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New book about Amazonian indigenous culture: ‘People of the bitter manioc’

April 7 2014

Alberto Chirif and Margarita Benavides presenting at the Ministry of Culture, Lima. Photo: Allison Cadenillas/SERVINDI
As a result of research in the Peruvian Amazon, anthropologist Alberto Chirif has recently published a book titled Pueblos de la yuca brava. Historia y culinaria (People of the bitter manioc. History and cuisine). The book, supported by IWGIA, focuses on the history and cuisine of the the Bora, Huitoto, Ucaina and Secoya peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, who cultivate and process the bitter manioc as a main staple.

The book was presented in the Ministry of Culture in Lima on March 19 where a panel composed by the anthropologist Margarita Benavides, the celebrated Peruvian chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino and the Huitoto painter Brus Rubio Churay, discussed the indigenous legacy and knowledge in Peru’s culinary tradition.

What is bitter manioc?
The so-called ‘bitter manioc’ (Manihot Esculenta) is deathly poisonous in its natural state due to a high concentration of cyanide. By chemical techniques passed from generation to generation, indigenous peoples in the Amazon have been able to transform it into an edible food, which moreover can be stored for periods of food scarcity. For Chirif ‘the conversion of a poison into food is an expression of the huge knowledge indigenous peoples has about the sustainable use of biological diversity and it represents a symbol of indigenous resilience and adaptation to a harsh environment’.

Culinary tradition as a part of indigenous knowledge
Culinary tradition in the Amazon involves a universe of knowledge, beliefs, modes of organization and relationship with the environment as a whole. Through descriptions, images and stories about the processing of bitter manioc, Chirif seeks to make visible the legacy of indigenous knowledge and how it informs the sustainable use of a resource provided by the Amazon rainforest. The books achieves to step into the ancestral knowledge of the Bora, Huitoto, Ucaina and Secoya peoples who after a laborious process transform poison into a product that serves society.

Over the last years, Peru has become the new gastronomic mecca of South America, with 3 restaurants now figuring on the top 100 list of the world’s best restaurants. This success is founded on a modern interpretation of the country’s rich local cuisine and biodiversity. However, while global foodies enjoy the pleasures of the Peruvian table, the knowledge and way of life of indigenous peoples who have been the guardians of Peru's rich diversity are neglected. More than 60 indigenous peoples live in Peru and their traditional way of life is currently under increasing pressure from extractive industries and other mainstream development operations.

In its recent Human Development Report for Peru , the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlights the importance of ancestral knowledge as a key factor for ecosystem management, and with relation to Climate Change warns that the indigenous’ way of life must be taken into consideration in adaptation strategies. Peru is one of the most vulnerable countries in terms of climate change and will be hosting the next climate change talks of the UN, the COP 20.

The book Yuca Brava is only available in Spanish and it can be required through e-mail to qinticolibri@gmail.com or IWGIA’s webshop.