Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bioprospecting in the Tenza Valley

With my son we're slowly plugging away at The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We're still in his youth, when he moved to Boston from rural Michigan and learned all the hip slang and dress and picked up vices like alcohol and marijuana. It's incredible to read about happenings from over 70 years ago and feel like they're current. The fast, urban youth life that Malcolm talks about isn't so different from what kids do today, and the country-to-city story is something my wife and I see all the time here in Colombia, with young people moving from towns to bigger cities and totally changing their way of life. I'm also surprised to read about the pathetic attempts of Boston ghetto residents to call their jobs as bellboys or housekeepers by other, professional names. Bank security guards "are in finance", maids "work for an old family", and so forth. It's very similar to our present-day situation of inflated job titles for people who are essentially freelancers in-between jobs.

This reading selection coincides with a coffee-table book that I've been poring over lately in my free moments. It's called "Lost Amazon", and is an account by Wade Davis of Richard Evans Schultes's expeditions to the Amazon in the 1940s. Schultes was an intrepid ethnobotanist of Harvard University who was particularly interested in hallucinogenic plants and their ritual use by indigenous people. As a young man he apparently "re-discovered" psilocybin mushrooms in an indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico. Conquest-era texts had referred to hallucinogenic mushrooms used in indigenous Mexico, but these reports had been dismissed by the Western world as mere fabrications, because the actual species used had never been seen by Westerners since that Conquest. Schultes tracked down these mushrooms (and inadvertently contributed to the dawn of the psychedelic age), and thus started a long career of going to remote places and seeking out medicinal plants unknown until then to the Western world.

From what I pick up in the book, Schultes was remarkably open-minded when it came to learning about and appreciating indigenous culture, but on the other hand he was a stolid social conservative in terms of domestic US politics. It's funny to think that Schultes's expeditions to the Amazon basin coincided with Malcolm Little's years partying and picking up bad habits in Boston. I wonder what Malcolm would have thought of Schultes, both prior to and after the former's conversion to Islam. I wonder what Schultes would have thought of Malcolm.

This weekend I felt a bit like Richard Evans Schultes. As part of the Muisca garden project I work in, we are going to carry out an agronomic experiment. It will be a varietal evaluation of the achira plant (Canna edulis), which means we'll take five or so different varieties of the crop, grow them under the same conditions, and then compare them in terms of final yield, nutritional content, and animal feed quality (there will also be some more pure science measurements such as photosynthesis rate and morphology). In an agrarian diagnostic we did in the Tenza valley in December 2011, we identified four widely different varieties of achira. This is amazing, considering that the CIP research center in Peru, which is supposed to be the worldwide repository for achira, has only some 70 varieties of the plant. I wish I had photos to show how cool these varieties are, but since we're at the beginning of the planting season, there are no mature plants to show the difference between them.

We're already running late on the experiment, because the rains have come and we should be planting, but we hadn't acquired yet the seeds (really rhizome bits, in the same way that what you plant of a potato isn't a true seed but a piece of the mother plant). So I had to go to the Tenza valley and track down 150 seed pieces of each variety. Because of our late start, my contact there hadn't been able to obtain the seeds without me, because most of his neighbors had already harvested last year's crop and immediately re-seeded this years, so there weren't seed rhizomes readily available.

I and my superiors had been putting off this trip, and now I was somewhat fearing it. What if I couldn't get enough seeds to do the experiment? I'd been looking forward to this experiment for years now, and I was on the verge of blowing it. I had finally scheduled my bioprospecting trip, but the night before I had a heavy heart. Reading about Schultes inspired me though. In my own way, I was carrying on his legacy of tracking down little-known plants for the general benefit of humankind. Only my plants of focus are food crops, not his medicinal and hallucinogenic species.

I got an early start, leaving Bogota by 5:30am. I made good time, getting to the remote rural area of Guayata, Boyaca by 8am. My contact's mother made me a typical milk and egg soup while I waited for him to arrive from some errands he was running. It was a warm welcome, but I was still nervous about how our search would go.

It turned out I had little to worry about. After asking around at a few farms, we found a guy who would sell us 150 rhizomes of the Gigante or Gruesa variety for very cheap. He was milling cane when we arrived, driving two oxen in a circle to turn the press wheels that crush the cane. He gladly showed us a sample of his giant achira, which he hadn't processed yet. Anyway, thanks to him we set up a purchase for next week of the giant seed we needed. This was a real coup, because that variety is one of the rarer ones in the zone.

From there we went to Somondoco, a nearby town, and asked around at the house of a guy who reportedly had seeds of the Bambu variety. This is an even rarer variety, unknown outside of our area of study, and little-known even among the local farmers. Instead of the wide, banana-like leaves of normal achira, this plant is a low-growing bush with small, bamboo-like leaves on woody stems. I'm not even sure it really is the same species as achira, as not only its form is very different but also its starch behaves differently in the artisanal extraction process. Until that day I'd thought only two or three people in the area had plants of it, and they had already told us they had no seeds to spare. But we tracked down the brother of the guy who supposedly had some plants of the Bambu variety. The brother and his mother said the original guy no longer planted that variety, but that they did. They'd harvested late, and so the plants had died back in January and they couldn't find where they were to dig them up. This was a lucky strike for us, because now the plants had re-sprouted, and the family was willing to dig them up to sell to us. With that we'd secured supplies for the two most rare varieties we needed.

From there it was no problem to get the two remaining varieties, Blanca and Negra, which are the traditional, most widespread varieties of achira in the area. We talked to a major achira producer in the town of Guayata. He had a big supply of Negra, but not so much of Blanca, which he'd been gradually giving up due to its poor agronomic performance. Still, he is going to ask around in these days to get together the 150 seeds of Blanca that we need.

In the end I secured a supply of all the varieties I needed. We will be able to carry out our experiment, which as far as I know will give a more detailed analysis of different achira varieties than most other scientific work that's been done on the species. Furthermore, our varieties are relatively ignored by the few people who work with achira. Most researchers focus on the Huila region of southern Colombia, or on Peruvian varieties. Boyaca achira has received little attention from the agro-science establishment. So I really did feel like Richard Evans Schultes, going to somewhat remote regions to recover plant wealth that others had ignored the value of.

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