Sustainable Foodways in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park

For our fourth column in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, we travel to Bolivia’s Madidi National Park with Dr. Rob Wallace, director of the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Conservation Program for the WCS.

In the cold Amazonian morning of a Sur, or south wind, the skilled boatmen of San Jose Uchupiamonas negotiated the enlarged dugout canoe through the rapids and obstacles of the Tuichi River. I smiled at my good fortune to be travelling through Madidi, the world´s most biologically diverse protected area, with a veritable boatload of celebrity Latin American chefs. Don’t get me wrong. As a wildlife biologist working in the protected areas and indigenous territories of Bolivia and beyond, I am used to the company of inspiring figures – whether local people from the Amazon’s riverine communities or fellow dedicated conservation professionals: biologists, social scientists, anthropologists, geographers, or the extraordinarily committed park guards. But the magi of the kitchen? Linking my life’s professional work conserving the Amazon’s wildest places with my personal passion as an amateur cook and foodie seemed too good to be true. Wasn’t this all just a bit too convenient?

We were on our way back from the Encuentro Sobre Biodiversidad Productiva del Bosque, Madidi or the Madidi Encounter on Forest Biodiversity and Production. The event had been held at the charming and incredibly welcoming Chalalan Ecological Lodge, an award-winning ecotourism venture in Madidi National Park managed by a local Quechua-Tacana indigenous community. Organized by a diverse group of organizations – including the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the Fund for a Civil Society (FOSC), the award-winning La Paz restaurant Gustu, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and Bolivia’s Ministry of the Environment and Water – the event sought to explore the potential links between conservation and gastronomy. Given the success of Gustu, operated by fellow Dane Claus Meyer and well known for its use of locally-sourced ingredients, it was perhaps natural that Denmark’s Ambassador to Bolivia, Ole Thonke, wanted to explore that link further. The obvious location candidate for the meeting was the jewel in the crown of Bolivia´s amazing national protected area system: Madidi National Park and Natural Area for Integrated Management.

With altitudinal range of some 6,000 meters ­ from the heights of the tropical Andes to the Amazon River basin – Madidi’s extraordinary biodiversity includes more plant and animal species than any other national park in the world. As a conservationist for WCS, I have spent the last seventeen years working in and around Madidi. Currently, I am leading a major Bolivian inter-institutional scientific and outreach expedition called Identidad Madidi to improve our understanding of Madidi´s incredible fauna and flora and share that knowledge with the people of Bolivia.

Alicia Kuroiwa, a friend and colleague at WCS, first suggested the link between conservation and gastronomy to me back in 2011. At the time she sought to engage Peruvian society with a wonderful but poorly-known protected area in Peru’s southeast: Bahuaja Sonene National Park. Her effort resulted in the highly successful Bahuaja Sonene: Conoce Inspira initiative. In 2012, the initiative had brought together a group of Peruvian chefs, artists, musicians, sculptors, photographers, and painters to spend a week in the Amazon rainforest. Working with the Peruvian National Park Service, WCS, and Rainforest Expeditions at a premier ecotourism lodge, the group was inspired to create works of art and culinary dishes, culminating in an art exhibition in Lima in 2013. From a culinary perspective, the event was a big success, with dishes contributed by three of Lima’s most celebrated restaurants: Virgilio Martinez´s Central, Mitsuharu Tsumura´s Maido, and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino´s Malabar.

At the time, WCS supported several businesses drawing on the sustainable use of natural resources operated by indigenous communities in Bolivia. As part of our conservation approach in the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape, we provided technical advice and financial resources. The businesses had reached a point where they had products recognized for their quality, but they lacked a market of customers prepared to pay a premium for their sustainably produced items. In 2013, Claus Meyer, already famous for his internationally recognized restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, opened Gustu in La Paz to great fanfare. It seemed a logical step to try and link the Gustu chefs with our community partners. Indeed, Gustu´s philosophy is to use only Bolivian ingredients, with bold and admirable commitments to environmental sustainability and fair trade with local producers.

For the last three years we have worked with Michelangelo Cestari and Kamilla Seidler at Gustu to explore commercial opportunities for rural community initiatives working within and immediately adjacent to Madidi National Park. The most significant effort to date involves spectacled caiman meat from wild, sustainably harvested populations. With a government approved management plan, five indigenous Tacana communities living along the Beni river harvest adult male caimans for three weeks in September or October. In stark contrast to a previously unmanaged illegal cull by any number of third parties, the Tacana harvest quota is calculated based on caiman population surveys and detailed monitoring of environmental, economic, and social indicators. This successful model has enabled the Tacana to sell caiman skins to a major luxury goods brand and fresh caiman tail meat to Gustu. Crucially, the wild caiman harvest is a crystal clear example of how sustainable use of natural resources can improve livelihoods of some of the most isolated rural people in Bolivia, while protecting Amazonian forest and wetlands through appropriate management zoning of the indigenous territory and associated control and vigilance activities. WCS also provides technical and financial support to other local communities in the broader Madidi landscape producing prize-winning wild cacao and bird friendly shade-grown quality coffee.

A key element these successful community initiatives share in common is the long-term nature of their development, including the technical and financial support they have received. Consistently generating quality products on time for a demanding market is a huge challenge for remote communities whose traditional insertion in a market-economy has usually been through the intermittent visits of merchant middle-men who purchase whatever they can for a pittance. Another traditional challenge for community-based initiatives relates to quantity. At least to begin with, such projects often struggle to produce commercially relevant amounts of their product. In this context, Gustu is a wonderful partner for rural communities because they understanding such difficulties and are willing to work with communities to help solve them.

At Chalalan, the Encounter in Madidi aimed to connect top chefs from Amazonian countries with a number of community producers from Bolivia. Together they explored potential commercial relationships while discussing gastronomy and sustainable production and conservation from both consumer and producer perspectives. In so doing, the event hoped to further highlight the commercial potential of the Amazon and perhaps reveal new products that might have gastronomical appeal.

In the gorgeous surroundings of Chalalan, the community producers were able to present their products, then meet and greet the chefs with exchanges about the challenges they face and their priority next steps. As a result, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino from Malabar and AmaZ in Lima agreed to work with the Tacana to export caiman tail meat yielded during the 2016 harvest, potentially tripling the amount of meat that has so far been commercialized. Pedro, together with Michelangelo Cestari and Kenzo Hirose from Gustu, was able to provide feedback on quality control, suggesting that the very largest caimans should be used for dried meat products while smaller adult males were better for fresh meat products. Eduardo Martinez from Mini-Mal in Colombia was excited to discover products he had not encountered before, like cacao vinegar. Two young Bolivian chefs, Gabriella Prudencio from Propiedad Publica and Pamela Flores from Grupo Gustu, along with Rafael Da Costa from Lasai in Brazil, worked with the Chalalan chefs to learn how to make a couple of classic Tacana indigenous fish dishes baked in Heliconia leaves and bamboo.

On an afternoon hike through the forest, the chefs worked with the Chalalan ecotourism guides to identify edible fruits, leaves and fungi for use in a collective fish dish that the chefs cooked in the Chalalan kitchens for one of the evening meals. Accompanying the chefs, I was struck by the need for biologists to think about potential edible products more in our inventories, adding gastronomy potential as another lens with which we examine the forest. For example, on the Rio Hondo, Identidad Madidi was able to confirm that freshwater crayfish are present in the foothill streams. If harvested carefully with a sustainable management plan, this is another product that restaurants would be very interested in – one that might provide another future income stream for some of the communities in the region.

But the most stunning discovery of the trip to Madidi was a potential source of wild vanilla. Kamilla Seidler and Gustu had been searching for four years for a source and by her own admission was beginning to think it was a myth. A late-night conversation with the Chalalan guides about this interest literally bore fruit the next day, when in the middle of the meeting the guides arrived with three enormous wild vanilla pods, one ripe and amazingly aromatic. For Kamilla and Gustu the holy grail of dessert ingredients for a restaurant committed to Bolivian produce was suddenly a reality. For the San Jose de Uchupiamonas community that are looking to identify further products beyond tourism with which to improve their livelihoods, vanilla harvesting is an additional income option into the future within their indigenous territory that overlaps completely with the Madidi protected area.

The encounter in Madidi culminated in a very successful Sunday Fair for the public in La Paz to celebrate International Day of Biological Diversity, where community producers were able to sell all of the produce brought to the event. That evening, an exquisite multi-chef tasting menu dinner was held at Gustu, with dishes from each chef using ingredients found on the Amazon adventure. Not surprisingly, the event attracted a huge amount of press coverage, both national and international, all focusing on the importance of Madidi, the potential of the forest to provide unique and high quality ingredients, and the commitment of the local communities to manage these resources in a sustainable fashion. Of course, the participation and leadership of the Bolivian government was also extremely encouraging and the working groups led by various officials provided some recommendations for encouraging further activities into the future, especially a digital platform for systematizing information for producers and buyers (including chefs and restaurants) and promoting further links.

So in the end the Encounter rather concisely underlined the five broad ways in which chefs and gastronomy can most clearly contribute to the conservation of some of the wildest and wonderful places in the Andes-Amazon and beyond. First, by working with local people and biologists to identify new products from the forests, waters, mountains, and grasslands of the Andes-Amazon region. Second, by then providing an immediate fair trade market for the community products, thereby gradually promoting those products with urban consumers. Third, by recognizing that input from chefs for quality control is often crucial and can add further value to priority products. Fourth, by encouraging chefs and other members of the gastronomy movement to further encourage producers to ensure the environmental, social and economic sustainability of their community business ventures. Finally, through the decision by chefs to take advantage of their celebrity status to add another unique voice to the chorus of actors promoting responsible consumerism and environmental awareness in the region.

At Identidad Madidi we have generated more than 50,000 followers on Facebook that are regularly commenting on and encouraging our expedition to prove that Madidi really is the world´s most biologically diverse protected area. Happily, people are falling in love with this international treasure and as we move into our second year, many of our followers are asking what they can do to help? Of course, there are several things people can do for protected areas and the environment – including recycling, combatting litter, visiting protected areas, publicly championing their importance, encouraging our park guard heroes, and even volunteering. But a simple and wonderfully appealing show of support could be simply to enjoy a cup of Arabic shade-grown bird-friendly coffee with a quality bar of indigenous produced prize-winning wild cacao, or visit a great restaurant that is committed to supporting local people and saving some of the most beautiful places on the planet.