Can Gastronomy Lead to Rainforest Conservation?

This is Part VI of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

In the middle of the Mercado de Belén in Iquitos, Peru, down a dark path where blue tarps block out the sunlight, we all stop. The chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino looks to the right and to the left. “Pharmacy and pharmacy,” he says. Facing each other are a modern pharmacy and a stand selling natural medicines. One has industrialized medicines in packages and plastic bottles stored behind glass, while the other has roots, herbs, and various tinctures stacked on wooden shelves. This is the choice we face. Do we opt for the modern world, with its consistency, tests, marketing budgets, and stock reports? Or do we go with traditional knowledge, passed down through generations, refined by trial and error? Or can both exist in a place like the Amazon Rainforest?

Scientists proclaim that 80 percent of the world’s forests need to be preserved to have even a chance of fighting climate change. But what country has done that? Most Western nations have already cut down well beyond that number and developing countries feel they should be able to do the same. They want the short term economic benefits of selling the lumber and then to continue to generate profit through commodities like soy, beef, and palm oil, despite how destructive they may be in the long term. If the trees must stand, how can that biodiversity be used in a way that the 3o million people living in the 7 million square kilometer Amazon biome can benefit from it? Development and conservation seem like natural adversaries, though that doesn’t have to be the case.

For a few days in Iquitos, a group organized by Michael Jenkins of Forest Trends, Jacob Olander of Canopy Bridge, Schiaffino, and Spanish food writer Ignacio Medina – chefs, conservationists, public health experts, entrepreneurs, an illustrator, and food writers including me – gathered to discuss how sustainable gastronomy in the Amazon rainforest could be a way of conserving it. Many in the group had traveled widely in the region and were working to promote sustainability there independently, but few had met each other. The goal was to come away from the trip with a plan of action.

Our first stop in Iquitos was the Mercado de Belén, a sprawling marketplace where the Amazon’s culinary diversity can clearly be seen, as can many of the challenges surrounding it. There were unusual fruits that many of us had never seen. Ayahuma, an odd palm nut from the Cannonball tree, was like a coconut with a pungent, fermented interior. There was smoked wild honey and strange seeds like macambo, which comes from a species relative to cacao. Miguel Tang, a biologist from the Association of Amazonians for the Amazon (AMPA), pointed out work that was already being done with fish vendors in Belén, where guidelines like size limits were having some impact. Yet, everywhere around us there were endangered creatures being carved up. The unregulated tail meat of black caiman is being cut and sold in plain view. There are stacks of endangered turtle eggs and exotic animals like toucans and monkeys being sold as pets.

We moved on to an aquaculture project on the outskirts of Iquitos where a man named Santiago Alves was raising an enormous fish called paiche (pirarucu in Brazil) and prehistoric looking turtles called the zarapatera. An adult paiche weighing at least 200 kilos with a rainbow of scales was laid out at the entrance. It would soon be carved up to be grilled and stewed for our lunch, while meat from a zarapatera would be cut up and cooked in the shell with its own blood and sachaculantro.

Alves was a former hunter and fisherman that began farm raising paiche because there were not enough left in the wild. As the fish can be sustainably raised in freshwater ponds, an environment not unlike its native habitat, Alves thinks it could feed the world. A larger paiche project near Yurimaguas is already exporting the fish throughout the United States through Whole Foods. As awareness has increased throughout the region, farm raised paiche has begun taking pressure off of wild fish stocks, which are in critical danger in many countries. Additionally, even though paiche is a predator of smaller fish, when their populations are healthy other fish seem to thrive as well.

After lunch we drove to Nauta to board a boat donated for the next few days by Aqua Expeditions, of which Schiaffino runs the food program for. It allowed us to visit additional sustainable food programs in the region while proving space for workshops and cooking experiments.

What we quickly discovered was that even though everyone there was each connected to the Amazon in their own way, and is driven through their work to see the region develop sustainably, organizing a platform that everyone can unite behind was more difficult than it appears. There were disagreements on the name of the group, the core statement we wanted to accomplish, and even the hashtag. Should campaigns be created around paiche? Should chefs be There wasn’t a model for what was trying to be accomplished like this in a place quite like the Amazon. We were starting from scratch.

We began to hear stories of different members of the group on their successful projects in the region. Dr. Julie Kunen, the vice president of the Americas at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which regularly helps in the administrative development and market outreach for sustainable products, described a project where the organization successfully managed communities of caiman hunters in the Bolivian Amazon. Not only were they able to sell the skins to fashion retailers like Gucci, chef Kamilla Seidler of Gustu was there and able to describe how her restaurant could provide additional income by purchasing the meat.

Entrepreneur Dan MacCombie described how he co-founded a brand of Amazonian tea called Runa as a class at Brown. “Farmers would laugh at us because they didn’t imagine that anyone would want guayusa,” he said. They couldn’t even find a market in Quito for the tea when they started, so they began selling as a commodity market to other companies. They helped create agricultural guidelines, a value chain, and a demand for guayusa. It’s now in 7,000 stores in the United States and 3,000 small farms are involved in the sustainable production of the tea.

Ryan Black, the founder of açaí brand Sambazon, described how every time someone drinks or eats a bowl of açaí it has an impact on the Amazon. Sambazon alone, which started with 30 farmers, now works with roughly 20 to 25 thousand people covering an area of two million acres of the Brazilian Amazon. As açaí needs other plants around it to survive and cannot be raised as a monoculture, the  açaí industry is helping preserve wide swaths of the Brazilian state of Pará.

Spanish food writer Ignacio Medina spoke of a cacao project with an indigenous group in Peru. “There’s more distance between the Awajun and Lima than Lima and Madrid,” he said. Yolanda Kakabadse from the World Wildlife Foundation spoke of Tierra Preito, the productive soil that is being found around the region that is helping give evidence to the theory that the Amazon once sustained a large population. Mario Castrellón of the restaurant Maito spoke of his work with the  Ngäbe Buglé in Panama and how he has been able to introduce their ancestral ingredients into his cuisine.

In each case, someone who worked in another part of the Amazon chimed in to explain why that particular project would not work in their region. It quickly became clear that any single project had to be tuned to the exact location. There was no universal solution in the Amazon, where each place has its own political, economic, and cultural complications.

“Every country has its own conditions, its own products,” said Medina. “It’s important to support different initiatives.”

The ship floated upriver to the Bora community of Pucaurquillo on the Ampiyacu River, where Schiaffino had been buying various sustainable products for his Lima restaurants Malabar and Amaz. When Schiaffino first went to the village, they were trying to lure tourists there to buy handicrafts and see traditional dances, as other Bora villages closer to Iquitos had done. However, Pucaurquillo was too far from where most tourists were traveling to attract them regularly. Schiaffino noticed they were making a type of fermented yuca extract called ají negro, a sort of Amazonian mole, which previously had no commercial value. He began purchasing it, as well as fermented pijuayo juice called memepa and various handicrafts, which amounted to an extra $10,000 a month for the village. Their entire economy has been changed.

We walked through the community’s yuca crop, where they explained how the sauce developed so that yuca brava, a poisonous variety of the tropical tuber, could still be used. Afterward they served ají negro in small bowls where we could dip cassava bread, a byproduct of the process, in it. They boiled macambo and carne de monte, bush meat, in pot and grilled gamitana over a grilled created from a tree trunk split down the middle with burning embers inside.

We moved on to other villages, seeking out medicinal plants and other ingredients, while on board chefs like Mara Salles, Paulo Machado, and Fer Rivarola prepared traditional Amazonian dishes that could be relevant in attracting attention in major Latin American cities. A collective idea of what everyone was trying to accomplish and could accomplish began to become more clear: sustainable food production is having an impact and could be an agent of change throughout the Amazon Rainforest.

We began plotting out different Amazonian ingredients that could be produced in a sustainable manner such as chile peppers, fish, cacao, honey, herbs, and fruits. There was agreement that an online database for Amazonian foods, techniques, and traditions was needed, as was a map of supply chains and actors based on currently known ingredients, producers, and buyers. Some planned on working on a business incubator to nurture ideas that could be produced sustainably in the region.

The gathering left me with more questions than answers. Collectively, what is even the right approach? Do we try to give value to individual products? If so, does that encourage mono-cultures to develop. Not long ago, when açaí’s value started to rise, there were attempts to clear forests and grow palms on plantations. Is it even realistic to try to give value to entire ecosystems? How much do the carbon emissions that come with transporting Amazonian foods nationally and internationally hurt the positive effects that they bring?

There is one thing is for certain, however: If we do nothing, all of it is going to disappear.

The forces working against sustainable food production are much more destructive than any potential negative that might result from it. How can we even consider the best approach of preserving the tradition of ají negro and making it a force for greater good for the communities that produce it when their forests are getting chopped down? How can we create sustainable Amazonian fisheries if rivers are being polluted with oil and mercury from illegal gold mining? Why would indigenous women join together to produce cacao if they could earn more with coca?

Since the meeting chefs have begun incorporating more Amazonian products into their kitchens, such as ají negro in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, which have launched new community driven projects in those countries. Canopy Bridge launched a campaign to promote Amazonian chiles in Ecuador. A video was produced about the trip. Articles were published. There was a presentation at the Aspen Ideas festival and an outline of the Rainforest to Table movement was turned into a website. I began writing this series.

It’s a start.