Sustainable Gastronomy to Conserve the Amazon’s Cultural and Natural Diversity

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By Julie Kunen
January 18, 2016

Last month, I joined a group of fellow conservationists, chefs, journalists, public health experts, and entrepreneurs in the Peru to discuss how sustainable gastronomy might contribute to conserving the cultural and natural diversity of the Amazon. Representing Latin American nations and the United States, we were united in our passion for the Amazon and our wish to bring attention to the peoples, foods, wildlife, and natural beauty of this unique place.

But how could gastronomy — defined as a cuisine nourished by the traditions, techniques, and natural resources of a place — be a vehicle for preserving the richness of the Amazon in its many dimensions? Our four-day trip downriver from Peru’s bustling gateway city Iquitos would test our creativity while inspiring us to speak across disciplines (and three languages).

We were fortunate to wake in the mornings to river dolphins splashing around our vessel and glide past giant water lilies, but the highlight of our trip was a visit to the indigenous community of Pucaurquillo, whose inhabitants descend from peoples enslaved by rubber tappers during the rubber boom at the turn of the 19th century.

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The men of Pucaurquillo treated us to a series of dances in the community maloca (ancestral long house). Photo by Julie Kunen ©WCS.

Community members preserve many traditions. The men treated us to a series of dances in the community maloca (ancestral long house), but it is the women who preserve the tradition that brought us to Pucaurquillo.

Renowned chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino (of the Lima restaurants Amaz and Malabar) co-organized this journey together with Michael Jenkins of Forest Trends, Jacob Olander of Canopy Bridge, and the journalist Ignacio Medina. Chef Schiaffino had learned that the women were preparing aji negro, a condiment made by fermenting pounded yucca brava. Schiaffino has incorporated aji negro into his dishes and formed a partnership with the women of Pucaurquillo.

Our group was privileged to accompany some of these women as they harvested the yucca, then watched them peel, grate, and pound it into masa, or dough. The juice that separates during this dough-making process is then cooked down over an open fire until it thickens and darkens into a chocolate-colored salsa reminiscent of oyster sauce or miso paste.

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The women prepared aji negro, a condiment made by fermenting pounded yucca brava (above). Photo by Julie Kunen ©WCS.

Finally, we sat down to a banquet featuring spongy yucca bread to be dipped in aji negro, along with a rich stew of local Amazon fish. As inspiring as this experience was, the following days’ discussions showed me how diverse — and potentially divergent — the perspectives of our group truly are with respect to how best to support a sustainable Amazonian gastronomy.

As a conservationist, my goal is to find ways to end the deforestation of the Amazon driven largely by land clearance to grow agricultural commodities like soy, palm oil, and beef. As a foodie, I’d like to help promote the use of more nutritious and diverse foods that speak to an experience of “place” and are harvested sustainably and with care for local ecology.

The chefs among us shared my passion for diverse foodstuffs, but were understandably focused on creating more efficient supply chains and easing the logistics inherent in sourcing for their restaurants. The entrepreneurs, who’d brought Amazonian products such as açai to western markets, were eager to expand that effort to bring meaningful change to the region.

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Our meal featured spongy yucca bread to be dipped in aji negro, along with a rich stew of local Amazon fish. Photo by Julie Kunen ©WCS.

The public health experts expressed greatest concern for the nutritional status of Amazon residents. Led by public health expert Lyndon Haviland, we discussed creation of a nutritionally complete broth made with local ingredients such as Amazon fish, herbs, and greens. Packaged in a powdered form, such a broth could be sold throughout the Amazon inexpensively, providing a market for local foods and a solid nutritional base in a region where food insecurity and malnutrition abound.

In the end, our group agreed to collaborate on four lines of work:

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Finally, we sat down to a banquet featuring delicious local dishes. Photo by Julie Kunen ©WCS.

Each of us come to this work from our respective spaces. Chefs will introduce local ingredients to urban diners, serving as “brand ambassadors” for Amazonian gastronomy. Food writers will explore new food trends and how star chefs in Latin America are transforming the way we eat by creating exquisite dishes that diners the world over want to experience.

Public health experts will investigate the nutritional values of Amazonian ingredients and press for healthier diets based on those foods, while also searching for ways to ensure that Amazonian people themselves have access to decent nutrition.

Entrepreneurs will create new supply chains and businesses to bring “undiscovered” foods to market, providing jobs and improving local economies. And conservationists like me will work to ensure that products are sourced in a sustainable way, without harming wildlife or the forests and rivers where they are found.

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Conservationists can work to ensure that ingredients are sourced in a sustainable way, without harming wildlife or the forests and rivers where they are found. Photo by Julie Kunen ©WCS.

We all agreed that gastronomy has great potential as a pathway: to conservation of Amazon biodiversity; to dignified livelihood opportunities for local communities; to healthier food systems; and to greater global awareness of the Amazon through culinary experiences. In other words, by wedding gastronomy to sustainability, conserving the Amazon can be delicious.

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Dr. Julie Kunen is Executive Director of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Originally published at voices.nationalgeographic.org on January 18, 2016.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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