Chinese demand for the Andean crop is getting cash flowing to farmers, but suspicions of biopiracy are leading to calls to protect Peru’s natural resources.
The high plain stretches as far as the eye can see and the glint of sun on water in the distance marks Lake Junin. This highland lagoon, which gives this region its name, marks the place of origin for maca; a small, pungent root whose famed aphrodisiac quality has driven demand beyond the wildest expectations of the local farmers who have been growing it for generations.
It was on the shores of Lake Junin at more than 4,000 metres above sea level, historians say, that the Pumpush people domesticated maca more than 3,000 years ago. But only in the past few decades has it earned a worldwide reputation as an energy-giving root that can also be used for osteoporosis, hormone imbalance, menopause symptoms, prostate cancer and fertility.
Last year, Chinese demand turned the maca market upside down. Chinese buyers arrived in Peru’s central Andes to buy maca in its raw form, paying well above the going rate, in cash. Under Peruvian law, it is illegal to export unprocessed maca, but the authorities say truckloads were smuggled out of the country through Bolivia or the northern seaport of Paita.
The price of raw maca has increased 10-fold over the past year, selling at up to $25 (£16) per kg. The coveted black variety, famed for its potency, can fetch more than $120 per kg, a 25-fold rise. Only too pleased to sell maca at these inflated prices, farmers have broken supply contracts with existing clients, mostly health-food shops in the US, Japan and South Korea.
Pilar Condor, a 24-year-old farmer whose family have been growing maca for generations, tells the Guardian she had made more than $130,000 from last year’s harvest, a fortune on these windswept hillsides where she is building a new house. “Now, we maca producers don’t have contracts with any companies. With these prices, the producers benefit most,” she says. “Before, it was the middlemen and the companies who profited and we were left at the bottom.”
“As far as we’re concerned, the Chinese are welcome,” Condor adds. “For us, it means a better quality of life, there’s work for everyone and more income for every household.”
But just as the boom looks to continue this year, Junin’s agricultural agency worries a bust may soon follow. Maca seeds have been smuggled into China, against Peruvian law, it says.
“The state needs to protect the seeds and the raw material so it can’t be easily taken abroad,” says Jorge Tejeda, an agronomist working for the agency, which estimates that up to 2,000 tonnes of maca may have been smuggled out last year. “But the state is weak. As a consequence, it will be our producers and their families who will suffer in the future. Sometimes we Latin American developing nations allow this to happen. We don’t protect what’s ours.”
Andres Valladolid, president of Peru’s National Commission Against Biopiracy, said it had proof that China is growing maca in Yunnan province. “Clearly, there’s biopiracy; we know this when a product is being sown outside the country of origin and there’s no access contract with anyone.”
Peru is still trying to resolve its first recorded case of biopiracy – what Valladolid calls an “emblematic case”, in which US-based PureWorld Botanicals received a US patent for extract of maca compounds, dubbed MacaPure, in 2001. Peru continues to contest the patent.
There were about 250 international patent applications for maca last year, more than half of them Chinese, around 20 of which are being investigated for biopiracy, Valladolid says. Peru is focusing particularly on protecting the “genetic material” of its indigenous products, he adds, successfully contesting several Chinese patents related to maca, a product unique to Peru.
Official figures show Peru’s maca exports increased steadily from around $5m to $14m between 2009 and 2013; figures for 2014 have yet to be made available. Data from Peru’s agriculture ministry shows nearly 44,000 tonnes of maca were harvested in 2014, though figures may have been higher due to smuggling. Production for 2015 is expected to be higher still.
“We don’t oppose the investigation and use of maca, but they must respect Peru’s rights as its place of origin,” Valladolid says. He says China should seek to legitimise its use of maca and reach a “benefit-sharing” agreement with Peru.
Last year, Peru was one of more than 50 countries to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, which stipulates states’ sovereign rights over their natural resources, and stresses that the benefits arising from their use should be shared with the country providing the resources. China and the US did not adopt the protocol.
Chinese demand has quadrupled the amount of land sown with maca and there are concerns that the soil could be depleted as the root rapidly uses up nutrients. Junin saw an increase from around 4,000 hectares (almost 10,000 acres) harvested in 2014 to up to 20,000 hectares sown at the end of last year for harvesting in mid-2015, Tejeda estimates.
“The Chinese market demand is immense. That’s why the Chinese have come here to buy practically all they can,” Valladolid says. “It’s broken the normal trade dynamic. There will be problems of overproduction and scarcity. We don’t know where it will end.”