At a kitchen table in Pantoja, Peru, an army outpost on the Río Napo at the border with Ecuador, I spotted a jar of little yellow berries on a shelf. I popped one in my mouth and immediately began choking. They were chile peppers, ají charapita (Capsicum frutescens), to be exact. I was in Pantoja waiting on a boat to Iquitos, which took two weeks to arrive and during that time the meals consisted of white rice, fried in oil, with a fried banana on the side. Occasionally, a small piece of fish or turtle meat was added, though these were meals based on sustenance rather than flavor. The ají, as small and seemingly inconsequential as it was, changed everything. I learned how to poke it with a fork and rub the juice in the rice. It didn’t just add heat, but a fragrant, citrus flavor that made everything tasty from that point on.
That was my first trip to the Amazon rainforest, more than a decade ago. I have made dozens of other trips there since, mostly while researching things that are edible, and how they are and have historically been eaten and produced. I have seen little refrigeration and lots of fermentation. I have come across 200-kilo, rainbow colored fish that taste like black cod and can be raised sustainably in small ponds without sacrificing flavor. I’ve met shaman with such profound knowledge of the plants and animals around them that even the world’s most prestigious universities cannot fully comprehend it. I have found a place where rodents disperse seeds across the forest floor, potatoes grow on vines, fungi glows in the dark, ants taste like lemongrass, herbs make your lips tingle, vanilla pods grow to the size of bananas, and all of them depend on one another to exist.
The following stories, which together will form the first New Worlder destination series, are a fragment of that research. Each week will bring an original idea exploring the fabric of what makes the region stand out. Voices, topics, and the types of articles will be diverse, with the goal of initiating new dialogue around this part of the world.
What I have found and continue to find in the Amazon may surprise you. Indigenous communities are finding ways to support themselves through sustainable food production that protects their land while preserving their ancestral knowledge. There are chefs that are finding ways to support small producers, creating micro economies around particular fruits and fish that help keep their populations healthy. Even large companies have been able to offer sustainable alternatives to destructive acts. NGOs, conservationists, scientists, cooks, writers, community leaders, and others are starting to come together and find ways to put more value in preserving this immense, interconnected ecosystem than the price of all of the wood, oil, and gold that could be extracted from it.
Yet there are darker forces at work too.
I once visited an indigenous village in central Peru where a Spanish oil company gave t-shirts and the promise of a few jobs while letting them know they intended to do seismic testing on their ancestral lands. Illiterate, the villagers didn’t realize that the pamphlet they were given stated there might be pollution in the rivers they depend upon or that the seismic lines would cross into an area where interactions with an uncontacted tribe were increasingly occurring. In Ecuador, I’ve seen evangelical missionaries offer medical treatment to indigenous groups in exchange for their faith and oil pits, untouched for three decades, built deliberately near streams so they continually leak into the bathing and drinking water of thousands. In Guyana, I once hiked in a national park that shares a river with a gold mine and there wasn’t a fish or bird to be seen for four days.
And that’s just what I have seen.
In Brazil, there are more than a dozen dams under construction, with hundreds of others being proposed that will flood hundreds of thousands of hectares of ancestral forests, displacing tens of thousands. The nomadic Awá are seeing their land shrink by cattle ranching, while environmentalists and human rights activists are routinely murdered, their killers rarely brought to justice. In Colombia and Venezuela, oil and mining projects are destroying the culture of the U’wa and the land they protect. In Bolivia, some of the places with the most biodiversity on earth have been opened up to hydrocarbon operations. In Peru, mercury from illegal gold mining and oil spills are contaminating rivers and soil, while logging is pushing tribes living in voluntary isolation, like the Mashco-Piro, off of their ancestral grounds and to make contact. Throughout the region, periods of severe droughts and flooding brought on by a changing climate are adding to the instability.
More dams, pipelines, wells, drilling, seismic testing, mercury poisoning, trees falling, droughts, floods, lawsuits, murders, poaching, and human rights abuses are coming. Every last resource is in immediate danger of being exploited or destroyed, and with it goes the immeasurable cultural knowledge and priceless flora and fauna whose value we have only begun to understand.
Yet, this series is not to suggest that the region’s culinary possibilities are the only answer to saving it. They’re not. In a perfect world this wild, immense tract of green would not be touched at all, but that’s not realistic. This is simply one aspect of an extremely complex and vulnerable environment and this series is exploring it. Thus far that has not been done enough and, in this increasingly unpredictable world, it is more urgent than ever before. If we don’t start looking at the Amazon in a different way, a place that produces 20 percent of the oxygen and holds one tenth of all of the plant and animal species on planet Earth, we are all fucked.
The Foodways of Peru’s High Jungle: In Tarapoto, in Peru’s high Amazon, indigenous cuisine and cacao are offering an alternative to coca, oil, and lumber.
Amazonian Fermentation: Throughout the Amazon, fermentation is a fundamental element of indigenous cuisine, used not only for conservation, but for adding flavor and making alcohol.
How Açaí Helped Save Amazonian Forests: In two decades açaí has moved from an obscure Amazonian superfood to a powerful force capable of preserving vast tracts of forest.
The Mercado de Belén in Iquitos, Peru: Perhaps the most fascinating market in South America, Iquitos’ Mercado de Belén is a testament to Amazonian culture and biodiversity even while being a force against it.
Chutí from Kilometer 6: A chance meeting at Kilometer 6 near Leticia in the Colombian Amazon brings a gringo and a Ticuna man together.
Can Gastronomy Lead to Rainforest Conservation?: Chefs, conservationists, entrepreneurs, and food writers gather in the Peruvian Amazon to discuss how gastronomy can contribute to its preservation.
Thiago Castanho’s Belém do Pará: In Belém do Pará in the Brazilian Amazon, chef Thiago Castanho has created an entire network of small producers that is pushing the city’s cuisine forward.
The Long Lost, Wild Vanilla of Bolivia: A giant Amazonian vanilla seemed to be a myth in Bolivia, but suddenly, in 2016, a few pods appeared.
The Paiche Hunter: When the giant Amazonian fish paiche began disappearing from the region’s waterways, a former hunter became an inadvertent conservationist.