SURF AND TURF – Amaranth Renaissance

The subject of biodiversity is filled with wild and wonderful stories of plants that were once indispensable ingredients in the human diet and then, mysteriously, disappeared. Luckily, there are also stories to tell of people who stubbornly and courageously have rebuilt what others once mindlessly destroyed.
I can tell one of these stories about Raúl Hernández Garciadiego, who I met in Tehuacán in the Mexican state of Puebla. Tehuacán is one of the many cities in the world Naomi Klein designated “zones of production for export” in her book No Logo. In Tehuacán, there are over 60 maquiladoras, clothing companies that produce jeans for the North American market at dirt-cheap costs. The jeans cannot be sold on the domestic market, and they arrive for sale in the neighboring United States with designer names and high price tags.
However, when speaking about Tehuacán, we must begin with a discussion of agriculture and of what the region used to be.
The Tehuacán valley, stretching as far as Coxcatlán, is the cradle of Mexican agriculture. Thanks to an abundance of water and fertile soil, the ancient peoples who populated Central America chose this region for their first settlements as early as 7000 BC.
The first valley dwellers began the cultivation of avocado, chili pepper, cotton, pumpkin and later of corn, beans and amaranth. This wealth of agricultural produce gave the fortunate inhabitants of the Tehuacán valley a well-balanced diet. Beans and corn are a complete protein, while amaranth offers the amino acid lysine, as well as iron, calcium, phosphorus and various vitamins. However, the Tehuacán valley no longer yields this well-balanced cornucopia – many things changed with the passage of time.
The first major change arrived with the conquering Spanish treasure-hunters. It is said that Hernán Cortés found a statue made of an amaranth-based mixture coated with the blood of men sacrificed to pagan divinities in the main pyramid of the city at Tenochtitlán (the capital of the Aztec empire). That discovery led the Conquistadores to believe that amaranth had ‘demonic’ properties, and its cultivation and use were thus prohibited throughout Mexico. The Spaniards also changed agriculture by expropriating land from the natives, and destroying the network of basins and canals for water collection in the Tehuacán valley. The irrigation system had functioned well by allowing year-round use of the highly-erratic seasonal rainfall.
The Spaniards, however, can not be blamed for everything. The recent planet-wide change in climate has prolonged the dry period between the two rainy seasons. This climactic change has made the Tehuacán valley almost too arid to sustain profitable agriculture. One shocking statistic: until a few years ago, the region lost seven of ten harvests.

Raúl Hernández Garciadiego, born in Mexico City in 1955, earned his degree in philosophy at the city’s Iberoamerican University. Raúl’s goal, independent of his chosen field of study, was to dedicate his life to the improvement of conditions for Mexico’s poor. To that end, he moved to Tehuacán in 1980, accompanied by his wife Gisela. Although famous for its production of mineral water and thermal springs, at that time Tehuacán was the capital of one of the poorest, driest areas in Mexico.
‘As soon as I arrived,’ recalls Raúl, I started asking peasants what they needed. And they would respond, ‘Water!’. ‘OK,’ I would say, ‘Then what?’ ‘Water,’ they would insist. What we need first of all is water. Then we can see to the rest.’
In response to this urgent demand, Raúl sought maximize the region’s meager water resources. To the same end, he tried to identify crops with high drought resistance. Maize and traditional corn required humidity than was impossible to achieve in the Tehuacán valley. Raùl had the answer. ‘We pinpointed amaranth,’ Raúl told me, ‘a crop typical of the region that had been completely abandoned. Not even the old-timers knew of its existence. Then we had to go to the state of Guerriero (south-west of Mexico City on the Pacific coast) to find the seeds, and the first results were extremely satisfactory.’
In retrospect, it sounds simple. But Raul’s “Amaranth Renaissaince” was a difficult and arduous process. The first plants they inseminated were destroyed by the peasants themselves. Since they no longer knew the crop, people mistook the plant for an edible herb and harvested it far too soon.
The work of Raúl, Gisela and their staff consisted of organizing meetings with peasants to educate them about the crop, and to explain why it can be a precious resource. The group taught peasants and farmers to grow and gather the plant. They also explained how to cook and eat the grain, and how to maximize limited water resources in its cultivation.
Raúl and Gisela founded a group called ‘Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social’ for the emancipation of families, groups and communities in Mexico’s poorest, most-marginalized regions. The group coordinated various projects. Agua para siempre is a program dedicated to land and water conservation using traditional techniques together with modern technologies; Quali (‘good’ in the Náhuatl language) is a cooperative for the development of amaranth as a food and agro-industrial alternative in semiarid zones. The cooperative also works in the processing and marketing of amaranth. Eficoop is a production-education program for developing and funding social-interest firms. The Centro de Tecnologia develops and tests technology for the cultivation, processing and marketing of amaranth.
The creating of these myriad projects and cooperatives took years of hard work, but Raúl and Gisela now have results: 1,200 peasants participate in the project. Quali has opened four shops in the villages and a fifth is about to open in the capital. Numerous studies are demonstrating the nutritional and even medicinal benefits of amaranth, which besides being extremely rich in protein is also totally devoid of cholesterol and glutin. This lack of glutin makes it a perfect food for celiacs. Recent studies offer some evidence that amaranth could be used to fight cancer.
Raúl has done a magnificent job. In one of the poorest regions of Mexico, he has managed to revive the production of an food. He has restored the peasants’ dignity, ensuring them an income that allows them to remain in their region without sending family members to work in the city. The Quali project has been extended to other communities in six states and Agua para Siempre and promises to become a model to export in many other countries of the world where water supply is limited.
Raúl Hernandez Garciadiego has already received many acknowledgments and grants from his compatriots and government, but he still has a lot of work to do. Slow Food can help give him an international visibility, and promote his projects. This type of visibility could contribute to the ‘Amaranth Renaissance’ and help the development of similar projects in the Tehuacán valley. Slow Food is proud to announce that one of the first international Presidia projects will be in collaboration with Raúl, and the world will have the chance to taste the ancient amaranth.

Roberto Burdese is Slow Food Governor

In the photo: Amaranth (C. Scaffidi)

Translated by Anya Fernald

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