From peaks to tables: promoting the rich traditions and diversity of mountain cultures around the globe

Tuesday, 13 December 2016 15:19 GMT

In this 2013 file photo, farmer Juana Mamani prepares her land before planting potatoes in Chojnapata, in Bolivia's highland region. REUTERS/David Mercado

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From Himali black lentils to India's "forbidden rice", mountain food treasures offer a win-win for nutrition and economic development

High in India’s Himalayas, a unique purple rice is cultivated by small-scale farmers whose communities believe this food - known as "forbidden rice" because it was once consumed only by royalty - brings protection if planted around the family home.

The hairless apricot of Kyrgyzstan’s remote Batken region, Himali black lentils - a traditional Nepali pulse rich in iron, protein and vitamins - and Bolivian black amaranth, a seed high in protein, are other examples of unique mountain foods that not only pack a nutritional punch but which also illustrate the close connection between local producers, their cultures and their particular mountain landscapes.

These treasures are relatively unknown - they do not share the same fame, or fortune, as other speciality foods that have burst onto the scene and captured consumers’ fancy, such as quinoa from the Andes of South America or Asian-Pacific Kopi Luwak coffee.

That’s been a missed opportunity for highland communities and one that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Italian Development Cooperation and Slow Food, working with the international Mountain Partnership, are now hoping to help them make the most of.

Getting unique mountain products onto consumers’ plates around the world offers a win-win - for nutrition, and for economic development in highland areas.

One in three mountain people in developing countries are vulnerable to food insecurity and face poverty and isolation. Most mountain farmers cannot compete with production volumes from lowland regions, and are frequently paid only a fraction of the value of their produce due to long supply chains that raise transport and other costs. Generating new income streams for these producers can make a real difference for some of the planet’s poorest people.

This is why together, we have created the Mountain Partnership Product label, which guarantees that products have been predominantly produced and transformed in mountain areas and come from small-scale production that respects local ecosystems. By giving mountain products a distinguishable brand, the labelling scheme aims to help small-scale producers from developing countries win recognition by consumers interested in unique, high-quality foods and who care about sustainable development and poverty reduction.

Italy, the home of the Slow Food Movement, provides a case in point of how it can work. From the Pink Apple of the Sibillini mountains and Alpine High Mountain Honeys to the cheeses of Piedmont and Basilicata’s traditional Materana mountain pezzente salami, such Italian specialties reflect the history and development - the unique culture - of their home regions. Italian consumers treasure and place a premium on such products.

That’s the kind of consumer awareness we hope to see replicated elsewhere. So far, more than a dozen products from at least six different countries have applied to use the Mountain Partnership Product label, ranging from coffee grown in Panama to cheese produced on the slopes of the Andes in Bolivia.

The label initiative is part of a larger effort to improve the livelihoods of mountain people while helping to fight hunger in ways that will encourage more sustainable production and management of resources in these landscapes.

People who live in the world’s mountains have learned, over time, to adapt and make the very most of their rugged terrains in order to survive. Highland farmers not only play a critical role in feeding their communities but have also been faithful stewards of the land, the forests and waters of mountain regions - the source of much of the planet’s drinking water and unique reservoirs of biodiversity, including resilient crops that can help us cope with climate change.

Let's salute these contributions and acknowledge the variety and richness of mountain cultures around the globe, where the lives of small-scale farmers and producers are interwoven with the health of their land, water and forests. What better way to do that than buying a product from mountain communities?

Rene Castro Salazar is assistant director-general of forestry at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

This op-ed first appeared in El Pais