Eating (and Reporting) My Way Through the Foods of the Rainforest

November 10, 2021

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Author Virginia Gewin with students who had prepared a feast of traditional foods at La Molina National Agrarian University in Huánuco, Peru. Click to enlarge.

FEJ StoryLog: Eating (and Reporting) My Way Through the Foods of the Rainforest

By Virginia Gewin

I first stumbled upon Gisella Cruz-Garcia’s research documenting the use of wild food plants in Asia and South America in 2016, while preparing for a reporting trip to write about projects to save the banana’s wild relatives in Malaysia.

Cruz-Garcia, a native of Peru working at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Columbia, captivated me with her efforts to quantify local dependence on a stunning array of wild fruits and greens, many of which the rest of the world will never taste.

Then, just over a year later, when SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism was seeking solicitations for reporting projects in the Amazon/Andes, Cruz-Garcia published another research article describing how a mestizo village managed wild foods in the deforestation zone of the Amazon.

The timing was perfect. I reached out and Cruz-Garcia graciously offered to spend time with me during my reporting about the diversity of Peruvian native foods from the Amazon to the Andes.

Steven Bedard, editor of the nonprofit magazine bioGraphic (where I had just published the Malaysia-based story about Crops for the Future, a research center developing products and agricultural prospects for ancient crops like Bambara groundnut, moringa and sword beans), was equally interested in highlighting the budding culinary focus on Amazonian wild foods.

So I applied and won the FEJ grant, which provided travel funds that helped me secure features in bioGraphic and at NOVA Next. And with the travel funding covered, bioGraphic was able to send photographer Juan Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz with me for four days — an uncommon luxury these days.


Feasting in Lima

The day after I arrived in Lima, Cruz-Garcia had learned that Expo Amazonica, a showcase of Amazonian foods, was taking place there. That meant my first day of reporting was spent feasting on lip-puckering sauces made from Amazonian fruits, as well as charapita peppers and sushi made from the river’s beast of a fish, known as paiche.

It was also there that we met members of the Gastronomy Association of Ucayali, or AGASU, a collection of young and established chefs devoted to turning traditional Amazonian foods into modern dishes that would intrigue urban eaters and help save the forest.

The Ucayali region ranks third in Peru in terms of cumulative deforestation, with 80,349 hectares (nearly 200,000 acres) of forest cleared between 2010 and 2014. Cruz-Garcia’s research revealed wild food loss between 2000 and 2015, as well as growing concerns about food insecurity and malnutrition among young children in Pueblo Libre, the mestizo village located in Ucayali.

After sampling the AGASU chefs’ culinary sensations, we visited the first of several restaurants in Lima, notably Malabar, which were incorporating Amazonian fruits and vegetables into their cuisine. The Lima-based chefs described the rapidly growing interest in local flavors, as well as the challenges, given notoriously slow roadways, of getting regular delivery, especially of highly perishable fruits.


It’s difficult to create a market for

even abundant wild foods — because

they are seasonal and difficult to transport.


I was shocked to learn how few urban Peruvians had tasted fruits or fish from the Amazon. It’s difficult to create a market for even abundant wild foods — because they are seasonal and difficult to transport. (Many widely consumed fruits, such as apples, oranges and bananas, have been bred to have a long shelf life.)


Regenerating local wild foods 

Later, to reach the deforestation zone, we took a short flight to Pucallpa, at the edge of the Amazon forest. With Peruvian researcher Jose Sanchez Choy, we bounced along a bumpy dirt road for a two-hour drive, past miles of industrial-scale oil palm plantations, to Pueblo Libre, a village with only a few streets and a new facility with a handful of computers.

Once there, we sucked on raw cacao seeds, peeled back the scaly skin to reveal aguaje’s yellow flesh, sampled fuzzy pacay beans (called ice cream fruit) and nibbled on the shockingly tart and high in vitamin C berry known as camu camu. An elder even prepared homemade chicken soup following our tour of both the residents’ home gardens, as well as their land management practices.

While most village residents also grow palm oil, it’s on a small scale compared to the international corporations encroaching into the region.

The problem, they said, is that there is less and less land available to leave fallow to help regenerate local wild foods. As a result, village residents have to travel farther and farther to secure fruits that are critical for food and nutritional security — not to mention adding yet another challenge to the creation of a viable market for harvested wild foods.

Instead of clearing the jungle to raise monocultures, locals were eager to raise demand for healthy foods that grow there naturally in a bid to help save the forest. 

But despite all the interest in these local foods and the creativity of Peruvian chefs, the challenges remain formidable. The market for the cheap, versatile palm oil, used in hundreds of products globally, is still far more lucrative than tart, nutritious fruits or greens.


Keeping potato varieties alive

My reporting journey also included an eight-hour bus ride from the Amazon to the Andes, where there is a sharp decrease in rainfall, resulting in a dramatic transition in agriculture.


Climate change and urbanization threaten

the loss of hundreds of potato and quinoa

varieties bred and continuously grown

by Andean farmers for generations.


Here, I found a different set of food security challenges. Climate change and urbanization threaten the loss of hundreds of potato and quinoa varieties bred and continuously grown by Andean farmers for generations.

We stopped for a few days in Huánuco, Peru, where researchers and students at La Molina National Agrarian University surprised us upon our arrival with a traditional feast. The table was overflowing with potato bread, mixed bean salads and egg casseroles. 

At night, we visited a restaurant with a wall of different medicinal macerations — traditional tinctures of bark or plants in liquid solution. The breadth of the region’s botanical, nutritional and medicinal information was astounding.

As luck would have it, the World Potato Congress was set to begin just a few days later in Cusco, Peru, the center of origin for the hearty tuber, only a short flight away. I couldn’t pass up the chance to continue reporting on efforts to keep the thousands of native varieties of potato alive.

At the conference, I met Victoriano Fernández Morales, one of the few remaining conservationistas, farmers who maintain dozens of varieties of native potatoes because, he said, “they are like my children.” I also spoke with a number of food entrepreneurs who are creating products and markets for the wide range of potato and quinoa varieties. 


Bringing the story to life

The Peru reporting trip cemented my belief that stories about food are uniquely positioned to explore the links between cultural traditions, environmental issues and health concerns.

I learned much about how the loss of native wild plants and traditional varieties threatens food and nutritional security in one of the most agriculturally diverse regions in the world.

I also made valuable contacts, like Cruz-Garcia, now at Oxfam in The Hague, who help me to continue exploring how food diversity can be a source of resilience on a rapidly changing planet.

In the end, Cruz-Garcia spent a full week with me in the field, introducing me to many of her colleagues and even translating. That level of commitment is rare among scientists.

So the best advice I have for this kind of project is to find researchers who are keen to share time in the field with journalists. It makes all the difference in bringing the story to life.

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist based in Portland, Ore. Her articles focus on food security, biodiversity and conservation, and have appeared in Nature, Popular Science, The Atlantic, Bloomberg and others. She is a 2021 MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow, 2018 SEJ Fund for Environmental Journalism fellow and a 2016 Alicia Patterson fellow. You can find her FEJ-funded story, “Can Wild Foods Save the Amazon?” on the bioGraphic website, along with her related story for Nova NEXT.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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