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Interview: Harnessing Peru's ancient terraces

Maribel de Paz for Caretas

The father of Novoandino cuisine has a new mission: to rescue the agricultural terraces of Peru and put them to good use.

Interview: Harnessing Peru's ancient terraces

Terraces at Pisac (James Santangelo/Public domain)

The conversation fluctuates between a legendary Tunki coffee and a brand new pisco, Larroca, served up cold, in accordance with the tastes of its creator: Bernardo Roca Rey, architect of the Novoandino cuisine, exquisite epicure, president of the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA), and the current promoter of the rescue and rehabilitation of Peru’s millions of acres of agricultural terraces.


How was this project born?
In the Ministry of Culture, during my time as Viceminster for Cultural Heritage, I had the the opportunity to be close to the issue of the terraces. Conserving the walls of the terraces is what the ministry must do with its archaeologists, and it works, but it is expensive. The other way is that the farms work them, and in so doing, they will also provide maintenance. If there are a million hectares of terraces, 700,000 of those are abandoned.


Up until 1999, there were programs to map the Andean terraces, but they have been abandoned. Days ago, in Mistura, we managed to gather together seven ministers to talk about the Andean diet, and one of them was Trivelli (Minister of Development), who has done studies of the terraces. APEGA goes hand-in-hand with two ideas: nutrition and social inclusion. In both cases, the Andean terraces are important to recuperate. If there are a million hectares, that’s a little bit more than 10% of all the arable land used for cultivation in Peru, and it’s a shame that that land isn’t being used.


What is the Ministry of Culture doing about it?
They have abandoned all of the projects that existed. There isn’t even a complete map of the terraces in Peru, where they are and which they are. They’ve identified barely 50% of them.


Is mapping the first step for their recuperation?
The first step is a pilot project: take 500 hectares and adopt them. The objective is that these lands, which are the most productive in Peru, offer the Peruvian restaurants of the world the Andean grains that are so fashionable. For years, I have been promoting the Novoandina cuisine, and among those crops are quinoa, oca, mashua, products which will soon be fashionable. We started with quinoa twenty years ago, and it’s a success today.


What is the idea? To give value added through the denomination of origin; having products that are introduced with the gastronomic boom and also grown on Andean terraces, some of which are three thousand years old. That a restaurant in Paris, for example, adopts a terrace and once a year offers roasted, glazed mashua. What you will have then is a cultural phenomenon which will allow for value to be added to the product, and the farmer will be well-paid.


Additionally, if they are crops from the VRAE, where there are many terraces, it can be another type of assistance. For example, the U.S. government and restaurants in the U.S. could receive those crops, which are also organic. Everything goes hand-in-hand: biodiversity, ancestral crops, new cuisine, boutique agriculture, all of those go together and break the inertia. And that the state puts in $500 million to save a certain number of terraces.



Where will you realize the pilot project?

The closer to Lima, the easier. In APEGA, we have a project with the Interamerican Development Bank, which has given us $3 million as a nonrefundable amount for supply chains, and with part of that we could begin to work on this subject.


I firmly believe that the Andean diet is related to the terraces, so that all of the ministry portfolios are related to this: Tourism, Agriculture, Social Inclusion and Health. The issue is in the hands of the state. I have calculated that it takes an average of $5,800 to recover one hectare. In APEGA, we can recover 100, but with the state or help from abroad, we could recover thousands. Some villagers in Ayacucho are already willing, and the corn that they haven’t grown for a while could be cultivated there. There is a fungus, which in Mexico they eat and call huitlacoche, which contaminates the corn crops, and in Cusco, the infected corn are just tossed out. It would be interesting to grow the infected corn, in order to sell the fungus, which elsewhere is worth much more than the corn itself. The same monks cress plant that I am growing in my garden can be used to produce “Incapers,” in place of regular capers.


Going back in time, what was your first contact with the Peruvian terraces?
I was a boy, because my family led me to this and traveled a lot. I remember being very young and lying down on a terrace in Machu Picchu and looking at the stars, thinking that this was the best thing you could ever do. Who would have guessed that I would end up having to care for them myself…


If we develop them, Peru, instead of having 1.2 million kilometers, would have 2 million. That is, we would be as big as a flat country like Mexico.