San Ramón de Pangoa is a handful of houses at the end of a nearly impassable dirt road that frequent rains render a muddy stream. The homes here are framed by gardens of carefully tended plantains and citrus. The forest embraces the small community in green. It is spring; the air is thick with the smell of orange blossoms.
There are about 200 indigenous Ashaninka people living in this area, but most of them, like 29-year-old Dante Cheresente, are not making much money and therefore can't pay for things like doctor visits when family members fall ill or education for their children. They live off of the fruits and vegetables they grow in their small plots, but these are mostly for their own consumption. "We grow yucca, plantains, lemons, oranges, and tangerines," Cheresente says. "But we just eat most of it and feed it to our animals, because prices are so low it is not worth selling."
To tap into the opportunities of the market economy and make some money, Cheresente and his father, who is the village chief, and others in their community are collaborating with a local rural organization known as SEPAR, Oxfam America's partner in this central jungle region of Peru, to carry out an experiment: growing the ancient Sacha Inchi plant, which yields a nut that is rich in nutritious omega-3 and omega-6 oils.
"There is demand in Peru for Sacha Inchi oil for cooking, but also as a health supplement internationally," says Raul Ho, Oxfam America's program officer in South America. "It is well known now, and the supply is lower than demand, both in Peru and abroad. To meet this demand, we will help indigenous farmers find the right Sacha Inchi variety for their lands and help them grow, process, and sell it in the fair trade market."
SEPAR is working with farmers like Cheresente all over the central Amazon to plant experimental plots of Sacha Inchi. In San Ramon de Pangoa, they are growing two different varieties, one from the northern Amazon and one from the southern region, to determine which will perform best in the soil and altitude found in their village. "This is being done with indigenous farmers every step of the way," says Ho. "We will help them enter this market with the right seeds and production technology, and the farmers will know the best practices for growing Sacha Inchi." The goal is to produce a high-grade, organic Sacha Inchi, for which the farmers will get the best possible price.
In San Ramon de Pangoa, the rows of Sacha Inchi plants are interspersed with corn, soy beans, potatoes, and other food crops to determine which growing patterns work best. Frank Mendoza, a tropical agriculture expert advising SEPAR, says the Sacha Inchi crop could be quite lucrative. "If we can help these farmers grow Sacha Inchi as just one of their crops, it will increase the income of the farmers considerably," he says. Cheresente and his father, for example, say if they can make decent money from Sacha Inchi, they could devote five of their eight hectares—about 12 of their nearly 20 acres—to growing the plant. Ho and Mendoza estimate that with luck, in their first year they could get as much as 500 kilos of Sacha Inchi per hectare and sell the unprocessed nuts at about seven Peruvian soles (about $2) per kilo. This could mean a gross return of as much as $5,000 per harvest. With the right variety and improved production techniques, farmers like the Cheresentes could eventually produce nearly 1,000 kilos per hectare, which would bring in over $10,000 for unprocessed Sacha Inchi nuts on their five hectares, a huge income boost in a very poor region of Peru.
Cultivating a valuable cash crop like Sacha Inchi can help the indigenous Ashaninka people in villages like San Ramon de Pangoa to connect with local and international markets on their own terms: to earn money and preserve their culture and way of life. Preserving community and the Ashaninka's legacy occupy Cheresente's mind quite a bit these days: he and his wife, Laura, have a two-month-old son, Jason Fritz Cheresente. While his father talks with visitors, Jason Fritz lays in a hammock, quietly sleeping. Attached to the hammock is a string, which his grandmother pulls gently to rock the baby as she talks with friends. She and her generation have witnessed the wholesale occupation of this central jungle region by settlers from the highlands escaping the guerilla war of the 1980s and seeking land and opportunity. The government encouraged this exodus, believing the land was unoccupied, as it ignored the indigenous inhabitants. The result is that the Ashaninka have been squeezed into smaller and smaller areas and can no longer hunt and fish. They are now settled and trying to become part of the larger economy while preserving their culture. Despite these pressures, Cheresente is optimistic that growing Sacha Inchi will help them. "We expect to increase our income, so we can support the elderly people in the community, as they were the ones who worked to get this land. We also want to improve the level of nutrition and education for children here."
Growing Sacha Inchi is just part of this economic integration for the Ashaninka. Others in the village are getting help in producing and marketing handicrafts such as woven bags and traditional garments, as well as souvenirs for tourists. Cheresente's wife even got a grant from SEPAR to open a store, where she sells food, soap, and other consumer goods. Small enterprises like this will help people earn cash they can use to pay for health care and other services. And more small enterprises will help start to move cash through the rural economy.
Growing Sacha Inchi and other money-making ventures in these indigenous communities will help people prosper and maintain their communities. Cheresente and his neighbors have worked hard to get the research plots growing despite a serious drought that set in just after planting last year. They watered the Sacha Inchi plants from a small stream near the village and tended the plots three entire days per week.
Antonio Cheresente, Dante's father, says they are looking to Sacha Inchi for their future. "We know this research will help us improve our farms," he says.