How the indigenous people of Peru are growing medicinal plants to preserve their livelihoods-and their fragile ecosystems.
Chris Kilham | March 2009 issue
Sandro waves to me from the crowded arrival gate. He’s the cousin of Sergio Cam, whom I first met 10 years ago and with whom I’ve been working ever since. It’s 1 in the morning. My flight landed at the Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima, Peru, hours late, and Sandro is driving me to Sergio’s house in Chorrillos.
We roll out of Lima into a sinus-burning miasma of coastal fog, engine exhaust and industrial emissions by the hundreds. We pass blocks of concrete buildings with high security walls topped with concertina wire. Guards in bullet-proof vests loiter in doorways. Prostitutes pose on lonely corners. Lima appears as though Armageddon has taken place, and the few people we see out on the streets are luckless survivors.
I place a quick mobile call to my wife, Zoe, who’s staying at home in Massachusetts. “I miss you,” she tells me emphatically. Boo, our dog, has apparently been moping around our house since I left. I miss Zoe too, but I’m in the slipstream now, carried by the current of travel, headed to the Andes and the Amazon.
As a medicine hunter, I seek out and investigate beneficial plants, and work with native people, traders, scientists and the media to develop them into popular health products to be distributed on the market. I also teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where my course, The Shaman’s Pharmacy, is part of the Medicinal Plant Program. An initial interest in medicinal plants during my teens started me on this path, traveling the globe to promote effective plant medicine. Most people don’t know that plant medicine is more widely used than over-the-counter and prescription drugs. I’m one of many people spreading the word.
I’m headed to the central highlands of the Andes to visit growers of the super-food maca, with whom we’ve been working for 10 years. I’ll also check in on two community projects we’ve put together in a small town with the support of French botanical-extraction company Naturex, for which I work. Around the Amazonian city of Pucallpa, Sergio and I will try to help a struggling group of natives get into the medicinal plant supply business.
Places like these are on the frontline of the struggle to provide indigenous people with the means to make a sustainable living and preserve some of the planet’s most valuable and fragile ecosystems.
After a night of swatting mosquitoes in Sergio’s guest room, I find my host sitting in his dining room with his wife, Jenny, and daughter Amy. Sergio and I give each other a hug, my long frame against his fireplug physique; he’s a full head shorter and always wears a baseball cap with his ponytail. We drink coffee and eat toast with jam before taking off for the Andes. “You ready to go, Mister Chris?”
Yeah, I’m ready.
Peru offers great environmental diversity, from its coastal desert to the snow-capped Andes and the verdant Amazon basin. Peru is also unquestionably under siege. Lima offers a scary glimpse of one possible future, rife with poverty, pollution and crime. The Andean and Amazonian cities are little better. But there is still nature, with all its grandeur and splendor.
Exploitation of natural resources is the name of the game in Peru. If it can be caught, cut down, drilled or dug, it will be. Entire mountains are coming down for the mining industry, and the forests of the Amazon have been cut back hundreds of miles. Wildlife is disappearing, and the coastal waters of Peru are being fished heavily. Sustainable business of any kind helps, in at least some small way, to mitigate widespread devastation.
In 1998, the botanical-extraction firm PureWorld funded my trip here to investigate maca, a Peruvian high-altitude super-food originally cultivated by the Inca. Maca had a reputation for imparting energy, endurance, stamina and sexual vigor. In Peru, I met Sergio, who was starting a maca trading company, Chakarunas Trading, in the remote central Andean highlands. We hit it off. In 2005, Naturex acquired PureWorld. Maca has been a steady success.
For a decade, Sergio and I have worked hard to boost the maca trade. Sergio handles operations, land leases, organic certification, seed purchases, facility construction and harvesting, drying and shipping logistics. Naturex transforms tens of tons of maca into concentrated extract yearly. Meanwhile, I promote the benefits of maca and other plant extracts for consumers and the indigenous people who produce them.
In Sergio’s red Nissan Trooper, he, Sandro and I head up to Ninacaca in the central Andean highlands. The trip along dangerous switchbacks used to eat up nine hours; now it takes six due to improved roads. Shrines to those who died in accidents line the road the whole way. We top out at Abra Antonia at 15,800 feet (4,810 meters), where the air is thin and cold and penetrating. Welcome to the Andes. We make this trip often, and are used to it. But friends, reporters and business associates come up here and they pass out, puke, fall down. The altitude is rough.
We’re at Chakarunas Trading Company in the tiny town of Ninacaca, at 14,000 feet (4,270 meters). Straddling the border of Pasco and Junin provinces, the lunar landscapes sport tufts of sharp, knee-high grasses, skies that stretch forever and sweeping vistas of the snow-capped Andes. The town is home to many maca growers and traders.
Maca root looks like a radish, and is ground into flour to make cakes, cookies, sauces, stews and drinks of all kinds. To the people of Ninacaca, maca agriculture offers a better, more sustainable way of life than working at the open pit mine in Cerro de Pasco or the toxic Doe Run lead smelter in La Oroya. The more maca trade we can generate, the better quality of life these people will enjoy. In accordance with the principles of sustainable business, the users of maca gain health benefits, the land stays clean and fertile due to organic agriculture and the maca growers and their families live with income and dignity doing something they enjoy. You know the expression, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” We sneer at such rot. All business is personal, all the time.
Ten years ago, you couldn’t find maca anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. Now you can purchase powdered maca root for baking and adding to blender drinks, tablets, capsules and food. Chakarunas Trading is one of the larger suppliers of maca, and Naturex is the largest extractor of it. All of us, working together, have helped get maca into a diverse portfolio of products, from beverages to energy bars, to the great benefit of both consumers and maca growers.
My focus in Ninacaca this time is to document the progress of two projects. I’ve been photographing the new dental office and the Internet café that Chakarunas has set up, for which the Naturex Foundation, a non-profit group established by the company to help the rural communities from which it derives plants, has provided funding. The dental office and Internet café are free. For the first time ever, little Ninacaca has good dentistry and access to the rest of the planet via the Internet.
The tiny dental office is packed with children waiting their turn, commenting on every movement of brush and drill. The Internet café is crowded past capacity. One maca grower, Santiago, just stands and stares at the screens. A tremendous hailstorm rips out, with roiling black skies and ice flying sideways. This is summer up here.
Three teachers from the local school drop in to see us. They’re grateful for what the dental office and the Internet café are doing for the community. We’ve also offered to provide school supplies to all the children in Ninacaca for a year. Will we walk over to the school with the teachers? Sure, of course.
When we arrive, the schoolyard is bustling with maybe 400 students, all in blue uniforms. They seem to be waiting for something. Sergio and I, along with Raoul Vicente, who works with Sergio, are taken to seats on a dais in the playground. The students come to attention in long blue lines. The principal addresses the young people of Ninacaca, waxing effusive about our help for the community. I turn to Sergio. “Did you know this was going to happen?”
“No, man,” he says. “I thought they just wanted to say hi.”
Sergio, Sandro and I take care of disparate pieces of the maca business in Ninacaca, and see many of our grower friends. Maca farming isn’t for sissies. It’s tough work, almost all done by hand, with poor soil, hostile weather, searing sun and blistering winds. Sergio has purchased a tractor, and that makes tilling soil infinitely easier. The root takes about nine months to grow, and is harvested fresh by hand. The roots are dried for several months until they’re hard as stones. They’ll keep for years without spoiling.
We head out of the highlands days later from Tarma, known as the pearl of the Andes for its beauty, on our way back to Lima to catch a flight to our next stop. We pass fields of purple, white and yellow flowers grown for export, and enjoy sparkling views of the magnificent Andes, rugged peaks of brown, rust red, slate gray—some barren and some covered with spiky tufts of grass. There are llamas, alpaca, vicuñas on the hillsides.
We see large plantings of the opuntia cactus, grown for the prickly pears that still need a couple of months before ripening red. Spears of giant blue agave stab the sky. Herds of sheep scamper across the road. Donkeys stand sloe-eyed and untethered. Below treeline, eucalyptus stands abundantly because it’s the fastest growing pole wood and resists insects. Sergio pushes the Nissan hard, passing huge mining trucks one after another. We carom down into tight mountain curves and I grip the grab handle above the door, my shoulder straining.
From Lima, Sergio and I take the 45-minute flight to the Amazonian city of Pucallpa, which looks and feels like the American Wild West. Traffic is chaos, mostly moto-taxis, motorcycles, scooters. Buildings tend to be low and shabby. The majority of business is conducted on the street. The atmosphere is lively, the climate hot and humid, the way I like it. We head to the hotel Sol del Oriente, where we’ll set up office in our own manner for several days.
In 1988, the chief of Chanajao, a small indigenous Shipibo community on the mighty Ucayali River outside of Pucallpa, died. His passing dealt a great emotional blow to those left behind. Ten years later, the chief’s grandson, Guillermo Barbaran Sinti, returned from college in Lima and was chosen chief of the village. In 2004, the very last of the mature trees that had provided an income for the people of Chanajao for decades were gone. The logging companies that used to pay money to Chanajao for the trees they cut had finished the job. No more trees, no more money.
The highly desirable river fish paiche, which provided income for the people of Chanajao, disappeared too. The world’s largest freshwater fish, paiche is the swordfish of the Amazon, highly delicious and highly endangered. Most of the paiche, once super-abundant, have been wiped out.
Without the means to make a living, the village began to die. Without income, many residents had to move elsewhere, mostly to run-down areas on the outskirts of Pucallpa. No longer did the sheltering forest canopy provide all they needed, nor did the great river supply abundant fish. In huge areas of the Amazon, the story is the same. The forest, wildlife, fish and people have been wiped out, all for short-term money.
In the middle of last year, Sinti contacted Naturex. The people of Chanajao, he said, would like to supply Naturex with medicinal plants. He claimed that the Shipibo villagers could harvest more than a dozen plant species, including the highly popular anti-inflammatory uña de gato, the skin-healing sangre de grado and the favored analgesic chuchuhuasi. His email was forwarded to me. I contacted Sergio in Lima and asked if he’d go to Chanajao and check out the situation. He did. The community, he reported, was in desperate shape.
In August of last year, I traveled to Chanajao to see what might be done. The situation was far worse than I expected. The once-thriving village was a ragged group of desperados hanging on by the tiniest of margins, living in poverty on a barren strip of land surrounded by denuded forest in withering heat. The land was snake-infested, the water too full of piranha to bathe. The place was a mess.
This time, at the Sol del Oriente, we meet with 20 members of the Chanajao community, and they immediately ask for money. Our task, we explain, is to figure out everything needed to start up a botanical harvesting, drying and export business for the people of Chanajao, and create collaboration between the Shipibo village, Naturex and Chakarunas Trading.
The logistics are challenging. We must see about getting an engineering survey done for the 2,475 acres (1,000 hectares) of land in Chanajao, a government requirement that will determine how much medicinal plant material we can harvest. Peru’s National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) sets limits on the amount of plants that can be harvested, depending on their density. In a given forest area, if a plant like uña de gato is abundant, INRENA will allow more tonnage to be harvested than if the plant is scarce. The survey is key to getting the people of Chanajao up and running in the medicinal plant trade.
Over the course of several days in Pucallpa, Sergio and I meet with many of the residents of Chanajao. They’re in tatters, made fractious by desperation, anxious and scared. Sergio and I take moto-taxis to the outlying areas of Pucallpa, where many of the people of Chanajao now live in shacks. We discuss what it would take to get a trading enterprise up and running. The situation in these muddy, depressed neighborhoods is awful: not even the bare necessities, no sanitation, little water, spotty power. This is where native people languish when the forest is destroyed and the river is depleted.
In putting together a plan of action, Sergio and I need to consider legal issues and logistics. The legal issues include the engineering survey and proper licenses. Logistically, we need to figure out how to build the right kind of solar dryer, so the plants that get harvested can be properly dried. Then there’s shipping, which requires bags, boats, trucks. Who’s going to oversee operations? We’ll need to select one or two people to manage things.
“You know, I think we can do this with these people,” Sergio tells me. We’re poring over costs for a survey, a solar dryer, transport. We have maps and lists. We’ve visited the Pucallpa waterfront, gotten costs for boats of all sizes, and shipping quotes. I raise an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”
Sergio sits back. “Well, look, it doesn’t take a lot of money to start this up, and anyway the costs here are cheap.”
After a patchwork of meetings, conversations, lists, plans and scheming, Sergio and I figure we have enough information for me to make a proposal to Naturex. If they go for it, a modest expenditure over the coming year just might get this desperate little community into business.
When Sergio and I started working together with maca, the place where Chakarunas Trading stands was a piece of bare ground. So it doesn’t scare us that Chanajao is a mess. I’ll make my proposal, and with luck, Naturex will want to do this. If so, there’s no reason why Chanajao can’t be the next Amazonian success story.
My grandfather had a great saying that’s graven on his headstone. “Do good and forget it.” Sergio and I like to think small. Help the people of one community, and their lives are better; then go do it someplace else. In a complex world in which people can fail a million ways, this seems a pretty simple and durable formula. And, most important of all, it works.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, author and educator. He now blogs at odemagazine.com.