Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farms Forests Foods In 2013: A Thank You To My Readers

When not blogging, I try to stay connected to my food.
Here I am stone grinding corn using Bribri techniques
in Costa Rica. 

Today's post is a thank you to my readers for tuning into Farms Forests Foods in 2013. I extend a special thanks to those readers that contributed to and have commented on the blog. 

Blogging can become a very lonesome feat; your questions and feedback on the blog remind me someone else has benefitted from my writing. Most importantly, your comments and discussions on the blog help to create an interactive community of food enthusiasts, a community united by goals of just and sustainable eating for healthy lands and people.

Here are 5 things our Farms Forests Foods community has achieved:

1) Over 71,000 Blog Views! 

I started this blog in 2011 to share my research and knowledge about food sustainability and food justice; your visits to my blog have helped me achieve this goal. 

When you click on the blog, I get a notification that someone passed by the blog. With that notification, I assume something I wrote was at least remotely interesting. If you want to help me improve this blog, please comment directly on the blog posts you read. Your comments help me understand what you've liked, disliked, or what questions you still have after a post is written. So, even if it is a short commment, such as "Interesting", or a short question,  such as "Where was that picture taken?", I learn more about what caught your attention in a post.

2) A Space for Group Discussion and Learning: 

Your comments on the blog are not only important for my growth as a writer, they are critical for other readers. Take your questions, for instance. Posting your questions on the blog allow me (or another contributor) to answer them where everyone can see them and learn from them. So, instead of emailing me your questions, post them directly on the blog where the answers can be read and appreciated by all. 

And, as readers of the blog, don't be shy to answer other readers' questions. I'm not an expert in all themes that come up in our discussions, so I could use your help. And, the more teachers we have commenting, the more we all learn.

3) A Space for Food Sustainability and Food Justice on Twitter

Your interest in my blog motivated me to join twitter in June 2013. I was reluctant to join at first because I thought twitter was just an extension of facebook. I was pleasantly suprised with twitter because it helped me connect with people dedicated to sharing information about food sustainability and food justice (something I was not able to find on facebook). 

Follow me @farmsforests if you are interested in connecting to food discussions! 

4) A Space for Guest Contributors

Your interest in this blog has motivated others to contribute to this blog. In the 2.5 years this blog has been running we've had 12 guest contributions from six countries. Of those 12 contributions, 11 have been from males writers. I am conscious of this gender bias and would like to encourage more females to contribute their knowledge to my blog. So, for 2014, I encourage females to share their research and everyday food harvesting experiences here

5) Outreach Beyond the Blog

My blog posts have been used in school and university classrooms as case studies. My most rewarding experience in 2013 was connecting with a grade 8 Global Studies class in Minnesota through my blog. Their teacher contacted me because she was interested in using my blog post on the Coca leaf as a case study on globalization and food justice. The students read the blog and then I talked with them via Skype. Their questions were thoughtful and their interest in food justice was inspiring. This experience was proof that we'll soon be hearing from a motivated new generation of food justice supporters.

Thank you again readers and I look forward to another year of blogging with you in 2014!

New Year's Eve Food Challenge: What Is This Fruit We've Been Eating Over The Holidays?

It's the holiday season and, for many of us, that means sharing food. I'm sure today, New Year's Eve, is no exception. In fact, I'm sure that the majority of readers have shared this mystery food at some point over the holiday. 

Readers, can you tell us the name of this fruit? 

If you're stuck, here are some clues:

How do you eat this fruit? This fruit is unique in we eat its pulp as well as its seeds. The pulp can be eaten raw but the seeds need to be roasted or at least dried in the sun before eating.

Where is this fruit from? It is native to Central America although it is grown all over the world in tropical areas. And, Ghana is one of the world's largest producers of this fruit.

Please share your answers in the comments section below!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Food Challenge: What is this Purple Neotropical Fruit?

Readers, here is our second food challenge: what are the round purple fruits pictured above in the foreground? 

Please tell us what you think this fruit is by writing your guesses in the comments section at the bottom of this blog post. If you have tasted this fruit, please include where you ate it and what it tasted like. But, before you guess, I'll give you some more information. 

This purple fruit is found all over the globe even though it is native to the American tropics. Although the exact origin of this species has not been reported, it appears to be native to southern Central America. Because this fruit is widely culitvated by humans, botanists refer to it as semi-domesticated, meaning the plants humans cultivate are very similar genetically to their wild plant relatives. 

But, you don't need to be a botanist to know what this fruit is. If you have visited a tropical country, I'm sure you have seen it. Here is a list of some areas where you can find this fruit: The Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobagao, Haiti, Jamaica, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, French Guiana, Peru, Bolivia, Vietnam, India, and Singapore. 

Eating this fruit is an art. People have developed unique ways to prepare it to avoid biting into its skin. This is because the skin produces a sticky and bitter white liquid that should not be eaten. I have only eaten the flesh of this fruit but people have reported that the bark of this fruit tree can also be used as a medicine.  

Readers, with this information in mind, can you identify this fruit? 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Ethnobotany of Costa Rica's Palms

In Costa Rica, I am known as "chica del palmito" or, the heart of palm girl. I was given this nickname by heart of palm harvesters, national park employees, and univesrity professors while conducting research for my Masters degree and some how the name stuck. But my interest in palms runs deeper than heart of palm; palms are a group of plant species that provide unique sources of food and medicine for people all over the world. In this blog post, I will share a few ways people use palms for food, not only did I study this topic for my Masters research but it was also a part of my Ph.D. For more information on how people use palms, check out our article here.

Eating palm flowers 

Palm inflorescence on top of chopped heart of palm
Palm flowers are edible. But, because palm flowers are often very tiny, people harvest and eat the whole flowering structure, called an inflorescence (see picture on right). So instead of having palm flower salad, you can strir fry, boil, or roast the whole inflorescence. One of the species commonly eaten in rural costa rica is Chamaedorea tepejilote.

While working with Indigenous people in Costa Rica, I learned that people eat palm flowers from many palm species. My favorite palm flower dish was prepared with inflorescences from the versatile peach palm (Bactris gasipaes; pictured above). I first tried this dish while living with a Bribri family and learned the dish was a favorite of Bribri Elders. I like the fact that palm inflorescences are edible because palms produce many of them in their lifetimes; and, you do not have to chop down a whole tree to harvest them. I do require help, however, to harvest an inflorescence for palm species that grow tall. In the case of peach palm, chopping down an inflorecence requires a large pole and it requires careful attention to the stiff peach palm spines that can easily make harvesting unpleasant.  

Drinking Palm wine 

Making wine usually takes a lot of work, from smashing the grapes to fermenting the final product. But palm wine, on the other hand, can be harvested directly from the plant and does not require too much extra processing. Palm wine is basically the natural sap of the palm which is harvested and left to ferment. 

Harvesting palm wine from the Coyol palm (Acrocomia aculeata) is popular in the Pacific side of Costa Rica as well as other areas of Central America. But, to harvest quality palm wine, farmers explained to me that you must work in concert with lunar cycles. To ensure a good harvest of wine you should extract palm sap three days before or after a full moon. 

I first tried palm wine while driving through the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. During March and April you can buy this wine along the road side, but I chose to seek out a family who produced it at their home. Back in 2008, I was invited to join this family for a cold glass of off-white coloured palm sap. I had two options, with or without sugar. I opted for wine with no sugar added and surprisingly it had a sweet and tart taste. The idea of palm wine reminds me of maple syrup because it is a product produced entriely by a plant and its consumption requires only modest processing by people.

Eating palm hearts

Palm hearts are a unique food that are harvested from the inside of a palm tree stem. Large-scale palm farms can be found in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Brazil and these farms supply canned heart of palm to supermarkets all over the world. Eating farmed heart of palm is like eating farmed bananas, these species are grown to be harvested and exported. 

The most commonly farmed palm species is the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes). But, in the tropics you can feast on multiple species of palm heart each with their own unique flavour. Some species are bitter and others are sweet, some even taste rich like butter. Many of these palm species are wild. Eating wild palm species is an activity that rural peoples have done for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of years. Unfortunately, eating these unique wild species has caught on with some upscale businesses in Latin America and resulted in uncontrolled harvesting of wild species. 

In Costa Rica, I worked on the issue of uncontrolled harvesting of palms that occur in forest areas. This is a particularly complex issue. Palms are often harvested from protected forests and by Costa Rican law this is illegal. This makes sense to me for people who are harvesting bags of hundreds of palm hearts to sell in high end restaurants; it does not make sense, to me, for people who harvest only a few palms to eat with their families. Currently, to my knowledge harvesting foods in protected forests in Costa Rica is still illegal and this is something that I have been analyzing with Indigenous peoples as part of my Ph.D.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Solving The Spice Mystery: Where Do Pepper, Turmeric, and Vanilla Come From?

Our global food system does a good job hiding how and where our food is grown. Despite these tricks, we live in an era where we can find out food origins using tools such as smart phone food labels. Still some foods slip through the cracks. Spices are examples of those foods.

A few years ago at a dinner party, we got to chatting about where certain spices are produced. We made a bunch of pizzas from local ingredients (tomato sauce and cheese included) but we did not manage to source our salt and pepper locally. We read that our sea salt was from Israel but we couldn’t find out where our pepper came from (despite asking later at the shop we bought it from). As we chatted further, most of us didn’t know what geographic region black pepper was grown in or, for that mater, what a pepper plant looked like.

To give spices the attention they deserve, I’m going to share some of their interesting facts. I chose to talk about three spices that are not particularly well labeled in the super markets I frequent: pepper, turmeric, and vanilla; if you want me to talk about any others, just shoot me an email. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Black pepper is a fruit that grows on a small shrub in bunches and it comes from a family of plants called Piperaceae. Green peppercorns are unripe fruits from the same black pepper plants. This species is native to South India and it is commonly grown in the Kerala state. Major producers of pepper include: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. But, this plant grows in other regions too, such as Costa Rica.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Turmeric is a root or rhizome that grows underneath the ground. And, it looks a lot like ginger root. Many of us living outside of the tropics don’t’ realize the edible part of turmeric grows under soil because we buy it in powdered form. I was first introduced to turmeric root while living on the south Caribbean of Costa Rica and I had a fresh source of this spice growing in my backyard. Turmeric is not native to Costa Rica however, it is native to the Southeast Asia region. Although turmeric’s place of origin of is not identified in my botanical references, some botanists suggest it is native to south India.

Like many spices, turmeric is both a food and a medicine. Most of us know turmeric because it is a staple ingredient in Indian curry. But, turmeric has been used as a medicine since at least 250 B.C. Powder from this root can be mixed with honey to soothe a dry cough, which is a remedy from Ayurvedic medicine. In my family, we boil the fresh turmeric root with other medicinals such as ginger and garlic and take it as medicine for colds. I learned this recipe from a healer in Peru and my dad tweaked it by adding fresh turmeric root to the mix.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Vanilla is an orchid. I first saw this orchid while wading in a palm swamp in the Peruvian Amazon. These are the same palm swamps where you can spot Anaconda snakes, if you are lucky! Vanilla plants are stunning, especially the one I saw flowering. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
We don’t eat the flower, however; we eat extracts from vanilla seeds or pods (pictured on right).

Vanilla is native to Mexico and was used by Indigenous people such as the Aztec people to flavour a drink made from chocolate (cacao) beans. The website of Kew, a famous botanical garden, reported that vanilla is also a medicine with anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. Because of the spice trade, vanilla has become a staple in kitchens all over the world. Spanish people took vanilla to Europe in the 1500s. Much later in the 1800s vanilla was taken to Madagascar. Today, most of the vanilla we buy is from Madagascar, Indonesia, or Mexico.

If you have spice queries, feel free to ask them here in comments section of this blog post and I’ll try my best to find the answers. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Food Challenge: What is this Wild Fruit from Latin America?

This fruit is one of the most important foods used by Indigenous peoples in Latin America. Recent nutritional studies have described this fruit as a source of: protein, fat, powerful antioxidants, and many micronutrients, including selenium the nutrient famous for its mood enhancing potential. And, this fruit is not only enjoyed by humans but by animals such as chickens, squirrels, peccaries and paca.  

Readers, what is this fruit?

Please share your answers in the comments section below (if you have problems signing in to comment, let me know). Don’t forget to tell us how you learned about this fruit. If you’ve tried it, tell us what it tastes like too. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Guest Post: Conservation Policy and Rights to Hunt in the Bribri Indigenous Territory, Costa Rica

In response to my last post on Bribri Hunting Rights in Costa Rica my colleague, Jacy Bernath-Plaisted, wrote a thoughful response: 

Costa Rica’s national parks system is frequently cited as a great success story in the struggle for conservation in developing nations. However, the development of these preserves has brought conservation into conflict with Costa Rica’s Indigenous peoples. One recent instance of this has been the institution of a national hunting ban on the ancestral lands of the Bribri people. While this may be a well-intended attempt to promote conservation, it is a mistake to enforce blanket national policies on land belonging native peoples. Instead, I argue that a more multi-faceted, context specific kind of management is required both to preserve biodiversity and the rights of Costa Rica’s Indigenous peoples.

A - The Bribri Talamanca Territory
The implementation of the national hunting ban on Bribri lands is problematic for two reasons.  The first is quite straightforward: Costa Rica has ratified C169, a legally binding international document that guarantees Indigenous peoples the right to utilize natural resources on their own lands, as well as participate in management decisions regarding those resources. Therefore, by enforcing the hunting ban on Bribri land, the Costa Rican government has acted contrary to laws of its own making. The problem is further compounded when one considers that land ownership and use are often essential in the self-identification of Indigenous peoples, and that hunting plays an integral role in traditional Bribri culture and spirituality. It is neither ethical nor likely to foster good relations to disregard these

Still, this is not to say that the idea of restricting hunting is wholly inappropriate. Generally speaking, the national hunting ban can be viewed as a positive venture. For example, Costa Rica’s protective environmental policies have already contributed to the recovery of endangered species such as the Green turtle. A hunting ban is an appropriate policy on land owned by the Costa Rican government where populations are higher, cultural norms are different, and presumably, there is an overhunting problem. Yet, it is not clear that Bribri land fits any of these criteria. In fact, there does not appear to be research available on whether or not biodiversity is in jeopardy on these lands at all. A more fruitful, multi-management, approach to conservation on indigenous lands might look like this: 1) prevent outsiders from hunting on Bribri land, 2) allow the Bribri to continue traditional hunting of non-threatened species on their lands, and 3) determine which species on Bribri land may be at risk and engage the community in a dialogue regarding the voluntary cessation of hunting on those species. This approach would not only preserve the rights and dignity of the Bribri, but would also likely prove more effective in preserving biodiversity. Schelhas and Pfeffer (2005) found that engaging Indigenous and rural peoples in a discourse about environmental issues changed their beliefs and left them more willing to cooperate with conservation efforts.

Regardless, those who are deeply concerned about conservation may find this process too slow, and perhaps too lenient with respect to the hunting of endangered species; it could be argued that hunting these species for recreational purposes is never acceptable. This point of view is not unreasonable. However, the reality is, the hunting ban is nearly impossible to enforce on native lands, both because of the rugged nature of the land, and lack of manpower. Presently, the hunting ban has not stopped hunting on Bribri land.          

Though there is good reason to enforce strong national polices with respect to conservation, it must be recognized that national policies are not always optimal at the local level. In such cases, more specific policies built on cooperation and mutual respect between government and communities are essential to a positive outcome.      

My name is Jacy Bernath-Plaisted, and I’m currently studying for my masters in natural resource management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Though my undergraduate background is in creative writing and philosophy, I am primarily an avian ecologist and my present research focuses on the effects of energy development on nest survival in prairie songbirds. Broadly speaking, I feel that the most important applications of ecology are conservation and sustainable development. The need to balance human interests with those of non-human species is a persistent problem both in natural resource management and in my personal life, and I believe that conservation will only succeed as an inclusive process where stakeholders are given proper incentives. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

A Right to Hunt in the Bribri Indigenous Territory, Talamanca, Costa Rica

In 2012, I lived in Talamanca, Costa Rica. There, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of women and men who taught me about living off the land. These are the people who have taught me most about Indigenous rights, particularly those rights related to the management of natural resources and food.

Courtesy of Google Maps
The Bribri people have lived in Talamanca since time immemorial. In 1977, the Costa Rican government created a Reserva Indigena for the Talamanca Bribri people (43,690 hectares) and appointed local governments for this Bribri Territory. In 1982, “La Amistad International Park” was created bordering and overlapping with the Bribri Indigenous Territory. Also in 1982, La Amistad International Park and the Bribri Territory were proclaimed a United Nations Biosphere Reserve called La Reserva Biosfera La Amistad. 

In 2012, I worked with people from the Kalom ã community. For many of my colleagues in this community hunting was a way of life. People hunted for many reasons that are themselves are connected. For example, hunting was a way of finding foods and medicines but it was also recreation. In addition, walking hunting paths was a way of teaching youth about the land.

My colleagues taught me that hunting was as a process whereby people communicate with beings in other worlds to ask permission to take animals. These beings include Sibö̀ (the creator) and other beings that protect animals. Asking permission to hunt is one way to show respect for Sibö̀ and other beings. Another way of respecting these beings is to hunt only what they need for food or medicine. For example, the Kalom ã residents I worked with, both young and Elder, explained that they did not hunt and sell forest meat. Instead, animals are hunted for household consumption and sharing among families. 

Kalom ã residents' access to hunting was affected by the hunting law that was implemented when the La Amistad protected area was created. This hunting law has resulted in a management plant that dictates what people can hunt, where they can hunt, and how hunting should take place. Specifically, there is only one area of the protected area where Bribri hunting is permitted and even then, they can only hunt animals that are not endangered and they can only hunt using traditional bow and arrow techniques; this despite the fact that many people use rifles and have done so for many years. 

Bribri people have acted differently towards protected area hunting regulation. For example, some of my colleagues explained to me that the hunting ban was the reason why they no longer hunt. A few female colleagues shared that because of these laws they are scared to send their sons out to hunt. For other residents, the hunting ban did not stop them from hunting. 

Generally speaking, the hunting ban was not well received. One reason it was not well received was because it was imposition on Bribri people's rights to food. I learned how Bribri people have their own ways of thinking about hunting and living off the land that are different from the Costa Rican government's ways of managing forests. In fact, Kalom ã Elders created what they call the original hunting laws. These original hunting laws resulted from meetings among Bribri Elders who had convened to talk about hunting rules, based on Bribri values, because of their concern about changes in animal populations in their communities. Although Elders hunting laws were being observed in Kalom ã when the Costa Rican government hunting ban went into effect, these Elders laws were not considered in protected area managment. 

Another reason hunting bans have not been well received is because they minimize the importance of traditional authority and Indigenous decision-making mechanisms. The original Elder hunting laws are a case in point. Although these Bribri laws existed before the Costa Rican state hunting ban, the Elders laws, recommendations, and teachings were not considered in the Costa Rican state legislation.

On the other hand, there are some Kalom ã residents that support aspects of the hunting ban. For example, one Elder explained that government laws might help to control hunting by people who live outside of Coroma but go there to hunt animal meat for sale; this Elder made it clear that these laws should, however, not be applied to all aspects of Indigenous hunting because hunting, sharing, and eating forest meat is part of what it means to be Bribri.

When I gave a presentation on this topic earlier this year at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, I received both positive and negative feedback. Some conference attendees were keen to discuss how to best respect the rights to food of Bribri people living in and around protected areas. Other attendees were concerned that Indigenous rights to food were not compatible with aspects of biodiversity conservation legislation. One attendee said it was unlikely that conservation biologists would ever accept hunting in protected areas, especially when endangered species are being hunted. Although the hunting of endangered species is a valid concern, it is important to acknowledge that hunting is a right for Indigenous people in Costa Rica. And, this right is not limited to the act of hunting; it includes the right to making decisions about how to manage Bribri food systems.

All too often we focus on one way of looking at land-use. In the case of my recent conference experience, I learned that many people strongly associate protected forests with conservation of biological species. So, how can we have a discussion about different ways of understanding the land? One way is to think about it from a human rights perspective. As a researcher, it is my goal to use my research to help the public become familiar with human rights to land, to food, and to decision-making. And, I hope the more familiar we are with human rights policies, the better chance we have of convincing policy makers to act on them. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Food and the Coca-Cola Industry

Coca Leaf (courtesy of Marcello Casal Jr, wikimedia commons)

I grew up drinking Coke. Now that I am more health conscious, I don’t drink Coca-Cola or any other drinks that have a long list of ingredients I can't identify, let alone pronounce. My interest in Indigenous peoples rights to food revealed another reason to turn down a can of coke. Coca-Cola production is part of a history that has empowered Western companies at the expense of Indigenous people and their rights to culturally important food and medicine. Let me explain.

Coca-Cola is a drink that entered the global market economy in 1886. At that time it was a drink made of cocaine, caffeine, cola nut extracts, and carbonated water. In 1903, there were some concerns raised about putting cocaine in soda. So, the cocaine in Coca-Cola was replaced by a de-cocainized flavouring ingredient. Both the cocaine and de-cocainized ingredient come from the leaves of a plant called Coca native to the South American Andes.

The coca plant is not the same as the drug cocaine. Coca is a plant Erythroxylum coca and cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in this plant. To produce the drug called cocaine you need large amounts of coca leaves (e.g., 1 kilo of cocaine requires 2-3 hundred kilos of coca leaf). Cocaine production also requires many other harmful chemicals, including sulphuric acid, petrol, and caustic soda. Coca leaves contain a very small amount of the naturally-occurring alkaloid cocaine and this small amount does not induce toxicity or dependence, a 1978 scientific study reported.

Indigenous peoples of the Andes make use of coca leaves in their natural form, without chemical processing. For example, the Quechua, Aymara, and Kogi people use the coca leaf for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. I will never forget a skilled Bolivian healer who cured me with coca leaves. I had been suffering from a severe allergic reaction to my contact with alpaca fur (picture on the right). This allergy persisted for weeks and Western medicine was not helping. This healer, in La Paz Bolivia, taught me to chew the coca leaf to extract its natural anesthetic properties and to place the partially chewed leaf where my allergy was manifesting. Within a few minutes I felt relief and within a few days my allergic reaction was almost invisible. Unfortunately, stories such my own, which reveal coca as a powerful medicine, have been dwarfed by the global discourse equating the coca plant with chemically processed drugs.

One of the reasons we equate the coca plant with the drug cocaine is because the coca leaf has been classified as such in international conventions. In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Substances classified the coca leaf a Schedule I substance and since then its production, use, and trade have been under very strict regulation. For countries that signed onto this UN convention - such as Bolivia - this strict regulation has infiltrated all aspects of peoples’ coca use: from its sale and trade to Indigenous peoples' rights to chew coca leaves for medicinal purposes. Angela Heitzeneder (2010), scholar on cultural rights of Indigenous people in international law, described this UN convention as a global "intolerance toward the essential element of Andean traditional society and cosmology".

If this convention did not protect the right of Indigenous peoples to use coca, surely nobody else could use it either, right? Actually, no. The United Nation’s convention made sure that the famous soda pop Coca-Cola, and the companies involved in its production, were able to continue harvesting, using, and distributing coca.

The use of coca leaves for the production of the Coca-Cola flavouring agent is a permanent exception to the international prohibition against coca. The Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey imports around 175,000 kg of coca leaves from Trujillo, Peru each year to produce flavoured chemicals for Coke.

I have struggled to make sense of this. The cultural rights to use coca for ceremony and health were ignored in the 1961 UN convention on narcotics while the rights to produce a soda pop were protected?

If you remember, the Coca-Cola company buys de-cocainized extracts from coca leaves, a.k.a., "de-cocainized flavour essence", from the Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey. In the process of de-cocainizing, the Maywood company end up with cocaine by-product. Believe it or not, this U.S. company also has rights to sell this extracted cocaine to international medical practitioners to be used as an anesthetic.

It is hard to believe that U.S. companies have been profiting from the flavour and medicinal uses of coca while Indigenous People have been internationally denied the right to do so. This scenario is even harder to believe knowing that both the Coca-Cola company and western medical practitioners would not know the health properties of Coca without the knowledge and skills of Indigenous people.

In 2011 the Bolivian President Evo Morales challenged what has been called a “historical error and violation of Indigenous rights” by Martin Jelsm, the director of The Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program. Evo Morales withdrew from the 1961 UN convention in part because of his opposition to the convention’s obligation that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”. Just this year, Bolivia celebrated their re-entry into the UN convention with an exception made to respect Bolivian peoples’ coca chewing practices.

With the exception of Bolivia’s small victory, Indigenous peoples rights to use and benefit from a cultural plant are still being infringed upon. At the same time large U.S. companies are encouraged to use, distribute, and make towering profits from the coca industry. I believe this disparity is perhaps the most powerful reason to turn down a can of Coca-Cola. In the meantime, I’ll wait for Bolivia’s Coca-Colla to hit Canadian markets. 

Read more:
Heitzeneder, A. 2010. The Coca-leaf: Miracle good or social menace? Masters Thesis, Universitat wien, accessed at: http://othes.univie.ac.at/12287/1/2010-11-04_0421153.pdf

Monday, 5 August 2013

Corn Smut, Cuitlacoche or Mexican Truffle, is there a difference?

Courtesy of Stu Spivak, wikimedia commons

On August 9th the world will celebrate the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. I am celebrating early and paying my deep respects to the foods Indigenous farmers developed. One of those foods is a fungus called Cuitlacoche. 

If you have eaten in Mexico, you may have tried this tasty fungus creeping out of the ears of corn. Cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis), is pronounced cuitla-KO-che or Huitlacoche (with a silent H). The Spanish name Cuitacoche is adapted from a Nahuatl name and my internet searches tell me the closest literal English translation for this word might be something like "Sleeping/Hibernating Dirt/Excrement". 

What's in a name?  

One reason why this Nahuatl name is important is because it tells us about this fungus's cultural roots. Nahuatl is the language of Nahua peoples (also known as Aztec people) whose speakers reside mainly in communities of Central Mexico.The Nahua were likely one of the first peoples to describe the fungus Cuitlacoche. 

I must disclose, the first time I tried Cuitlacoche was in Washington D.C., not in Mexico. Like many big cities, the D.C. foodscape is diverse and finding a Cuitlacoche quesadilla was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was take a trip to Adams Morgan and there I was quickly drawn into a quaint Mexican restaurant adorned with beautiful posters of Puebla and Pozole. When I saw Cuitlacoche quesadillas on the menu, I took the plunge. While explaining that Cuitlacoche has a strong flavour, the owner politely tried to sway my decision to the tacos or the tortas mexicanas. I insisted on the Cuitlacoche. 

Courtesy of Cuauhtemoc Ramirez, wikimedia commons 

I had a tecate and talked to the owner about Colima, a small state in Mexico where I lived about 10 years ago. Shortly into our conversation, I was presented with Cuitlacoche fungus in between two handmade corn tortillas. If I didn't look close enough I could have mistaken it for black refried beans. Upon close inspection I noticed tiny yellow corn kernels mixed into a dark purple mash called Cuitlacoche. 

I loved it, it had a hearty, earthy taste, it was not too overpowering, and it went surprisingly well with salsa and guacamole. 

As I ate, I wondered if my Cuitlacoche was grown locally or was shipped from Mexico. Although it may come as a surprise, Cuitlacoche is grown in the U.S. by many farmers, but not on purpose. Cuitlachoche in the U.S. is considered a disease called Corn Smut. Because Corn Smut is a U.S. pest, non-Indigenous farmers there spend their time thinking about killing, not cooking, this fungus. I felt safe to say the fungus on my plate in Washington D.C. was imported.

Cuitlacoche in a Oaxaca supermarket, wikimedia commons

Out of curiosity, I asked the owner where he gets his Cuitlacoche. "You can get anything in D.C.", he answered, looking shocked that I didn't know this fact. In Mexico, I had seen this fungus sold fresh, but he told me in D.C. it comes packaged, conveniently, in a can. This explains why you can order Cuitlacoche in many places and in many different dishes, including soups, crepes, and even fondues. 

As foodies transform Indigenous food recipes, their food names can change. Food enthusiasts are looking for an English name, beyond Corn Smut, to describe Cuitlacoche. Mexican Truffle and Aztec Caviar have been suggested. I agree with foodies that the name Corn Smut does not sound appetizing, but what is wrong with the Nahuatl name? Why are we searching for names that detach foods from their Indigenous roots? 

My vote is to keep the name Cuitlacoche. When Cuitlacoche becomes the Mexican Truffle we lose track of this fungus's history. The name Cuitlacoche links us to a people and a rich history of food tradtions. The name Mexican Truffle, like the label "Mexican Cuisine", tells us nothing about the diversity of foods and peoples within a region. The name Aztec Caviar is more culturally-descriptive. But the name Aztec Caviar still removes the Nahualt lanuage from the picture. 

There is something to be said for using an Indigenous word when ordering a food. When I ask for a Cuitlacoche quesadilla I articulate diversity using different sounds. When I hear these unique sounds, like "cui" or "tla", I am eager to learn the stories behind them. When I ask for Aztec Caviar, I can easily mistake this name for a quirky English label and not give a second thought to its first farmers

When I eat, whether in a city or around a fire far from urban life, I remember Indigenous farmers. I remember the foods their ancestors developed and I respect the foods Indigenous farmers produce for us today. Without Indigenous peoples, none of us new-age foodies know about Cuitlacoche. Let's celebrate the World's Indigenous Peoples and call Indigenous foods by their first names. 

Does anyone have a story about the Nahuatl word Cuitlacoche or about how this fungus is prepared by Nahua and other Indigenous peoples? If so, please share it in the comments section below.