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Geography on the plate: The culinary rediscovery of Colombia’s biodiversity

Cupuaçu, another of Selva Nevada's Amazonian fruits, grown Cáqueta, Colombia, by a community organization that establishes plantations that blend cupuaçu into a canopy that with other trees for timber and rubber, with chickens run across the forest floor to support soil biology. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

  • In one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, new supply chains for exotic products are using flavor to change the way Colombians understand their country’s biological endowment.
  • Mucho, a two-year-old startup, has already built supply networks in 16 of the country’s 32 departments, sourcing ingredients from rainforests, Amazonian rivers, and two oceans.
  • Selva Nevada turns tropical fruits into ice-cream. Through conservation agreements, it provides incomes for forest peoples while keeping jungles standing.
  • Overcoming logistical hurdles, these triple-bottom-line companies provide a model of commerce that is good for people, good for the planet, and excellent for the palate.

In a small, sprightly basement office in the neighborhood of Chapinero in Bogotá, navigating the winds of political dysphoria and generalized uncertainty that have characterized the year the world over, a startup is leveraging the excitement of rare foods to create exchange networks that support Colombia’s most remote populations and the ecosystems in which they live.

In the process, it is expanding the alphabet with which the culinary life of the country is written. The company is called Mucho, and it has set out to answer one question: What does Colombia taste like?

“The superficial abundance of supermarkets masks our reality,” its website says. “We do not eat what surrounds us. Our megadiversity has not yet reached our tables.”

In a little over two years, Mucho has done much to correct that, accomplishing the unlikely twin feat of building the supply chains for the forgotten ingredients of Colombia’s Big Yonder while creating the appetite for them in the country’s capital.

The products in Mucho’s larder hail from 16 of Colombia’s 32 departments, and include such unwonted items as black corn arepas, green pepper from the Putumayo River, line-caught wreckfish from Chocó, the acai-like jabuticaba, and pulp from the borojó fruit from the Pacific wilds, a legendary aphrodisiac.

Two members of Asoprocegua on the path to the açai groves in Guaviare, Colombia. Asoprocegua has signed conservation agreements with Visión Amazonía and SINCHI, the Amazonian Institute of Scientific Research. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

An appetite for geography

The best way to understand Mucho’s achievement is to understand Colombia. The colossal Andes, a spine of stone that swoops up from South America’s austral vertex, branch into no less than three cordilleras upon entering Colombia, making an entire country of mountain, like a New World Switzerland, only with rainforests to rival those of Brazil.

In the interstices of this geography have evolved more than a hundred different Indigenous groups, who, along with the descendants of Africans and Europeans, speak several dozen languages.

This topography is both a blessing and a curse to the bounties of the jungle and the humans trying to make their living from them, a legacy that the country is still learning how to harness. It produces incredible diversity, but makes transportation gnarly — and oftentimes mutual understanding too, as cultural divides grow over geological ones. Throughout modernity, jungles have typically been subject to a boom economy, the serial extraction of one commodity after another.

After a half-century of war, there is a new opportunity in Colombia.

“Building the supply chains is about human knowledge, and about getting to places that I, personally, hadn’t been able to go, and that the people who buy from us are not able to go,” said Juliana Zárate, Mucho’s founding CEO, in an interview with Mongabay. “That allows us to learn about the good and the bad of life in the jungle — the bad is dealing with war, with mining, all these things we read about. It’s very touching and it’s very hard, and it gives you a lot of sense of commitment.”

Mucho has made a commitment to pay at least 60% of the retail price to producers, about twice the value that typically reaches farmers. Mucho is still a fledgling, founded in the latter part of 2018 and run by an efficient staff of eight, but already the company has bought more than $100,000 worth of food from Colombia’s backwaters: the equivalent of about 410 monthly minimum salaries. At any given point in time it is liaising with more than 60 suppliers to get their products to market.

To a large extent, a proposition like Mucho’s is about the gracious face of globalization reaching Colombia’s far-flung communities, since the harsh one has been buffeting them for decades with its insatiable appetite for commodities like coca and gold that invariably levy heavy costs at the points of origin.

Zárate’s concept of exchange is adamantly horizontal. “We create a spark in them to think other things are possible, and they create that spark in us,” she said.

Fruit of the moriche palm, Mauritia flexuosa. Selva Nevada is developing commercial moriche ice-cream and jam products. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

Ideas that travel

Juliana Zárate ran an eponymous startup in London before moving back to Colombia, her madre patria. In the U.K., the operations were simpler: Mucho was essentially an app that gauged user preferences and delivered the precise ingredients for readymade meal plans, all sourced sustainably from established retailers such as Waitrose Duchy Organic.

“I entered the food space with the question of how do we make better choices, from a profound love of food, of aesthetics,” Zárate said. “What is the best food in terms of health and sustainability and taste that I can eat with the money I have?”

With the signing of the peace treaty in Colombia in 2016, Zárate began to feel drawn again to the country that spawned her. She was hired to write about Colombia’s culinary heritage for Vice Media, and along the way discovered not only lost ingredients but entire worlds.

“With cassava, for instance, it was the journals of an early traveler, a Spanish conquistador in the Chocó region,” Zárate said. She stumbled across the historical document while doing research for a piece on the connection between biodiversity and languages. “There were a few pages on what the Yurumanguí were eating,” referring to a people whose language is now extinct. “They used to eat the leaf, and not the root. But it took so much time to understand how to eat the leaf. [They] eat it now in Africa, because the plant traveled.”

A cassava leaf curry recipe would come to feature on Mucho’s app in Colombia. But between the excitement of discovery and the launch of the app, Zárate and her team would have to traverse a valley of logistics. “We didn’t set out to build the supply chains,” Zárate said.

But before long, she and her partners had acquiesced to becoming Hermes’ accomplices across Colombia’s deep backwoods.

The lands managed by Asoprocegua, a community association of 250 families that in 2019 harvested and sold 180 metric tons of Amazonian fruits while keeping almost 10,000 hectares of rainforest intact under conservation agreements in Guaviare, Colombia. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

Linking up the country

The practical problems are, more often than not, as intractable as they are thrilling.

“Building a supply chain is building a story of how humanity and food travels,” Zárate said, evoking places more easily visited than imagined. “These worlds are pre-Uber — like now we all jump in somebody else’s car, but they were always jumping in somebody’s else’s boat, because that’s how you get there.”

Fondo Acción, a nonprofit with broad experience in environmentally sound development in Colombia, became Mucho’s first institutional investor through FIMI, its new impact investment vehicle.

“The bottleneck was the supply chains,” said Camila Zambrano, coordinator of sustainable rural development of Fondo Acción, in an interview with Mongabay. At Fondo Acción, Zambrano had been involved in myriad projects to support communities in developing livelihoods, but they seemed to lose momentum when the training wheels came off and communities were left to their own devices. They needed a marketing arm.

“We were thinking about building a responsible consumption platform ourselves, and Mucho appeared at just the right moment.” Zambrano said. “What was needed was a for-profit player, one that could be financially sustainable and reinvest with the same philosophy.”

Today, Mucho builds on the long-standing work of organizations like Fondo Acción and Conservation International to develop capacities in far-flung communities. Mucho now connects those sustainably sourced products to demand in cities that it stimulates through storytelling and imagery.

The promise of a venture like Mucho is hard to overstate. The company’s modus operandi contributes to at least 12 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals: poverty, hunger, innovation, inequality, life on land and water, and others. More subtly, by extending an invitation to explore the space of the country in our palates, Mucho informs a more invigorating national consciousness, a sense of country that Colombians can get behind.

Açai being harvested by hand. The indigenous Nukak Maku ascend the palm using only a rope of knotted leaves, but others rely on a harness as shown. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

The fruits of biodiversity

Mucho is not the only Colombian venture leveraging ecologically sensitive eating as a form of nation building. For 13 years now, Selva Nevada has been creating a market for wild tropical fruits by turning them into ice-cream. Like Mucho, but with more experience and a streamlined inventory, Selva Nevada establishes commercial agreements with community associations of smallholders for non-timber forest products. Its model links livelihoods to good environmental outcomes, with conservation agreements signed that keep forests standing.

Selva Nevada’s catalog is populated by fruits you’ve likely never heard of, flavor benders like arazá, corozo, camu camu, gulupa. Developing a taste for them is part of the fun, and a clan of forest-forward gourmands in Colombia have jumped in with both feet.

“A chef always likes to experiment. They have helped us to introduce these flavors into city society,” said Catalina Álvarez, Selva Nevada’s administrative manager and one of its founders, in an interview.

Both Selva Nevada and Mucho are part of a larger wave that includes restaurants such as Mini Mal, Salvo Patria, and Mesa Franca that have put Bogotá on the map for foodies in the know, serving up dishes like coca ramen in tucupí, the spicy yuca brava sauce that’s spoken of in hallowed tones as the “miso of the jungle.”

Early in 2020, as Colombia hunkered down for what would become one of the world’s longest pandemic lockdowns, Selva Nevada was particularly vulnerable as a company that shuttles perishables across geographic expanses. Restaurants and hotels, which formerly accounted for 70% of Selva Nevada’s sales, were closed for almost five months. The company marshalled a Herculean effort, reinventing itself by, among other things, rolling out an ice-cream truck and direct-to-customer online retail.

“Many of the initiatives we launched during lockdown will have payoffs down the line,” Álvarez said. “But for now it’s been mostly about staying afloat. To build a company you have to think long-term. Otherwise it’s easy to lose your enthusiasm.”

But Selva Nevada is animated by something much vaster than its once and future profits.

“We don’t even know yet what the forests harbor,” Álvarez said. “We are harvesting what’s most obvious — the fruits — but the insects, the other plants … nobody knows yet. We are buying the jungle time so the research can get there.”

Açai being tested at the processing plant established as a joint venture between Selva Nevada and Asoprocegua, the community association in Guaviare that sources them. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.

Pretty is as pretty eats

Few things speak to our ecological embeddedness more plainly than food. We take a morsel into our mouths, and somehow it becomes us. Or do we become it? A moment ago there were distinct objects, two or more different genetic streams, and now the boundaries have collapsed and there is but fodder for new processes, new cells.

If we go further upstream, we immediately find that the food we eat involves us in a web of narratives that stretch across the globe and as deep into history as it is possible to go.

As such, food may be the most commonplace of pleasures, but it is also a site for vivid reflections. Food is loaded with meaning as well as nutrients, steeped in social and environmental implications.

When asked which of Mucho’s accomplishments she most relishes, Zárate comes back to curiosity: “I’m really proud of the questions we ask about food.”

This appetite for inquiry is part of a global trend.

“Finding out where the food comes from and where it goes to — maybe this knowledge can be made into a kind of flavor enhancer,” Olafur Eliasson wrote in an essay on Noma’s Rene Redzepi, the tastemaker of 21st-century locavorism. Companies like Selva Nevada and Mucho both ride on and produce this sensibility, raising eating to a form of aesthetic and moral satisfaction, updating the cultural meanings that food can have in Colombia. They deliver perfectly on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s injunction that food should be not only good to eat but good to think with.

For Zárate, it’s a matter of conviction.

“The combination of so many factors makes it very, very hard to move these products, almost non-desirable from a business perspective,” she said. “It’s still an open question whether we can do it viably. You have to do it because you have the political will, because there’s a purpose. The money thing would be in the long term, but you have to have a purpose of thinking there’s a value in that for the country in terms of development, or for us as humans in terms of pleasure and cultural diversity.

“We get messages from people — ‘I tried macambo-caña and it changed my life. I didn’t know it existed, where does it come from.’ There are so many questions, because people are baffled,” Zárate said. “As a biodiverse country, it’s just endless.”

Banner image: Cupuaçu, another of Selva Nevada’s Amazonian fruits, grown Cáqueta, Colombia, by a community organization that establishes plantations that blend cupuaçu into a canopy that with other trees for timber and rubber, with chickens run across the forest floor to support soil biology. Photograph courtesy of Selva Nevada.