Peru’s superfood Maca is booming business. But at what cost?

Tonight on the radioprogram AMIGOS of Radio Capelle 7-8pm Dutch time at 105.3FM I will be sharing about the Maca, its benefits, its origins, and ofcourse, some info related to its production, international trade and sustainability issues.

The MACA is a plant grown in the Andean region of South America, mainly in Peru. It grows in harsh conditions more than 4000 meters sea level. Although the maca was already an important food during the Inca empire, it is since 1990 that the maca became known outside the Andean region of Peru. This thanks to the work of the researcher Gloria Chacon who identified the maca and gave it its name. Nowadays, MACA is considered a superfood and it is rich in proteins, fibers, minerals and vitamins. It has become a very popular product due to many favorable health properties. Just to name some: it gives energy, it improves the feminine and masculine fertility, sexual desire and mental capacities like memory and concentration.

Maca

90% of the maca that is commercialized internationally originates from Peru. 91% of all maca is produced in the Peruvian province of Junin, and maca is also their most important source of income. Some figures: from 2013 to 2014 surface used for maca cultivation grew from 2,428 hectares to 4,051 hectares in the Junín, Pasco, Huancavelica, Puno and Ayacucho regions. Due to the increasing demand production has been extended to Tarma, Jauja, Huancayo, Pampas and Cuzco.

3 tipos de maca

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The last couple of years the exports have grown enormously, and the most important importers of Maca are the United States, Hong Kong, China and Japan, followed by some European countries like Germany and Belgium.

Expansion of the production of Maca due to a growing demand has not been unproblematic for Peru. The “boom of the maca” caused rapid conversion of high Andean grasslands into farmland, thus transforming the landscape, ecosystem, economy and society of the high Andean area of Junín. Junín is originally a region of cattle breeding, with camelids like llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, and the Maca-boom has led to displacing livestock to grazing, the main livelihood of rural families in the area.

Maca-production is not continuosly possible and it causes soil erosion. After about 3 years of Maca production the soil has to be at rest for about 10 years. This has caused the peasants to look for other lands at a higher altitude. So nowadays more areas of bare soil, lands in preparation and lands in recovery are observed. Increased maca production has disturbed not only wildlife but also the carbon reserves in the soils and the water retention and filtration capacity.

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Furthermore, there has been a serious threat to the maca business. A few years ago, Chinese companies began to illegally import the Maca plant. China is producing its own Maca now and has become a competitor in the maca-market. This has caused a fall in the maca prices, especially in 2015.

Finally, peasants who cultivate the maca generally have a low income and do not always work under favorable conditions. There are some companies and state programs who in cooperation with international organizations promote the organic and sustainable production of maca, including better working conditions for Maca producers.

A naturally sustainable opportunity, the Peruvian Chestnut.

Every Wednesday on the Radioprogram AMIGOS (from 7 to 8pm Dutch time), I comment (in Spanish and in Dutch) on a topic related to sustainability and trade in/with Latin America. Ofcourse with a special attention for Peru. The program is broadcasted through Radio Capellehttp://www.radiocapelle.nl. You can also tune in to 105.3FM. After the program I publish my comments on this blog. So if you missed it last Wednesday you can read about it here below:

The chestnut, also known as the Brazil nut, the Amazon nut or the Almond grows within the “cocos” (nutshells) on a tree native to South America, “el Castaño”. This tree grows especially in the Amazon of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Guayana.

The chestnut is considered a superfood because it is a very nutritious and healthy dry fruit. It is rich in fibers, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, has high quality vegetable proteins, it contains all important amino acids, is gluten free, and has the omega 6 and 3 acids. It is not only applied for nutrition but also for beauty products. For example the oils of the chestnut are applied in cosmetics such as moisturizers.

In Latin America, Bolivia is the main producer and exporter of Brazil nuts, followed by Peru. Just for illustration: Bolivia exported almost 25,000 tons, which is more than half of the total exported by the world in 2016. Peru in that year was far behind with some 5500 tons. Among the main importers of shelled chestnuts are the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In Peru, most of the national production of Brazil nuts is concentrated in Madre de Dios, which is a big jungle region in Peru. 20% of the population of Madre de Dios is working in the chestnut sector, which equals about 20,000 people. 30% of the surface of Madre de Dios is covered with chestnut trees.

There is a sustainable use of the chestnut, especially since it is the only species in the nuts-market that comes from wild collection. So it is not something that needs to be cultivated, because it is a fruit that falls from the trees. It only needs to be harvested by the chestnut collectors (los castañeros).

The Peruvian government is the official owner of the chestnut trees, but it gives concessions for 40 renewable years to groups of families that traditionally work this resource. What does it mean to be a concession holder? This is important to explain because it implies both the right to harvest the chestnut as well as the obligation to defend the forests of loggers, illegal mining and the passage of drug trafficking. These are one of the biggest threats in the Peruvian jungle.

The “castañeros” are organized in associations and have generally managed to obtain the organic certification. There are also those that have achieved the fairtrade certification.

The chestnut is a relevant source of income for those who work in the chestnut sector in Madre de Dios, and therefore important for the economic development of this region. In 2009 Madre de Dios declared the chestnut as its flagship product.

The chestnut activity also helps to contribute to the protection of forests and nature. There have been made efforts to expand the chestnut through reforestation, not only in Madre de Dios, but also in other territories of the lower jungle of Peru. The National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA) has managed to develop a technology that has introduced the chestnut in Iquitos and Pucallpa, in order to expand the business possibilities of small producers and recover extensive areas of degraded soils. In conclusion, the chestnut does not only provide healthy fruits and economic development, but it also has an enormous ecological and tourist potential derived from the care of the forests.