Skip to main content

NATIVE CURRENTS; An Andean food revolution: Bringing ancient nutrition to the modern marketplace

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

Latin America has been the site of path-breaking constitutional reforms
bringing recognition for the collective rights of indigenous peoples to
many countries in recent decades. Worldwide fame attained by Noble Peace
Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu and the impact in the hemisphere of the
International Labour Organization's Convention 169 on indigenous rights,
released in l989, are important markers of these changing times.

Yet less is known about another track for important indigenous gains: the
incursion of ancient nutritious foodstuffs into the modern marketplace.
These innovative marketing strategies are recuperating vital sources of
nutrition beneficial to humankind the world over and giving long-overdue
recognition to this Native cultural patrimony and the farmers and herders
of the Americas who produce them.

There are exciting developments in this regard in Bolivia, Latin America's
most indigenous nation (60 percent of the population) which is in the
Andean region where similar cultural recuperation processes are well under
way. Bolivia's growing support for nutritious Native crops and livestock
are turning symbols of backwardness and marginality into vehicles of
economic and social progress for some of Latin America's poorest American
Indians.

Food crops and livestock of American Indian or Andean origin have faced
widespread middle-class prejudices, antagonistic public policies and
various mechanisms of Bolivian marketplace discrimination over many
decades. Forces released by economic and cultural globalization have also
added to these historically rooted problems.

As in other Andean countries, Bolivia's rugged mountainous terrain presents
a complex mosaic of micro-climates and altitudinal niches. This propitious
physical landscape generates an impressive array of biological diversity in
terms of plants, crops and livestock. Out of these challenging conditions,
outstanding agrarian civilizations have arisen and contributed innumerable
nutritious food crops to mankind's patrimony. Bolivia's Amazonian and Chaco
regions, occupying two-thirds of the country's landmass, have also added
enormously to this panorama of Bolivian biodiversity -- which occupies
eighth place in world rankings among nations.

Ancient Andean pastoral economies based primarily on camelids -- llamas,
alpacas, vicunas and guanacos -- once made llama-raising in the high
plateau or altiplano region a highly developed technical field and an
important source of wealth for the Andean kingdoms controlling them. Llama
meat jerky or charque (an incredible 56 percent protein) was used by the
Incas to feed their armies, and placed strategically throughout their
empire. Llama fleece also was the raw material of the finest textile
production in human history and its hide indispensable for many Andean
household products. Today there is a veritable rebirth of the Bolivian
llama both commercially and developmentally, thereby reversing decades if
not centuries of discrimination. Llama meat, fiber and hides are regaining
an important status and developmental role and new level of appreciation
for solving vexing social and economic problems in altiplano communities.

In addition to llamas, there are four world-class protein crops (the grains
quinoa, canahua and amaranth; and tarhui, a legume) among others from these
same ancient Andean agrarian societies that are also undergoing something
of a renaissance in the marketplace. Although important cultural,
socio-economic and political support systems for these crops disappeared as
a result of European colonialism, Andean communities striving for the
Andean ideal of a "fit livelihood" have continued to grow and cherish them
in their economic survival strategies and communal cultural life. In recent
years, new actors have emerged to provide support for moving them into the
urban marketplace.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Tarhui leads the way nutritionally, having a 40 percent protein content in
its seed, a percentage that puts it on a par with soybeans and peanuts, two
legumes renowned for their high protein. Amaranth (13 -- 18 percent
protein); quinoa (16 -- 23 percent protein); and quinoa's lesser-known
cousin, canahua (16 -- 19 percent protein) also are nutritional giants in
this food family.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization states, according to
food writer Rebecca Wood: "Quinoa is closer to the ideal protein balance
than any other common grain, being at least equal to milk in protein
quality. While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining
nutrients, quinoa comes [as] close as any other in the vegetable or animal
kingdom."

Among the important Bolivian pioneers for reversing public policy and
marketplace neocolonialism toward quinoa as a pejorative "Indian food" were
Quechua farmers from the Nor Lipez province, adjacent to South America's
largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. The particular microclimate of Nor
Lipez, shaped by the windy, wide open spaces of the treeless southern
altiplano sitting under intense ultraviolet solar radiation combined with
its highly saline soil base for farming, was used to create a variety of
quinoa known popularly as quinoa real or Chenopodium quinoa Wild). It
subsequently attained commercial popularity for its comparatively large
grain size, nutritional excellence and appealing white color.

In the late l970s, these Quechua communities formed the Central de
Cooperativas Campesinos Agricolas Operacion Tierra as their organizational
vehicle for galvanizing quinoa farmers into a revival mindset. Yet the most
far-reaching effort of taking nutritional Native grains and legumes into
the urban marketplace to benefit impoverished indigenous producer
communities is the experience of Irupana Organic Andean Foods, a private
Bolivian company.

Irupana, a socially responsible agro-industry, has scaled-up its production
levels and diversified its food and other products over the past 17 years.
In l987, the company began by launching a gourmet-quality brand of organic
coffee, Irupana Cafe Organico, in the Yungas region, the high mountain
valley east of La Paz. During the following years they used 35 raw
materials produced in different ecological niches in the Andean and
Amazonian topography and processed them into 80 distinct organic and
natural food and health products. Some 1,700 peasant indigenous farmers
participated at one time or another in the expansion of this agro-industry,
which has its own national network of 18 stores and 300 other commercial
outlets for its products. Sales by the end of the l990s climbed to the $2
million mark, only to be pushed downward by Bolivia's searing economic
recession to its current level of $1.7 million.

Above all, Irupana aspires to offer Bolivian peasant farmers the secure
markets that are so difficult to find in today's corporate-dominated,
economically globalizing world. And in return, perhaps through a twist of
classic Andean reciprocity, Aymara and Quechua farmers will offer Irupana a
steady supply of world-class protein crops needed for a smoothly operating
and expanding food business in the competitive global marketplace. This
would bring value-added economic benefits to Bolivia's indigenous small
plot farmers and certainly represent another important step in decolonizing
its extraordinary "Indian foods."

Kevin Healy is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International
Affairs at George Washington University and author of "Llamas, Weavings and
Organic Chocolate: Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and
Amazon of Bolivia" (University of Notre Dame Press). This article is
updated and adapted from a longer version that appeared in Native Americas,
Summer 2004.