent such massive clearcuts. Still, these regulations have not prevented companies—aided by banks and palm oil buyers—from taking a more piecemeal approach, partnering with Pueblo Libre’s willing neighbors, offering fertilizer and planting materials in exchange for profits come harvest time. Although the Peruvian government promotes this approach as a way of incorporating small landholders into the palm oil production chain, and many have found the company-community partnerships tempting, Amazon villages rarely receive much federal government support.
Today, there are 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of oil palm plantations in Ucayali. An additional 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) are legally feasible across the region if all existing pasture and purmas—lands intentionally left fallow to regenerate useful biodiversity as secondary forests—are converted to oil palm. The government is pushing for conversion, says José Sanchez Choy, a researcher at the National Intercultural University of the Amazon in Pucallpa, Peru. Troublingly, a recent study found no evidence that so-called community-company partnerships offer positive environmental outcomes. Instead, it found that 95 percent of the recent deforestation occurred on company-community partnership farms, and that all of the natural regeneration took place on farms that had no ties to palm oil companies.
Small-scale, or migratory, agriculture is commonly blamed for the vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon—a government claim that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Recent studies have shown that these “deforested” claims are based on the frequency of clearing—which would erroneously include, for example, recently-cleared purmas—instead of the total “deforested” area. And it’s on these small-scale farms where purmas are often allowed to regrow.
Purmas are, effectively, a savings account, says Sanchez Choy. In times of shortage, the trees can be cut and sold, but, in the interim, wild foods are among the vegetation that improves the land’s fertility. “In the purmas, there are important species for food security,” says Cruz Garcia.
In recent years, Pueblo Libre residents have put more effort into tending “wild” food crops—naturally growing, uncultivated species. Villagers transplant around 20 wild plants they depend on into home gardens and agricultural fields to keep them close, according to a recent study by Cruz Garcia. “People adapt to deforestation by managing wild foods,” she says.
As the rainforest recedes, planting these foods nearby is sometimes the only way villagers can continue to eat them. Danica Carrión Pizango, one of the founders of Pueblo Libre, says she and neighbors must now travel 20 kilometers (12 miles) to reach primary forest. Even secondary forest is 5 kilometers (3 miles) away—making it difficult to gather wild fruits, tubers, and medicinal plants, such as açaí and ubilla, also known as Amazon tree-grape.
Yet without access to wild foods like these, subsistence communities here and around the world are at greater risk of food shortages. “Wild foods can complement cropping, providing different food sources that make for a nutrient-rich diet, and playing a key role during lean months,” says Cruz Garcia.
Carrión Pizango says Pueblo Libre has decided not to plant any more oil palm for the time being, largely for practical reasons: Nothing else grows near it because of the palm trees’ massive root systems. “We lost a lot of [fruit] trees because of cultivating palm oil,” she says. While palm oil is crucial to villagers’ incomes, “the issue is how to make it sustainable.”
Asked what she thinks the forest will look like in 20 years, Carrión Pizango shakes her head and lets out her breath. She’s not sure there will be a forest. Worse, she’s not sure what her community will look like.
While oil palm helped Pueblo Libre economically, it has strained local relations and has had an impact on villagers’ health. Before oil palm came, the communities were more united. They helped each other. Now, she says, the reciprocity is broken. At the same time, diets in the rainforest have mirrored global trends, becoming more homogenous. People in Ucayali never used to eat bread or pasta, she says of the dietary shift she’s noticed.
While childhood obesity rates have increased in Peru in recent years, so has the prevalence of malnutrition and anemia, which worries Félix Sánchez Zavala, who studies nutrition in Ucayali for UNICEF. In Peru’s Ucayali region, 19.4 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished, and anemia affects 59.1 percent of children under age three.
When I mention AGASU’s efforts to use gastronomy to increase demand for wild foods, a wide smile spreads across Carrión Pizango’s face. The approach resonates instantly with her. In fact, she tried to market a drink made of ubilla, the grape-like fruit, but the tree is disappearing so rapidly in the area that she abandoned the project. Efforts such as this, she notes, are win-win—providing an incentive to learn about wild foods and conserve them, as well as creating job opportunities for young people.
Sanchez Choy is cautiously optimistic. Connecting biodiversity preservation to cuisine is a good idea, but it is new in Ucayali, he says, and it will need to spread much more widely to shift how society selects the foods it eats. Perhaps most importantly, he says, any sustainable market must be aware of the fragility of biodiversity and the products offered. For one thing, most of these aren’t uniform crops. They are seasonal, variable fruits and herbs that are gathered or gardened, not grown on a plantation. Too high of a price for any one product, for example, could simply lead to more deforestation, he says.
While palm oil—now the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world—may have helped end one turbulent time in the Amazon, it sowed the seeds of another.
Currently, most harvesters or growers sell wild Amazonian foods on a small scale, in local markets, for low prices. But if they can create demand beyond the Amazon, they could raise prices and encourage further planting and tending of these trees. It’s a far cry from farming a uniform crop. But there is some evidence of past domestication in many of these “wild” species. Brazil nut and cacao trees, for example, now dominate some forests long after humans abandoned them, demonstrating that previous generations have shaped landscapes with desirable species.
Sustainable cultivation of some wild foods will require dedicated, long-term management. Currently, species that take a long time to bear fruit, such as aguaje, are rarely transplanted close to the villages. What’s more, harvesters often cut down aguaje trees, rather than climbing them, to access their fleshy fruits. Unfortunately, this not only removes large trees from the forest, but because only female trees bear fruit, it also negatively impacts the genetic diversity of the species.
Chonta is a popular wild food that offers a cautionary tale. Long white ribbons of chonta—peeled from the heart of the peach palm, or pijuayo—are a common salad topper in Amazonian cuisine. Unfortunately, because the tree must be cut down to harvest the heart, the trees are disappearing from the Amazon. “It can be hard to find,” says Blanca Perez Morey, chef and co-founder of AGASU. Without cultivation of these palms, growing appetites could threaten the species.
It’s a fine line, Perez Morey says, between sparking demand for a seasonal wild food and risking a decimating surge of interest. “It is very complicated,” she says. But that’s why the chefs’ goal is unique. They want to promote a full palette of Amazonian foods—not just one or two “superfruits.” The use of gastronomy to promote sustainable, diversified farming systems could help conserve species as well as the knowledge of how to manage them and cook with them, says Robin Sears, a farm-forestry researcher at Yale University. Global demand for açaí, she notes, allowed small-scale Brazilian farmers to maintain diverse systems while earning an income.
Still, creating a viable market, even with government support, is incredibly difficult. The Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) has worked for decades to breed new varieties of camu camu that bear fruit consistently and of a desirable size and flavor. But camu camu has yet to take off for a number of reasons, including high transportation costs, fluctuating prices, poor access to markets, and, ultimately, lack of farmer incentive.
Only one factor ultimately tempts growers: demand.
Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino has, perhaps more than anyone else, whetted Lima’s appetite for jungle flavors. Widely considered the original culinary ambassador from Lima to Ucayali, Schiaffino’s restaurant Malabar—the first to feature dishes with wild Amazonian foods—opened in the trendy Miraflores area in 2004. Eight years later, he later opened AmaZ, with a menu dedicated solely to Amazonian foods. Malabar chefs estimate there are now roughly eight other restaurants in Lima that use Amazonian ingredients.
Schiaffino’s ceviche—Peru’s signature raw seafood dish—features tumbo, a tart, acidic fruit similar to passionfruit, rather than the traditional lime or lemon. A tapioca dish swims in a sauce made of cocona, the tangy “Amazon tomato.” And his smoked fish has a deep red color from a glaze made of achiote, the red seeds found inside the hairy red pods of a native shrub used to make dyes and juices during Carnival season.
Customer favorites include Amazonian fruits—cocona, açaí, camu camu—and paiche, the fish. “The moment they taste them, they like them,” says Malabar chef Alexander Carmen. It took time for customers to embrace that the ever-changing menu reflects seasonal production. The most difficult part was to keep a steady supply of sources coming; it took two to three years for Schiaffino to gain harvesters’ trust. It’s a 15-hour journey by road from Pucallpa, the capital of Ucayali, to Lima. Ten years ago, no one would bring Amazonian fish or fruits to Lima, Carmen says.
Paiche demonstrates how complex it can be to transition a wild food to sustainable production. A beast of a carnivorous, ancient fish, paiche can reach up to 10 feet in length and weigh 400 pounds. Once common, overharvesting eventually devastated the species. Fishing restrictions are now in place, and government-supported researchers have developed aquaculture techniques. Farm-raised paiche—at around 200 tons country-wide in 2017—has more than doubled since 2013, theoretically reducing fishing pressure on wild stocks. It’s unclear whether wild stocks are recovering, however. And aquaculture here, like elsewhere, must be carefully managed to be sustainable. But the efforts to build a global market for paiche have certainly been successful—the fish is now available for sale at Whole Foods Markets, along with an array of recipes to inspire home cooks.
In 2012, the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy organized a competition—El Paichezazo—to promote Amazonian cuisine and biodiversity. Teresita Macedo Alvarez, chef-owner of El Viajero in Pucallpa, won the award with her daughter, Janina Alania Macedo, chef-owner of D’Matheus Restrobar, a nearby barbeque restaurant. Their dish “Mishkina de Paiche”—mishkina is a local word for delicious—features crisp fried balls of delicately seasoned fish on top of a pillow of cassava. Swirls of sweet and savory dipping sauces made of the fruits cocona and aguaje, as well as the garlicky green herb sacha culantro, bring the dish to life.
“Nobody in gastronomy cared about Ucayali before 2012, when we won the award,” says Alania Macedo. The mother-daughter members of AGASU say the recognition was a game-changer. “Before our paiche dish, the fish didn’t have a big reputation beyond Ucayali,“ says Alania Macedo. Other regions in Peru generally received all the awards and attention.
For Macedo Alvarez, the win was the culmination of a lifelong dream to share the tastes of the Amazon beyond the rainforest. She grew up cooking and selling juane with her own mother. Since the win, she’s been invited to gastronomy fairs all over the world. And, increasingly, chefs from elsewhere visit the Amazon.
In August, more than 60,000 people attended Expo Amazonica, the fair designed to attract foreign investors to Amazonian products. Roughly $28 million in deals were made between Peruvian entrepreneurs and foreign buyers. While cultivated crops like coffee and cacao received the overwhelming interest from foreign investors, products like camu camu, paiche, and sacha incha (Inca peanut) were also featured, and are among the 10 products recently prioritized by the government.
Although AGASU was established only a year ago, the chef-led organization has already made great strides in its efforts to promote a diverse palette of Amazonian flavors. They know a major shift in global gastronomy will take both persistence and creativity, but they’re taking the long view. “Through food we can take care of the environment,” says Perez Morey. “It comes together with biodiversity.
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Juan Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz
Juan Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz was born in Cusco, the heart of the Andes of Peru, and later moved to the Amazon where he studied Ecotourism at the Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios. Passionate about conservation and sustainability, he has worked with various NGOs and national institutions as a wildlife researcher in natural protected areas in southeastern Peru. More recently, he has been working with native communities, helping them with the preservation of their forests and culture, as well as sustainable development projects.