Macambo as a solution. Chapter 1: The proposal 

It is discouraging to see how the Amazon is being destroyed due to the need for the governments of the Amazonian countries to obtain money to improve the quality of life of their population by creating services such as education, health, work, transportation, industry, etc.

The Amazon region is one of the places with the greatest biodiversity on the planet. It is also the source of raw materials (oil, minerals, wood) and the space to raise cattle and produce soy. 

In today’s world where money allows people to live (buy food, clothing, housing, transportation, education, etc.) it is not very evident that the most essential human needs are: air, water and then food.

Air and water are natural resources or services that we get from nature. And yes, food is also a natural resource. If we think about it, we live thanks to the living beings that nourish us (plants, animals, fungi, algae, bacteria) and the interactions that these have within the different natural ecosystems that keep air, water, soil and living beings healthy.  

Everything in nature is connected! (read the article Nature, Agriculture and Respect).

Healthy jungles and forests not only produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide (CO2) but also maintain a balance that even purifies water. In the Amazon region flows the largest river on Earth, the “flying river“, that regulates the climate of our planet.

But, in the Amazon region, there is not only diversity of life but also a diversity of human cultures that live in harmony with nature.

This fragile ecosystem is in danger and preserving it is a task that concerns all the inhabitants of the planet.

The community of Noneno is located along the Shiripuno River, Yasuní, Ecuador. Omentoke Omene and her baby girl, go to the field to plant plantain saplings and to cut down some smaller trees to leave room for their yuca (manioc) to grow. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here.

Why Ecuador?

In Ecuador, there are more than three thousand species of trees, 658 species of amphibians (307 of which are endemic or only present in Ecuador), 460 species of mammals (54 endemic), 498 species of reptiles, more than ten thousand species of birds1  and 13 indigenous ethnic groups that in Ecuador are known as nationalities because they have their own language and social organization and live in a defined territory. Eight of these nationalities live in the Amazon region2.

I had the opportunity to get to know Canopy Bridge many years ago. Canopy Bridge is a global network that helps suppliers and buyers of sustainable crops and wild products find each other, build relationships and learn more about natural products and the people behind them. One of their wild products in macambo.

Macambo (Theobroma bicolor) is the fruit of a tree related to cacao (Theobroma cacao). It is grown traditionally in diversified agricultural systems (or agroforestery) by associations of indigenous Kichwa producers from the Ecuadorian Amazon in chakras or family gardens. Its seeds are very nutritious (high in protein, fiber and omega-9) and, when toasted, acquire a delicious caramel flavor and a crunchy, unique texture.

The Amazonian population traditionally consumes macambo and shares its tradition with us.

The Cofán Indigenour etnia knows it as Macabo. Estefanía Baldeon of Canopy Bridge finds macambo fruits (unexpectedly out of season) on a visit to Zábalo, province of Sucumbios province, Ecuador. This and many more fruit trees surround the houses in an edible and cultivated forest. Photo courtesy of Canopy Bridge.

All Amazon countries such as Ecuador live from export of raw materials and this happens because there is a global demand, especially from industrialized countries. Perhaps this globalized system could become a solution, right?

For Ecuador, the export of products coming from “Perennial forests” (perennial= which lasts forever or a long time) could represent a concrete solution to conservation because they are a sources of income that in the future could replace extractive activities and intensive agriculture.

Why Italia?

I have lived in Milan, Italy for almost six years. I thought that perhaps the people of Milan might be interested in buying macambo once a year (during the harvest) and thus actively contribute to the protection and regeneration of the Amazon rainforest.

If we buy a constant volume of macambo every year making sure that this macambo comes from diversified family farming systems characteristic of indigenous communities, we will be able to guarantee the economic sustenance of the families that carry out this activity. This could motivate other families of producers and create jobs that respect the cultural identity of the ancestral peoples (creating a positive social impact) thus protecting the Amazon rainforest (creating a positive environmental impact). An Amazon taste for culture and biodiversity.

Italy is a country that is both rich in culinary tradition and also boasts the greatest biodiversity in Europe. Here, food is at the center of family and cultural life. Thanks to its lifestyle, it is one of the longest-lived countries in the world.

Italy is considered a developed country, one of the richest in the world and although is only slightly larger than Ecuador, 3.4 times as many people live here.*3

Throughout history, Italy, and the entire European continent have welcomed and integrated food. For example, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins, arrived after the “European discovery” of the American continent. And yes, its reception and integration was not always immediate; for example, corn in Italy is known as “Turkish grain” because the Italians of that time would not have used it so easily if they knew it came from America.4 Today, polenta, made with cornmeal, is a traditional dish from northern Italy.

Stefania and Paola are cleaning the collected garlic in the second orchard at Parco Segantini. The Segantini Park in Milan-Italy, is a park designed and created by citizens together with the municipal administration. Inside the park, citizens take care of three orchards of 1,000 square meters each and 15,000 square meters of reforested area.

But Italy has not only welcomed foods that grow in its territory and are now part of its tradition, but also welcomes within its culture other products that grow in countries like Ecuador such as coffee, cocoa (with which chocolate is made) and the banana.

Recently, UNESCO is considering to declare espresso coffee culture in Italy as cultural human heritage.5 Fascinating, no?     

Why Macambo?

Macambo could help to conserve a small part of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle. Here we have a delicious and nutritious product along with a network of producers who are sharing a seed that is part of their culture and that grows in their chakras in a respectful way.

Will Italian consumers be interested in accepting this proposal?

Step 1: Tasting

With this in mind, I brought in my suitcase from Quito to Milan 8 kilograms of macambo so that the people can try it. I organized two dinners:

The first with the friends of the Segantini Park Association (about 25 people). It was a beautiful summer night where, together with the fantastic Gabriela, Laura and Melani, we cooked a delicious pasta prepared with vegetables from the orchards. On the menu was 3 types of zucchini (raw and blanched (or boiled for a few minutes)), blanched green beans (or vanitas), basil and a little garlic. The pasta was seasoned with saffron, Parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and lots of love. The crispy touch of the pasta was given by the macambo.

The second dinner was organized together with Soul Food, a small gastronomy south of Milan in the Navigli area. Soul Food is a small business managed by Andrea, a person who is very attentive to the origin and method of production of the food he sells and a place where the work of producers who respect nature is valued.

Lucia, the cook for this dinner, prepared a menu considering the different flavors of which macambo reminded her …”a little chestnut… a little natural and roasted peanut… a little hazelnut”… Taking this into account, she prepared 3 plates.

In the first course, we were able to enjoy mashed and toasted macambo serve on the top of a pumpkin cream.

For the second course, Lucia turned the macambo into flour to prepare, together with a small amount of chestnut flour, grapes, pine nuts and rosemary, the macambo version of the “castagnaccio” (typical Tuscan chestnut cake). The macambaccio was served with kale-type kale chips.

The last course was dessert. Here Lucía made two preparations, the first was a vegan cake with 78% chocolate and macambo crumble, and the second was a decomposed “cheesecake” based on ricotta mousse and caramelized pears accompanied by a cream based on toasted macambo.

Both dinners were really delicious.

One of the things highlighted by the guests was the crisp and notoriously nice texture of the dishes. Macambo lends itself as the perfect addition because it does not overpower the dish. It provides a humble yet nutritious component to these culinary treats.

Macambo was not only tasted within elaborate dishes but also intact in one of its three available presentations (natural, salty and chocolate). About 70 people tried macambo and 47 of them gave their opinion.

Regarding taste, the majority (51%) of people consider the macambo itself (natural, salty and/or chocolate) “good”, 20% find the taste “indifferent”, 14% find it ” delicious” and 14% “did not like it”.

Almost all participants considered it is important: to increase the diversity of foods in the diet, that macambo is nutritious, that it has a positive social impact and that it promotes fair trade and the conservation of the Amazon forest.

In conclusion, they like the taste, they like the proposal but… nobody is crazy about buying it.

Step 2: How to make macambo popular?

I had the opportunity to meet the chefs of the AlTatto restaurant in Milan. Sara Nicolosi and Cinzia De Lauri are two fantastic women who cook at this small bistro where vegetables, quality, origin of food and seasonality are valued. They offer a delicious sensorial experience. If you live or come to Milan, don’t miss it!

After trying the macambo and knowing the proposal, Sara and Cinzia are betting on the project! They proposed to activate their network and invite 3 of their colleagues in order to make a purchase that merits the importation of macambo in Italy. They believe in the importance of directly supporting projects that have the potential to safeguard the environment. Also, they love the idea of being able to value a product belonging to the culture of one of the indigenous groups living in the Amazon region.  

The idea is that these 5 chefs cook and experiment together with the macambo to discover and introduce this Amazonian seed and its history to the people of Milan.

The third step is to find out the modes and costs of transportation, the import requirements and what is necessary to bring the macambo to Italy. The idea is also to be transparent with the price and the necessary steps to make this project possible. I will keep you updated.

Stay tuned!*In 20193: 1) life expectation in Italy was 83 years old while in Ecuador it was 71 years old; 2) gross domestic product (GDP) in Italy is 2.009 trillion US dollars while in Ecuador it is 108 trillion; 3) in Italy almost 60 million people lived while in Ecuador around 17 million people. The Italian territory is only 17.780 Km² bigger than the Ecuadorian territory (an area similar to the province of Sucumbíos (18.084 km²)). 

By M. S. Gachet

REFERENCES:
1 Platform BIOWEB
2 Ecuadorian Government, 2006. La población indígena del Ecuador
3 Data World Bank
4 Online course Semillas ancestrales, historia, cultivos y usos. Madre Semilla
5 Il Sole 24 Ore, march 23th 2022. Café espresso, Italia se suma a las candidaturas para convertirlo en patrimonio de la Unesco

A Milanese experience into an Italian Solidarity Purchasing Group. Chapter 1: The beginning

I care where food comes from for social and health reasons. This is why I have joined the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (or G.A.S., in English “solidarity purchasing groups“).

I got to knowGAS by word of mouth. But, I could have searched Google for “gruppi acerto solidale Milano” to find this website that lists all the GAS in Milan or this one talking about them and explaining the concept of social economy in Italy. Just be careful because if you search Google for “GAS Milano”, you will gather all possible offers that supply gas to your home.

What are these GAS?

The GAS are consumers who get together to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from producers or from big retailers at a price that is fair to both.

These groups often share a critical approach to the global economic model which aims a less consumerist way of life. When purchasing, GAS priorities are the respect for the environment and solidarity between the members of the group, the producers and their workers and not savings.

Food production should treats the environment, plants, animals and people with respect.

What are the characteristics of the products purchased by GAS?

GAS prefer local products (to minimize the environmental impact of the transport), fair-trade goods (in order to respect disadvantaged producers by promoting their human rights, in particular small farmers, women, children and indigenous people) and reusable or eco-compatible goods (to promote a sustainable lifestyle).

If you want to find more information about these groups, we suggest the sociological study of Cristina Grasseni, and the economic analysis of Matteo Belletti and Lucia Mancini. 

Our GAS experience.

My husband and I decided to join a GAS based in the newly gentrified Milanese neighborhood of Nolo, which stands for “North of Loreto”, where we live.

Alessia and Martin learning to compost during the BIOintensive laboratory in Segantini Park.

This area of Milan was originally highly densely populated by migrants from South America and South East Asia and is nowadays more and more mixed with young Italians who opened art and design galleries, hipster-looking bars and shops selling both bikes and flowers. I will talk about the economic aspects of solidarity purchasing groups in Italy in my future posts. Stay tuned!

How to become a GASista?

May. A complex procedure to adhere.

The GAS we chose to join is maybe biggest in Milan: more than 100 members. Most of the members do not actively take part to the GAS meetings and activities, such as the organization of evening talks on the several topics such as the virtues of rye, Sunday afternoon bargain-based markets to exchange members’ second hand belongings or supporting not-for-profit projects that produce organic hop.

Because the GAS is very big, over the years its members have created a three step procedure to allow new candidate members to enter the group.

First, there was an interview with one senior member who explained to us (the candidates) how everything works. Our tutor emphasized the GAS’ five criteria to choose suppliers, which are also the leading values of the GAS:

1) bio;
2) local (as far as possible);
3) compliant with tax law obligations;
4) compliant with labor law obligations.

Based on the criteria above, the GAS general meeting regularly assesses producers’ requests to supply the GAS and choose one or two suppliers per category of product.

GASistas can then make orders for specific products within given deadlines set by the selected suppliers (every other week, every month, etc.). Products are delivered on Wednesday night, depending on the type of product, every week, every month or just once or twice per year.

Second, we were invited to participate in the monthly general assembly: a pretty chaotic, cheerful encounter of souls (I’m sure I’ll have other occasions to talk about them).

Third, there was an additional meeting where we have been requested to pay a small membership quota. If we were not very motivated, we would have given up after the assembly which ended up to be quite entertaining, after all.

June. Our first general meeting. We took part in our first mandatory general assembly on a warm evening at the beginning of the summer. There, we met the relatively few members that have been actively participating in the GAS life since its foundation: a bunch of seemingly-professionals and teachers in their fifties, led by a democratically elected coordinator who most likely works as a project manager and likes Excel tables.

Many members do not take part in the monthly general meetings and only show up at the GAS offices on Wednesdays night to collect their purchases. When one has kids or has obligations at university like exams or classes on Thursday morning, s/he does not easily give a Wednesday night away to GAS meetings. This is maybe the reason why, among the members participating in the general meeting, last Wednesday night, there were not many young gasistas, students and families.

GAS life is full of surprises. As mentioned, the range of services and activities supplied by our GAS turned out to be far wider than expected. The basic rationale of meeting once per month is sharing values, increasing awareness about healthy and organic products, promoting more sober and fair consumption habits among the members and deeper knowledge about how the food chain operates.  

Last Wednesday, at the GAS general meeting we discussed two main issues:

Shall we adopt organic hop plants?

The GAS had been asked to give financial support to a not-for-profit organization aimed at developing an organic hop garden by “adopting” some of their hop plants.

Thanks to the financial contributions of its supporters, the organization would then sell the hops produced to local breweries.   So, the question was whether the GAS was willing to adopt one, two or three hop plants and for how many years.

The gasistas seemed to forget that, by “adopting” some of the hop plants, the GAS was basically just making a simple donation. Instead, they discussed for about half an hour whether it was better to adopt one hop plant for three years – that is the maximum life span of a hop plant, after which the hop is going to be harvested – or to adopt three hop plants for just one year. Should the GAS adopt the hop plants for just one year, was there a possibility that these plants would be abandoned in the middle of street after the first year? Someone eventually asked if the organization would than send us some pictures of the hop plants we decided to adopt.

Briefly, we went home wondering if the whole thing was serious or fun.

The hop fruits give the bitter aroma to the beer and help to preserve it. The young sprouts are edible.

Let’s support our fisher!

In the second part of the general meeting, the GAS member responsible for coordinating fish purchases explained that the GAS’ reference fish producer was in trouble.

The women cooperative formerly supplying the fish had failed. Only a woman and her husband had remained and had been fishing the GAS’ fish in Liguria for the past couple of years.

Recently, they had asked the GAS members to finance the buy of a small second hand lorry to distribute their fish in local street markets in Liguria. In return, the GAS members obtained a credit for the fish they would later purchase from the anglers couple.

Unfortunately, in the past few months the couple had not fished much as the water currents pushed the fish in the deeper waters. They also had troubles placing their fish in local street markets due to competition of lower-priced fish coming from Croatia, Greece and Turkey. For more information about this issue look here and to know more about the effects of imported fish on bream pricing in Italy here.     

Briefly, they have no fish to pay back the GAS members’ loan.

The GAS hence thoroughly discussed the option to adhere to the anglers’ proposal to recover their credit by participating to fishing trips organized by the couple on their fishing boat. Basically a fish-it-yourself-if-you-can package, priced as little as 70 euros per boat trip + dinner.

The Baihua family goes fishing near their community. They use a plant based substance which kills the fish and makes them float to the surface. The Huaorani community of Bameno is on the Cononaco River in the Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. Hunting and fishing are still the main ways to obtain their food. Photo by Karla Gachet.

July, August and September. Some doubts.

During summer my parents’ vegetables garden literally explodes with all sorts of vegetables: courgettes, haricots, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes. Tomatoes are so special, fresh, ripe and tasty that, apart from making ketchup-like sauces and preserves. We are all happy with eating tomatoes in salad with just olive oil and basil every single day.

A cat sits on a display of tomatoes at the La Vega Central market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here                                        

So, when adhering to the GAS, I was hoping that for the whole summer, I will be supplied with the same tomatoes I had at home and which supermarkets do not even imagine they exist.

Unfortunately, they explained us that between mid-July and August the GAS shuts down, as most members are on holiday and cannot take care of orders. Huge disappointment!

We couldn’t help looking forward to the autumn vegetables: pumpkins are my favorite. My husband still prefers salami.

We decided to continue.

Grilled squash for sale at the La Vega Central market. Photo by Karla Gachet. The full story can be found here

October. Another general meeting.

The nice part about the monthly general meeting is that before the assembly, the GAS members have dinner together. They take something they cooked themselves and share it with the others. It is a way to get to know each other a bit more and to share preferably vegetarian recipes.

A surprise guest came for dinner. This time, Spartaco had dinner with us. He works at RiMaflow.

Maflow was an Italian multinational corporate entity with factories all over the world producing components for the automotive sector. In December 2012, due to allegedly financial speculation, the factory where Spartaco used to work shut down production.

Unexpectedly, in February 2013 this factory was occupied by the same workers who had worked just up till the day before and lost their jobs and Maflow became RiMaflow. To know more about this story click here.

Today, RiMaflow is a recovered factory where three organizations operate thanks to a gratuitous loan approved by the bank that owns the property. About 70 people work at the factory, carrying out different activities which include the coordination of a fair-trade and organic food network, carpentry activities and recycling e-waste (such as computers and electronic household devices) and other types of waste.

RiMaflow aims to prove that it is possible to realize a model economy that can affect standard market mechanisms, starting from building new types of producer-consumer relationships.

While writing this post, we found out that there are similar initiatives all around world. Have a look to the work being done in Argentina).

This diner was indeed very inspiring.

December. Some thoughts about our GAS experience so far.

GAS is a complex market within the market. Over these first few months we tried to understand the economics behind these groups and tried to explain ourselves why fair, organic and local food is expensive.

An objection concerns the users of GAS: GAS are in fact not for all users. On the one hand, they are undeniably pricey and exclusive and, on the other hand, due to the complex order-and-collect mechanism, little accessible markets.

Briefly, some work still needs to be done to make a mass market out of GAS.

Our GAS experience also raised some additional objections.

It is easy to understand how organic food – which is sometimes so much more vulnerable to pests and adverse climate conditions – and “fair” food – whose producer is compliant with tax and labor laws – faces high prices, but less so when food is produced very close to consumers because this food does not need to travel so far.

Also, sometimes we perceived some naivety in some little experienced farmers who supply our GAS. They seemed to be rather concerned about marketing their activity than delivering quality food: as a result, their pears were awkwardly small and little tasty but the events (such as lunch-parties at the cottage, Halloween bonfires, etc…) they organized over the past year at their farms, their websites and the design of their packaging were over-cared of.

Growing vegetables and breeding animals are hard, time and energy consuming jobs: they can hardly tolerate “extracurricular” activities and improvisation. Still, the GAS seems to select producers based on the dreamer farmers image that the producers manage to convey more than based on the quality of the food they deliver.

To sum up, we got the impression that our GAS still does not expect enough from its producers. This is just a first impression from our GAS experience which we will try to investigate and develop better later on this blog.

By A. Miranti
Full story of the cover photo can be found here